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.

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