By Paula R. Stiles
Not long after the CW’s Gossip Girl came out and the Writers Strike ended, there was a great deal of talk about the CW’s future and what could be considered its real flagship show (as opposed to its official one, which was the aforesaid Gossip Girl). The CW was facing an identity crisis. What show would “save” it and bring it to the next level? Then-network head Dawn Ostroff was convinced that Gossip Girl was that show. She was wrong.
Supernatural is the unofficial flagship of the CW, the Cinderella of the network. Granted, it’s a Cinderella who wears combat boots and drinks straight from a rotgut whiskey flask, but Cinderella it is. With the upcoming People’s Choice Awards, and stars Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles being finally invited following the embarrassing snub of last year, let’s look at why this show has become a venerable genre lodestar that has inspired the creation of shows from The Vampire Diaries to Grimm to the upcoming Cult and will soon become one of the longest – if not the longest – running scripted speculative genre show ever. There’s a small constellation of factors, none of them telling in itself, but all of them combining into a tough old genre survivor.
It’s the Apocalypse, Stupid
The end of the world is always a popular topic, but it takes on religious connotations from time to time, particularly around the turn of a millennium. Other shows in the oughts addressed apocalyptic themes (Lost, Battlestar Galactica, Fringe), but Supernatural was unique for its time in trying to tell the story of the biblical apocalypse. It was further unique for doing so in a way that appealed to an audience that was not right-wing evangelical Christian or intensely hostile toward anyone not from that branch of Christianity (Yes, I’m thinking of the Left Behind series here). As such, those looking for such a story as a fictional fantasy narrative and not a blueprint for the future (and there are many, considering the amount of dark fantasy and paranormal romance involving angels and apocalyptic themes currently out there) really had only one show to turn to.
Procedural is great; Hybrid is even better
The longest running scripted shows that weren’t soaps always seem to have been procedurals like Gunsmoke or Law and Order. Even soaps are procedural in the sense that their serial plots move at nearly the same glacial pace as long-term story changes on procedural shows. Also, their characters end up in circular patterns, never growing or learning from their many mistakes of adultery, madness, murder, and substance abuse.
There’s a reason for this. Many people like to tune in each week and get pretty much the same plot. They want to have a story they can slip into easily without having watched every episode up to that point. The percentage of the audience that wants to invest in a longer-term storyline is much smaller and harder to grab (since these viewers can only commit to so many storylines at a time). Though Supernatural has experimented heavily with its format (as most long-running procedurals eventually do), the Monster of the Week stories have always been its bread and butter.
I suspect this kind of format contributes to longevity for another reason – it’s great for syndication. Long-lived shows (and franchises like Star Trek) usually appear in syndication before the end of their run. This gains them a new audience that offsets the inevitable losses of the old audience over time. It’s like a circulation effect where the audience is continually regenerated by new viewers seeing it in syndication. However, episodes aren’t always aired in order, which can play havoc with serialized shows. If it’s hard to follow a show, fewer people watch it. So, syndication definitely favors the procedural.
That said, audiences have grown disenchanted with the purely procedural format over time because it’s stagnant. The characters don’t grow and are little different five or ten years down the road than they were at the beginning. That gets boring and limits the type of stories you can do. So, most shows now incorporate some serial elements such as half-season, full-season, or even multi-season arcs. Supernatural has done this with great success, despite a weakness of the hybrid procedural, which is uneven pacing. If your characters are popular enough and the audience likes their arcs, the audience will tolerate this. But new storylines are always a risk, since they could go wrong and lose you viewers.
How low can your budget go?
Due in large part (though not solely) to cast salaries, shows become more expensive to produce over time. One thorny problem is that actors are signed to a six-year contract on new shows and receive an automatic salary increase each season. For a show to go past six seasons, it must negotiate new contracts with each cast member, which can get pricey. Increasing costs have bumped off otherwise-popular shows like Eureka. It is also a common reason why you see much-older shows like Smallville experience major cast changes after season six. It remains to be seen how The Vampire Diaries will deal with it, should that show and its network make it that far.
Supernatural has dealt with this problem in a few ways. One is that its core cast is tiny. It has only two leads who have been with it since the beginning. So, it only has to pay two actors and renew their contracts for the accumulated eight seasons (and counting). Having two leads has also meant that they can support each other and stave off the kind of actor burnout you get in a single-lead show like Highlander or even an ensemble show that revolves around a main character, like Smallville.
It helps immensely that they have lots of buddy chemistry and that they genuinely like each other. Also helping is that both of them seem to have made the show enough of a priority that they have geared their other career goals around it, rather than the other way round. This has not been the situation in other long-running shows with small casts. Career ambitions derailed the last three seasons of the show’s spiritual predecessor, The X-Files, when David Duchovny left in the middle of season seven to pursue a movie career. Also, second banana Gillian Anderson was reputedly not treated very well by her co-star and the head writer, Chris Carter.
On the production side, costs have also been kept down by the producers and executive producers (most notably, X-Files vet Kim Manners early on and Bob Singer throughout) through a succession of head writers/showrunners. Supernatural happens to be one of those shows where the writers are in charge, at least nominally. That is not always true. It wasn’t for Dark Angel, for example, and it is notoriously not true for The Walking Dead, which has already parted ways with two head writers and an entire writing staff in its three seasons.
Another problem for The Walking Dead is that it’s a budget-buster, what with all the elaborate makeup and other special effects and expensive sets. That is crowd-pleasing now. I sure enjoyed it better than the warmed-over soap writing when I was still reviewing it, before I passed the baton to Harry Markov. But it will become an issue a few seasons down the road, should the show maintain its high ratings that long. This is why you usually see a deterioration in production quality in later seasons of a show.
There is one exception to this, which Supernatural is currently demonstrating – that’s if a show hits big and/or gets a new showrunner and network support down the line. Under Jeremy Carver and the new network head, Mark Pedowitz, the show has gained a new slot after a new show, Arrow, and has gained back a refurbished Impala, more classic rock, and some pretty decent FX. That happens when you suddenly become a media sensation for being more popular in your eighth season relative to the rest of your network than you’ve ever been. Everybody loves a winner – once you win a lot.
We’re all in this together
I was genuinely mystified by the CW’s decision, not only to produce Gossip Girl and make it the network’s flagship, but to produce other shows (which mostly failed) with practically the same soap opera plot of rich young people drinking, drugging and playing musical beds. The timing seemed drastically wrong. Many people in the U.S. were already struggling in 2008 when that show first came out and the very last thing they wanted to see was spoiled rich brats blowing more money in a week than these people were making in a decade.
On the other hand, two blue-collar drifters riding the backroads of America in a classic muscle car, saving people and hunting things to a rocknroll soundtrack, was (and is) pretty appealing in a bad economy. Sam and Dean operate on the edge of society, constantly scraping by with no thanks for saving the world, pursued by a cold and fascist government that is not-infrequently infiltrated and corrupted by supernatural evil. And many of the people they save are themselves struggling, in need of a Hero. The same goes for many of their allies who have become recurring characters, like Ellen and Jo Harvelle, or Bobby Singer, or Rufus Turner.
And the settings are poor and marginal. The brothers usually eat in small diners, drink in honkytonk bars, and (when they’re lucky) stay in rundown motels or (when they’re unlucky) squat in abandoned shacks or barns. In fact, fans have even complained, loudly, when it appeared the brothers’ surroundings were becoming too upscale and they were eating at too many coffee shops and bistros. There are times when the brothers have gone hungry and neither has ever had a real home since a very early age.
That’s far more appealing and accessible to most in the audience right now than pretty young things flouncing around in fashionable frocks, snorting the equivalent of the maid’s weekly salary up their noses.
Let’s do the Meta Warp again!
Since the beginning of TV, back into the golden age of radio, there have been live action shows that referenced the horror genre. Usually, they were anthology shows like The Twilight Zone, but there have also been scripted shows where the same set of characters investigated different cases over time. The most enduring of these, like the show’s spiritual predecessor, The X-Files, took a page from police procedurals like Law and Order, and became commentaries on the genre and current events. Since something new is always going on, they had an unending source of inspiration. Unless they really poison the well, the writers of Supernatural will never run out of monsters, ghosts, demons, and urban legends to plumb.
Vampire Hunters are the New Black
Horror is always a popular genre, and monster hunters have always existed. However, the rise of popularity in vampire hunters in the past decade in print horror (inspired partly by The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but also by much-older shows like Friday the 13th: The Series and The Night Stalker, and even film series like Romero’s zombie flicks) has created a whole new audience for TV and film horror. Supernatural has benefited from this and there are plots on the show that have been inspired by literary fiction.
The CW has launched recent attempts to combine the more raw horror of the show with its usual teen fare by adapting popular YA dark fantasy book series (The Vampire Diaries and The Secret Circle), with mixed success. The main problem appears to be that these series, even when they are popular, appeal only to young women and fail to get the balance of genders in the audience that Supernatural does.
You’ll notice that I’ve said nothing about the quality of the writing or the acting. I haven’t even mentioned the aspect of having a lead character who starts out as an anti-hero and almost a villain (Dean) become arguably the most heroic and iconic character on the show, instead of suffering the usual fate of such liminal characters: being either turned fully bad and killed off in a humiliating manner or simply written out. That is because I don’t think these things contribute to longevity of this type, though they certainly contribute to the audience’s general enjoyment of it. Such factors do help a show get a devoted audience, even a cult following, in the first place. And that usually floats it beyond the dangerous waters of the first two seasons.
But some of the most beloved genre shows on TV ever were also among the most short-lived. Star Trek only got three seasons. Firefly didn’t even get fifteen episodes. The Prisoner wasn’t designed to go beyond seventeen episodes. And there have been cases of shows that lived well past their prime, though I shan’t name names. But I think that shows that live a very long time establish a sort of bubble verse that is theirs and theirs alone. As long as those creating it are willing to go on, and a sufficient audience wants to make fresh trips to that verse, such a show will continue.
It remains to be seen if new shows, like Grimm and Cult, that appear to be inspired by Supernatural‘s format and themes will be able to replicate Supernatural‘s success. Every long-running show has factors in common with others that have kept it on the air for so long. But each one is unique in how it combines those factors and in its appeal. And that is the final factor that sets a long-running show apart from the vast majority of shows that fail young. There has never been and there never will be, another show quite like Supernatural.
Like your genre meta thick and deep? Check out these older articles of mine: