Saturday, September 17, 2005

TV Review: The WB's Supernatural

The WB Network's Supernatural, airing on Tuesdays at 9/8c is essentially The X-Files, only without brains...or scares. This new horrorTV series, which has been described by Tom Shales at The Washington Post as "Essentially the Hardy Boys Go Ghostbusting," and by USA Today as "Route 66 meets The X-Files and Star Wars at a truck stop," is - at least in its pilot episode - an utter disappointment.

follows the adventures of the hunky Winchester brothers - Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) - as they go - in their words - "hunting" for the spooky otherworldly forces that murdered their mother over two decades earlier. They are also hot on the heels of their missing father (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who has made this hunt his life's mission, and who has disappeared, leaving behind coordinates for his sons to follow. In the pilot episode, Sam and Dean imitate Federal Marshals and investigate a town where a manifestation called a "Woman in White" (i.e. a "Lady in White") has been luring unfaithful men to their deaths. The second adventure, "Wendigo," airs this Tuesday, and involves the brothers coming to the aid of campers under attack from this Native American manifestation of evil.

Supernatural starts off strongly. Following in the tradition of many great horror films, it begins with "the deadly preamble," or "the crime in the past," in this case the unusual and terrifying murder of the Winchester Mom. Here, the show is at its creepy best. Mom awakens in the middle of darkest night when she hears young Sam crying on the baby monitor. When she goes to his crib, she spots a shadowy figure (that she mistakes for her husband...) standing over it - one who hushes her, urging her to be silent. She nods sleepily and heads downstairs, only to realize that her husband is asleep in front of the TV...and that the dark figure upstairs is an intruder...or something worse. She runs upstairs to confront it, and well, the rest is history. It's a terrifying, effective way to commence a horror series, and watching it, I felt goosebumps. Right then, in that instant, I had high hopes for the show. David Nutter, director of the show, earned his stripes on The X-Files and knows how to make a vignette like this utterly fascinating and frightening.

Unfortunately, the story that follows in "Pilot" involves not even the slightest additional shiver. The boys follow their father to the small town of the "Lady in White," and almost immediately- and routinely - encounter her. She appears full-on in the frame; right in front of the camera; and since the boys have explained who she is and why she exists, this spectral manifestation isn't terrifying in even the smallest degree. Unlike The X-Files, where alternate possibilities are raised (science vs. the paranormal) and debated through the twin philosophies/world views of Mulder and Scully, here we know from the beginning that the supernatural is real, and the episode consequently has no sense of mystery. Instead, the boys find their father's research and immediately pick up where he left off, saving us the trouble of learning about the Lady in White for ourselves. It's as if someone just Fed-Exed the info the Winchester boys needed to help them solve a supernatural crime, and it's an absolutely underwhelming approach. Perhaps it's just as well, though - I have a hard time seeing either of these jock-like, WB-stereotyped characters as effective researchers.

Supernatural boasts all the flaws of your typical WB fare (meaning the misery that is called Charmed...). It attempts a Buffy the Vampire Slayer-style banter and patter, and fails miserably(where's Joss Whedon when you need him?), it casts callow but extremely good-looking youths in the critical roles, when a more-experienced, less photogenic cast could bring some resonance to the show; and it even seems designed as a merchandising ploy for teen girls, replete with tie-ins to upcoming music cds by Dave Matthews and the like. ("You heard it on Supernatural, now get the Dave Matthews cd!"). Even the series' special effects are ultimately derivative, that herky-jerky style of "ghostly" movement we've seen in everything from The Ring and The Grudge to White Noise. It's a combination of fast-motion, digital imagery and the like just ain't scary. It ain't even PG-13 scary, and that's depressing, especially when one considers that The X-Files was so terrifying that it kept a generation of horror movie fans at home on Friday nights. Somehow, I don't think that will be the case here.

Executive producer Eric Kripke has stated that his goal for Supernatural is "to scare the hell out of you." Odd then that the "Pilot" should have no scares beyond the first minutes. Worse, for a show that is supposed to capture a blend of X-Files and Route 66, there is no sense or feeling of "the road." No sense of being trapped in a car on the highway, road hypnosis, sleepiness, trying to find an obscure place on a map, being in a strange location trying to get bearings. Nothing like that. For a show that should be rich in atmosphere, Supernatural is strangely lacking. The boys reach the town immediately; and then when they vanquish the Lady in White, return home instantly. They might as well have beamed down to the town for all the "road atmosphere" included in the show.

The "supernatural" side of Supernatural is also sadly uninspiring. We've seen "Women in White" or their ilk so many times before (In One Step Beyond's "If You See Sally," for instance) that the episode holds little surprise for the experienced horror fan. (But then again, I maintain that this show is tailor-made for the 16 year old girl, so perhaps this isn't to be considered a deficit).

More disappointingly, the depiction of the Winchester Mother-murdering dark force makes the paranormal seem like something as mundane and earthbound as the mafia, and that's tough to forgive. Obviously, some dark supernatural force has put out a "hit" on the Winchester family, killing the Mom, and then Sam's girlfriend in exactly the same ceiling-hugging, flame-out fashion. How very orderly and considerate of it. This way, viewers will be hit over the head with the connection: "Oh, whatever killed their Mother also killed his girlfriend!" The X-Files was never this obvious or heavy-handed. Here's a lesson for the producers: scares are generated by uncertainty; by ambiguity; by the not-knowing; by the failure to comprehend something that seems beyond the lives we live everyday; something half-seen in the shadows; in the blink of an eye. You can't treat the supernatural as an organized, consistent bad force no more ambiguous than Al Qaeda. Sorry.

I'm always reluctant to review a series based on a first episode, because things often change and develop for the better over time, as cast and crew get their bearings. This was certainly the case with Tru Calling, which ultimately developed into something fascinating and thought-provoking after a rocky start. Let's hope this is the case with Supernatural. I'm giving it precisely five more episodes to show me something new and notable; something that is worthy of comparison to The X-Files. The show needs to work more on building that critical atmosphere of uncertainty (the supernatural can't just automatically be the solution every week, or this will get real boring...); the characters need to be smarter, more diverse (less interchangeable) and more resourceful (less like underwear models...) and the stories need some kind of fresh angle. Supernatural's "pilot" could have appeared on any episode of Poltergeist: the Legacy almost a decade ago, with virtually no variation. I'm certainly on board with Kripke's stated mission: we do need a scary new X-Files; we need a supernatural series that will show us something fresh, and with a different attitude and world view. But if Supernatural is merely content to recycle Japanese horror imagery, WB character stereotypes, and stories older than The Twilight Zone, it will fail.

Let's hope the Winchester brothers get better and smarter the further they drive from Hollywood central casting and story stereotypes. The terror of the supernatural should be something to wipe the smiles off their cocksure, youthful faces, not simply a straw man for boys with toys.


  1. Anonymous8:47 AM

    Supernatural can scare the hell out of anyone. In my opinion, it is the most frightening show today. I love the way the demons and ghosts are made, they look so real, it makes me believe in them.

  2. Anonymous4:53 PM

    I guess above commenter was one of those 16 year old girls.
    As the reviewer said, i can't imagine ANYONE (except teenage girls) being impressed with the pilot.

    Hohum doesn't begin to describe it.