I wanted to talk about Jensen Ackles (aka Dean Wichester in Supernatural) and his gift for comedic schtick. Schtick being: acting that is obvious and BIG, a body that is able to express in BIG terms the underlying comedy, and an instinctive understanding on the part of the actor of the concept known as “ba-dum-CHING” (without which no comedy is possible). Understanding like that cannot be faked. An actor can learn to cry, can learn to be more comfortable with anger or sexuality, or any of the other qualities that are challenging to portray. But an actor cannot learn to be naturally funny.
Jensen Ackles, with his soft beautiful good-looks, is naturally funny. The opportunities when he gets to goof off on Supernatural show it loud and clear, and it ranges from the broad almost vaudevillian double-take variety, including a couple of spit-takes, to the subtle change of expression in his eyes when faced with some mysterious absurdity. Prettiness and true comedic talent is a rare mix, and one I treasure. Phone call for Carole Lombard and Cary Grant!
Watching Cary Grant’s reactions in His Girl Friday (or any of his other comedies, but that one in particular) is an object lesson in listening. He is listening, having a silent conversation with himself, all while he barks funny lines out of the corner of his mouth and does all of this complicated physical business. But without the listening, the performance wouldn’t be as funny as it is. (I go into that in-depth here.) Good listening happens on a subterranean level (and that is Grant’s greatest gift): you are listening to what people don’t say, you are searching for subtext (as we all do in real life), and you are also listening to your own running internal commentary on what is happening. It’s that last kind, the listening to oneself, that is MADE for cinema because the camera catches thought like no other instrument.
Dean Winchester, too, is always communing with himself, even when he is surrounded by other people. He is always listening to his own running internal commentary. And if you are already funny, like Ackles is, then the things you will be saying to yourself are often funnier than any actual lines you have. To watch Dean Winchester process thought and listen to himself is the basis of a lot of Supernatural‘s comedic moments, a moment which I’ll break down in exhaustive detail below.
The two leads of Supernatural, Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki, are outrageously good-looking men. Much of the series is done in extreme closeup which tips right over into objectification. That’s part of the subversive quality of what is going on in the show, and part of the reason why the fan base can be so extreme. The makers of the show know what they are doing, and know that the inherent appeal of these two guys is enormous (by themselves, and together), and so they play up that factor consciously. They present these two guys to us in an almost mythic fashion, lingering on and loving their faces. They are objectified in a way usually reserved for female stars.
In the fourth episode of Season 1, there’s a scene where Sam comes into a motel room and Dean is sleeping on the bed. The scene begins with the camera on Jensen Ackles’ bare legs, sprawled out, and then the camera moves up his body, over the curve of his ass, his back, to fall onto his face in the pillow, arm flung up against his head. Was this lovingly-detailing-of-his-body camera move an accident? Of course not.
In cinema, from its earliest days, a female character makes her entrance and the camera moves from her feet, up over her body, to her head. Objectification in its purest form: “Let us stop everything that we are doing to look at her.” Think of Lana Turner’s famous entrance in The Postman Always Rings Twice.
But it’s everywhere, a trope that is actually boring because it’s done so often. Amy Adams couldn’t enter a room in American Hustle without the camera starting at her feet and moving up to her face.
Men, traditionally, are not treated this way by the camera. Maybe because a lot of filmmakers are straight men, and so they don’t see men in that objectifying way. I’m not anti-objectification, actually. But, as a straight woman with aesthetic needs myself, I do like a more egalitarian approach. My orientation is also irrelevant because I too revel in Lana Turner’s curves, and those SHORTS, my GOD, those SHORTS. But there is eye candy out there of the male variety (hello, John Garfield, in the same film), so let’s revel in that, too, let’s stop what we’re doing, EVERYTHING, to take a minute and appreciate the beauty of the male form.
And when the male collaborates in that, when he actively understands that he is pleasing in that way, and gives it up consciously and overtly … like a woman does … (and this is rare, I’m not talking about a guy who has a hot body disrobing for the camera; that’s easy, I am talking about an internal understanding of what it means to be an Object) truly destabilizing (and hot) effects can be the result.
Often films (and television) protect their male characters while giving up their female characters on a platter. But there are those weird ones, males who operate on their audiences like burlesque stars, erotic muses, archetypes usually reserved for women, and Jensen Ackles is of that variety. (If you want to hear more of my thoughts on this regard, I honestly leave no stone unturned in this essay about how Elvis Presley used himself in one particular number in the film Tickle Me). Of course there are sexy men in cinema. But what Elvis was doing in that clip goes beyond sex. What was going on there was Elvis offering himself up to us in a way that you rarely see from men. It’s practically pagan in execution and he was totally in charge of that and aware of what he was doing.
Jensen Ackles is obviously also aware of it and is comfortable with it. Many men would balk at being treated like women are treated. This is where so much homophobia comes from. Being treated like an object is seen as women’s job. Cinema reminds us of that again and again and again and Supernatural constantly turns that on its ear.
It is worth remembering that the true “Freaks” of our race are not in sideshows or fetish porn but are stars in Hollywood. Beauty like that brings an intense reaction from an audience: We yearn towards it, we resent it, we lust after it, we have all of these complicated feelings about it. It is the engine on which Hollywood is run.
Sam and Dean Winchester live in a pretty sparse male universe. The women who show up as semi-regulars – Ellen, Bela, Jo, Lisa, Charlie- are treated in a complex manner, not just valued for their sexiness. But they are still a rarity. The Winchester boys are basically like Navy SEALs or firemen or any man who spends most of his time surrounded by Tough Guys. It affects your world view. When Dean Winchester is crossed by a woman (particularly a demon), he is knee-jerk with his use of the word “bitch”. The show is complex in that way: we love Dean, and we can see his limitations. Ackles lets us see those limitations. He is not afraid, as an actor. He does not protect himself.
There is an existential conflict of at the heart of Supernatural, in the hearts of the two brothers. Wanting that conflict to be resolved, forevermore, is one of the desires of certain factions of the fan base who (for example) want Dean to be different, softer, “better”, more enlightened, more politically correct, whatever. These people can’t know many firemen.
Besides, it’s a moot point because story does not run on resolution, story runs on CONFLICT.
The conflict inside of Dean Winchester is what keeps Supernatural going. The codependence between the brothers, an understandable reaction to the chaos of their childhood (both are suffering from an extended case of PTSD as far as I can tell), means that what Dean suffers, Sam does too. Neither man, however, is good at talking about his feelings, although Sam is slightly better at it. Sam’s forays into “let’s be deep and thoughtful with one another” do not go over well. Dean is a stoic warrior-type, who likes to let off steam fucking waitresses and working on his guns. The tough-guy thing is not just a front, he really is brave and Alpha, but his development as a human being stopped when he was 4 years old with experiencing the murder of his mother. He will never move past that point. He continues to live that moment in a loop, and he cannot see his fully adult brother as anything other than the creature he was told to protect. Classic PTSD, stuck in a loop of trauma. It is the show’s trump card with the Dean Winchester character and why he is so compelling week after week. It can get repetitive sometimes, and it can feel like the character isn’t progressing. I would like to see more break-throughs (or, better yet, break-downs) and maybe those are coming.
Even in the silly one-off episodes which have nothing to do with the various larger arcs (and the silly episodes are my favorite), we get these psychological moments of impasse, of breakthrough, of fear, of self-loathing. Dean feels like a worthless piece of shit. This is very very important. This is one of the deep elements of the character that also seems to be missed, on occasion, by the fans who want to see some other kind of Growth occurring so they can get their rocks off. (No judgment. I get it. Jensen Ackles is 100% appealing.) But without the self-loathing, Dean Winchester as a character doesn’t make any sense. Ackles is subtle with this, and so is the show.
Let’s picture Dean’s life.
At all times, since he was 4 years old, all of his possessions could be held in one duffel bag. He has one jacket, one pair of jeans, a couple T-shirts. He probably stinks a lot of the time, because how often are you gonna wash your one pair of jeans while you’re barreling across the country in a ’67 Impala? You’re staying in rat-trap motels, eating fast food, and watching porn on your brother’s laptop, in the middle of nowhere. He cringes from himself, not just from other people. When he has to put on a suit, he feels out of place. Not just because he never wears suits, but because maybe he feels he doesn’t deserve to wear suits. People will see right through it to the dirtbag underneath. (That will be clear in the clip below. I’ll talk more on this in a bit.) Dean Winchester has been trained since childhood to not want any more from life. He doesn’t question things (and when he does question he becomes highly unstable). Hooking up with random women is part of the self-loathing, although it’s also just an honest desire to let off steam and have fun. He’s a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am kind of guy (but it’s key that his “thank you”s in those scenarios are always sincere and usually kind: he’s all about consent, he’s not a dick or a User) and you can see his comfort/acceptance of his sex drive and what it demands of him in his seduction techniques which never gain more subtlety than “Hey, what time do you get off?”
There’s more to say about Dean Winchester’s sexuality, and I’ll touch on it just a little bit here. When a woman gets under his skin (and they do, on occasion), he finds it extremely uncomfortable. He can lash out. He can turn cold in a heartbeat. At the first sign of the woman being angry or upset with him, he slams the door in her face. It happened in a moment with Jo, it happened with Cassie, it happens all the time. The man is susceptible to women. He needs them, he needs their softness, he fears abandonment. He may have a couple of dreams where he gets to have picnics with a woman he loves, be a family man.
But those are just dumb dreams. He is far too dirty – let’s use that word deliberately – to ever fit into a normal life. He sullies everything he touches. People who get close to him die. So while his macho-ness is sincere, and he really is a guy you would want around in a crisis, what is also sincere is his sense of worthlessness and his sense that I am too dirty to ever get clean. When faced with death, often his reaction is, “I don’t give a shit. As long as Sam lives, the world will be okay. I don’t matter, except in the fact that I can sacrifice my worthless ass to save someone else.”
It may be a somewhat noble sentiment, but it is also deeply fucked up. Through such men, wars are won.
Supernatural is interested in the cost of such an attitude. One thinks of Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker, staring at the aisles of cereal boxes and feeling completely inadequate.
What he has seen and done cannot be unseen or undone. Best to just go back to war, because at least there his fucked-up-ness makes sense and can be of use to the greater good. Dean Winchester is the same way, and in many ways that’s the tragedy of his character. While it is somewhat easy to imagine Sam leaving that life and finding a nice woman to settle down with, maybe get a job as a professor of history or mythology in a university, it is impossible to imagine Dean in any other life than the one he lives. That’s a true Warrior. But again: Supernatural has a complex attitude towards that warrior status. It questions it, examines it, up-ends it. In this way, it elevates it over something more simplistic like, “Yeah, let’s watch this hot guy be all bad-ass!” Supernatural wants you to be worried about Dean.
Being worried about a character is usually reserved for damsels in distress, and in Supernatural, Dean Winchester is often in the Damsel in Distress position. This is not par for the course with Heroic Figures. When John Wayne is allowed doubt in some of his films, when the foundation on which he stands is allowed to tremble, it’s like the whole world is ending. See Wayne’s performance in John Ford’s deeply destabilizing The Searchers, particularly the last scene and his lonely awkward pose.
He wants to walk through that door and be welcomed into a cozy domestic life. But he knows that world is closed to him forever. He will forever be on the outside.
“Kicking ass” is often what is necessary in a world such as ours, and I am glad we have warriors who take on that role. But how do men feel about the pressure put on them to serve and protect? How do men feel about not being allowed to have doubt/insecurity/feelings? We’re talking archetypes now, we’re talking Story. That’s why someone like Hamlet is such a timeless character, so endlessly interesting. Doubt is at the forefront for Hamlet: he questions his own agency, he wonders at the price he will have to pay. He hedges his bets, he procrastinates. I am not saying that Dean Winchester is on the level of Hamlet, although, who knows, I might be onto something …
… but Dean is definitely a more complex Heroic figure than is usually the case in such material.
Sometimes what is on the table for Dean Winchester is his actual Soul. He finds it so worthless that he is willing to give it away (literally), and he is also enough of a trained warrior to not question that impulse.
Sometimes what is on the table for Dean is his body, which is brutalized week after week after week.
In one of the episodes when he returns from his stint in Hell, he is amazed that except for the handprint burned onto his shoulder, all of his wounds, accumulated through years of a rough and violent life, have vanished. His body is “smooth as a baby’s bottom” again, no more improperly-healed broken knuckles, or scarred-over bullet holes, or knife scars. (Of course Dean being Dean makes the leap that this means he must be a virgin again, and that situation needs to be corrected pronto! Only, and this is typical of Supernatural‘s treatment of Dean: when he brings up the virgin thing to Sam, he says that he believes he has been “re-hymen-ated.” Dean: girls have hymens. Boys don’t. What are you talking about. Of course it’s a joke, but there’s that subversive gender-bending edge to it. He’s equating himself to a girl with a girl’s anatomy.)
More on this later, as I said, but Dean Winchester’s sexuality is more stereotypically feminine than masculine, even with the cock-swaggering promiscuity. The way he gets a woman into bed may be manly and take-charge, but once he’s in bed, he’s gentle and practically sweet, and, gotta say it, more often than not he’s on the bottom. (Not that woman-on-top means the man is less masculine, come on now, I’m talking about the stereotypes and images which make up Story. Lazy writers/actors rely on cliches: i.e. the macho character being macho in bed, but the reality is often more subtle. Recently, following the release of The American, a wonderful film starring George Clooney, there were a couple of snarky comments from various critics regarding Clooney being shown going down on a woman in the film. It struck me as so strange. We have no problem showing a man pumping away on top, but going down on a woman is somehow radical? An act that is so common as to be commonplace? Or, to quote Chris Rock’s bit about women who don’t/won’t go down: “You’re like an 8-track. They still make you?” But still, films/television often rely on cliches, because people are freaked out about sex and we are used to seeing it portrayed in a certain way with the man being in charge and it makes us all feel comfortable.)
Compare Dean in bed to what we see of Sam Winchester in the sack, or – not even in the sack – in an office, in a public restroom, boy doesn’t seem to care – and we see that public behavior often has nothing to do with who we are privately (and this should not be a surprise or confusing). Sam is sensitive and empathetic as a person, and wears his heart on his sleeve in a more stereotypically feminine way than his brother does, but sexually? Sam will push you against the wall and hold you down and flip you over and etc. (and you will LOVE it), and it is difficult to imagine Dean behaving in the same way with his lady friends. If he DID, you can bet we would see it. What we see of Dean in sexual moments is tenderness, passion, and receptivity. Even in the wild sex scene with the Amazon (in season 7), it is she who takes the lead with all the pushing/pulling stuff, not him. (And, naturally, he ends up on the bottom.) He’s certainly happy to be pushed around, but it just wouldn’t be like Dean to initiate a rough mood like that. But it IS like Sam, and we see this over and over again.
It shouldn’t need to be said but I’ll say it anyway: I don’t judge any of this (snarky comments about going down notwithstanding). There is such a thing as personal preference and nobody should judge how another person’s sexuality operates. If I could go even further, I would say that such judgment should be forbidden in a free society. As long as there is consent, have at it, adults! No business of mine.
Supernatural deals a lot with consent issues, sometimes explicitly when it comes to “possession”: The “vessel” needs to give consent to the angel who wants to “possess” them. The angel cannot “get in” otherwise. In a show where nothing is what it seems, and you’re talking to someone you think you know and suddenly you realize that something else is inside of them, literally, consent and setting-boundaries (You don’t get to be inside of me unless I let you in there) is always going to be on every characters’ mind. The situation is rampant with opportunities for treachery, betrayal, and pain.
I get that some of the fans find it trigger-y, but a lot of great art is trigger-y. Wanting Supernatural to avoid the triggers, instead of going right after them seems, again, to misunderstand how Story actually operates. If you have a show that is, on some level, about consent, then of course you are going to play with it in all sorts of disturbing ways: who’s the top in each scenario, who’s the bottom, did that person choose to be the bottom or were they victimized into it, what does consent mean, how do you deal with the fact that you were not able to consent, and – even more complicated, for guys such as the Winchesters who live in a mainly male universe – how do you even talk about this stuff without descending into sentimentality and the dreaded “chick flick moments” that they both basically try to avoid? Playing with all of this, juggling it, referencing it, tiptoeing around it and sometimes going right into it is all part of the structure of the show.
All of this sounds really serious. It is. But, for me, the real ace in the hole of Supernatural, and why it works ultimately, is its humor, particularly the comedic gifts of the two lead actors. I often laugh out loud watching it. It’s full of slam-dunk “ba-dum-chings”. And also ridiculous parodying of themselves like this.
Because let’s be honest, all of this angels and demons stuff, and all of this Tough Blue-Collar Guy stuff, would be deadly if it wasn’t treated with irony and comedy. If you got the sense that the actors weren’t in on the joke, the show flat out would not have survived. If you had two protected “cool” actors, actors who were in it for the Tough Guy stuff and balked at the Goofball stuff (or the gender-bendy stuff), or didn’t have the talent to DO the Goofball stuff, you’d be dead in the water. The reason it works, and I would even put out the theory that it is the only reason, is because both Ackles and Padalecki are funny. Everyone is funny. Misha Collins’ performance as the angel Castiel often reaches a divine level of deadpan Camp that has to be seen to be believed (and the gag reels are so entertaining because they show how often NOBODY onscreen is able to keep a straight face for longer than 1.5 seconds). But of course Ackles and Padalecki are the leads, and everything rides on their chemistry and their ability to pull all of this off week after week.
Clearly the two were cast for their looks, and also cast because the chemistry between them was right. Supernatural is not an ensemble show. There are only two lead characters. You can count on one hand the shows that have that model. X-Files and Quantum Leap are obvious influences, Route 66 is another. Supernatural is not like Grey’s Anatomy, with a big sprawling cast and multiple characters. Success hinges on the watchability factor of the relationship between the brothers.
It seems to me that very early on it became apparent that both actors were not only willing to swing for the fences (comedically) but could also actually pull it off. And so humor could be incorporated, expanded upon, the show could get so so silly and these guys could do it.
The first three episodes are extremely dark, you can barely see a lot of the action, and there’s a lot of anger and angst. It’s setting up who these guys are and where they have come from. They are uncomfortable with one another and also there’s a lot of unsaid backstory seething around beneath the surface. But the fourth episode, Phantom Traveler, reveals that Dean, tough warrior Dean, is terrified to fly in an airplane. Ackles sits on the plane, eyes closed, humming Metallica’s “Some Kind of Monster” nervously to himself to calm himself down, barking retorts at Sam who tries to talk him off the ledge, shouting out randomly “THAT CAN’T BE NORMAL” when the plane hits some turbulence.
Both actors are unafraid of being broad with their comedic moments, fully doing vaudevillian schtick like double-takes, spit-takes, and pratfalls, the whole playbook. Ackles says in the commentary for Phantom Traveler that when he got the script and saw that Dean was afraid of flying, he got excited, he knew he could have fun with that. That’s a game actor, creative, unafraid to look stupid, weak, dumb – none of that matters if it’s FUNNY.
In the clip below, from “Red Sky at Morning”, an episode from season 3, we get a moment of schtick from Jensen Ackles that almost (almost) reaches Cary Grant levels. As a matter of fact, I watch the twists and turns he goes through, with himself, and think: It takes balls to attempt this, let alone to pull it off successfully. It’s mostly non-verbal. It makes him look like a jackass, not to mention mentally slow. He is thrown off. Wildly. And while he “wins” in the final moment, there is no doubt who is the conqueror in this particular war overall, and that is Bela, his scene partner, the awesome Lauren Cohan (I still miss Bela’s presence on the show).
All of the elements I’ve been going on about are present in this three seconds of vaudeville burlesque from Jensen Ackles. First of all, he and Bela are going to an upscale party to see if they can get some intel and also do a little breaking and entering while they’re there. So they have to dress the part. Bela has obviously forced Dean to put on a tuxedo. She waits downstairs, impatiently, and calls upstairs, “What are you – a woman? Come down here.” Being perceived as weak (i.e.: womanly) is horrible for Dean Winchester and it makes him grumpy. Slowly, he comes down the stairs, all to the accompaniment of swoony music that would be appropriate in a bump-and-grind act. The camera reveals him slowly, starting with his feet coming down the stairs, then we cut back to Bela, who gasps at his beauty. We then see him in his full tuxedoed glory. Let us return to Lana Turner’s first entrance in Postman.
Dean coming down the stairs all dressed up, and Bela’s awestruck reaction, is like any Ugly Duckling Becoming Gorgeous moment, like Ally Sheedy walking into the library in The Breakfast Club with her hair fixed and makeup on her face. The camera lingers on her transformation, giving us time to take it in and appreciate it. These are tropes reserved for women, and Supernatural repeatedly puts Dean in that position. Bela gazes at him, and she literally can’t breathe for a second. Dean is clueless, embarrassed, and he also hates Bela’s treacherous guts, so he responds in a self-deprecating pissed-off way about how “ridiculous” he looks. She cuts to the chase and says, “You know, when this is all over, we really should have some angry sex.”
And then comes the following, a burlesque of mostly silent reaction shots from Jensen Ackles, as he struggles to gain a foothold, finally failing. But it’s all done non-verbally. Watch.
All of the themes I’ve been talking about are there.
There is a danger in breaking schtick down too finely so that all of the pleasure is drained out of it, and I don’t want to do that. But if I had to actually break down each one of Jensen Ackles’ specific reaction moments to her “angry sex” comment, it would go as follows:
1. Blank incomprehension. A “Duh?” expression.
2. A quickchange, thought rushing back into his brain, a sincere question on his face. Come again?
Cut back to her looking at him knowingly.
3. Leans in a bit: Sex? Did she just say sex? … with the word ‘angry’ somehow attached to it?
4. Quickly realizes it may have been an insult, although he’s not sure how. Draws himself up in offended dignity, mixed with residual confusion.
5. Goes inward, thinking about what she said, realizes he is losing control of the situation and bluffs for more time by going to fiddle with his shirt cuffs but then drops the gesture, instead …
6. Crosses his arms, to look cool and tough, but really just for self-protection.
7. Uncrosses his arms (which makes him look super-awkward and adolescent) and looks back up at her, refreshed, ready to go in for some kind of killer rejoinder.
8. Has no idea what that rejoinder will be, though, so he laughs to himself for a millisecond, hoping he looks contemptuous and cool. (He doesn’t.)
9. Can’t hold onto the laugh, though, and decides then to be angry and offended again. But for no real reason, just that he feels stupid.
10. And his rejoinder, when it comes, happens to be the most stereotypically-feminine possible thing he can say, “Don’t objectify me.” And his tone, instead of being macho and forbidding, is slightly petulant. He sounds like an offended Beauty Queen, tired of being ogled by the pageant judges. (He’ll wince when he remembers this exchange later.)
11. The moment after the words come out of his mouth, a glimpse of trying to pump himself up even further flashes across his face. He hopes that with his ridiculous comment he has “won” here. But he’s still not sure he has.
Those three seconds are RIDICULOUS. They are SYMPHONIC.
Cut back to her basically laughing in his face at the inadvertently revealing pantomime he just did for her. Cut back to him, who snaps back to his grumpy self.
12. He barks, “Let’s go” and on his way past her, his true response to her original comment (which now feels like it happened 15 minutes ago because of the symphony of emotion it unleashed in him, and which he would never have chosen to show to her) comes out. He smiles to himself: Sex, sex, angry sex, she just said this sexy thing to me, I hate her, I want her, her comment was hot and awesome, she fucking wants me, and I win!
If you think somehow incorporating 11 separate reactions in a single 3-second take (with no lines) is easy, you’re wrong. Jensen Ackles makes it look easy because he’s talented and brave and he understands the character intimately. He understands the event of the moment on such a deep level that all he needs to do is find his balance on the giant wave rearing up over him and ride it on in. The schtick only lasts a couple of seconds but it feels much longer because you ache for him to get out of it, to say something, to get himself TOGETHER, GOD. But Ackles lets himself flail.
What is also so great about this moment is that it actually acknowledges how much the show objectifies Dean Winchester, and allows him to maybe have some (albeit inarticulate) feelings about it. Dean may treat women like objects, and he does (as long as they’re into it too), but it feels a little bit different when the shoe is on the other foot, and he does NOT like it, no SIR. I did not give you permission to ogle at me like that, and I am sick of it, and so just stop it, you.
Sure, Supernatural has angels, demons, apocalypse, monsters, cool cars, heavy metal, roadhouses, diners, one-night-stands, and devil traps. All good stuff and interesting and watchable. But me? I’m in it for the schtick.
And that is some high-level schtick right there.
I would almost call it world-class.
Schtick like that is reminiscent of the ultimate and beautiful rarity – so rare it is nearly impossible – in baseball: a triple play.