Thursday, August 25, 2011

Between Heaven and Earth: Supernatural Impressions

(Image at right. If I could die and go to Heaven. Misha Collins as Castiel.)

During my vacation I made a conscious decision to spend more time watching Supernatural on TNT. As I wrote in a review last year, it was very hard for me to get into the show because it's tough for an occasional viewer like me to figure out what's going on half the time. I'm not an expert of the series by any stretch since I've only seen some of Season 1, most of Season 2, some of Season 6, and who knows what else in between. However, I've at least been able to form a few more opinions about what I've seen so far.

Supernatural v. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. The creators of Supernatural should be applauded for developing a cosmology that is quite a bit different from what we saw in the Buffyverse. Whereas Buffy and Angel were able to dispatch a sizable number of demons with well-placed martial arts blows, Sam and Dean Winchester need to rely on a lot more mystical elements, e.g., salt, silver bullets and magic symbols. Another aspect I find quite appealing is how Supernatural Hunters don't have the absolute freedom to automatically blow away murderous demons, since a large percentage of the demons have taken over still very much alive human hosts. In these instances exorcisms are a lot more appropriate than beheadings. Buffy and Angel would have had a hard time lasting more than a week out in the field under these circumstances.

And let's not forget the obvious, where the creators of Supernatural are a lot more willing to tackle Christian theology than Joss Whedon and his pals ever could over at Mutant Enemy. I'm not saying that I like Supernatural cosmology any better than what we saw in the Buffyverse. I'm just saying that the Supernatural creators (Eric Kripke et al) have done a fine job of carving out their own territory.

In my post from last year I also touched on how Supernatural is all about blue collar grit and grime, whereas Buffy and Angel was more about California flair. Quite frankly, most of the Hunters in Supernatural come across as standing on roughly the same evolutionary ladder rung as circus carnies, while Buffyverse characters were much more sophisticated in comparison.

Although I wouldn't say that the Buffyverse exactly shied away from some of the more practical things in life, like, where does the money come from and gee, why aren't there any cops around, one gets a feeling that Mutant Enemy was forced to deal with those issues at semi-regular intervals whether they wanted to or not. Avoiding these matters altogether would have been way too awkward. Supernatural, on the other hand, dives right into how Sam and Dean are forced to get their funds from dubious means, and how at times they have to spend just as much time eluding law enforcement as they spend hunting demons. Although I give nods to Supernatural for its realism, I still have to give the edge to the Buffyverse for being able to (for the most part) sweep aside these concerns so they could concentrate on the more important elements of the story.

Finally, I've mentioned many times in the past how Mutant Enemy was consistently able to get astonishingly high-quality and memorable performances from actors in relatively minor roles. From Angel in particular we run the gamut of great performances in substantial guest appearances (like when Art LaFleur appeared as T'ish Magev in Season 2's "Guise Will Be Guise") all the way down to the most minor walk-on parts (like Scare Tactics' Sven Holmberg as the Delivery Guy in Season 4's "The House Always Wins" and "Spin the Bottle" ). Supernatural also has a lot of substantial guest performances, but from what I can tell the producers still distressingly cast a few too many Unemployed Hacks of the Week.

Sam and Dean Winchester (and a little bit of John). To say that stars Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles are appealing is a bold understatement. These two guys are the show and keep Supernatural fresh and seemingly original even when the series settles a little too easily into cliches. Even the inevitable Odd Couple comparisons between College Boy Sam and rough-hewn Dean become much more palatable when Padalecki and Ackles are involved.

I really appreciate how actors Padalecki (born in 1982) and Ackles (born in 1978) are roughly the same ages as their characters, which seems to be a rarity in TV. I'm finding that when I'm watching the series I don't have to make conscious adjustments to what I can reasonably expect from the characters, which obviously allows me to sit back and get more involved with the storylines. One of the most extreme examples of the opposite occurred in the Buffyverse with the character of Cordelia Chase, where we were asked to believe that the voluptuous and mature Charisma Carpenter was either a teenager or in her very early 20's.

Of the two leads, I prefer Jensen Ackles' Dean over Jared Padalecki's Sam (although if my girlfriend and I met them in a bar and Dean chose my girlfriend, I'd be more than happy to settle for Sam.) That's saying a lot since I don't normally fall for the male model types. Padalecki's Sam is stuck with the somewhat unenviable position of being the straight man to Ackles' wise-cracking and more flamboyant Dean. Although I believe both actors have grown nicely into their roles over the years, I've been particularly impressed with how Padalecki's Sam refuses to be colorless and boring. He's been able to stay even with and perhaps even surpass Ackles' Dean even though the conventional wisdom states that Ackles should by now be the main attraction. Kudos to the actors, writers and the rest of the production staff for being able to keep Supernatural as a show with two equals.

As far as Jensen Ackles, at first I thought he was horribly miscast as Dean. Indeed, I've even read (but naturally can't find the link in three seconds or less) that he was originally trying out for the more serious role of Sam. However, any reservations I had about his portrayal of Dean disappeared within minutes. Although Ackles brings a certain caveman brutish mentality to his blue-collar Dean, (complete with a mild version of the ubiquitous low-class "duh" quality to his speech a la The Abominable Snow Rabbit), he also brings a certain wit to his role that hints at how perhaps there's a little bit more to your average blue collar guy than six-packs of beer and unemployment checks.

Another nice aspect of Supernatural is how the creators aren't afraid to delve into blood ties and familial relationships, whereas Buffy and Angel were more about creating de facto families out of communities of friends. In other words, Supernatural is a true family show in the best sense, in that it explores how brothers Sam and Dean (and for a while, father John) deal with their differences while also uncomfortably acknowledging that they perhaps share more similarities than they're willing to admit. It's not to say that there aren't other strong family-like elements to the series (think of Jim Beaver as Bobby Singer and Misha Collins as Castiel standing in as surrogate father and brother respectively). It's just that the blood ties always act as strong foundations for these extended families.

For the most part I really enjoyed Jeffrey Dean Morgan's portrayal of John Winchester. Although the actors who played the three Winchesters do not look at all alike, it's still easy to see where Dean inherited his rugged good looks! My only quibble is that I thought Morgan's blue-collar mannerisms were a little too pronounced, where it was just a little too painfully obvious that Dean was the one who took after his dad rather than Sam. Regardless, this is all minor and I feel bad for even bringing it up. In short, even though I wish we saw a lot more of John Winchester, it was probably best to kill him off because he was in danger of taking the main focus of the show away from Sam and Dean.

I can go on forever about the yin and yang of Sam and Dean's characters, with how Sam is upright (and perhaps uptight) and morally conscientious while Dean is more impetuous, and how Dean tends to be black and white while Sam savors the shades of gray, etc. However, I'm still having a hard time subtly weaving in the subject of Dean as a womanizer, as opposed to Sam being more interested in commitment. One of the things that fascinated me about the character of Faith in the Buffyverse was how she totally embraced her Slayer lifestyle, including all of the darker elements. It was distressing to me to see how (probably due to her youth) Faith was always presented as a reckless nihilist who was too dangerous to be let loose on her own. I feel that Supernatural satisfactorily further explores this character trait with Dean, in how we see that, far from being totally devil-may-care, there is actually a pretty solid method to his madness. For Dean, carousing and womanizing is a logical coping strategy that allows him to let off steam and take his mind off of the worst aspects of life. It's not to say that he doesn't cross over the line once in a while, but that's why he has Sam around to pull him back. Dean fully understands that since the benefits of hearth and home are completely out of reach, he should still be able to enjoy life on its own terms.

Sam doesn't avoid women and he's certainly capable of having a good time. However, he's much more introspective than Dean and his lifestyle appears a lot more monastic in comparison. I don't think Dean is incapable of entering into a long-term relationship, and I have no doubt that he could fully commit if the right girl came along. However, I also believe that (except for when he goes through his very own crises of faith at semi-regular intervals) he loves his work and feels that he shouldn't have to apologize for preferring his alternative lifestyle. On a sidenote, I haven't seen enough of the series to know for sure, but I don't think Dean has left a trail of broken hearts in his wake. Although he may have used a Hollywood producer-type line a little too often, I highly doubt that many of his conquests took him all that seriously. I'm willing to bet that most of these girls knew exactly what they were getting into and might have entered into their one-night stands with Dean as a mild form of role-playing. These women probably equally enjoyed their moments of fun just as much as Dean.

Bobby Singer. This paragraph is distressingly short because, how can one possibly give all of the praise that's due to actor Jim Beaver? He's absolutely perfect as father-figure Bobby Singer, and his is probably the best-cast character of the entire series! Wise creators are not afraid to introduce strong supporting characters, and lead actors fully appreciate how adding good characters can bring their own performances up to the next level. Whereas John Winchester probably had to be killed off because he threatened to completely overpower Sam and Dean, Bobby Singer fits in much better as a team player. As far as I know, Jim was never credited as being a lead actor, which is a true pity. He could have appeared in every single episode and his character would have never once threatened to hijack any of the main story lines.

Castiel. Let's see, what's there to love about a character who can be ruthlessly brutal and more powerful than we can possibly imagine while simultaneously being charmingly clueless and inept, has a sexy perpetual five o'clock shadow, suffers through a distressing existential crisis after discovering that the world he'd lived in during his entire existence is crumbling beneath his feet, and, while in the course of trying to do the right thing, he spins a series of lies and deceptions that results in him becoming completely alienated from all of his friends?

I just happened to spot Castiel for the first time when actor Misha Collins made his series debut in "Lazarus Rising" (Episode 4.1). (I know that's kind of a dumb-sounding statement. It's just that I usually see TV shows completely out of order.) I thought to myself, Holy Mother of Ambiguity! Here's a guy who hurts and kills innocents like he's swatting at flies, he's an angel from Heaven, and he's scarier and more dangerous than all of the other demons combined! Finally there's going to be a really good exploration of how Good is not necessarily benign, that life is not about choosing Good over Evil, but it's instead all about maintaining the balance between these two forces.

I then went through a long period of time where I watched very few episodes of Supernatural. Then, I swear to God, I didn't know until a few months ago that Castiel not only left a huge impression on me, he also made a strong impression on lots of other people, to the point where actor Misha Collins was added to the cast as a series regular! This was a big deal for me, since I'm the woman whose favorite characters get killed off, her favorite products get pulled off the shelves, the concerts she plans on attending get cancelled due to low ticket sales, can't spot a developing trend to save her life etc. It was one of the few moments in my life where I felt like I was planted firmly into the mainstream.

I still haven't seen very many episodes with Castiel, but he's by far my favorite character of the series. I'm amazed at how Misha Collins can take a genuinely terrifying character and make him so incredibly adorable as he struggle to adapt to human ways, and also take such an unprepossesing character and make him drop-dead gorgeous! Even my husband, who pays close to zero attention to the TV shows that I watch, took notice of Castiel and started asking me questions about him. For my husband to take an interest in one of my favorite characters is akin to him starting up a dues-paying fan club.

On the whole I think Misha Collins does a brilliant job portraying Castiel, though I do notice him struggling a wee bit from time to time with the raspy voice and some of the clunkier biblical dialogue. Again, it's so minor I feel bad for even bringing it up. I've read in interviews how Collins did a lot of research in preparing for the role, and by now I imagine he must be one of the world's top experts in Angelology. I always admire someone who can take what has the potential to be a campy character and elevate him into something that's genuine and sincere.

Unfortunately, I've seen Castiel's character come full circle before I've really had a chance to jump in. Just when I'm ready to cuddle up with a blanket and a sleepy kitten while I enjoy watching fluffy puppy Misha Collins on TV, he's, by several reports, being perhaps demoted from being a series regular while his character is potentially being turned into the Big Bad. (There are way too many articles for me to read, but here's a Zap2It link I've picked out at random.) This is another one of those Twilight Zone moments I've gotten myself into, where I'll get all mixed up in the past and present watching old and new episodes, with Castiel simultaneously being both a sympathetic character and a villain.

Again, since I haven't seen most of the series I'm probably not entitled to too many opinions. However, I wonder if the character of Castiel perhaps just got a little too unwieldy for Supernatural? Or rather, as long as Castiel was around, perhaps the writers felt compelled to keep up with those dreadful convoluted Heaven and Hell plotlines? Whereas someone like Jim Beaver's Bobby Singer can be weaved seamlessly into a show, Collins' Castiel probably acts more as a strong counterpoint who's best saved for several strong guest appearances.

Ratings. According to Wikipedia, the ratings for Supernatural (in total viewers) peaked in its first season, spiked a bit for Season 4, and have slowly but noticeably declined since then. I know next to nothing about networks and ratings, but it's probably a minor miracle that the series was picked up for a 7th season. I have no official information on why the numbers have been declining, but I have a few guesses. The series has been around for a long time and people will naturally start watching new shows after a while. Also, it was moved to a Friday night time slot, which is always a kiss of death for a series.

I also suspect that a lot of people are like me and get bored with all of the characters being locked in mortal combat for so much of the time. It seems that some cosmic engineer must have designed a series of pneumatic tubes that bring people back and forth on a regularly scheduled basis between Heaven and Earth and Hell and Purgatory. All of the leads have good strong comedic skills that need to be showcased a little more often. I suspect I'm not the only one who longs for the return of a more low-brow format where Sam and Dean wisecrack their way through their hunts for the Demon of the Week. I'd be very much surprised to see Supernatural return for Season 8, and I'm wondering if we need to start worrying about an early cancellation.

Closing Thoughts. I sometimes imagine that I can recognize writer and executive producer (and Mutant Enemy alumnus) Ben Edlund's hand print all over Supernatural. Then it occurs to me that I wouldn't recognize his hand print even if he slapped me in the face.

Even though I hinted above that I prefer strong standalone episodes that appear within overall story arcs, I'm still very intrigued with how Season 7 can potentially play out. In my mind it makes perfectly logical sense to start off with Sam, Dean and Castiel squaring off against each other, then allowing Castiel to fade away into the background while Sam and Dean adapt to the new ground rules.

Castiel gained a lot under Dean's guidance, but I suspect Dean benefited an equal amount from their friendship. I bet Dean's relationship with Castiel made for an interesting contrast with Dean's relationship with Sam.

I haven't missed the obvious parallels between Castiel and Columbo.

Misha Collins put in a wonderful performance in Episode 6.20, "The Man Who Would Be King". The entire episode was invaluable in bringing me up to date on the plot lines, and I suspect that even regular viewers benefited from all of the exposition.

I have yet to come across a truly outstanding female character in Supernatural. I hope events prove otherwise for me. However, I can hardly complain since I have such a rich cast of attractive male leads to choose from.

The Supernatural writers did a fine job separating their vampire lore from what we saw in Buffy and Angel.

I know I've taken too long of a break from Angel. I hope to return soon.

Update: Good grief! I almost forget to say that I'm absolutely thrilled that Buffy and Angel alumni Charisma Carpenter (Cordelia Chase) and James Marsters (Spike) will be appearing together on Supernatural this season. And let's not forget that Charisma will also be appearing on another series I'm just now starting to watch, Burn Notice. And finally, hooray to Sarah Michelle Gellar (Buffy) for her new series, Ringers.