Saturday, September 25, 2010

Look Out: It is a Monster.

Last spring, the CW’s Supernatural closed off its fifth season with a move that really rubbed me the wrong way. Originally designed to be a capstone for the series, the episode was changed at the last minute to make way for a sixth season; tacking a couple of seconds worth of footage onto the very end that took the (in my opinion) best ending of a genre show since Babylon 5 finished up in 1998 and turned it into a cheap, cliffhanger twist-ending that only served to set up an unplanned continuation by manufacturing some unsatisfying drama.

I understand that there’s always a level of creator control that gets taken away when you have a successful, long-term property like Supernatural. Even dedicated series helmsmen like Eric Kripke and J. Michael Straczynski are almost expected to lose some control over the direction of the program to the suits as time goes on…it’s just part of the industry. But where Straczynski worked inside the system and still ended Babylon 5 as he intended to and when he wanted to, Kripke has apparently just bailed with little more than a little temper-tantrum and an “England soldiers on.” And while I have to respect the man for stepping down as showrunner when he was done with what he had to say, it doesn’t change the fact that his concessions to the network allowed the ending of that last episode to become unforgivably tacky and tonight it has launched a new season that, well, it’s got a bit of an odd smell about it.

Actually, the smell isn’t that unfamiliar. It smells like season four of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Actually, it reeks of season four of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Yeah. The one with the secret military organization and the college and the terrible cyborg-monster thing at the end and the endlessly stupid charisma-sucking vortex that was Riley Finn. The one where we lost almost all sense of narrative coherence and continuity. The one that the show never recovered from.

In case it’s not clear: No. I’m not really happy about it.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Supernatural is a show that has very, very rarely done me wrong. That’s an uncommon feat for a program that has gone on for as long as it has. It’s clever and inventive and cool and even when it misfires it usually does so in a way that you can enjoy. As such, I feel that it’s earned a certain amount of loyalty from me. Don’t get me wrong, I am not one of those people who constantly says that “the fans deserve better” when he’s confronted with something that he doesn’t like from a series that he does. I very rarely feel that the performers or writers or creators owe me anything because I choose to enjoy the program that they produce, but this is a show that I have continually enjoyed since it premiered and as such I do feel an obligation to ride out a rough patch here and there. As such, I’m not going to be writing the show off after a lousy season opener and intend to give the newly continued Supernatural a fair shake before I start trying to pretend that season five ended a few seconds sooner than it did.

But oh man, was this ever a lousy season opener.

When last we saw the Winchester brothers, Dean had finally made it out of the family business of hunting monsters and killing demons by averting the Biblical apocalypse and seeing his brother Sam sacrifice himself in the process. After a parting of ways with the show’s other characters he returns to Lisa, the one still-living woman who he could be said to have a meaningful relationship with, serving as a supporter to her and her son as her recovers from the psychological trauma of the past few years and tries to build something like a normal life for himself. And while the show is focused on that thread for the first ten minutes or so of this episode I was really kind of digging it. For the first time in the show’s run we get to see Dean as what he has always wanted to be: a functioning human being. He goes to work, spends time with his surrogate family, has a few friends, and generally works his way through a little domestic montage that intercuts with him reflecting on past events, showing how even simple, everyday actions like using a hammer or locking a door were warped into something paranoid and wretched by his old lifestyle, all while showing how he has changed and adapted…just not so much that he doesn’t still keep a Devil’s Trap painted under the doormat and a shotgun and hex bag under his bed. This bittersweet series of shots was really one of the few things that I felt was missing from the previous season’s ending. Jensen Ackles even looks more the part, sporting a comfortable extra few pounds and a more grown-up haircut that really make Dean seem like he’s been living soft for the past year.

It’s all really quite lovely and I was pleasantly surprised, even as the show takes a turn toward old, familiar territory with Dean starting to see demon signs wherever he goes and begins to come to the conclusion that he’s going to have to do something about it; dodging around the subject with Lisa until she finally confronts him about it and gives him the okay to do what he needs to do. As an episode it’s really working so far, and keeps on doing so until the critter turns out to be none other than Azazel, the yellow eyed demon who served as the big-bad in seasons one and two. This was an intriguing turn for me, because even in his brief scene he gives some small explanation for how he has returned to life, a minimal explanation certainly (he was brought back as the result of some sort of end-of-the-apocalypse cosmic reset) but one that could be more fully explored at a later time and could also serve to explain how Sam was back on earth and no longer possessed by the devil (as those familiar with the cringe-inducing final moments of season five already know him to be).

I wouldn’t have objected to this so much, not because I like the idea of recycling villains after they’re dead, and not even because Fredric Lehne is so much fun to watch as the character, but because it actually is some kind of explanation. But, alas, when Sam shows up moments later to save Dean from the demon, the episode takes a serious turn for the worse. When we come back from commercial, Dean is waking up on a cot in a mysterious house with Sam sitting over him and his reaction is…less than stellar. It isn’t bad, per-se, it’s just exactly what you’d expect. He’s very upset for a moment, and then very angry for a moment, and then they hug. It’s the standard issue Supernatural emotional payoff/resolution scene, and while that gag may have worked up until this point, well, things are a little bit different this time, aren’t they? Shouldn’t there be some further exploration of emotion? Or even some further mistrust between the two? Sam even tells Dean during their conversation that Azazel wasn’t real but rather a lethal hallucination caused by a djinn. So what does Sam have to do to prove that he’s not a hallucination? He cuts himself on the arm with a knife and drinks some (holy?) water. Nothing that requires Dean’s interaction. Nothing that a hallucinatory character capable of physical murder shouldn’t be able to do anyway. It’s a shockingly lazy scene for a show that usually takes its time and tests its characters very harshly, and is indicative of the overly rushed tone of the rest of the episode.

So, ready for the next couple of minutes? Here they are: Sam is alive and has been alive since, well, since Dean thought he died. Also alive is the brothers’ grandfather Samuel, who died back in the seventies. They don’t know why and they don’t seem to care, and you can tell this because when Dean asks them they say “We don’t know” and change the subject so they can introduce a trio of characters whose names you won’t learn this week because they aren’t going to have their names used for the rest of the episode. These guys are Sam and Dean’s cousins on their mother’s side, and they are all professional hunters who the Winchesters have never met or heard of before and who have apparently never heard of the Winchesters before either, despite the fact that every other hunter we’ve ever seen has instantly treated Sam and Dean like monster killing royalty. One of these guys is also played by Corin Nemic and is, thus, almost guaranteed to be a complete slimeball/villain. Also, Bobby knows about Sam too (though I would have loved it if Bobby’s deadpan reaction to the brother’s resurrection was simply a result of how many dead people he’s seen up and walking around over the years) and didn’t tell Dean because he thought he was being nice. Also, there are djinn around and they’re gunning for Winchester blood. Also, Sam and the gang suddenly want Dean to join up with them again and leave his new family despite the fact that a couple of minutes before they were all talking about how they didn’t tell him that Sam was alive because they wanted to be all noble and let him have his normal life. They get very upset when Dean doesn’t like this idea, which is some serious bullshit considering what absolute dicks they’re all being.

You see what I did there? How I rushed through ALL of that pretty vital exposition like it meant absolutely nothing? Good, because that’s exactly how this week’s script handles it. This is several weeks worth of plot and exposition compressed into a slipshod second and third act. It would be way too much material even before the introductory first act and the monster-of-the-week djinn fight in the fourth and fifth acts. I think it’s pretty much needless to say that this is a completely preposterous way to tell a story, much less to set up the next chapter in a long-form serial production that I’ve always admired for its willingness to take its time and fill gaps in the chronology with fun adventure stories. This is a show that built it’s mythology and plot for five years at a pace that could sometimes seem glacial and ultimately produced one of the most emotionally effecting hours of television in recent memory, so what the hell happened to that notion, huh?

This episode is, to be perfectly blunt, amateur hour. Sera Gamble, who has written some absolutely stellar episodes of the show in the past, seems lost here as writer, executive producer, and new showrunner--turning in a sloppy script that got turned into a sloppy episode that goes absolutely nowhere and satisfies on no level after the title card comes up. The concept of the djinn could have been very interesting on its own, serving as it does as a callback to the season two episode What Is and What Should Never Be with the creatures coming for revenge against the Winchesters for the djinn they killed in that episode. Unfortunately, it seems that they are ultimately only in the episode to serve as a catalyst that brings the brothers back together and so that one may be captured by Samuel and the other Campbells for their undoubtedly nefarious purposes. It just gets turned into a lazy retread of a previous monster, so that it can be lazily captured by a group of seedy seeming characters who have obvious yet unobserved ulterior motives.

Actually, the bits that I liked best were mostly Dean’s interactions with Lisa. They’re believable, and understanding and pretty solidly written and they actually feel like things that the characters care about and mean when they say them. When Dean makes his final decision to spit in the face of his old family and stick with the one that he has adopted and found peace with, I was actually quite proud of the character. That family was intended as Dean’s reward for his trials, for all of the growth that he’s seen since the show’s pilot aired in 2005. Frankly, he deserves that, if only from the viewpoint of narrative closure. If I want to look at it that way though, (and I do because I like to look at things like that as a storyteller, and that doesn’t grant us another season of television featuring the established eye-candy that brings in the teenage girls) Sam also deserves to stay trapped in the cage with Lucifer for the rest of time because that’s his fate as a martyr and tragic hero.

So, with that in mind, it sort of pains me to bring this up: If this season is to succeed from a narrative standpoint, Lisa and her son Ben need to die or go away in some other, permanent way. This isn’t because I dislike them as characters, because I have liked them ever since they were introduced back in season three as the throw-away gag that Dean might have an illegitimate son--but because they’re noncombatants in a show that has a history of treating noncombatants like canon-fodder. If they’re allowed to continue to exist, they’re doomed to become the Wesley Crusher and Dawn Summers of this generation of television, if only by the nature of the conventions of the genre. If they survive and stick around they will become an emotional albatross around Dean’s neck: the loved ones who can’t defend themselves and are thus a constant target for murder and kidnapping by all manner of villain. Even if they aren’t brought along on the road as weekly characters there will be constant reminders of their existence; tired reiterations of how Dean is doing things for his girl back home now, emotional diatribes about how hard it is for him to leave them behind, panicked drives back to fight on the home-front as Ben gets into yet another monster-related mishap. The kid has been kidnapped by demons once already: that shit’s gonna happen again.

These are the kinds of characters that are appealing to a writer though. They seem initially intruiging, like they could be a good emotional front for the show—-something to counterbalance all of the fighting and mythology-—but that’s a mentality that usually wears off pretty quickly. The characters soon become annoying. The writer feels compelled to include them so that the viewer doesn’t forget about them, and the viewer just finds them obnoxious after a while because they get in the way of the plot. It’s an angle that needs to be cleared up ASAP if the writers really intend to get Dean back on the road in the next couple of weeks. Actually, I’d like to think that the writers have a lot more than that to do if they want to get Dean back on the road, because Dean has, up until now, proven to be far from a dumb character. He may not be overly bright, but he can smell bullshit coming and he’s suspicious as well, and I’d like to think that for the sake of continuity they’re going to have to do some pretty good explaining as they develop and launch us into this season’s plot.

I’m going to call a stop on this for now, because twenty-six hundred words is more than enough to dedicate to a single hour of television. I’ll try to keep covering the rest of this season though, because I have the feeling that Supernatural fans are going to either witness a serious turnaround in the coming weeks or the beginning of a massive television train wreck. Either way, it should be worth looking at from a storytelling perspective.




PS. : Jesus, was the music in this episode ever obnoxious. Supernatural has a history of keeping things really quiet for the most part, only dipping into the horror-movie bag of musical tricks every once in a while and relying mostly on the visuals, but sound-manufactured jump scares were all over the place in this episode and there were a couple of scenes where the score was so loud that I could barely hear the dialogue over it. Just icing on the cake, I guess.

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