Watching the Supernatural pilot in 2020
The CW saga ends this week. How did it begin?
What was 2005? The Black Eyed Peas, Batman re-beginning, Jessica Alba everywhere, “Hollaback Girl,” Katrina, Lost at its ratings apex, Lance winning a seventh Tour, Brangelina, TomKat, the Harry Potter with long hair, Entourage doing Aquaman, Kanye as a young man.
Only generalities, you understand, listed without order of importance. But you have to remember 2005 was not obviously any of these things: Metallica, Black Sabbath, Ted Nugent jokes, Deliverance references, vintage Chevy Impalas, mysterious hitchhikers, cassette tapes. It was not a good year for the WB; actually, it was the last full year for the WB. The whole American idea of the “road trip” as an act of youthful self-discovery was fading, a boomer myth replaced in what-would-be-millennial consciousness by Spring Break, maybe Coachella, briefly Burning Man. Local legends were dying out, replaced by the twin cruelties of the internet: Too much information and too much misinformation, the former taking all the fun out of hand-me-down rumors, the latter funneling the public’s imagination toward ever-more-cosmic conspiracy claptrap.
And yet here was the pilot for Supernatural, debuting Sept. 13 of that year on the WB, spinning a tale of two sad young motherless men hitting the road to solve cold deaths in a small town. The cheap motel, old houses on the edge of town, dark roads where anything can happen, the greatest hits of mullet rock, the phrase "two-lane blacktop" actually spoken out loud: If you want your TV show to last 15 seasons, it’s not the worst idea to start off in a timeless mood. Any viewer of any age watching any futuristic streaming platform could get almost the same season-premiere experience as the Gilmore Girls die-hard sticking around after a Tuesday rerun to see Jared Padalecki on his new show where he's confusingly not the one named Dean.
Actually, Padalecki’s Sam is almost familiar as a mid-2000s dude. He first appears as a handsomely smart Stanford student. His LSATs have been aced, and he isn't even planning a gap year before law school carries him on to yuppie forever. His girlfriend Jessica is cool enough to be played by Adrienne Palicki. She gets an introduction the youth today might eyeroll towards, vamping in a skimpy nurse costume before carrying on a whole scene in a tummy-bearing tight Smurf shirt. Then in comes Sam's big brother, Dean (Jensen Ackles). He missed the CD revolution, has clearly never heard of Napster. I believe he is wearing a leather jacket over his denim jacket. Listen to him dismiss Sam's white-collar future: “You’re just gonna live some normal apple pie life?” That's an old-soul line from a nominal 26-year-old, or the first evidence that Dean's tapped into deep sacred knowledge the other kids have forgotten about.
I approached my first viewing of the Supernatural pilot with awe, a little bit of knowledge, and a lot of respectful confusion. The series concludes this week with its 327th episode, a run for the ages. The WB only lasted 11 years, for comparison, and Supernatural held a steady devoted viewership through several generations of rise-and-fall TV phenomena. Everyone who cared about pop culture had to know something about Supernatural. I can vividly recall reading my former colleague Sandra Gonzalez’s recap of “The French Mistake,” the Supernatural which takes place on the set of a TV series called Supernatural. I’ve spent years enjoying the brilliantly in-depth coverage by EW’s Supernatural expert Samantha Highfill, who was also kind enough to offer expansive plot summaries (The episode about the car! The Scooby Doo episode! The high school musical!) to any critics who passed by her desk. In the last few years, random friends from different corners of my life would mention they had fallen down a Supernatural hole: Thanks, Netflix! “We’re not exactly the Bradys,” is how Sam explains his family in the pilot. I’ll say: The Brady Bunch only lasted five seasons!
All along — confession time — I never properly watched an entire episode of Supernatural. A missed opportunity for my whole adult life, probably, but it was already daunting to start a decade ago, when there were merely a hundred episodes to catch up on. Actually, 2005 was a good time to launch a forever show: Grey’s Anatomy, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, American Dad, the revived Doctor Who, the only-just-ended Criminal Minds, the sure-to-return Bones. Metrics were shifting. A dedicated fanbase meant a lot for ever-more-desperate networks. You could fly under the radar for a decade.
Those other long-running shows came on strong with flash or high-concept freakiness. Supernatural’s opening hour is cheerfully modest by comparison. Oh, there’s that opening flashback, the death of Ma Winchester (Samantha Smith) providing some origin-story urge towards a larger tale. The prologue presence of future Comic-Con favorite Jeffrey Dean Morgan has the retroactive quality of destiny. And I know just enough about the larger mythology — demons and stuff, right? — to recognize nudges toward eventual revelations.
But one genius early story decision by creator Eric Kripke was to let the brothers approach their curious investigations as just another day job. They don’t pause to define lingo like “EVP” for the benefit of the audience. Dean tell Sam he was just recently “working my own gig, this voodoo thing down in New Orleans.” Ackles makes that line sing like shop talk: A plumber mentioning the burst pipe he fixed this morning, an actor who already forgot his lines from the commercial he filmed yesterday. Dean’s pulling Sam back into a career they spent their whole youth learning. So there’s a professionals-at-work directness in their tradecraft: Phony credit cards, convincing-enough badges, frequent lockpicking.
The pilot centers on a ghost named Constance (Sarah Shahi), who keeps bloodbathing unfaithful men in the otherwise peaceful Jericho, California. It’s already a neat twist on the usual backroads-murder dynamic — a lost lovely woman honey-potting cheaters to their doom — and I love how Sam and Dean don’t seem too surprised when they figure out Constance’s whole deal. She is “a Woman in White,” they say, a familiar species of ethereal entity. You understand they must have neat nicknames for all sorts of horrific paranormality.
Romantic chemistry is hard. Sibling chemistry might be even harder. You need to shorthand years of childhood loathing alongside deep reserves of affection, conjure a private language, evoke the feeling that the elder will always view the younger as a recent arrival, explore the awe and frustration of growing up in somebody else's shadow. Padalecki and Ackles nail it all right out of the gate. Their first scene together is a fight, but they’re relaxed together even when series-premiere machinations would seem to justify squabbling. Both actors had taken a spin through youth-group Hollywood, Gilmore here or Dawson’s there. You’re watching a couple teen not-quite-idols leaving childish things behind — and it must help, deep down, that they’re both Texan.
Sam has turned his back on the family business. There's not a lot of arm-twisting required to drag him back for this first adventure, though, and even the shock firestorm-death of his girlfriend is an inevitable bookend. At one point, Dean sees a couple official-dope FBI agents arriving late to a crime scene. "Agent Mulder," he nods, "Agent Scully." It's almost a bratty moment, potentially a screw you! to the other weekly weird procedural. A middle finger would've been justified; X-Files had just ended terribly a few years earlier. With the benefit of outrageous hindsight, that moment feels more like a cheeky handoff. The X-Files perched a believer and a skeptic on the edge of unfathomable mysteries. On Supernatural, that dichotomy isn't necessary. This is what the Winchesters do — solve supernatural crimes, lose women they love — and they’ve been doing it their whole life.
That’s another old-fashioned note in this pilot, which probably played well in chronology-splintered syndication. Nobody is, like, learning the rules of Supernatural — and remember, this was still the early age of Lost, a saga which was almost entirely about learning its own universe's rules. In 2020, every genre series seems to turn the whole first season into a lugubrious premise pilot. The Supernatural premiere just gets on with it. I'll keep watching this show, man. I'll catch up someday, I swear.
Not too much is accomplished, on a larger story level. Dad is missing, and stays missing. Mom was killed, and who knows what’s up with that? Nobody gets saved. Constance has to face the ghosts of her murdered children, a potentially tearful reunion that looks an awful lot like getting dragged straight to Hell. A note from Dad marks a new destination on the map: Blackwater Ridge, Colorado, 600 miles away. "We could make it by morning," Dean says. Sam's skeptical, until tragedy cuts off all hope for a normal future. He doesn't mourn, he doesn't complain, he doesn't fuss. "We got work to do," he says. Not a glorious life, out there on the distant highway, exploring what remains of broadcast television — but the least glamorous jobs are also the most essential. That was Supernatural 15 seasons ago. And it still has work to do.
Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki star as the Winchester brothers, hellbent on battling the paranormal forces of evil.