Supernatural ran for 15 years and is the longest continuously running American science fiction and fantasy show in history (pipped only by Doctor Who 1966-1989 in the UK). It has a devoted fanbase and has produced novels, graphic novels, a short web-series, and a Japanese anime adaptation. Surely, then, the show is a perfect jumping-off point for a spin-off series? That’s a no-brainer, right?
Except that there have been two previous attempts at a Supernatural spin-off, both getting a pilot episode aired during the show itself, neither of which were picked up by the network. Now, Dean Winchester himself, Jensen Ackles, is producing another attempt, with the first season of The Winchesters due to air on the CW this autumn. So, what does this one need to do to succeed where the two earlier attempts have failed?
The Winchesters already has a series order, so it’s well ahead of the previous two efforts, which stalled at the first episode. It had one big advantage when CW executives sat down to watch it right off the bat – they viewed it as a self-contained pilot episode alongside the other pilots produced this year, not as an episode within the parent show. ‘Backdoor pilots’, episodes that claim to be episodes of one show but are not-so-secretly pilot episodes for an entirely different show, have a fairly low success rate.
A pilot episode for a new show has to feel like its own thing. It has to create a world that is connected to that of the parent show, but not the same. Some of the most successful spin-offs in TV history have been very different from their parent shows; it’s easy to forget that Frasier or Mork and Mindy were ever spin-offs in the first place. Backdoor pilots have a low success rate because they air as individual episodes within a series that have a completely different tone and setting to the parent show, and inevitably go down like a lead balloon with fans.
How Not To Do It: Bloodlines
This was one of the biggest problems with Supernatural’s first backdoor pilot, Bloodlines. This episode makes it into just about every list of the Ten Worst Episodes of Supernatural, frequently at number one – and bear in mind, there are 327 episodes of the show, so that’s quite an achievement. About two thirds of the way through Season 9, in the middle of one of the show’s major arc plots, the episode introduced an entirely new character (Lucien Laviscount’s Ennis) and threw him into the middle of a bunch of monster mafia-types who it turns out have been secretly running Chicago all along.
Bloodlines brought in completely new characters in a new setting – a fixed urban location rather than an eternal road trip across the enormous expanse of space that is America, like its parent show. Other spin-offs have switched to an urban or fixed setting with some success. Angel: The Series and The Originals both shifted from the small towns of their parent series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Vampire Diaries to a big city, and Torchwood left behind Doctor Who’s travels across space and time to stay put in Cardiff. But all of those shows followed characters the audience was already familiar with, and kept some sense of what was at the heart of the parent show, whether that was tortured vampires or fighting aliens.
Bloodlines was just too different – with new characters, a different tone, and a different setting, it could have been mistaken for just another horror-fantasy show rather than a Supernatural spin-off if Sam and Dean hadn’t shown up at the end. Put all that in a backdoor-pilot when audiences are anticipating the next step in the arc plot they’re following, and what you get is a lot of unhappy fans and a pilot episode that’s never mentioned in-series again.
The Wayward Sisters Mystery
The failure of Supernatural’s second backdoor pilot, Wayward Sisters, is rather harder to explain. Unlike Bloodlines, this one was popular with many fans. Some had been campaigning for a series focusing on recurring characters Jody Mills (Kim Rhodes), Alex Jones (Katherine Ramdeen) and Claire Novak (Kathryn Love Newton) for years by the time the episode aired. Briana Buckmaster’s Donna Hanscomb was also a popular recurring character who frequently worked with all three. Wayward Sisters added some new characters to the mix, but it was primarily following characters the audience had known for years, who inhabited very much the same world as the heroes of the parent show – Castiel had even occupied Claire’s body at one point.
Wayward Sisters, as a result, stood out much less and felt more like a reasonably organic episode of Supernatural, in addition to being a pilot for a new show. The episode itself was well-received – it’s not troubling too many Top 10 lists, but it sits comfortably in the middle of the pack as a satisfying late-Supernatural instalment. Unlike Bloodlines, when the series wasn’t picked up, the writers took the time to wrap up its characters’ storylines as best they could within the main show.
So why did Wayward Sisters fail? This is a bit of a mystery to fans and creators alike. CW chief Mark Pedowitz said only that “we did not feel creatively the show is where we wanted it to be. We felt we had a better shot with Legacies” (Legacies is a spin-off of a spin-off, being spun from The Originals, and is finishing up its fourth and final season this year). Since Wayward Sisters was much better received than Bloodlines, this rather vague statement doesn’t entirely explain what it was the CW were unhappy with.
Was it the all-female cast spun off from a show led by three men (Jared Padalecki as Sam, Jensen Ackles as Dean, and for about two thirds of each season, Misha Collins as Castiel) that made them nervous? Were there story plans for the first season that they didn’t like? Were they worried that there was actually too much history behind these characters, and new viewers would be put off? (Considering they picked up Legacies instead, that last one seems unlikely).
The mystery behind the failure of Wayward Sisters means everyone putting together The Winchesters has a tough job in front of them. Without really knowing why Wayward Sisters wasn’t picked up, how can the creative team behind this new show make sure they succeed where the first two attempts failed?
John and Mary Winchester
The Winchesters is balanced neatly between the unknown characters of Bloodlines and the complex legacy characters of Wayward Sisters. Its characters are not new, but there’s no need for new viewers to catch up on complex back-stories because, like the upcoming Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings spin-offs House of the Dragon and The Rings of Power, The Winchesters is a prequel.
The two lead characters of The Winchesters are Sam and Dean’s parents, John and Mary Winchester. They have appeared multiple times in the parent show, sometimes in flashbacks (played by Matt Cohen and Amy Gumenick), sometimes in the present (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Samantha Smith). Time having moved on somewhat, the young John and Mary have been recast for the new series and will be played by Drake Rodger and Meg Donnelly. The series will follow their love story as a young couple, and will apparently also require them to save the world, unsurprisingly.
The biggest potential pitfall here is dealing with what audiences already know about these characters. Supernatural fans’ knowledge of their futures, right up to their deaths and afterlives (in the plural for both – this is Supernatural after all) may be a drawback, and drain some tension from the new show. And of course, there’s established show canon to deal with – while Mary Winchester née Campbell was raised as a hunter, John Winchester (being entirely ignorant of his family history as Men of Letters, because it was only invented in Season 7) only turned to hunting after his wife’s death in the pilot episode of the original show. So how come he’s going around hunting monsters with a very-much-alive Mary Winchester in the new show?
The Winchesters will need to iron out some of these plot inconsistencies if it wants to keep Supernaturalfans on side. But this is fantasy, so there will likely be some way to do that, and the involvement of Jensen Ackles as narrator is a huge draw for fans of the parent series that neither previous spin-off pilot had. The series is also being written and produced by Supernatural alumna and Ackles’ wife Danneel Ackles, and by Robbie Thompson. Thompson’s involvement is a good sign; he wrote some of the best-received episodes of the later seasons of Supernatural, including ‘Fan Fiction’ and ‘Baby’, and created popular character Charlie Bradbury, played by Felicia Day.
Back To The Beginning
So, what else can the show do? Unlike either the parent show or Wayward Sisters, it has a more gender-balanced main cast, neither male- nor female-dominated, so that may have helped nervous network executives looking at some online reactions to Ghostbusters (2016) or to Jodie Whittaker’s casting as The Doctor and thinking that they don’t want to back an all-female sci-fi show spun off from a more male-dominated original. Having been picked up for a first season, the show has got past the first trial and impressed CW executives; now it has to impress the fans. And that, once again, comes down to how much they enjoy the pilot episode.
Really, the only thing left to do now is just to make the show really, really good. Easier said than done, of course! And it has a high standard to live up to. Supernatural is one of those rare series whose pilot episode is also a truly great episode. As well as getting us invested by kicking off it arc plot (by, err, fridging two female characters – it was a while ago…) the Pilot has a solid Monster of the Week story that sets up the show’s initial ‘hunting urban legends’ premise. Those jerky, black and white ‘ghost’ effects are properly creepy, and some solid horror story-telling was married with perfect music choices (‘Highway to Hell’, of course) to create a pilot that was genuinely exciting.
Bloodlines, as a episode, was really quite dull and not very good; Wayward Sisters was much better, but perhaps felt a little too much like middle-of-the-road, perfectly decent but not mind-blowing, a bit over-complicated, late Supernatural fare. So perhaps the best thing for The Winchesters to do is to go back to the original series Pilot and take its inspiration from there. Strip back the cast and the story to two people against the monsters; give us a reason to care about them (Jensen Ackles as Future Dean should take care of that), and then put them into a solid urban-legend-inspired horror story and throw on some classic rock.
I’d watch that show.