How On Earth is Supernatural Still Going?

Fourteen years after its debut, Supernatural is still going strong. Juliette examines the show's enduring popularity...

This Supernatural article originally ran on Den of Geek UK.

On October the 11th 2018, the first episode of Supernaturals fourteenth season will air. Fourteen years. In that time, J.K. Rowling could write the entire Harry Potter series, or George R.R. Martin could write one A Song Of Ice And Fire novel. Children born the year Supernatural’s pilot episode aired are now in secondary school. Beloved family pets have lived out entire lifetimes. And yet on the Brothers Winchester go, saving people, hunting things – the family business. How??!

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The Supernatural Cast

Supernatural is not just the longest continuously-running US SFF show of all time. It hasn’t just run for fourteen years with no breaks, producing a season of at least sixteen episodes every year – it’s done all of that with the same two lead cast members. Other main cast members have come and gone – Lauren Cohan, Katie Cassidy, Mark Sheppard, Mark Pellgrino, Alexander Calvert and, of course, the de facto third lead actor Misha Collins – but none of them, even if credited as main cast, have been in every episode of any season. Jim Beaver’s Bobby Singer is the only other character to have appeared in every season of the show, sometimes with only one guest spot in a year. The only two actors in every episode of Supernatural are Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles (in that order – you have to wonder if Ackles ever thinks he should have pushed harder for that first credit back in the day!).

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The success of Supernatural rests in large part on the shoulders of these two actors (and Misha Collins). For one thing, the show is about two brothers and their love for each other, which is so great they will literally move heaven and Earth for the other one – if the two lead actors didn’t have chemistry with each other, it wouldn’t have lasted half a season. But they do, and they also both have bucketloads of charisma, giving them the ability to keep the audience engaged year after year after year, always coming back for more of Sam and Dean and their emotional traumas.

It changes, but it stays the same…

If there are two things certain to kill off a long-running show, one is changing too much, and the other is staying exactly the same. Changing too much risks alienating an audience who enjoyed the show as it was when they fell in love with it. Too many changes that are too extreme can make people long for the early days and switch off. On the other hand, not changing at all can be equally off-putting. A show that does exactly the same thing week after week for fourteen years is not going to hold its fans’ attention forever.

Supernatural has tended to get the balance right here, mostly through carefully balancing arc plots and standalone stories. On the one hand, the show still remains, at its core, about Sam and Dean, hunting monsters in their Impala (a brief flirtation with hiding the Impala thankfully only lasted one season). Even viewers who disliked the introduction of Collins’ Castiel in season four are still regularly served standalone episodes in which no other regular characters appear, and Sam and Dean hunt and kill/exorcise/otherwise render harmless a monster. Sure, fans talk about missing the glory days, as they will when watching any long-running show, but ultimately, the core of the show is still the same.

Other aspects of the series, however, have changed drastically over the years. The arc plot built up to a finale at the end of season five. Since then, following the departure of creator Eric Kripke, different seasons have had different focus points, usually relating to angels and demons in some way. Most significantly, season eight gave Sam and Dean a physical base of operations beyond their car, and opened up new story opportunities as they explored their Men of Letters heritage. And of course, as mentioned above, other cast members have come and gone, usually dying horribly and only occasionally coming back.

A different type of Very Special Episode…

Supernatural is far from the only show to feature regular format-bending episodes – nearly every SFF show that runs for a significant period of time will start playing in its sand-pit a bit by doing a few weird and wonderful, experimental episodes like musicals, Rashomon episodes, alternate universe episodes, meta episodes about the show as a TV show, and so on. Supernatural just happens to do this type of episode very, very well, making them reliably hilarious and inventive.

The show is wise enough to make most of these episodes stand-alone stories. Viewers who haven’t caught up on the latest season can still tune in and enjoy a one-off episode about Sam and Dean meeting Scooby-Doo, or a story told from the point of view of the Impala, or a tribute to The Wizard Of Oz. And, having watched that one, those hints about where the arc plot is and reminders of how joyous this show can be (when it’s not being utterly miserable) might just bring them back again the next week…

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Jensen Ackles didn’t get to be Captain America. Or Starlord.

If the cast is key to Supernatural’s success then so is the fact that, against all the odds, they’re still here. Ackles and Padalecki were young twenty-somethings when the show started – now Ackles is approaching forty, with Padalecki only a few years behind. Creators, show-runners and writers have all moved on to other things (except, of course, producer Robert Singer, the fictional Bobby Singer’s namesake) and yet here J&J are, still giving their everything to this small cult favourite. Ackles was reportedly offered the role of Hawkeye after an unsuccessful audition for Captain America, but chose to prioritise Supernatural – perhaps preferring a steady paycheck over a role most fans are constantly convinced is about to be written out of the MCU. Or perhaps the actors’ legendary closeness means they come as a package these days. Either way, we’re glad, if surprised, that they’re still here, fighting the good fight on the CW.

It’s bi-partisan.

It’s no secret that political opinion in the States is pretty sharply divided right now. There’s increasingly little Republicans and Democrats see eye to eye on, from gun control, to healthcare, to the fact that the world is slowly crumbling all around us. But there’s one thing they do agree on – Supernatural. In 2016, consumer research company E-Poll studied which TV programmes each group identified as their favourites, and the one that made it into both top threes was Supernatural (all the way up at number one for Republicans, number three for Democrats).

You can easily see why this might be a Republican’s favourite show if you think about it. Supernatural is about a couple of all-American white guys who live out their lives in plaid shirts and jeans and drive around in a classic car full of guns. They use these guns to dispatch any and all creatures they perceive as a threat, especially demons (but don’t go to other countries, because Dean’s afraid of flying – they just fight American demons). Their best friend is a literal angel, Judaeo-Christian mythology is observably, factually true, and family is at the heart of everything they do.

On the other hand, looked at from another angle, this is clearly the perfect show for Democrats. The arc story is all about a distinctly unflattering picture of Judaeo-Christian mythology, and our heroes are equally surrounded by pagan gods and determined to fight for free will against whatever deities they stumble upon. They have given up their dreams and any chance at a traditional nice house with a white picket fence and nuclear family to fight for the good of others while driving around listening to classic rock, drinking and having lots of casual sex. Girlfriends tend not to stick around, but (especially from season four onwards) it’s easy to read a romantic subtext between the main cast-members, who are a goldmine for slash fiction.

Okay, I’ve horribly stereotyped both Republicans and Democrats here. And I’m sure Libertarians love the show as well, given that it’s all about living off the grid and not following anyone’s rules. But you get the point.

Also some boring numbers stuff

Supernatural is not exactly the highest rated show in the world, pulling in only 1.63 million viewers for its thirteenth season finale. But its numbers, although declining a little, have been remarkably steady for most of its run, hovering between 1.5 million and 3.5 million most of the time (excepting the early years – the show is so old, it predates Netflix introducing streaming to its services). The CW has carved out something of a niche for itself in teen and youth oriented genre television in recent years – Supernatural looks at home among The Vampire Diaries/The Originals, The 100, Arrow, The Flash, iZombie, and so on. But although those shows are beloved by fans, none of them are huge hitters – Supernatural, while not the top-ranking CW show, is far from its worst ranking either – its viewing figures sit nicely in the middle. It’s a solid earner that continues to pull in viewers reliably year after year – until J&J decide to leave, or until those numbers consistently drop below 1 million, Supernatural is here to stay.

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Of course, there could be other explanations…

Maybe Supernatural actually ended with season five nine years ago, and the rest of the show since then is just a powerful collective hallucination imposed by Gabriel the Trickster for reasons of his own. Maybe everyone involved in making the show is trapped in a time bubble they can’t escape, with no choice but to keep on making Supernatural episodes for ever. Maybe a really dedicated fan made a deal with a crossroads demon so that their favourite show would never end. Maybe the cast are all, actually, ghosts, survivors of a terrible catastrophe in Vancouver, carrying on doing what they were doing – making Supernatural – at the moment of passing. Maybe they’re all bored angels amusing themselves by doing impressions of each other. Maybe there’s an alternate dimension out there somewhere where Supernatural never got going and Gilmore Girls carried on forever. Maybe they’re space aliens! No wait, that’s silly – they must be fairies. Yep, bored fairies messing with human emotions is by far the most reasonable explanation. What do you mean, “it’s just a really good show”?

Supernatural Season 14 starts on Thursday the 11th of October on The CW.