“Now I know this story might sound familiar, but I’m gonna put the pieces together in a way that just might surprise you.”
You know what, Dean? It does sound familiar. Very, very familiar.
I was a huge fan of Supernatural – even when it wound to an exhausted end at the finale of its fifteenth season, I was still watching. But even for me, the show had truly run its course years before that, and was just repeating, in ever less impressive iterations, its past glories. I loved the characters, the ensemble cast, and the world creator Eric Kripke built. But by the end, there were no more stories to tell.
Still, it was a big money spinner for network the CW, and it figures that they’d like to wring as much moolah out of the franchise as possible. So here, for our delectation and delight, is the first successful Supernatural spinoff (they tried one before, but it didn’t take). The Winchesters takes us back to the early days of Sam and Dean’s monster-hunting parents, John and Mary, promising a new slant on a story the parent show has actually already told. More than once, in fact.
Because Supernatural itself involved so many flashbacks, time journeys to the past, and actual reappearances of the boys’ dead parents (nobody stays dead in Supernatural), I find it hard to credit that there’s more to tell of their story. Or indeed, given that we know so much of how it will turn out, whether there’s any suspense involved in even trying.
Nonetheless, an apparent dearth of original ideas in American TV right now means that we’re swimming in prequels. House of the Dragon, Rings of Power and no less than four Star Wars spinoffs are all set before their main stories, giving little scope for surprise with their plots. So, what’s one more?
This probably all sounds very negative, and it’s fair to say I am sceptical. But I should give the show a chance to succeed in its own right – right? It does have the possibility of forming its own identity while still taking place in the same world, much as House of the Dragon has. It’s already distinct from the original in being a period piece, firmly set in 1972 when John Winchester (played by the blandly handsome Drake Rodger) returns from a traumatic tour in Vietnam.
This means that some of the tropes of the original will be hard to replicate. It’s improbable that all the heroes will drive classic 70s muscle cars at a point when they were brand new and harder for blue collar guys to afford. Wait, what’s that you say? John’s mother runs a garage? Well that’s handy for cars.
Surely it would be difficult to maintain the tradition of using classic rock songs on the soundtrack? Actually less than you’d think, given that Supernatural tended towards 70s rock anyway. The 1972 setting does rather limit that, but then this story is actually being told to us by Dean Winchester himself (narrator Jensen Ackles pops up in person for a brief, presumably unexpensive cameo), who comments, “I’ll keep picking the music”. I’m guessing accuracy in release dates will be fairly low on his list of priorities.
As a pilot, though, this does come across as fairly fully formed already. Pilot episodes often don’t – think of the mess that was ep1 of single-season misfire Constantine, an obvious spiritual brother to Supernatural. The script isn’t particularly original, but it does stand alone without requiring knowledge of the previous show, as John is introduced to the world of demons and monsters by the pretty girl he met getting off the bus. That also serves to give the viewer an explanation of demons, if this is their first outing in this world; and without the handy McGuffin of Sam and Dean’s angel blades, these demons are a lot harder to get rid of, giving us a bit more jeopardy. By the end of Supernatural, demons had become little more than a minor annoyance. Here, they’re a real threat.
The character dynamic is also going to be very different too. Rather than a pair of brothers bonded by angst and daddy issues, this time we have a romantic couple bonded by… angst and daddy issues. So a bit different anyway. And where the original, despite having a huge ensemble of characters by the end, always focused on just the main two, this has already given us a team to go with John and Mary.
There’s bookish young Latika (known as Lata), played by Nida Khurshid, who’s endearingly naïve and nerdy – and being non-white, already showing the diversity the parent show took several seasons to find. Speaking of diversity, the standout character of this first ep was undoubtedly flamboyant, pansexual Carlos Cervantez. Non-binary actor Jojo Fleites makes quite the entrance, all confidence and swagger as they take on a demon with a water pistol full of holy water, then flirts with both Mary and John. Definitely a character I want to see more of.
So instead of two angst-ridden guys touring the country hunting monsters in a classic muscle car, we’ve got four attractive young people touring the country hunting monsters in… a van. Wait, where have I seen that before? They only have to get a dog for the parallel to be complete.
There’s more than a smattering of Buffy about that setup too – after all, there was a reason why those characters referred to themselves knowingly as ‘ the Scooby gang’. John is our Freddy/Angel, Mary our Daphne/Buffy, Lata our Velma/Willow, and Carlos our Shaggy/Xander. OK, the parallels aren’t exact, but close enough. We have been here before, more than once.
That needn’t matter if the show can bring off its brew of unoriginal ingredients into something entertaining, and to give it credit, it does. There’s nothing here we haven’t seen before, but we haven’t seen these guys doing it, and it’s fun (if undemanding) to watch. With an arc already brewing in the mysterious threat of the Akrida (“a threat to the whole of existence”), an underground lair already inherited from the departed Men of Letters, and crucially only 13 eps per season rather than Supernatural’s 20-22, I think this could be fun. There’s no new ground being broken, but it’s like settling back into a comfy, familiar armchair.