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Supernatural found new life by killing bad habits

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Supernatural, the long-running CW show (formerly on the WB, that’s how old it is), was intended as a five-years-only affair. As it approached the half-decade mark back in 2009, creator and showrunner Eric Kripke insisted he was done: “Despite what the network and studio may or may not want, I don’t have more than five seasons of story,” he told Entertainment Weekly at the time. Star Jensen Ackles sounded equally skeptical about the possibility of continuing the adventures of Sam and Dean Winchester, monster-fighting brothers. “They’d have to back up a Brink’s truck,” he said. “We don’t live at home. We don’t sleep in our own beds. Our families aren’t here. Our friends aren’t here. Our girlfriends aren’t here.”

Apparently, The CW delivered that Brink’s truck, because Ackles and costar Jared Padalecki re-upped for another couple of seasons, which then stretched on… and on… until the current season, the 11th for the show. And those seasons, for the most part, have seen diminishing returns. This isn’t shocking: Most series inevitably spin their wheels as they age, and a semi-procedural about brothers fighting supernatural evil is no different. By the 10th season, the series had done everything but break the fourth wall to ask the audience, “What should we do now?” (Although the musical episode—one of the series’ best installments—came close.) It seemed like Supernatural’s narrative was hitting a mystical wall.

Until this year. The Winchester brothers are fighting season 11’s big bad, named Amara, who (spoilers for the current arc) turns out to not just have godlike powers, but is actually God’s abandoned, pissed-off sibling. An intriguing premise, but structurally, the show is hitting many of the same beats as previous years, and Amara doesn’t stand out tremendously from villains past. What’s remarkable, instead, is the creative resurgence the new season has undergone, remembering what made Supernatural entertaining in the first place.

In doing so, it serves as an exemplar of how to keep a long-running show fresh: Kill off the bad habits that Supernatural leaned on in place of solid storytelling. There are four main lessons to be learned from the 11th season, ones other shows would be wise to attend to as they grow long in the serialized tooth. Each involves a particular habit common to programs with lengthy shelf lives—habits that are almost always a mistake, whether they’re picked up by a network sitcom or a WB-to-CW drama about two brothers fighting magical evils.

1. Keeping secrets isn’t inherently dramatic.

Someone has a secret! This is one of the oldest storytelling tropes, because drama almost by definition is tension between people, and what easier way to create it than by having one character know something another one doesn’t? Unfortunately, a secret doesn’t necessarily entail dramatic stakes in and of itself. The audience has to care about the nature of the information, not just the character possessing it. Without some coherent emotional rationale behind the secret-keeping, it becomes trying for a viewer to invest any commitment in the situation. Too often, writers of long-running shows assume the audience goodwill they’ve earned means that their characters can make seemingly inexplicable, emotionally shallow choices. Remember the time Joey and Ross gave Chandler the silent treatment, simply because they wouldn’t just come out and ask him if something was wrong?

This is a well Supernatural increasingly turned to in recent seasons, and it almost never ended positively. Sam or Dean would have a painful experience, or a realization, and rather than opening up to their sibling, they would meander along as “meaningful” silences and awkward friction between the brothers became an issue, episode after episode. These are guys who have literally died for each other, and now they’re taking it upon themselves to ostensibly “do the right thing” by keeping secrets from one another? It became especially ludicrous when a Winchester would have some illness or life-threatening issue, and rather than deal with it together (they only way anything has ever gone right for either of them), keep it bottled up in the name of “protecting” their sibling. It killed narratives dead in their tracks, and made for exhausting viewing.

This season has, mercifully, dispensed with that nonsense. Sam and Dean are treated as two brothers who love each other, and whose unspoken motto—them against the world—means the show works when their relationship does. Causing a rift between the brothers worked early on, when it was unexpected, but you can’t continually push a show’s central dynamic back into a confrontational stance. It’s bad for the characters, and it’s bad for the story. Watching this season feint at such sleight-of-hand (Dean’s initial hesitation to share his odd connection with Amara), only to quickly pull it back and have the Winchesters open up and keep the lines of communication honest, has been the biggest breath of fresh air in years.

2. Cases of the week are more than just distractions—or worse, allegories

After 11 seasons, Supernatural has mostly run out of new kinds of creatures to foist upon its heroes. Instead, it depends on new settings and situations to provide the selling point of its episodes, exploring scenery and subcultures that offer their own easy targets for riffing. And that’s often the problem: rather than taking the “case of the week” seriously, the show treated the meat of the episodes like filler, something to kill time in between moments of brotherly conflict or intrusions from the season-long arc. Much like House, another show that saw later seasons reduce its cases of the week to window dressing for soapier long-form dramatics, these monsters and settings too often became mere allegories. An entire monster hunt would turn out to be nothing but a comparable narrative to some emotional beat experienced by Sam or Dean, thus cheapening even further any deaths or disasters that ensued.

But season 11 has reminded the Winchester brothers of their ultimate motivation: Saving people. They may be preoccupied with a world-threatening evil, but that doesn’t make the stakes for the people they’re helping on a weekly basis any less life-or-death. Absent some greater story—the Supernatural equivalent of The X-Files “mythology” episodes—nothing should feel more important to either the characters or viewers than the people Sam and Dean are currently trying to save, and the need to stop whatever creature is threatening them. There are always new and innovative ways of telling a story (this season’s installment told entirely from the POV of the brothers’ trusty automobile, their 1967 Chevy Impala, was one of the best episodes to date), but those single-serving stories need to be invested with just as much commitment as the stories that last an entire season.

3. Plots are recyclable; character developments aren’t

This is one of the most tempting traps for long-running series—and one of the most dangerous. Any time a series has success with a particular character’s emotional arc, there’s a desire to try it again, despite the diminished returns of watching someone do the same thing twice. Sam went through a phase where experimenting with magic was harming him in some way? Let’s do it again! Dean became evil? Let’s stick him with an evil mark! It’s understandable that certain themes would repeat themselves in a show about magic and monsters—it’s not like Buffy wasn’t fighting good old vampires right up until the very end—but there’s a big difference between repeating plots and repeating character development. The former can be an ongoing source of fun but the latter degrades and diminishes investment in your protagonists.

In part, Supernatural has leapt this hurdle by realizing it had nowhere else to go. Season 10 was thematically explicit about the question of where you can go after you’ve done all there is to do; watching it often felt like seeing a writers’ room admit, “We’re stuck.” But it’s always darkest just before the creatively resurgent dawn, and this past year has found the show returning to its storytelling roots. Yes, there’s a big bad, and yes, it’s an ongoing problem. But rather than come up with ever-more-involved and intricate narratives, the show has introduced a simple problem—God has a sister, and she’s pissed—and then gone about the business of focusing on two brothers sharing thick and thin as they fight evil. Character growth is never worse than when it feels forced, and letting Sam and Dean return to the business of stopping creatures, while only inserting organic and periodically growth, has been a godsend.

4. No character is “disposable”—even if they die

Supernatural has developed a nasty reputation for thoughtlessly offing its supporting characters. On one level, there’s nothing wrong with stressing the idea that no one is invulnerable—without real stakes, there’s no real drama (paging season three of American Horror Story)—and when a show has two leads constantly fighting powerful evil, the supporting cast should be the ones to go. But death has to mean something, and on two fronts, the show forgot this lesson: One, it often used human characters as weirdly disposable cannon fodder, and two, the brothers themselves started to die and come back with alarming frequency. After the third or fourth time a brother dies—or goes to Purgatory, in one case—it gets hard to feel as though life and death means something.

The latest season acknowledges this difficulty, revisiting the brother’s grief, reaffirming their commitment to one another, and re-establishing the finality of death. Conversations between Sam and Dean have reiterated the gravity of mortality, and storylines treat fallen comrades with the proper severity. The beloved Bobby Singer made his recent Supernatural return via flashback, rather than some mystical flouting of life and death. Best of all, even minor one-off characters are treated as people, not monster chow. This renewed commitment to respecting all human life, not just Winchester life, pulled the show out of its “Where do we go from here?” tailspin, and returned it to strong fundamental storytelling.

It’s unclear how long Supernatural will run, though it’s already been renewed for season 12. Like other long-running shows, the ups and downs will continue, but the creative resurgence of the current season is exactly the kind of smart brush-clearing periodically required of any program growing long in the tooth. Looking at the lessons it offers provides a road map—a rocky one, but a map nonetheless—for other series looking to escape the ennui of stale narrative, or even a moribund show facing possible extinction. Because if Sam and Dean Winchester can teach each other anything, it’s how to come back from the dead.

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