Before we get into anything here, I just have to say, this one had me at "Supernatural is filmed before a live studio audience." The show owned my ass from that point on. If it had been just a bunch of white noise and shrieking for the reminder of the hour, I still would've given it a B-. Maybe even a B. Thankfully, such was not the case, but… Damn, that was sweet.
I may be wrong, but I'd guess that Pleasantville (a movie that seemed huge when it first came out, but which nobody really mentions anymore) is the go-to reference point when it comes to the "trapped in the TV show" scenario. Some cartoons have pulled the gag, and there was that great Angel episode where Cordelia got her own series. But what I thought of most while I was watching "Changing Channels, when I wasn't too busy laughing too hard to think, was a 1992 movie called Stay Tuned, with Jeffrey Jones as a soul-hunting demon, and John Ritter and Pam Dawber as the hapless mortals he sends into the boob tube. Because in a weird way, "Changing Channels" owes a debt to that movie (which I loved when I was 13, but probably isn't very good). There's the same broad satire, and the same excitement of wondering what world comes next, and, as always with Supernatural, Heaven and Hell are never very far away.
After a cold open set in the worst sitcom since Small Wonder, the episode jumps back two days to give us the set-up: Sam and Dean come investigating a suspicious death, find out the Incredible Hulk was involved (the Lou Ferrigno variety), and quickly deduce that they're dealing with our old pal, The Trickster. They investigate a call about another death, find a deserted warehouse, and stepping inside are instantly transported to the set of Dr. Sexy, M.D., a parody version of Grey's Anatomy. Dean, using the knowledge he's gleaned from watching the show ("It's a guilty pleasure!"), locates the Trickster immediately, but despite Sam's attempts at parlay, the Trickster lays down the rules: if they can survive in TV Land for 24 hours, he'll listen to them. It's a game, apparently, and he's not sharing the rules.
"Changing Channels" is hilarious—the Grey's jokes are spot on ("Seriously, you're brilliant, you know that? And a coward. You're a brilliant coward."), as is the Japanese gameshow, Nutcracker, the sitcom bits ("How is that funny?"), the CSI: Miami rip… It's all great. Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki aren't the most gifted actors in the world, but they're well cast, and the series gets a huge amount of mileage out of the fact that both of them are game for anything. So when you see them riffing on David Caruso's horrible puns ("No guts, no glory."), or struggling with the conventions of medical shows, they may not have the same skill-set as a more gifted pair of comedic actors might, but they're so clearly having a blast that it's impossible not to go along for the ride.
That's one of the show's strongest elements—the enthusiasm that connects directly with the audience—and it's impressive how "Channels" uses this as a way to bring some major mythology in, giving a big reveal that manages to connect thematically with the the rest of the episode as well as fitting neatly into the previously established back-story. See, the Trickster isn't actually a Trickster after all, but the Archangel Gabriel himself, having split off from Heaven when he could no longer bear to watch his brothers fighting, and set up shop on Earth. It's impossible to tell how long this revelation has been in the works, as the Trickster (Richard Speight, Jr.) first appeared in the show's second season, and although there was no hint of divine presence in him them, there wasn't anything to definitively prove that he wasn't Gabriel, if you get me. I'm hoping we don't see too much of this kind of thing in the future, because it's a device that works well when used sparingly; I don't mind discovering small connections, but if every demon and ghost that the Winchesters have been hunting suddenly has stakes in Armageddon, it's going to look silly.
Still, the other big revelation of the night, that Sam and Dean's relationship to Lucifer and Michael isn't just a random one, was another "let's pretend this was all planned" moment that clicked. I appreciated the way playing along with each new TV show world meant better jokes for us in the audience, as well as having thematic importance for what Gabriel was pushing—be a vessel, because that's what you're meant to be. Supernatural's deeper concerns have always been a little too much soap opera for me to take entirely seriously, and I'm not sure that's going to change in the future; I enjoy watching all the angst, but it often turns into a lot of repetition of the same basic notes. "Channels" does a nice job of explaining some of that repetition away, of pushing us just a little closer to the big battle that I'm sure will end the season, and it was really, really funny. Insanely funny. Like, I think I may have to apologize to the guy living below me I was laughing so hard.
- They even had a new opening. It was glorious.
- "Lady, what the hell."
- I think Dean has a man-crush on Dr. Sexy.
- The Japanese game-show questions were the smartest thing in a very smart episode. "Would your mother and father still be alive if your brother was never born?" "Yes."
- "Dean, that feels really uncomfortable."
- "Should I honk?"
- "I'll tell you one thing. Right about now, I wish I was back on a tv show."