Sleepless in Supernatural

Supernatural (obviously)

This is a guest post by Sally Weathers, the last of 2018! Next Monday I’ll be back writing weekly~

I don’t sleep much at night, so I sit up in bed watching TV. When my girlfriend nods off, I dim the monitor, put on my headphones, and hunker down into my side of the bed. For months now, after ambivalently failing to take my nth plunge into Parks and Rec, I’ve been watching almost every show advertised on Netflix. And I guess I got tired of new shows at some point, because eventually I hit Supernatural. I’m very, very late to the party. Supernatural’s fandom once pervaded Tumblr, and when our friend Melissa heard about this dispatch, she replied perfectly, “That’s the TV show my boyfriend still watches!”

The Supernatural fan submits excuses as a flex: Melissa’s boyfriend, my insomnia. Now, in a world where Netflix has coaxed even the romcom into the 2010s, Supernatural isn’t just derivative, it’s a dated derivation—we haven’t derived like that in 15 years. Even in his breakout Gilmore Girls role, Supernatural star Jared Padalecki was a younger, larger amalgam of all the boyfriends Rachel didn’t end up with on Friends—a loosely clad, long-haired specimen of Nineties masculinity who grins too widely to be any of the leading men Aniston actually dated. His Supernatural costar, Jensen Ackles, looks like an early Aughts collectible: the clean-cut, vaguely ex-military, manly alternative to Bush-era Bieber, easiest to imagine standing over a grill, or immortalized as a basic, plaid-wearing action figure.

These two famously Austin-residing, keg-drinking “good guys” (Melissa said two spot-on things about the show’s rep, and this was the second) have played brothers who hunt the eponymous evil since 2005. Back then, Supernatural resembled any CW pilot: shiny twenty-somethings overwritten with layers of unearned, unerotic sex appeal, narratively dependent on one or more dead parents. Now, 13 years later, Supernatural has cemented into gruff homosociality, a literally down-to-earth Christian pantheon, rare glimpses of decade-appropriate denim, and . . . that’s it. That’s Supernatural.

Like all long-running fantasy shows, it’s actually a sitcom, and like all long-running sitcoms, it’s actually a boy band. The stakes are that low, and the volume of content is that high: 14 seasons, usually over 20 episodes each. With its growing bulk of has-been material, and tireless cleverness sans savvy, Supernatural is the Dad Bod of shows. We love to humor it. 

Online evangelicals insist the show is about family. Our heroes’ fraternal loyalty makes up for the demons that turn out good, and for the disheveled, mostly absent, bachelor God named Chuck. But I imagine they sense Supernatural is less Philip Pullman, and more a Village People lineup of deactivated dads. More effective than any will-they-won’t-they romance, Supernatural’s long-term gambit is a flirtation with fatherhood. One brother cohabitates with a woman and her son, but later erases their memories, and his obligations. Next season, he fathers a daughter, whom his brother immediately kills upon learning she is the offspring of patricidal Amazons. Every recurring character who isn’t another flavor of almost-father—and yes, this category includes a few desexualized mothers—is the protagonists’ implicit, and thus conveniently low maintenance, ward: a teenage prophet, the lost son of Lucifer, a girl orphaned by angels. Childless and faultless parents, Supernatural’s heroes distill dadliness to its essence: uninhibited schtick.

Character acting literally saves the world in this show, where no relationship passes the depth of a comedic odd couple. Supernatural’s victory lap arrives in the twelfth season, when the younger, more learned, more sensitive hero worries that his older, rougher brother is suppressing his feelings. “How about some pie?” the younger sibling asks, testing the waters. “Maybe later,” his brother responds. Alarmed, the younger one observes, “It’s called sublimation.” The older brother digs in. “Yeah. It’s kinda my thing.”

The episode’s monster of the week is Hitler. The brothers shoot and kill him. As they drive out of town in triumph, the older brother repeats delightedly, “I killed Hitler! I killed Hitler!” Then he eats pie.

Supernatural simulates putting the sublime back in sublimate, not by glorifying dadhood, but by making it gratifying. The brothers’ personas get polished through endless pleasing friction with a rotating cast of lesser characters and Supernatural fans. This isn’t formally remarkable, except that Supernatural fans actually, diegetically, materialize. From an episode in which the brothers find themselves at a LARPing event based on their own adventures, to a brief plotline in which a villain transports the brothers into the lives of the now famous actors who play them, Supernatural delights in itself first, before too much heroism or achievement, or loads of effort spent conjuring these. Not even the phallus is on the line in this show. In a time travel episode, the barely disguised symbol of the brothers’ manhood—a hand-me-down 1967 Chevy Impala—is recommended to the father by the older son, who will in turn inherit it from him, sealing off masculinity in a perfect, sovereign loop.

In a world this seamless, there’s little left to the characters’ near imperceptible arcs except to find fault. Not an episode, or cast interview, goes by without one or both stars leaning back, raising an eyebrow, curling a lip, and giving a quick, playfully irritated headshake, like a yellow lab drying off from a bath. This is the kind of endearing annoyance you get to feel for other people when you sincerely believe that you handle your shit, and that it’s a free and equal universe where everyone else can handle theirs. It’s the only habitat in which dadliness is morally defensible. (Liberals are, after all, the dads of politics.)

That’s winsome in its own way. Supernatural really thinks it’s good. Good good, in the tolerant, I’m With Her sense. I wish it were plainly nostalgic, or just old, but Supernatural is state-of-nature television, cooked up by the endless line of writers, in TV and everywhere else, who handle lived disappointment by writing worlds that function under laboratory conditions: good over evil, strength over weakness. Some fans have papered over Supernatural’s ever more suppressed bigotries by queering its characters, rendering the brothers, and their male friends, as lovers. I’m not so creative. The show and I accompany each other late into the night, to a time of day when inaction is socially laudable instead of lazy. Together, we fantasize about a consciousness that, alone, is sufficient to the tasks of conscience, and we do it the only, blissful way we can: without any dreams at all.

This is a paid subscriber–only letter, so feel free to forward to a friend or two, and if the spirit moves you, share a screenshot of your favorite bit on social media!

Chaotic dork energy

The Great British Bake Off

I just can’t wait any longer! In the holiday spirit of giving, I’m unpaywalling this sweet, vicious guest post by Charlotte Shane. Next Monday: Sally Weathers, our final guest of the year, on Supernatural. I’ll be back on New Year’s Eve, probably writing about Jeopardy! Thanks to everyone who’s sent in your pitches for 2019, the volume is incredible, so please forgive me if it takes me a bit to reply!

I go to visit Andrea in the hospital the day after her operation and of course we talk about TV. I know the topic of my guest entry will be the Great British Bake Off because it’s the only thing I’ve watched recently with any regularity besides old seasons of Real Housewives. (And you good people, Andrea’s subscribers, are simply not prepared for my 40,000-word treatise on the same.) Sally has watched more GBBO than Andrea, and the former seems more interested than the latter—though to be fair, Andrea is also only 14 hours out of major surgery, swaddled in bandages, not allowed to walk, and connected to at least 3 different tubes that are either taking liquids out of her or putting them in.

“What do you think about Ruby?” Sally asks me in her sincere, inviting way.

“I love Ruby,” I say, preparing to launch into an ode to her high ponytail, but the expression I receive in response alerts me there’s been a minor disconnect. Sally is inquiring about Original Ruby, the exasperating, sickle-shaped, dehydrated sunflower from Season 4 who was repeatedly accused (by viewers) of making bedroom eyes at domineering judge Paul Hollywood to advance in a competition where she was otherwise outmatched. Original Ruby, who is now married to a woman, rejected this charge in an essay for The Guardian with the mystifying claim that she’d “rather eat [her] own foot than attempt to seduce [her] way to victory,” indicating she is ignoring or (less plausibly) unaware of the discernible fact that Paul Hollywood is a man whose erectile problems can only be circumvented by a handful of highly specific scenarios, one of which involves watching a woman luxuriously lick and suck her own painted toes.

I suspect Ruby’s Paul-related transgression was a side effect of living in the body of a tall, 21-year-old woman with bad posture, whose droopy head placement necessitated bashfully looking up whenever he addressed her—a guaranteed dick-plumper for a certain type of self-important man. But her worse crime, the one I and Sally and thousands or perhaps millions of people feel justified in holding against her, was wallowing in her insecurity, which was as tenacious and oppressive as any other form of narcissism. Just watch the elimination scene of the Season 4 semifinal, wherein Beca is sent home, but Ruby cries and trembles like a young mom braving the news that her husband died at war before he could meet his only son. Terribly self-conscious people, like terribly arrogant people, cannot get over themselves.

But I digress. My Ruby is New Ruby, Ruby Bhogal: blasé, charismatic, unassuming and unflappable. An anti-Original Ruby. The Wave of the Future Ruby. Conveniently, the two Rubys straddle the divide of original GBBO vs. new GBBO, a rift of which much was made back in 2016 when the show changed hands and fans fell into hysterics over impending alterations. At the BBC, the show featured judge Mary Berry and hosts Mel and Sue. At Channel 4, it now has Prue as a judge and Noel and Sandi as hosts. (Don’t make me write out their last names; it doesn’t matter and anyway, you got a fucking google you dumb bitch.) There were a lot of articles about what elements of the show made it so appealing but, weirdly, none focused on the fact that viewers get to spend an hour looking at carbs and desserts and gingham and pastoral England. Instead, commentators gnashed their teeth about the Bakexit of Mary Berry, and the two eminently expendable hosts who would have loved that dumb pun I just made.

Mary Berry—diplomatic, careful, reassuring Mary Berry, whose mere presence rebuked Paul Hollywood’s boorishness (the audacious classlessness of having the last name “Hollywood,” a surname that doesn’t even rhyme with his first name!)—is a true loss. But I’m so relieved to be rid of Sue, a yappy dog who graduated with honors from the British “comedy” school of Aggressively Silly Voices, and pantomimed peeing on the dean’s leg while collecting her diploma. Mel was less grating but I can’t forgive her for enabling Sue, whose manic behavior was given such free rein that she actually fucked up competitor’s bakes at least twice.

The proof of my love for GBBO is in the pudding of how long I endured Sue. Comedians who aren’t actually funny are bottomless wells of need who realized they could badger people into laughing at them by using certain cues in their delivery, thereby bypassing the work of producing something clever enough to warrant a real laugh. I don’t appreciate being conscripted into the impossible project of keeping someone’s existential dread at bay, and it violates my very sense of self to be coerced into faking laughter. Tap dance on the hot coals of your social desperation as long as you want, but don’t expect me to pretend it’s entertaining, I mentally shriek at my laptop whenever Sue appears on screen, like the superior person I am. I’d rather watch Original Ruby eating her own foot. I just don’t have the inner benevolence required to observe Sue’s chaotic dork energy without condemning it, even as I recognize we share the same human frailty.

Back in Andrea’s hospital room, Wendy, another visiting friend, voices her support of Sue. She puts up a respectable defense, some of which has occurred to me before: the hosts are annoying almost by definition—it is not an easy role to fill.

“Sue’s a try-hard,” Andrea decrees from her medical bed. “And a dandy.” Andrea is correct; even drugs can’t change her.

Wendy wisely offers Sally some sort of shrink-wrapped deli pastry which Sally eats and says is good. This is how mature people deal with the stress of being alive: They seek out desserts and limit the occasions when they inflict themselves on others.

I leave the hospital and walk across the street to a little market that sells No Cow bars, because I too want to put a chewy sweetness in my body right away, and that’s the only vegan thing I can find. It tastes awful, but it prolongs my sense of stability for a few hours. It is, as Prue says, “worth the calories.”

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