Welcome, Cinefilles, to a nine-week retrospective of one of the greatest cult television shows of our time: Supernatural. I’ve loved some geeky shows in the past, but in my opinion, Supernatural blows them all away. Over nine years, the show has had more consistent writing than Buffy the Vampire Slayer, reinvented itself more creatively than Doctor Who, and juggled humourous and heartbreaking episodes equally well. Despite threats of cancellation almost every single year of its existence, Supernatural has survived, cultivating a dedicated fan base which rivals the followers of Joss Whedon’s entire television canon. While it’s not a perfect show by any means, it’s incredibly addicting, and when it comes to choosing genre television, I’ll take Sam and Dean Winchester almost every time.
Since we’ve recently expanded into television reviews, I’m going to be covering the tenth season when it airs in October. But while we wait, I wanted to introduce readers to the show and give an extremely abridged picture of the road so far, so I’m going to be reviewing one episode from each of the previous seasons for the next two months. I’ve chosen a mix of episodes that reflect some of the show’s best writing as well as the important story arcs; if these reviews intrigue you, I highly recommend watching the show in its entirety. Obviously spoilers are ahead, but if you’re a fan of stuff like Buffy, The X-Files, or True Blood, it’s well worth your time. This week we’re going back to where it all began: the pilot.
Supernatural opens in Lawrence, Kansas, 22 years ago, where the Winchester family—Mary (Samantha Smith), John (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), four-year-old Dean and six-month-old Sam—say their idyllic goodnights. Mary is awakened by the baby monitor a few hours later, and sees John at the crib—or so she thinks, until she finds her husband asleep in front of the TV and realizes with horror that there’s a stranger standing over her child. Upon hearing her scream, John bursts into the nursery to find Mary pinned to the ceiling by an unseen force, at which point she spontaneously combusts. John and the boys scramble out of the burning house, traumatized, but alive. In the present day, Sam (Jared Padalecki) is a student at Stanford University, with a beautiful girlfriend (Adrianne Palicki), a shot at a full scholarship to law school, and a strict aversion to Halloween. His world is rudely interrupted by Dean (Jensen Ackles), who breaks into Sam’s apartment in the middle of the night to ask for his help. “Dad’s on a hunting trip, and he hasn’t been home in a few days.”
It quickly becomes clear that John is not out shooting deer, and that the Winchester boys had a rather unconventional childhood. Obsessed with finding the creature that murdered his wife, John became a lethal hunter of all things which go bump in the night, and raised his sons to do the same. Cocky, streetwise Dean has taken after his dad, but Sam has not. “When I told dad I was scared of the thing in my closet, he gave me a .45,” he says. “I was nine years old.” Nonetheless, Sam agrees to accompany Dean on one single weekend trip to find their dad. The boys soon find themselves on the trail of a female ghost who’s been killing philandering men, and must put her spirit to rest using the impressive arsenal of weapons that Dean keeps in the trunk of his 1967 Chevrolet Impala. Of course, “one last job” is never just that; Mary’s killer strikes close to home once again, and pushes Sam back into the life he thought he’d left for good. The episode closes on the Winchesters driving off on their next adventure, crisscrossing the country to fight demons, find their father, and try to figure out what exactly happened to Sam on that horrible night in Lawrence.
Pilots are always tough to pull off. They need to introduce the audience to a brand new story, and convince them that it’s worth tuning in every week for the foreseeable future. In the same way that Batman Begins and X-Men are weaker than The Dark Knight and X2, pilots must do the heavy lifting to get the origin story out of the way, and give the rest of the show the chance to really have fun in the sandbox. As pilots go, Supernatural isn’t bad. Show creator Eric Kripke’s script has a few clunky scenes of exposition, but they’re never unbearable, and director David Nutter does some wonderful things with the material. The opening scene is beautifully paced, as we watch Mary sleepily assume that the male figure at Sam’s crib is John, and then follow her downstairs to realize he’s not. It’s the type of home invasion nightmare we’ve all had at some point (well, aside from the whole set-on-fire-on-the-ceiling thing), and it’s very memorable. The monster of the week is a perfect introduction ghost, establishing the rules of the Supernatural universe, as well as Sam and Dean’s relationship. The chemistry between Ackles and Padalecki is what really sells the show; the two actors have a fantastic repartee and establish their characters really well in just under 40 minutes. Dean is a charming hustler, flirtatious and cocky on the surface, but deeply insecure underneath. And Sam’s pragmatism just barely conceals a dark, angry core.
Supernatural’s first season mostly revolves around monsters-of-the-week, which is fine; it’s the standard for shows like this, giving viewers an easy introduction before diving into the really meaty arcs later on. Looking back, it’s really quite remarkable how the show has evolved since this first episode, and it’s a magnetic, strong start, which established a lot of Supernatural’s best qualities with only a few expository hiccups along the way.