For most of the history of television, the barrier to syndication—and to profitability—has been 100 episodes. The shows that have made it to that mark are an unusual group. Many were big hits. Some found small cult audiences. Still others just hung on as best they could and never posted numbers quite low enough to be canceled. In 100 Episodes, we examine the shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced and reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity. This entry covers Supernatural, which began its 10th season earlier this month.
The first question most people ask when they hear I reviewed the last season of Supernatural for The A.V. Club is, “Really?” The second is, “Wait, hasn’t that show been on for, like, ever?” Yet if someone’s only impression of the show is from ad campaigns or the occasional glimpse of competitive brooding, both questions become somewhat reasonable. Who talks about Supernatural now? And who would have guessed it would still be a relative success for The CW in its 10th season, as it approaches the 200-episode mark?
Probably no one would have guessed it when Sam and Dean Winchester first appeared on The WB in 2005, just a year before the network merged with UPN to form The CW. The history of those two upstarts and their eventual, embittered union is fascinating, but Supernatural doesn’t play much of a part in it—the show barely gets a mention in Season Finale, Susanne Daniels and Cynthia Littleton’s book about the period. Daniels references Supernatural solely as a minor, late-in-the-game hit for The WB, which needed all the eyeballs it could get to stay afloat at the time. (Past the glory days of Buffy and Angel, the closest thing ratings-wise to Supernatural on The Frog was the last season of Charmed.) It was the only new show to survive The WB’s catastrophic 2005-2006 season, which saw everything else either unceremoniously axed (Just Legal) or boxed out for the new CW lineup (Related).
In fact, Supernatural’s longevity has come from sticking around as an afterthought. The show has never been a phenomenon; its Nielsen ratings have hovered at or slightly above an otherwise pathetic 1.0 for practically the entire run. But those numbers have been consistent over several time slots, as Supernatural moved from Tuesdays to Thursdays during season one (where it remained until season six), to Fridays, to Wednesdays, and back to the original Tuesday. The reliability of the Supernatural audience over that time is impressive given both the way fans have been asked to follow the show around the week and the almost-collapse of most other broadcast programming over the course of the last decade. (It helps that it airs on The CW, where that consistent 1.0 makes Supernatural one of the highest-rated shows for the network.) Supernatural may not be doing something revolutionary, but it’s hard to deny that it’s doing something right.
When asked by the uninitiated, I describe that something as, “The X-Files if most episodes were like the funny ones and with two hot dudes instead of one hot dude and Gillian Anderson.” (That’s a little reductive, but it does hint at the show’s appeal.) Though The X-Files ended years ago, that show’s spooky cultural mark was still relatively fresh when Supernatural was conceived by showrunner Eric Kripke. And 2004 saw a boom in filmed action horror, including the original Saw, The Grudge, and the blockbuster movie that might have most clearly presaged Supernatural—Van Helsing. But where The X-Files used aliens as the motivating force of its universe, Kripke conceived of Supernatural as primarily focusing on urban legends. Many earlier episodes play as toned-down versions of familiar scenarios, designed to spook in style: Hook Man, Bloody Mary, and lots and lots of ghosts.
Kripke’s original focus also calls to mind one of the other shows often referenced as a Supernatural forebear: Route 66. Because every town has its own monster, the brothers would have to travel the country to go on frequent hunting trips. Supernatural has never been a show anyone would point to as an example of cutting-edge TV, but, especially in the earlier seasons, it did a fantastic job of capturing the thrill of the open road (and of soundtracking it, with the show’s now-characteristic use of what Sam deems “mullet rock”). That’s helped Supernatural maintain a significant presence as a show set in America (or, at least, the version of America conjured by the image of two dudes from Kansas drinking, driving, and killing things). That includes a whole host of new mythological iconography, from the all-powerful Colt pistol that can kill almost anything in the universe, to Dean’s prized ’67 Chevy Impala, perhaps the third-most important character on the show for the first few years.
All of those elements, and many of their specific manifestations, are more or less present from the pilot on. Sam and Dean run scams for cash, pretend to be federal law enforcement (with terrible fake names), and drive around a bunch, hunting monsters. (There’s even a nod to The X-Files when Dean refers to real FBI agents as Mulder and Scully.) And through all of its homages to the imagery of classic horror—big, scary fires, low-lit corridors, flickering televisions—the pilot never loses its focus on Sam and Dean. That’s because when it stops being about the monsters, Supernatural is all about shared trauma and the way it bonds the Winchesters, even when they would prefer it didn’t. The first episode opens with the death of their mother and ends with the death of Sam’s fiancée, precipitating the initial, uneasy dynamic between the brothers and the search for their father, John. This far removed from that initial episode, it’s sometimes hard to gauge how much of those first few seasons was devoted to filling in unpleasant gaps in Winchester family history that had been implied by the pilot. Keeping the brothers unhappy was the only way to keep the engine of the show hot.
That engine wouldn’t run smoothly without the right actors, though, so it’s almost impossible to overstate how important the casting of the Winchesters was to the initial and continued success of the show. Jared Padalecki was a no-brainer for The WB, coming off his role in Gilmore Girls, and Jensen Ackles had starred for a season on James Cameron’s Dark Angel, which showcased his smarminess and gift for delivering one-liners. That reel highlights one of the key weapons in Supernatural’s arsenal, particularly for people unfamiliar with the show—Ackles’ comic ability and willingness to do pretty much anything in service the character with the same level of ridiculous enthusiasm, a skill that works equally well with guilt and pratfalls. As with any good buddy-cop show, Supernatural depended, and continues to depend, on the rapport between Padalecki and Ackles. They’re people forced to be around each other, even when they don’t get along, combining the two big sitcom tentpoles: family and the workplace. At the height of its capabilities, Supernatural manages to make the drama of hunting monsters double as sibling conflict.
Horror, road movies, family drama, workplace sitcom—these are just a few of the genres run through Supernatural’s blender. In any given episode, the visual language of horror usually gives way to the coats and (fake) badges of police procedurals, which gives way to sibling bickering, which gives way to a straight-up action climax. The secret of Supernatural’s success is its ability to blend those genres without letting the seams show. When done successfully, it’s a formula for a show with—if not a particularly large tent—at least one with a decent variety of acts.
The blending of those disparate elements is particularly evident in the show’s best episode, “Mystery Spot,” which uses its Groundhog Day conceit (the same day resets every time Dean dies around a local “mystery spot,” forcing Sam to race to save his brother) for both deeply comic and dramatic effect. Supernatural’s focus on the Winchesters gets far more out of a low-stakes standalone episode than most other shows might in the same situation, especially for fans who are already invested in Sam and Dean’s relationship. Some reasonably inspired retconning even allowed the episode to be integrated into the broader mythology of the series as it turned toward the Judeo-Christian in its best seasons, the fourth and fifth.
That expansion of the mythology (which Kripke described in the first season as “just find dad”) found its primary manifestation in Castiel, the dorky angel played by Misha Collins in a dirty trench coat. Caught between his growing affinity for the Winchesters (as well as for humanity) and the robotic obedience demanded of most angels, Collins was a huge boon to the show, breathing new life into the Winchester dynamic by giving Dean a buddy without really threatening the sibling relationship the way female characters often seemed to. (The show’s treatment of women is a subject for a separate essay. For a while there, Supernatural was seemed incapable of introducing a female character without Dean calling her a bitch.) Eventually, Cas got a demonic counterpart in Crowley, who Mark Sheppard has managed to imbue with deep levels of smarm as well as a surprising amount of affection for Dean—he’s a pit bull incapable of actually attacking. Both Sheppard and Collins are regulars for the current 10th season, and the idea of these otherworldly characters being trapped by their relationships with these annoying humans conjures up Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens.
That’s a particularly apt comparison for seasons three through five, which were increasingly taken over by angelic and demonic forces battling over the end of the world and leaving Sam and Dean caught in the middle. Where another series might have put the Winchesters squarely on the side of the angels, their rebellion against the uptight, callous heavenly forces was one of the biggest symbols of the show’s overriding moral pluckiness. As much as Supernatural excelled at standalone episodes in its early seasons, it became clear over time that the show was telling a single, extended story about the Winchesters and their role in the apocalypse, about the power of a sibling relationship over everything in heaven and hell, culminating in the season-five finale, “Swan Song,” which isn’t so much a masterpiece as it is a blunt instrument, cornily but effectively ending the show’s first act in the only way it could, drawing on all of the genres that had contributed to its success in the first place. But where could Supernatural go from there?
Though Kripke’s original plan was for a five-season arc, one that took the show to a seemingly natural conclusion, it’s beginning to look like more than half of the show will be made after the creater/showrunner’s departure. That’s too bad, because the recent seasons are heavily characterized by narrative flailing, endless repetition of the same story and character beats, and uninspired antagonists. The collapse of the series’ mythology creates some interesting territory—what happens to the cosmic order of the universe, to the millions of angels and demons and everything in between, when the apocalypse has come and gone?—but that’s been only partially explored. The show has managed to push back against this inevitable aging by upping the importance of its rotating supporting characters/pre-murder victims, and the idea of a larger ensemble is a breath of fresh air for anyone sick of the 17th version of the “brothers split up” plot line.
The inevitability of those separations, and the repeating variations on one brother feeling guilty about something or one brother sacrificing himself for the other, indicates the biggest albatross at the beginning of the 10th season: Winchester angst. Sam and/or Dean is always lying to Dean and/or Sam, and one of them always seems to want to get out of the hunting game yet just can’t leave the life behind. This tension has been baked into the show from its pilot, but the basic emotional beats here are so well established that continuing to play them out once the show ran its natural course has run everything into the ground a bit, depleting the emotional battery. In fact, the later seasons of Supernatural are suffering from a similar problem as, say, the last couple of years of Parks And Recreation, where the initial conflict that drove the series petered out as everyone became super close and happy. It’s still fun to hang out with the characters, but they’re probably not going anywhere we haven’t seen many times before.
The repetition that comes with Supernatural’s old age has also led the show to lean into its tendency to poke fun of itself through increasingly reflexive, meta stories. Anecdotal evidence suggests this is maybe the most surprising thing about the show for those whose superficial impression of it is all doom and gloom, but some of the Supernatural’s best ridiculous episodes have bent and broken its relationship with its own fictional universe, particularly through the introduction of Chuck, a prophet whose gospels are trashy novels about the Winchesters. Chuck’s work gave the show an opportunity to stick its tongue deeply in its own cheek and comment on its occasionally rabid fan base (and the legions of people writing Wincest fanfic). But this trend reached its apex in “The French Mistake,” in which Sam and Dean are transported to an alternate reality in which they’re bratty actors named Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles making a television show that is, uh, kind of past its prime. Since then, the holes have gotten too big for the show to really ask to be taken seriously: The upcoming 200th episode is going to be set at a Supernatural fan convention.
Pushing on the genre balance that made it so compelling originally has led Supernatural to transition from scary to almost cheesy, coasting on its own fumes. That happens to pretty much any show that runs long enough, yet it hasn’t really mattered to the show’s continued success. Though it receives far less critical attention in its golden years, Supernatural’s ratings haven’t dropped as much as one might expect. Where Parks And Recreation resolved its characters’ conflicts and became toothless in the process, Supernatural suggests that the Winchesters will never be totally free—so why care? But like the comfortable dynamics of the characters on a long-running sitcom, it seems to be enough for a lot of fans to watch Sam and Dean reenact the same beats, transformed largely into creatures of fan service. The basic formula is sturdy enough to maintain a few more seasons yet, especially if Ackles and Padalecki are game (they seem to be) and the rest of The CW’s programming fails to take off to a degree that would make keeping Supernatural around unnecessary (it mostly has).
The CW’s attempt to capitalize on Supernatural’s continued presence culminated in a backdoor pilot last season, the poorly thought-out “Bloodlines.” Unsurprisingly, the idea for a Supernatural spin-off had been kicking around for years, but it finally manifested itself in “Bloodlines,” which was trying to be The Originals for Supernatural. But the Chicago of “Bloodlines,” where competing mob families of monsters squabble over territory, putting a cop-turned-hunter in the midst, was overly serious and pretty lame. None of the cast really popped (and none of them ever seemed in on the joke), there were no real scares or plausible emotional connections, and the whole thing was silly in a bad way. Watching “Bloodlines” made it clear how precarious Supernatural always was—as much as people might ask in surprise whether it’s still on (and whether it’s worthy of critical attention), the fact that it managed to maintain that reputation so long with such a consistent audience is damned impressive. It just goes to show how much successful supernatural storytelling comes down to chemistry.