Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Supernatural: Season 4

Supernatural, the show about two brothers beating the crap out of monsters every week, got darker and more interesting through Seasons 3 and 4.

Season 3 dealt with Sam and Dean Winchester trying to simultaneously fight an army of demons that had been unleashed on earth, and figure out a way to evade a particularly nasty deal with the devil. I actually liked Season 3's storyline a lot (especially its character arc for Dean) and thought it would have benefitted from the writers compensating for the season being cut short by the writers' strike by delivering many more character-centred episodes.

As it was, Season 3 contained many what I call 'bookend' episodes - a character issue is presented in a scene at the start of the show, the events of that episode's hunt unfold (with maybe an occasional reference to that character issue), and then in a dramatic scene at the end (usually a conversation between the two brothers in their car) the issue is progressed or resolved. That structure felt very unsatisfying, and only the fact that many Season 3 episodes were FRACKING GREAT (Mystery Spot, Jus in Bello, A Very Supernatural Christmas) compensated for it.

Season 4, however, changed all this. Rather focusing episodes around a monster of the week, the writers started breaking stories by deciding on the issue in the brothers' relationship they wanted to showcase, figuring out the emotional beats of that story, and then designing a monster around that. As a result the show began to feel like it was drawing from the best work of Freaks and Geeks and Everwood, as well as any number of monster of the week series.

Even the bookend episodes are better (as a result of this change). Take something like Episode 4, which deals with Dean's suspicions about Sam's blood, and the question of whether people can choose to not be a monster gets strongly. That issue gets set up at the start, and the writers take quite a long time establishing it, until we really feel it. And then that issue is not only present in the monster, but addressed in actual scenes between the brothers during the episode. Sure, it's pretty on the nose, but it's also satisfying.

The tone of the show has become darker, a bit more sombre. There are still wisecracks, but taking itself more seriously. And it's more satisfying as a result.

The show grows stronger and more interesting throughout the season. By halfway through, I felt it had become a dark, funny, slightly morally complex war story. By the end of the season, I felt it was teaching me how to write TV - treating its characters with respect while being unafraid to damage them, and exploring exactly how much series mythology and continuity the show could stand.

Whereas Seasons 1, 2, and 3 had ... patchy episodes, Season 4 is pretty much strong across the board. In fact, the episode 'The Monster at the End of This Book', manages to combine hilarious entertainment with an such an unbelievable amount of meta (while being vital to the show's mythology) that I'm going to use it as a touchstone for the series I'm currently developing.

Grades so far:

Season 1: B- (except for the finale, which is an A+)
Season 2: B+
Season 3: B (but contains a couple of A+ episodes)
Season 4: A

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