Wednesday, October 05, 2005

TV Review: Supernatural, Episode # 4: "Phantom Traveler"

Supernatural terror run rampant on an airplane (or, as I've dubbed it, "the in-flight horror"), is one of the long-time staples of horror television. As far back as The Twilight Zone, and the classic William Shatner-"there's a gremlin on the wing" episode, "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," this particular plot has proven a durable genre cliche. There was an episode of The Sixth Sense in 1972 called "Coffin, Coffin in ths Sky." In 1989, an episode of Freddy's Nightmares, entitled "Cabin Fever" featured the same kind of story. Other horror series that featured versions of the airplane story over the years include: The X-Files ("Tempus Fugit/Max"), The Burning Zone ("Night Flight"), Poltergeist: the Legacy ("Let Sleeping Demons Lie"), Millennium ("The Innocents"), G vs. E. ("Airplane") and The Others ("Souls on Board")

So, it's a little late in the game for Supernatural's twist on this tale, called "Phantom Traveler." Here, the stalwart Winchester boys - Dean and Sam - investigate the crash of an airplane and discover that a passenger who was possessed by a demon was responsible for the downing of the craft. Now, they must board a plane to stop the demon from doing it again, and even perform an exorcism in midair. Putting aside the fact that the number one movie this weekend, Flight Plan, also concerns terror (of a very different sort) on a plane, one can only conclude from "Phantom Traveler" that the creators of Supernatural are intent (or should I say hellbent?) on taking a tour of horror history's greatest hits. Thus far in the run, we've had a ghost story ("Dead in the Water") a monster in the forest story ("Wendigo") and a Lady in White story ("Pilot"), but none of these are as well-traveled as the in-flight horror. One episode (entitled "Hook Man")- unaired so far - is about a Scream/I Know What You Did Last Summer kind of killer.

"Phantom Traveler" really adds nothing to the sub-genre. And it's only mildly scary. This is the Supernatural rut, I suppose, and it doesn't seem to be improving. Each story so far has followed the same woefully predictable pattern: a supernatural event (like a demon-possessed airline passenger), an investigation which requires the Winchester's to imitate Federal agents (here, from Homeland Security), and then a conclusion in which the monster is vanquished. Seeing this play out for the fourth week in a row, I realized how tired the format is, and how desperately the series' needs a twist; a way to break free of it. Horror isn't scary if it's always predictable, and follows the same pattern. Again, I'm reminded of Tru Calling, a flawed series which received bad reviews but was actually far superior to this drama. By the middle of the first season, Tru Calling's writers were going nuts, stretching their badly limited format in ways that, quite frankly, were crazy and inspiring. I loved their leap of faith; I loved their cajones. As a result of stretching their format, the writers made Tru Calling required viewing, just so I could see what they were going to do next. Granted, Supernatural is only in its fourth episode here at "Phantom Traveler," but somebody needs to shake it up.

What would I do? I'd kill one of the leads, and replace him with a more interesting character, probably someone a good deal older. My choice for the chopping block would be Sam, played by Padalecki. He just doesn't contribute much, except earnestness, to the format. If they can't kill him, they need to add a third character, someone who does things differently. I personally think they'd benefit from a partner who is someone like Quint from Jaws. An experienced, colorful old guy who doesn't mince words.

Last night, as my attention waned and "Phantom Traveler" went on its merry but predictable way, my feelings about Supernatural came into clarity. It's nothing but a boy band horror show; it's teen pop. Supernatural is tailor-made for sixteen-year-old girls who nothing about horror TV history. With its hunky but callow lead actors, it's content to recycle old pop tunes (horror cliches) rather than stretch to include any new or revolutionary material.

the Hanson of horror television. If you can enjoy it on those terms, have at it.

One more week before I bail out.


  1. Hey JKM, I was thumbing through some old posts of yours and came across this. I was curious if you ever gave the show another chance. I understand sometimes you can't get past a first impression. But now that it's just finished up it's 5th season and I'm aware of the direction the show went, I have to say I think it found it's voice and become one of my favorite shows on TV. The first season sets the stage. Sure it's clunky. But I think it manged to far stretch itself past the moniker of 'teen pop'.

  2. Jergy:

    I am very much aware that Supernatural has earned much respect and admiration since the first season, for its characterizations and multi-season story arcs.

    I have heard from too many fans about it to think that this is not so.

    That said, I will watch and give the show another chance. At some point, I am going to go through the whole seies (as I am doing now with Alias, then Farscape...).

    But I understand my opinion of the early episodes may not be fair at this point, six years on.

    Thanks for the comment,

  3. Oh hey you nailed it. Seriously. What reason did you have to stay? My point was to tell you it did get better. But I was like you. Full disclosure, I gave up on the show like 4 episodes it like you did. It took my cousin to put me back in, force my way through the first season and I'm happier for it. I enjoyed the mythology and the boys did get better at acting. Season 4 so far has been my favorite. I felt it should have ended after 5 (the most recent) but we'll see if it succeeds in being good, or if it goes the way of the X-Files.