Two brothers, Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) Winchester, make up all of the recurring roles on the narcoleptic X-Files wannabe Supernatural, where the biggest mystery is what happened to the rest of the cast. The show’s shtick is straightforward: Sam and Dean’s dad was a successful “hunter” (of spooky things) who one day simply disappeared. Dean, who had been working with his father as a hunter, seeks out Sam, who had given up the family business and gone to college. The two agree to continue their father’s monster-extermination duties while at the same time hoping to locate him. The show’s individual episodes are almost totally linear, without any B- or C-stories, or any genuine attempt at character development. There are some crumbs scattered throughout, but the writers’ inane attempts at injecting humorous sibling rivalry and dime-store philosophizing into the dialogue ring false. Perhaps the duo’s first case should have been to investigate whatever demonic possession caused the WB’s development execs to greenlight this clunky series in the first place.
Supernatural’s shortcomings could have been mitigated were its plotlines authentically scary. Unfortunately, the scripts seem to be composed chiefly of watered-down rehashes of classic weird fiction or popular urban legends. In the episode entitled “The Wendigo,” for instance, Algernon Blackwood’s outstanding and genuinely frightening short story is transformed into an utterly prosaic monster hunt, while this week’s offering features teenagers summoning the vengeful spirit “Bloody Mary” by—you guessed it—repeating her name into a mirror. The first thing to remember about good horror and weird fiction (and the first thing that Supernatural’s writers apparently forgot) is: what people don’t know or understand is almost always scarier to them than what they do. A big reason Blackwood’s story, for example, is so creepy is that the Wendigo itself is never really revealed or explained. The reader’s own imagination is left to fill in the “what ifs”—a much more powerful device than any special effect or ominous line of dialogue, because it’s automatically tailored to his most powerful fears. In short, a good piece of horror writing lets the reader/viewer/listener do most of the work himself.
Supernatural, though, like a cranky union boss, doesn’t want to let viewers do any work at all. Indeed, Sam and Dean arrive at every incident armed with their father’s old journal, a miraculous and bottomless source of explanation for every weird phenomenon they encounter. They’re also packing a bunch of barely-explained, pseudo-scientific gadgets that, in the tradition of Ghostbusters, instantly detect and deal with ghosties in fabulously silly ways. Dean, for example, has a spook-detector fashioned from an old Walkman (and I can’t even get mine to play my old Hank Williams tapes anymore). This failure to leave anything hidden makes each episode more a laborious exegesis of a weird story than an actual weird story—like reading only the footnotes to a volume of H.P. Lovecraft’s complete works.
Stylistic problems also abound. For a series that must have a lot of money left over from the acting budget, the production values sure seem low-carb. Entire episodes are shot without leaving the same four or five sets, and Supernatural features some of the lamest special effects I’ve seen since that time I tried to learn Final Cut Pro. Further, Sam and Dean incessantly refer to each other as “bro” or “my brother”—so newcomers to the series can understand that they’re definitely not gay, no sir. This, of course, makes for some contorted dialogue, but this also seems like a bad move strategically: If people are left to wonder whether or not these guys might be gay, it would at least inject some sexual tension into a show that desperately needs any kind of tension it can get.