Supernatural: Season One
A network with a prime time line up built largely around teen melodrama, the CW is not exactly the first place one would think to look for quality horror themed programming. In point of fact, many recent horror films have been roundly criticized for bearing its undesirable influence. From the casting of good looking, but vacuous, Abercrombie wearing cast members to the teen targeted PG-13 ratings, one could certainly make the argument that the CW has done nothing but damage to the horror genre. The most compelling counterargument to that position would be Eric Kripke’s Supernatural, which actually seems perversely intent on drawing in unsuspecting teen audiences and scaring the living daylights out of them. Grizzled hardcore horror vets probably won’t find Supernatural as frightening as its target audience does, but the underlying mythos is compelling and there are enough cheap thrills on display to make it worthwhile even for audiences whose voices have broken.
Poor Sam Winchester (Jared Padalecki, Friday the 13th remake). After losing his mother in an explosive supernatural event, he spends his formative years tagging along with his father and older brother learning the ins and outs of the demon hunting trade. 22 years after his mother’s death, he’s finally managed to free himself from that (literally) dead-end lifestyle. He’s got a beautiful girlfriend Jessica (Adrienne Palicki) and an upcoming Stanford Law School interview. Things are certainly looking up for the 23 year old. Understandable, then, is his resentment when his brother Dean (Jensen Ackles, [B]My Bloody Valentine[B] remake) drops in unannounced to intrude on his idyllic life. Their father, John Winchester (Jeffery Dean Morgan), has disappeared while on a demon hunting expedition and Dean wants Sam’s help to find him. The brothers pick up his trail in a small town where he was investigating a woman in white, which is the vengeful spirit of a scorned wife who lures unfaithful husbands and boyfriends to their deaths. They manage to solve the case he was working on and find his all important diary which has not only all his notes from years of research and field experience, but also has clues to tracking down the entity responsible for the death of their mother.
Buzzing from the adrenaline rush of their adventure and feeling the need to fill the hole in his life left by his father, Dean tries to convince Sam to take up the call once more and join him on the road, hunting evil spirits, demons and subjects of American folklore. Sam, however, wants nothing to do with it, feeling that there’s too much history for him to try and get past and insisting that his help, in the case of the woman in white, was of the one time only variety. When Sam returns home, however, Jessica is killed in the same distinct way that mother Winchester was. Realizing that he can never be free of his past by running away from it, a devastated Sam abandons his dreams of law school and a life free from supernatural creatures and takes up with his brother to find their father. Along the way their paths cross with angry, flesh eating Native American folklore, demons, witches, shtriga, and classic urban legends such as The Hook Man and Bloody Mary. Through it all the distance between the brothers begins to close and grudging respect turns to genuine affection and heartfelt, but totally masculine, love.
There are a lot of influences that Supernatural series creator Eric Kripke would willingly cop to (Star Wars, for one). I’m not sure if Phantasm II would be counted on that list, but astute viewers could be forgiven for drawing the comparison. Supernatural shares more than a passing similarity to Coscarelli’s superlative sequel; two blue collar average Joes travel cross-country in a vintage black muscle car pursuing a supernatural foe. Armed with an assortment of over-the-hardware-counter supplies, the duo (consisting of an older, self styled ladies man and a younger, on-a-mission type) banter back and forth while dispatching monsters. Their methods emphasize the practical (guns, knives, chainsaws) over the supernatural (spells and magic). Unintentional homage or deliberate rip-off, watching Supernatural is like being able to peer into an alternate universe, “what-if” scenario. What if the Phantasm series hadn’t derailed after the second instalment but instead continued on with the best elements of the film (the blue collar road movie) and jettisoned the weakest (the increasingly convoluted and nonsensical back story of the Tall Man)? It’s not hard to imagine that the result would be something like what we get here.
Supernatural is structured the same way other genre shows like the X-Files or Buffy were; predominantly self-contained, “freak of the week” episodes, with a bit of an overarching mythology peppered throughout and occasionally dedicating a single episodes wholly to expanding the larger story. It’s not hard to see why this format is so often used for new series. Few shows gain a huge audience from the get-go, so having episodes that are largely self-contained makes the show easier for new viewers to get up to speed with. The obvious weakness is that the show can very easily slip into a repetitive creative rut, where entire seasons pass and yet nothing of any substance actually happens. The first season of Supernatural does a good job of maintaining the precarious balance between expanding the larger story and making almost any time a good entry point for new viewers. It has its share of dud episodes (“Dead in the Water” is pretty painful), but having the show explore largely unexploited mythologies or putting new spins on classic American folk or urban legends helps keep the feeling of freshness even though, in terms of structure, the episodes are all pretty much carbon copies of each other (Sam and Dean figure out where dad went, find local mystery, investigate, solve, move on). A potential pitfall for later seasons is that eventually the series has to commit to one type of story or the other: either devote the majority of the season to the larger narrative and potentially alienate new viewers, or stick with the one-shot format and give the established audience little reason to continue watching. The balance between the two can’t be maintained forever. How Supernatural overcomes the potentially deadening repetition is with two sharply drawn protagonists that share witty banter and with a strong onscreen chemistry between them.
And that’s really the reason that Supernatural is so popular and the single biggest reason to keep watching: the two leads are great together. Unlike some small screen duos Padalecki and Ackles have a natural, easy chemistry. They don’t look much like each other (and neither of them really looks like Jeffery Dean Morgan) but they still manage to sell the relationship. I have zero tolerance for smugness, and the bickering between the Winchester brothers never seems arch or a vehicle for television writers desperate to prove how “clever” they are. Even on the rare occasions when the writers paint them into corners with ridiculous plot hooks, the two actors take the stories seriously and are still able to add humour without condescension and warmth without sappy sentimentality.
Despite all the praise I think the show is deserving of, there’s one thing I have a huge problem with. While a show like, say, True Blood touches on deeper themes, Supernatural is perfectly content to be a forty-minute thrill ride. It’s not interested in engaging the audience beyond an immediate, visceral impact. As a result, the show doesn’t linger. I wouldn’t have such a problem with the superficiality of the show if it weren’t clearly by design. As good as the lead actors are, the character material they have to work with is never really above b-grade soap opera (which makes their performances doubly impressive, when you think about it). Nowhere is it written that every television show must be rife with subtext and rich with social commentary but considering that the horror genre has always been a great vehicle for social commentary, and in a show that deals with classic American folklore born from ages of social upheaval, it’s an opportunity lost not to at least touch on some deeper themes. It’s not a deal breaker considering that all the other elements are top notch and this is only the first season (of at least five), so there’s plenty of room to begin to layer the stories with a bit more nuance. Hopefully the later seasons fully take up the gauntlet that season one throws down.
Warner released seasons one and two exclusively on DVD before deciding the adventures of Sam and Dean Winchester warranted the high-def treatment. Season three and four were released on Blu-ray and now Warner is re-releasing the earlier seasons so fans can fill the hole in their Blu-ray Supernatural collection. This is one of the many reasons that Warner is consistently one of the best studios when it comes to home entertainment releases.
Sporting a new HD transfer, Supernatural: The Complete First Season is, with one exception, a noticeable improvement over the previous DVD release. It should be noted that the Pilot episode stands out as still looking soft on the Blu-ray. I think this is an issue with the source material since the video quality of the Pilot is definitely improved over the DVD. It’s a small caveat; once we get into the series proper the video quality is consistently excellent, boasting stronger blacks and better contrast than the DVD version. Fine detail also gets an upgrade, particularly when it comes to particle effects - smoke, fog and dusty shafts of light all have more dimension and depth. You can really notice this in the episode “Phantom Traveller,” where you can practically count the pixels in the silly CG smoke spirit. The image quality overall is crisper; the video on the DVD version tended towards softness. Despite the show using a slightly desaturated colour palette, the Blu-ray represents the colour much more vividly. The DVD looked pretty good for what it was but the video on the Blu-ray represents an upgrade in every way. Even on its own terms and not just in comparison to the DVD, with the exception of the pilot, the Blu-ray looks great.
Unlike the video, the audio doesn’t receive a full HD upgrade over the original release. However, the English 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack included on the Blu-ray still offers an audible improvement over its DVD counterpart. You can chalk that up to the Blu-ray audio being less compressed, running at 640 kbps compared to the DVDs relatively puny 192 kbps. In comparing a random sampling of scenes, the Blu-ray version showed that, while the audio isn’t as big an upgrade as the video, the DVD definitely sounds muffled and muted in comparison to the Blu-ray’s far more expansive sound field. Boasting better channel separation, crisper dialogue, more active surrounds, deeper low end and more, and clearer, ambient sound effects the Blu-ray again offers a noticeable improvement over its DVD counterpart. I would have liked Warner to do a full HD upgrade, this soundtrack still feels a little cramped, but there’s really very little to complain about beyond that.
Most of the supplements included here were on the DVD release as well and, unlike the A/V, not given any upgrade in image quality. A couple of new Blu-ray exclusive features have been thrown in as further incentive to upgrade.
Deleted Scenes are included on 8 of the season’s 22 episodes. Running various lengths, but never more than a couple of minutes, and presented in non-anamorphic widescreen these scenes are usually just minor scene extensions that flesh out plot points not critical to the overall story of the episode. There’s not any material that fell to the network censors, so don’t expect additional violence, scares or sexiness.
The set also includes two audio commentaries. The first, by series creator Eric Kripke, pilot director David Nutter and Producer Peter Johnson, is included on the pilot episode. It’s a pretty breezy, pleasant commentary. The participants discuss a bit about the development process and the different concepts the show went through before settling on “Phantasm II: The Series” (the original concept: a tabloid reporter travels cross country tracking down ghosts for story fodder). They graciously give credit to others, especially the two leads.
The second, by stars Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles, is on “Phantom Traveller.” It’s the kind of track that’s typical of actors: a lot of production anecdotes, gracious praise for the technical crew behind the camera and occasional commenting on the on screen action. They don’t have much in the way of creative insight to offer but their easy banter is fun to listen to even when they’re not saying much.
The first of two new features exclusive to this Blu-ray release, and the most extensive single feature of either release, the 2006 Paley Festival Panel Discussion on disc 3 runs a meaty 1 hour and 12 minutes. The panel is introduced and moderated by curator of the Museum of Television and Radio David Bushman, who amusingly doesn’t seem to have any idea about the show or what its about and has a nervous, hyena like laugh that he employs at the most inappropriate times. It’s kind of funny to see the mild mannered, middle age behind the scenes creative team. They introduce a screening of the episode “Scarecrow”, which was one of my favourite from the first season. Because the screening is edited out the panellists are introduced again almost immediately, so it takes more than ten minutes before the discussion actually begins. Once it begins the panellists cover a wide range of subjects from pitching the show to the network, casting, comparisons of storytelling approach to other series and even a tease about why Lawrence, Kansas was chosen as the starting point for the series. All the speakers have a good rapport and a lot of insight to offer. If you’re looking for the nitty gritty, skip over the commentaries and go right to the panel discussion. It’s a prime example of a special feature that doesn’t have sterling technical credits or cutting edge interactivity, but is one of the best supplements I’ve seen on a television series. If I had to nitpick, I’d suggest that a more charismatic moderator and a bit of editing would have helped it be a bit more engaging from the get-go. Still a fantastic discussion worth the time it takes to get started.
The second of the features exclusive to Blu-ray is The Devil’s Road Map. An interactive episode guide in the form of a US map tracking the journey of the Winchester boys over the course of the season, The Devil’s Road Map compiles bite-sized behind the scenes clips, interviews, audio logs and even information on local legends from the locations visited in Season one, all accessible by toggling the red, green, blue and yellow buttons on your Blu-ray remote. It’s a lot to take in and you could literally spend hours exploring to access all the material. The interface is nice, but it seems like overkill for fairly slim pickings as far as actual content goes, and there’s no index for fans with no patience to wade through the menus. A good idea, not as well executed as it could have been.
Supernatural: Tales from the Edge of Darkness (22:53) is carried over from the DVD set. Tales is presented in non-anamorphic widescreen and it’s a bit of an eyesore to watch after the superlative presentation of the series. It covers a lot of the same ground as the panel discussion and commentaries so it seems a bit redundant, though purists and those interested in the sage wisdom of master filmmaker McG will appreciate its inclusion.
A Day in the Life of Jared and Jensen (10:37) consists of the two leads goofing off, flirting with the attractive female crewmembers and mugging for the camera. I’m probably starting to sound like a broken record, but the rapport between the two leads makes this a lot more watchable than it has any right to be. Not much more to say, other than the catering on the Supernatural set looks fantastic.
Finally, an obligatory and painfully unfunny Gag Reel (7:44) is included. I’m sure those line flubs were funny at the time. Not so much now.
Considering that the SRP for the Blu-ray release is the same as the SRP for the DVD, this Blu-ray is a no-brainer for those new to the series. Even if you already own the DVD, between the improved audio and video and great new supplements, there’s still incentive to upgrade. Hardcore fans will probably want to own it in the best format possible and the panel discussion included on the Blu-ray is a good enticement for those on the fence.
It would be perfectly understandable to write off Supernatural: The Complete First Season as fluffy CW teen targeted pap. I know I did when I first heard of it. After giving it a chance though, I was impressed by the slick production values, the chemistry between the two lead actors and a surprisingly dark tone that seems genuinely intent on scaring the audience. While I can’t say that I was ever particularly scared or intellectually engaged by Supernatural: The Complete First Season, I was consistently entertained by it. For a show still finding its footing, that’s good enough.
*Because of the quality of the HD format, the clarity, resolution and color depth are inherently a major leap over DVD. Since any Blu-ray will naturally have better characteristics than DVDs, the rating is therefore only in comparison with other Blu-ray titles, rather than home video in general. So while a Blu-ray film may only get a C, it will likely be much better than a DVD with an A.
The best show on TV!!
I co-sign what Shannafey said. Between Supernatural, True Blood and Dexter, we horror fans are spoiled with an abundance of amazing horror series.
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