Supernatural: The Complete First Season (DVD)
Created by Eric Kripke
Distributed by Warner Home Video
Eric Kripke. If you don't know the name now, you soon will. Kripke, creator of The WB (soon to be The CW)'s moderately successful series Supernatural, is one of our genre's very best friends. He conceived of the show being a "mini horror movie" each week, primarily telling tales of American folklore and urban legends, some familiar and some brand-new, and has a knack for making them seem completely feasible and explainable. The stories unfold through the eyes of Dean and Sam Winchester (Ackles and Padalecki, respectively), two brothers who fight and kill various evil creatures and monsters in small towns all across the US while searching for their father, who in turn is tracking down the demon that murdered his wife, Mary, 22 years prior when Dean was four and Sam was just six months old. Sam, too, is intent on ensuring that the demon is destroyed since his girl friend, Jess, recently met the same end as Mary: pinned to the bedroom ceiling and engulfed in a raging fire.
Our two young men, who refer to themselves as "hunters," face down such familiar figures as a Wendigo, a Hook Man, an animated scarecrow, Bloody Mary herself, and yes, even some vampires, all the while bickering between themselves and keeping on the lookout for any sign of Daddy Dearest, aka John Winchester. They scour newspapers and the Internet for any signs of irregular deaths or killings and are occasionally contacted by friends of theirs or their father who know what they do and need their help. Once in a while John himself sends messages to them about a supernatural occurrence that requires their assistance. Sam and Dean have three constant companions on their journeys: Dad's journal, which seems to contain information about all the mysteries of the universe; Dean's 1967 Chevy Impala and its trunk that contains enough weapons and gadgets to fight ghosts, goblins, and ghouls into the next century; and a soundtrack full of 1970's and 1980's rock tunes by the likes of Skynard, Ozzy and Sabbath, AC/DC, Blue Oyster Cult, Bad Company, and many more classics. As a child of that era, I especially appreciate Kripke's insistence on those types of tunes in lieu of the typical ballads and trendy crap one usually hears in TV shows today.
The guys are cute and charming, but they're basically outlaws. They've had to elude the cops many times (Dean even fakes his death in one episode to avoid apprehension) and get by on credit card fraud, gambling, and bogus ID's. They impersonate government officials and other professions ranging from reporters to State Police officers to environmentalists to Homeland Security agents to students to priests. Sure, they stretch the viewer's acceptance capacity at times, but it's easy to overlook that sort of thing and instead focus on what's done right on Supernatural. And there's quite a bit to praise about the show.
First and foremost are Ackles and Padalecki. If you were to meet the Winchester brothers in a movie rather than a TV series, it would be easy to stereotype and dismiss them as too smug and cocky (Dean) and trying just a little too hard to be deep and rebellious (Sam). But being able to spend time with them week after week gives the audience a chance to tap into the great chemistry they share and enables the characters to grow on you and become people you care about and enjoy spending time with. For all his bravado, at heart Dean is the quintessential dutiful son and protective older brother who would do anything for Sam but, because of all the pain and suffering he's seen, finds it necessary to put up a brave -- and endearingly sarcastic -- front, keeping his true feelings locked up inside. And Sam, by virtue of the fact that Kripke readily admits his character is based on Luke Skywalker, simply has to be the soulful, somewhat defiant one, especially after his psychic abilities kick in mid-season and he begins to experience the full, troubling weight of his powers. Imagine how you'd feel if you were forced to leave behind law school and the life you'd always dreamed of to chase down all the various things that go bump in the night with your wise-ass, pain-in-the-ass brother. The camaraderie Jensen and Jared (both hailing from Texas) share offscreen, as evidenced in the "Day in the Life" featurette, carries over to the small screen in spades. You won't doubt for a minute their bond and the affection they feel for one another that only increases over the 22-episode run of the show.
And what about the episodes? Are they free-standing affairs, or is there a continuous thread that binds them all together? For the casual viewer each episode could stand on its own, but what a waste that would be! The appeal of Supernatural lies in its arc and the subtext beneath the surface. The older/younger brother dynamic is exceptionally well done as are the inevitable father/son, family/freedom conflicts. Social issues like racism and child abuse are catalysts for cases the guys investigate, and the question of how to define morality and spirituality is raised several times over the course of the season. Is killing the human body housing a demon the right thing to do? Are hunters like the Winchesters at risk for turning into something just as "bad" as the beasts they hunt?
Even though Jared and Jensen are the series' sole regulars, there are a few characters that reappear often enough to keep things interesting. John (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who plays another missing dad, the deceased Judah, in Showtime's hilarious satire Weeds) pops up a handful of times as does the mysterious Meg (Nicki Aycox from Dead Birds). Hopefully in Season Two we'll see the return of Missouri (Loretta Devine), a psychic from the boys' hometown who helps them fill in some of the blanks surrounding Mary's death in "Home," one of the best early episodes. I'm curious to find out if either of the brothers' love interests, Cassie and Sarah, return or the writers decide to keep them totally commitment-free. After all, the primary relationship here is the one between Sam and Dean; we don't want it to turn it into just another "couples" show … there are plenty of those already. One thing we can certainly count on continuing is the use of notable guest stars like Steve Railsback, Amy Acker, and Julie Benz and all those terrific Canadians who portray the myriad of characters that cross the Winchesters' path. (Like so many others, the series is filmed in and around Vancouver, BC.) Thanks to supporting performances that range from adequate all the way to magical, loyal viewers have been rewarded with some very memorable portrayals of both victims and perpetrators:
• A cancer patient who desperately strives to be cured by a faith healer of questionable character
• A ghostly woman in white who tempts and then kills unfaithful men
• A skin-shedding, shapeshifting doppelganger
• A young boy who talks to bugs
• A telekinetic teen whose mother died in the exact same manner as Mary
• Yet another boy (do we sense a pattern here?) who helps the Winchesters battle a big bad from their past known as a shtriga
• A female deputy who, against her better judgment, helps Dean locate Sam after he's kidnapped by something truly evil -- a backwoods human family who put a new spin on what the brothers do
• A demon spirit that lurks around an airport, resulting in one of the more restrained exorcisms I've ever seen considering the circumstances
In fact, it is the exorcism episode (#4, entitled "Phantom Traveler") that really demonstrates what Supernatural is all about. They kill people on this show! Adults, kids, you name it. Sometimes by the planeload. And monsters too. In all sorts of imaginative and often bloody ways. Some of the best effects occur in "Bloody Mary," "Skin," "Nightmare," and "Dead Man's Blood." For a TV show Supernatural gets away with a lot. During the "Pilot" commentary with Kripke, director David Nutter, and producer Peter Johnson, it's mentioned that the network actually asked for added gore in a few instances. The crew obviously complied, but some of the more graphic stuff that was shot later in the season ended up being edited for broadcast. Lucky for us, it shows up in several of the unaired/deleted scenes scattered throughout the six-disc box set. The remaining extended scenes provide a bit of additional exposition, which is always good, but nothing out of the ordinary.
One thing that adds to Supernatural's pleasure meter is its "real world" sensibility. References to numerous horror movies like Willard, Ghostbusters, and Poltergeist, characters such as Mulder and Scully, and TV stars Patricia Arquette and Jennifer Love-Hewitt add a fun dash of flavor to the proceedings. In the "Hell House" installment Sam and Dean encounter some budding "paranormal investigators" who are played strictly for laughs. But make no mistake: The creators take the show -- and the scares -- seriously. Humor is used solely as a counterpoint to the overlying dark tone and atmosphere. Lest we forget, these kids lost their mother, and in Sam's case, the love of his life, to a demon. Think Route 66 crossed with an X Files monster-of-the-week episode with a pinch of the Buffy/Angel-verse thrown in. Every single person involved on the creative side expresses affection for the horror genre, and their resumes bear this out. With experience on projects as diverse as The X Files, Tru Calling, 24, The Mothman Prophecies, and Smallville, it's no wonder the writers and directors of Supernatural turn out such a consistently high quality product. And no review of the show would be a complete without a nod to its two cinematographers, Aaron Schneider (an Oscar winner for his short film Two Soldiers), who set the bar extremely high in "Pilot," and Serge Ladouceur, who picked up the ball in Episode #2 and ran with it beautifully throughout the remainder of the season. Their masterful use of light and dark -- silhouettes in particular -- gives Supernaturala striking noir-ish look that is perfectly matched to its often gloomy and menacing subject matter.
I've alluded already to the extras found in this set. They are plentiful and sure to please fans of the show. Along with the filmmaker commentary previously mentioned, which is chock full of information and effusive in its appreciation for the cast, crew, and fans, Ackles and Padalecki have a turn on the mic for "Phantom Traveler." It's obvious from the get-go how seriously they take their roles and how real their onscreen closeness has become. During the "Day in the Life of Jared and Jensen" featurette, we see them go from hair and makeup to shooting a scene to recording their commentary in a trailer brought to the site just for the occasion (they typically shoot 6 out of 8 days on location), winding up the day with a snowball fight. They seem like a couple of nice kids who realize how lucky they are and have nothing but respect for both Supernatural and its fans. No real surprise there. The other featurette, Supernatural: Tales From the Edge of Darkness, which runs a little over 20 minutes, continues the same theme with interviews with Kripke, Ackles, Padalecki, and a sizable assemblage of the writers, directors, and producers who were involved in bringing Supernaturalinto our homes and DVD players. To a man (and woman) they have nothing but positive things to say about the vision Kripke has for the show and each other. And let's not forget the second unit team who film all the "setup" scenes that Jared and Jensen aren't involved in as well as the set designer and CG and practical effects people who do an amazing job of making quite a lot out of very little. Their ability to bring the scary legends and boogeymen of our childhoods to life and then annihilate them is noteworthy indeed!
Rounding out the set are a still gallery with some very cool drawings that show the transformation of many of the creatures from paper to screen, a 7-1/2 minute gag reel, and a couple of easily found Easter eggs. I've made it known in other reviews how much I enjoy gag reels, and Supernatural's doesn't disappoint. The menu is laid out better than most with symbols indicating which episodes provide commentary and/or deleted scenes. We're also given an option to turn "recap" on or off, which is a nifty little time-saver when watching back-to-back episodes.
When all is said and done, Supernatural is the best thing going nowadays when it comes to horror on TV. The two-part finale really wrapped up the season nicely, leaving the perfect cliffhanger for fans to bite their nails over until Season Two begins on September 28th. I'd love to sit and speculate with you all as to what happened and what we can expect to see once the series resumes, but I gotta grab some rock salt and lighter fluid and meet up with Dean and Sam at the cemetery. We've got bones to burn!
Commentary on "Pilot" by creator Eric Kripke, director David Nutter, and producer Peter Johnson
Commentary on "Phantom Traveler" by Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles
"Supernatural: Tales from the Edge of Darkness" featurette
"Day in the Life of Jared and Jensen" featurette
Two hidden features (Disc 6)
4 ½ out of 5