The secret to Supernatural's longevity
With its ninth season approaching, Anastasia delves into the secrets of Supernatural's longevity on screen...
Like many of its own characters, Supernatural really probably shouldn’t still be alive. Not that I don’t want it to be, but, kind of like Dean and Sam Winchester, it’s one of those things you’d expected to have died already (and, unlike the Winchesters, to not come back from the dead). After all, few shows these days last nine seasons – not even franchises like Star Trek or groundbreaking creations such as Buffy. It’s also beaten quite a few odds to be on the air, from two showrunner changes to a huge ratings drop in its seventh season. And yet it’s still alive. It begs the question – how has Supernatural managed to succeed against these odds?
My best answer: creator Eric Kripke sold his soul to a crossroads demon. Of course, the entire show seems to be about how selling your soul is actually a really, really terrible idea, but hey, we’re all human. Besides, who has ever wanted to follow their own advice? So, since the show’s canon tells us that demon deals usually last ten years before one gets dragged to hell, and since season ten is looking really likely at this point in time, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Hellhounds come for Eric Kripke in a couple of years.
Barring that theory, here are some ideas on how Supernatural has survived the TV renewal cull. Fans are painfully reminded that being an excellent story in itself doesn’t stop a show from being cancelled (see Firefly), and genre shows can even get booted from the channel that is intended for that genre (see Stargate Atlantis). Television is a business in which success or failure is theoretically decided by ratings, and yet luck, chance, and a number of other foggy factors seem to play a role. So with the caveat that there really might be some voodoo and luck and chance involved, here are a few thoughts on why Supernatural achieved its staying power.
Of course, being an excellent narrative hasn’t always saved shows (and yes, this is me using every possible excuse to cry about Firefly). Nevertheless, I think that not only the story itself, but the way that it’s told, has given Supernatural a chance at success. It has a simple premise: two brothers in a car, hunting monsters, with each episode capable of standing alone as a 'monster of the week' story. Kind of like a supernatural version of CSI that you can tune into every once in a while. At the same time, each episode builds into a story arc which is built up over a season – or even seasons. It’s a lengthy-well-told story, about characters you can get invested in. It’s got an intense, deeply-emotional storyline that doesn’t get bogged down by the sappy, sugary, pop-music-and-ballads-aesthetic – which, in my book, makes it powerful enough to get invested in. So while some viewers might choose to tune in for the occasional monster story, other viewers don’t get bored with the repetitive nature of each monster mystery and can follow the multi-seasonal arc that eventually leads to the Apocalypse itself. Thus, Supernatural’s ability to appeal to both the occasional viewer, as well as to the kind of fan who is looking to get immersed in a complex world is, I have no doubt of it, reflected in the viewing numbers.
The mythology and worldbuilding
Of course, you can’t exactly have a multi-seasonal story arc that tells of the Apocalypse itself without some really amazing mythology and worldbuilding, and on that front, too, Supernatural is a resounding success. The show creates a complex universe, with angels, demons, Heaven, Hell, witches and spells and vampires and exorcisms and a whole new set of rules. It’s a whole new world existing inside the one we know, for though Supernatural is set in the familiar world of the American Midwest, it also exists in an alternate reality in which the supernatural hides in every nook and cranny. It’s the kind of detailed reality that hooks viewers and leaves them pondering questions long after the episode is over: where do angels go when they die? What are the different exorcisms to use on a demon? How the hell does Sam Winchester get wi-fi everywhere? Plus, all that mythology means there’s a lot of opportunity to make money by selling related tie-ins, from protective pendants to angel sigils embellishing just about anything.
Supernatural is a show that is definitely not mainstream. It’s a bit of a cult thing, in its own sci fi/fantasy niche. Plus, shows about the Apocalypse that tend to portray Satan in a sympathetic light don’t exactly fall into the category of popular, family-friendly entertainment. Nevertheless, Supernatural is inspired by a number of popular and remarkable fictional precedents, drawing on their success while still creating a new and engaging show. It’s clearly indebted to The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as well as the literary likes of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and a number of other popular works. And yet, while drawing on the distinctive characteristics and success of its precedents, it does so much more than just toss them all in a blender – it creates something new and engaging out of these established ingredients.
Here's where I get technical and talk TV economics (or at least attempt to). Television is a business, and a show gets renewed based on whether it’s pulling in the viewing numbers and ratings. A yearly renewal for a new season is how a show stays alive. Now, Supernatural has relatively low viewing numbers compared to, say, CSI or Once Upon a Time – it’s in the two-three million range as opposed the ten million other shows get. However, the CW - the network Supernatural currently airs on – differs in its viewing numbers and demographic from other channels. Its average viewing numbers for similar shows, such The Vampire Diaries and Arrow, are in the similar two-four million range. So, within its own network, Supernatural does incredibly well. Furthermore, the CW is targeted at a demographic of women from eighteen-thirty-five, and this seems to be the exact demographic Supernatural hits. Speaking of which...
If I had to hazard a guess, though, I’d say that this is what it really comes down to. The Supernatural fandom has – well, to say it has a “bit” of a reputation is an understatement. We’re a crazy cult, and I mean that in the nicest way. Supernatural created a really engaging, complex world – and it caught us, hook, line, and sinker. From the amazing mythology to the intensely powerful characters, it draws you in and doesn’t let go. It is one of the few fandoms I’ve been in in which the fans are so passionately and obsessively invested in every single detail. We’ve been known to analyze the wallpaper in certain episodes for clues of what’s to come, and none of us will ever look at flickering lights in the same way again. We have a reputation for winning all the polls (for example, Supernatural won every single category it was nominated in in the recent “Give Me My remote” awards) and terrifying the people behind them. In fact, the last time the People’s Choice Awards decided not to invite the Supernatural stars to the presentation of awards they’d been nominated for, the fandom caused such an uproar that the following year saw a number of placating gestures from the people at the PCA. (We won “best fandom” at those awards, by the way).
We’re also pretty intimately connected to the production of the show – after all, Supernatural is one of very few shows which featured its own fandom in a really meta-heavy episode, and got it (mostly) right. There’s a constant back and forth between writers and producers and actors on Twitter, and a number of fan campaigns have been resoundingly successful (for example, resulting in Castiel’s return at the end of season 7). So I’m actually pretty confident that the reason Supernatural hasn’t been cancelled yet is because the network executives are terrified that we will raise Hell – literally. (With a few tips on how to do so garnered from the show itself).
And now, with Comic Con come and gone, there’s also the news that Supernatural will be getting a new spin-off, so that even if the show does end in the next couple of years, there’s the possibility of this world continuing to exist on our TV screen for many years to come. I personally would like to say that that’s pretty impressive for a show originally intended to last only three seasons.
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