In a time when television audiences are especially critical of anything that is a little less reality-based than the norm, fantasy is a genre that is sometimes incapable of pulling in large audiences. "Supernatural," now in its eighth season, has survived so long not only due to its relatable characters and exploration of the human condition, but also because it has been creative, developing a complex mythology with which it can continue to weave powerful new webs of intrigue.
"Supernatural" follows the story of Sam and Dean Winchester, two brothers who travel the back roads of America in their car, a black '67 Impala, saving people from monsters and other supernatural phenomena. It's a "family business" dating back all the way to their ancestors, the pioneers, in the 1600s, who fought vampires on the Mayflower. Viewers are treated to a soundtrack of classic rock and metal in each episode of the series.
Between seasons One and Five, the brothers, with the help of working class mechanic/surrogate father Bobby and offbeat angel Castiel, uncovered a plot to unleash the Apocalypse and faced off against Lucifer, ultimately defeating "the greatest monster."
Seasons Six and Seven saw the Winchesters - having averted the end of the world - dealing with the aftermath, and introduced a 'mother of all monsters.' It also introduced leviathan - creatures that, in this show, took the forms of corporate one-percenters who tried to turn the human race into a profitable commodity to sustain their population, which was planning a world invasion from - wait for it - Purgatory.
The last two seasons, however, were managed by a new showrunner, who many fans felt had abandoned the show's relatable elements of family and small town America, in exchange for an effort to be "dark and gritty." Season Eight, headed by yet another showrunner, has fixed that problem.
Though the new episodes had their rough spots at first, things began running smoothly soon after. Fans have rejoiced and ratings have gone way up; the familiar classic rock is back, the show's tone is once again light and simple, and the fantasy-horror doesn't try to be quite as bleak, taking more influence from "Raiders of the Lost Ark" this time around (there's a quest involved for ancient tablets) than the grim, post-modern neo-noir that Season Six played with.
Having been trapped in Purgatory last season, Dean busts out with the help of a vampire, and goes right back into the family business with a new lease on life. We see Sam, who started a relationship in the year his brother was gone, pulling back from the heroism, however. This allows for some conflict, as well as much-needed character development. Meanwhile, there's a prophet who has figured out a way to permanently banish demons from the face of the Earth, an angel having very human problems, and a new 'King of Hell' while Lucifer's gone. Clearly, the show writers are having fun - and so are the fans.
Between Earth, Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory, "Supernatural" has gleefully molded plot out of the most colorful elements of Christian mythology (among other folklore), and in the same breath, is actually poking fun at theology and spirituality. And most viewers are hip to the joke.
But "Supernatural" takes itself seriously at times, too. It has provided compelling storylines, which, if a little complex under the weight of the series' mythos, can be extremely powerful and emotionally driven. That, combined with incredible acting and tongue-in-cheek humor, makes the series deserving of a closer look by anyone who might dismiss this as "just another fantasy show riding on the success of The X-Files or Buffy."
At its core, "Supernatural" begs a careful analysis because, beneath all the outer layers - the ghosts, vampires, skinwalkers, and demons - there's a very real message about the importance of brotherhood. Many of the stories that have been told have also provoked questions about the nature of what it is to be human, and what it means to care about the world.
Leave it to a monster show to talk philosophy, right? But, with a little suspension of disbelief, "Supernatural" is very rewarding, and, in terms of fantasy-horror television, has become the unsung masterpiece of this decade.
Photo: Official Supernatural site at CWTV.com