Tonight we near the end of season four in snarky midwestern horror series Supernatural. Douchey angels will fight ethical demons, with ghostbusting brothers Sam and Dean caught in the middle. Here's why you should watch.
Supernatural, ending its third season, fits squarely into the gothic tradition that started with eighteenth century novels like The Monk, and goes right on up through . . . Led Zeppelin and AC/DC. And that's the beauty part. Showrunner Eric Kripke has combined classic gothic storytelling - two drifter brothers with a tragic past fight demons - with pop culture quirks. Every show begins with a classic rock or metal song that brings us into the story. It's like the organ music of contemporary horror.
But the best part is that even as you're watching brothers Sam and Dean Winchester fight vampires, ghosts, and all the usual Hollywood monsters, you won't feel like you're watching something you've seen before. Partly that's the writing, which is always fresh and funny. And it's also the characters, who are the opposite of Fringe and X-Files' buttoned-up investigators. Sam and Dean call themselves Hunters. They're drifters, living on stolen credit cards and investigating cases using an impressive set of fake IDs and suits. When they're not sleeping in Dean's beloved black Chevy Impala, they crash in a series of weirdly-decorated roadside motels in remote midwestern towns, hoping for a little cable and magic fingers.
Basically these guys are hobos on a quest to save the world from monsters.
With writers like Ben Edlund (creator of The Tick and writer for Angel and Firefly) and Sera Gamble as major contributors, it's no surprise that the show has a Buffy the Vampire Slayer flair, combining funny writing with dark situations. The late Kim Manners, who worked on X-Files, was also a producer on the show.
Yes, You Can Do Something New With Heaven and Hell
The show also isn't afraid to tackle things that most horror series shy away from, namely Heaven. You've probably seen a million devils and demons in your time, but how often do you get a really meaty, interesting story about angels? Especially angels who act like asswipes? This past season has been all about the angels that rescued Dean from Hell, and what seems to be a war brewing in heaven. The plot seems partly ripped from the pages of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, and partly from Paradise Lost.
Some of the angels are trying to prevent a scary demon named Lilith from unleashing Hell on Earth by opening up several "seals." But other angels are trying to bring Lucifer back from Hell, because they're sick of always having to deal with humans. After all, humans kind of suck compared to angels. Why shouldn't the Earth belong to the winged ones?
Meanwhile, troubled younger brother Sam is having an affair with a demon named Ruby, occasionally sucking her blood so he can gain demon powers. So Dean, who likes heavy metal and sleeps with a different lady every night, has been chosen by the angels to help their cause. And Sam, a former Stanford law student and computer nerd, is consorting with demons so that he can gain megapowers. Plus, their mentor - now that their Hunter father is dead - is a scruffy redneck in a baseball hat named Bobby. Luckily, Bobby has like 8 phone lines that come to his house, each labeled with the name of a different federal agency. When somebody calls to check on Sam and Dean's "credentials," Bobby is always there to answer with the appropriate acronym: "Hello, this is the FBI!"
Midwestern Gothic Is An Idea Whose Time Has Come
Another standout part of Supernatural is its setting. While most gothic tales center on the south, with its weepy trees and creepy history, Supernatural is set square in the US midwest. Dean and Sam hail from Kansas, and they never stray far from it. Though they occasionally hit a coast, most of their jobs take the boys on a winding path between insta-suburbs cut into the empty prairies, lone farmhouses, and rusting industrial towns. Their monsters come from the white heartland of America, and I do mean white. One of the things about Supernatural's version of the Midwestern Gothic, which is likely unintentional, is that any time you see a black character, he or she turns out to be trouble. There's an unsettling authenticity about the racism in this aspect of the series, where white trash can be heroes but black people are still beyond the pale.
At any rate, these Midwestern settings are perfect for hauntings, and for the family tragedies that often lurk at the heart of gothic tales.
Sam and Dean's tragedy is that their mother was killed by a demon when they were children, inspiring their father to become a Hunter and drag the boys into his dangerous drifter life. Their childhood took them from school to school, and they learned about guns and death firsthand, not from the videogames their contemporaries played. Later we discover that the demon who killed their mother was feeding his blood to Sam, fulfilling one end of an awful bargain he struck with her, and trying to create a superhuman who would lead the demons out of Hell. Eventually the boys' father John dies too, while saving Dean's soul from Hell.
So the foul history of their family's dirty dealings with demons continues to mark these nice Kansas boys, who love a good burger, fight over girls, and do most of their research online.
There's even an engaging originality to this series when things go a little meta, as it did two weeks ago with a storyline about fans of the show. It turns out there's this giant online community devoted to following the adventures of a Sam and Dean Winchester who are the protagonists in a cheesy series of goth novels called Supernatural. It just so happens that the Sam and Dean of these novels are doing exactly what the real-life Sam and Dean are doing, too. Tipping their hats to the legions of the show's fans online - some of whom gobble up slash fiction about the two brothers called "Wincest" (yum) - the show's writers still took the story in a weird, unexpected direction.
It turns out the guy writing the stories is actually a modern-day prophet, an Isaiah of the Midwest. We find this out from Dean's angel Castiel, who informs the brothers that one day these trashy novels will be revered as the new Bible.
Fanfic as Bible? Supernatural is a show that just keeps getting weirder, and funnier - and darker, too. Check out tonight's episode if you want a taste. There are only three more episodes left this season, so you can spend your summer catching up on DVD.