It’s kind of a writing-related post, in that I’m dissecting the writing choices of a TV show. But that counts as a change of pace, I think, after what this journal has been like lately.
I don’t know how many of you watch the TV show Supernatural, but I just saw the end of the second season, and I am continuing to be pleased by it. Not the most complex character development, or the snappiest scripts, or the most amazing concepts I’ve ever seen, but there’s a solidity to the writing that pleases me, particularly on a macro story-choice scale.
Talking about this without lapsing into spoilers is of course problematic. But I can hit at least the broad points.
On one front, it contrasts with the apparent motto of Smallville: “What happens in last episode, stays in last episode.” It may have changed by now — in fact, I think it has — but the tendency of the first several seasons to do Big! Shocking! Revelations! and then return everything to status quo got irritating. The number of times Lana (or somebody else) narrowly missed finding out the truth about Clark because happened to be looking the other way when he did his Superman thing — or they got knocked out just as he did his Superman thing — or they saw him do his Superman thing but then got knocked out and suffered minor memory loss — or somebody erased their memory of seeing him do his Superman thing — it got tedious. It felt like the writers kept on wanting to have their cake and eat it to, playing with the shock and awe of characters finding out, but not dealing with the consequences of those revelations, but instead deleting them entirely. (And to forestall the “but that’s the way Superman works” comments — I don’t care if that’s how it works, it still irritates me.)
This ties in with the tendency toward Monster of the Week writing. I’m told the WB pushed their shows to be very episodic, on the theory that they didn’t want anybody tuning late into the series to feel lost and flip to another channel. Which makes a certain amount of sense, but on the other hand, a show that constantly returns to the status quo and doesn’t develop longer plot arcs does little to retain me as a viewer.
Supernatural does a decent job of balancing out the WB approach (including Monster of the Week plots) with something longer-term, especially in how the actions of one episode may have consequences for another. For those not familiar with the show, the Winchester brothers support their demon-hunting career by credit card fraud and other petty crimes — so first of all, props to the writers for not copping out by making them independently wealthy or ignoring the question of funding entirely. They also routinely impersonate college students, morgue workers, forest rangers, priests, and even federal officers in the course of gathering information about the problems they’re trying to solve. (Plus they regularly dig up graves and light the contents on fire.) And this is entertaining . . . but it does lead one to sometimes think, “nobody can get away with that forever.”
And they don’t.
They do get into trouble. And they weasel out of it, sure — it would be a boring end to the show if Sam and Dean got dumped in jail for credit card fraud — but six or ten episodes later, that weaseling out comes back to bite them on the ass. And they get away again, but this time it’s harder, and the consequences are worse when that one comes back to bite, and so on. It’s to the point now where they have an extremely dedicated and intelligent FBI agent on their trail, and we’re all sitting around wondering how the heck the writers intend to get them out of this one. We believe they will, but we also believe the consequences for it will not be trivial.
So it’s nice to see their actions carrying a logical and problematic price. The other thing that pleases me is how the show’s writers handle the metaplot. In the prologue of the first episode, we see a demon murder Sam and Dean’s mother (in a very strange fashion) and burn down their house. Why? Twenty years or so later, their father (who turned demon-hunter after his wife’s death) has vanished. Where’d he go? These two questions set up the metaplot for the show, the background arc that drives their actions. Find Dad; find and kill the yellow-eyed demon.
In talking with my friends who have been watching the show, I’ve been using a metaphor of “plot chips” that the writers collect and spend, but I’ve hit upon a better metaphor. It’s like the metaplot is a cow. The writers can milk the cow for plot, or they can kill the cow for the meat of its payoff. It feels to me like a lot of shows fall into the trap of milking the cow for all it’s worth, and either never killing it off, or waiting so long that the cow is now old and stringy and tough and not really all that satisfying. (See: The X-Files.) The writers of Supernatural, on the other hand, are perfectly pleased to get a reasonable amount of milk out of the cow, then butcher it and provide you with a nice feast. And while you’re eating, they show you that the cow had calves, which will be the source of further metaplot. It isn’t that they toss out the entire premise of the show partway through (see: Alias); it’s that they’re confident enough to let their metaplot pay off, because they can generate fresh, related material.
And while they’re doing this, they have reasonably good scripts, an entertaining dynamic between the two brothers, a secondary cast of other demon hunters whom I quite love (go Ellen! Go Bobby!), a pretty good variety of demon-type-threats and solutions to them, and a running motif of using classic rock to generate both episode titles and fake names for the Winchesters. True, we’ve had to create the “Smarter Than Dean” and “Dumber Than Dean” awards, but that’s part of the entertainment value, and in a good way, rather than a “snarking so we get something out of the experience of watching this” way. (Winning “Dumber Than Dean” takes some doing, and usually involves a large dose of recklessness. “Smarter Than Dean” goes to whoever does the most intelligent and clever thing in the episode. Occasionally this person is Dean. But not often.)
I’m sure that a goodly chunk of my enjoyment of this show involves the people I’m watching it with. (Let me just say, though, that it’s a good thing gollumgollum and her boy have usually seen the episodes before they watch them with me and akashiver, or they’d axe-murder us for our writerly dissection and prediction of the plots.) Your mileage may vary. But I think it’s worth checking out.