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Supernatural will end as The CW’s enduring success story

Photo: Jack Rowand/The CW, Graphic: Karl Gustafson

On the home video release for the 14th season of Supernatural, there’s little to no indication that it was the penultimate year for the long-running horror-fantasy series. There’s the usual assemblage of entertaining special features: deleted scenes, a pair of commentary tracks, a look at the mythology of the show’s focus on family, the Supernatural Comic-Con panel from 2018, the requisite gag reel, and a behind-the-scenes look at the landmark 300th episode, which saw the return of Jeffrey Dean Morgan on camera for the first time since season two.

And yet. There’s a distinct vibe of looming inevitability running throughout the bonus materials. The Comic-Con panel, which took place before the season began, is free from any suggestion of closure, but the other behind-the-scenes discussions ring with the tone of people who sense the end is near. The narrative that ends the season is about as clear a choice as can be made for a final blowout: After 14 years of fighting monsters, demons, and an ever-rotating collection of Big Bads that threatened the entire world, Sam and Dean Winchester are facing the ultimate nemesis: God. “Where do you go from here?” asks someone during a down moment filming the 300th installment, and the lack of an answer is its own answer. The story is coming to a close.

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Supernatural, in its own odd and unexpected way, has been the defining show of The CW. It’s never been the water-cooler series, generating heat for the network the way zeitgeist-penetrating shows like Gossip Girl, The Vampire Diaries, or Riverdale. And it’s never been a ratings juggernaut, pulling down record numbers like its superhero programming has done in more recent years. But what it has done is endured. As the channel went through multiple revamps of its image, chasing various demos and genre trends while always keeping its overall focus on the young-adult market, Supernatural hung in there, year after year, cultivating a fiercely loyal fan base and—amazingly—hanging on to it, in a way few series have. Even Buffy The Vampire Slayer, whose fandom is nothing if not noteworthy for its ardor, had shed significant viewership by its final season, whereas the drops in Nielsen numbers experienced by Supernatural in the last couple seasons have more or less mirrored the across-the-board pattern of declining traditional TV viewership at large. Whether bringing in new viewers or hanging on to the old, Sam and Dean keep finding an audience.

For proof of this, look no further than the official Supernatural conventions. The number of shows that can generate their own cons is small indeed, and usually restricted to cultural behemoths like The Walking Dead. But for more than a decade now, there’s been anywhere between a half-dozen and upwards of 20 (!) Supernatural conventions a year, all around the world, pulling in the devoted followers of this tale of two brothers fighting evil. And they are passionate: In his autobiography, actor Curtis Armstrong—who spent four seasons playing Metatron, the scribe of God and Winchester brothers’ antagonist—details the experience of these events:

I’ve been to many conventions of all sorts all over the country and in other countries as well, and there is simply nothing to compare to this. Books have been written about this fandom... One component the Supernatural conventions have in common with others is that of sheer joy, and it is difficult to be in the midst of it without feeling it oneself. But almost as important, the sexual element is inescapable as the show features in its four stars men who are impossibly, devastatingly attractive to the fans who pack their ballrooms... At the end of a photo session with hundreds of palpitating women, these men return to their dressing rooms to strip off shirts literally drenched with the sweat of the Believers. It is a Traveling Salvation Show that plays to hundreds of thousands of fans in hotels around the world.

Clearly, the show has done something right—and the casting is probably 90% of it. Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki have a chemistry that worked since the very first episode, and it’s grown over the years into the kind of sixth-sense intuition that has animated the best casts. With only two series regulars (at least until Misha Collins, playing the angel Castiel, started to become the dependable third column of the foundation after a number of seasons, and Mark Sheppard’s demon Crowley the fourth for awhile), it was always going to live or die on the strength of the two Winchester brothers. Watching them together is a case study in how the right match can bring sometimes underwhelming material to life.

Plus, there’s no getting around the obvious: Young women drive the popularity of the show, and Ackles and Padalecki have avid support for reasons that may or may not have a lot to do with their good looks and easygoing traditional masculinity. Ackles, in particular, is a one-man charm offensive; anyone who ever even clicked through Tumblr could be forgiven for thinking every page was required by law to have at least one gif of the actor on it. His undeniable sex appeal and magnetic charisma have made his reaction shots a seemingly bottomless well of internet memes. The sexual nature of the series’ fandom—apparent through a quick search for “Supernatural slash fic”—has become so prevalent online that the show itself acknowledged it with Sam and Dean’s meta discovery of incestuous Winchester love stories. (Yes, it’s known as “Wincest,” unfortunately.)

What has really maintained the life of the series from a narrative perspective, however, is the fundamental soundness of its premise and structure. Taking a page from its horror-TV progenitor The X-Files, Supernatural followed a sturdy playbook of case-of-the-week mysteries interspersed with mythos-heavy episodes involving a larger season- or seasons-long arc. It’s a dependable model for easy to follow storytelling that unfolds with clockwork precision, a smart blend of comfort-food TV and horror-based chills (with a heavy dose of acerbic humor) that manages to keep delivering quality stories one year after the next. Obviously, any show that runs this long has ups and downs in terms of value; but after a creatively wobbly middle period, the show found new life by returning to its fundamentals and leaning into the serialized nature of its universe, and will go out after a run of seasons as strong as any since Ackles and Padalecki first agreed to return after the initial five-season story planned by creator Eric Kripke ended in 2010.

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At this point, Supernatural is the horror-fantasy genre equivalent of the well-known “The Simpsons already did it” refrain made popular by South Park. Everyday monsters and ghosts are a given, but deep-dive Egyptian spirits? Check. An episode where Dean keeps dying with Looney Tunes-like absurdity? Check. A musical episode about a Supernatural-themed, um, musical? Check. Hell, the brothers even met Scooby-Doo for an animated outing last year. The show has turned over seemingly every rock under which the potential for “there be monsters,” and come away with a legacy and breadth of scope that is genuinely impressive: When Supernatural exorcises its final demon, it will do so as one of the longest-running primetime shows in history. That’s no small feat for two brothers who just wanted to keep the family business alive—by hunting some monsters.

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