Thoughts on TV Pilots, including the Supernatural Pilot: What Works, Story Arcs, Starting Out Confidently, Working Blind


It’s fun to examine the pilots of shows that go on to be hits (preferably shows that last more than one season, where characters/plots go far far from the starting point). While everyone is making the pilot, the main thrust and drive is to make it as good as possible, without knowing whether or not the show will get picked up, or be a Go. And even if you do make some more episodes, you may be canceled after only a couple, and all your work will never see the light of day. It’s the nature of the television business and it can be devastating, despite the fact that everybody knows it going in. Pilots are filled with hope, ambition, and (hopefully) purpose.


If you watch the pilot of, say, The Sopranos, one of the most successful series in television history, a game-changing kind of success, you can see that it’s all there in the pilot, every theme that would be developed and explored, it’s all there. That is one HELL of an existential pilot. I re-watched it recently and it was just a reminder at how consistent that show was throughout those seasons, how much it kept its eye on the ultimate ball (which was set up in the pilot). There were members of the fan base who were in it for the violence and the boobs and were annoyed when it was an episode featuring, say, the psychiatrist or emotional angst. But watch that pilot. The pilot is telling you: Here is what we are interested in. Here is what the show will be about. And it’s all about the therapy and it’s all about the damn ducks in the pool, and Tony’s feelings about being abandoned. It was a show about ambiguity, mortality, guilt (Catholic and otherwise), abandonment, isolation, and how Evil cloaks itself in little white lies that soon grow so all-pervasive that you are unable to look at your life in any way that is honest. The surrounding atmosphere would always be violent, due to what Tony Soprano did, and the show would delve into the killings, and the whores, and all that … but that was not what the show ULTIMATELY was about. Each season has an arc, and then within that arc there are beats, explored in each episode. Each beat is self-sustaining, but each beat also fits (somehow) into that larger seasonal arc. And then over all of THAT, is the arc of the show as a WHOLE. Something like Breaking Bad or The Wire, which focused on one story arc over multiple seasons, has a different format, sometimes far more intricate. Then there were shows like 24 or Lost, both of which messed with traditional TV structures. The Sopranos‘ “plot” has to do with the way Tony Soprano runs his business and how he deals with all of those issues. But plot is not story. The Sopranos‘ story is an existential psychological portrait of a man who knows he will pay for what he is done here on earth.

And there it is: that deep and difficult element, full-blown already, in the pilot. The similarities between the pilot and the closing episode are so evident. They were probably written (or at least sketched in) around the same time.

From here …


to here …


is not that far a jump. Watch them back to back. It’s breathtaking, how confident that pilot is, how much the show knows what it wants to be from the get-go.

What is also fun to look at is the acting in pilots. Acting is a treacherous business, full of uncertainty. You could put in all this work and then have it not go anywhere. But you still have to “show up” (cue Ellen Burstyn), with all your talent intact, you have to put yourself out there, you cannot protect yourself from the ensuing “embarrassment” if the show flops, or never sees the light of day. Actors are tremendously brave. Yes, the directors take risks too but they are hidden behind the camera. Actors, their bodies, faces, hearts, everything, are out there, balls to the wall, for people to judge, belittle, dismiss. Sacrificial lambs. But that’s the job, the good actors know that, they love to work, and they would “show up” like that if it was a community production of Streetcar. That’s how they do it, that is their relationship to their work. And with a pilot, the stakes are always super high. It’s a job, but it’s not JUST a job.

It’s interesting, though, because with pilots you’re not sure where you’re going to go. You can’t see all the future seasons and how your character will develop. So you have to “show up” in some authentic and three-dimensional way, to establish your character, as written in the pilot, establish it in a way that will be compelling and make audiences go, “Jeez, what’s going to happen to THAT person?”


I was a big fan of Thirtysomething when it was originally on (and remain a fan today). The pilot is fascinating. It’s a bit awkward and self-conscious, and the tone is different from what would be established once they found their audience and were able to RELAX a little bit. The characters are much broader than they would be ultimately, and some of them (like Melissa) are entirely different personalities than they would end up being in the series as a whole. There’s an interesting anecdote about Melanie Mayron (who played Melissa) arguing with the creators of the show in those crucial weeks following the pilot, when they were moving on to do new episodes.


In the pilot, Melissa barges into Michael and Hope’s house, wearing a red Cyndi Lauper-ish dress, babbling about working out and her dates, and she’s quirky and funny and wacky but Mayron’s point to the writers was: “Listen, the show is called THIRTYsomething, not TWENTYsomething.” A brilliant point from a brilliant actress and the creators heard her. They made adjustments. Melissa would come to be one of the most beloved characters on that show, but in the pilot she is a cliche. Once Thirtysomething had their audience, the sense of relaxation is almost palpable, you can FEEL the show and the actors settling in. They were innovative and experimental. They did a Rashomon-inspired episode. They did a Mary Tyler Moore-inspired episode, all in black and white with a laugh track. They did an entire episode that was an homage to James Joyce’s “The Dead” (which, fightin’ words, was closer to the spirit of the Joyce story than John Huston’s film version). The show could “take” that kind of experimentation because it had done the hard work of making us understand the characters and invest in them personally. But you couldn’t have predicted ANY of that when you see that pilot. And if it had died then and there, you never would have sensed the show’s “entelechy” (look it up: it’s one of my favorite words). But given time, and audience devotion, the show blossomed, developed, went deep deep deep.

This dovetails with Elia Kazan’s famous thoughts on script analysis, having to do with the concept of “spines”. There are multiple spines in any given work. Each character has a spine. Each act has a spine. And then, drilling down, each “beat” in each scene has a spine. The spine could be defined, simplistically, as “What do these characters WANT in this moment, and overall?” The piece as a whole (whatever it is: movie, TV series, play) will have an over-arching spine that can be boiled down into one sentence. Keep it simple. And the spine on that level has nothing to do with plot, with “what happens” in the story. Now, some television shows, like police procedurals, are pretty much only about “what happens”. Now within that, you have a lot of room to create interesting characters and interpersonal dynamics (which happens beautifully with the team on Criminal Minds), but the main concern of the show is the plot. You see this in “hospital shows”, which will always be with us. It’s a perfect setup: you have a bunch of diverse people, in one setting, having to deal with stressful situations. You can draw that shit out over multiple seasons and no one will get sick of it (if you have established your characters properly). Much of what happens with episodic television like that is to find a unique (somewhat) spin on the well-worn theme and structure.


Supernatural was created by Eric Kripke. He had a long fascination with urban legends and American folklore (not to mention classic rock and heavy metal, which will be very important to the aesthetic of Supernatural) and he also has a deep abiding love of horror movies, so he had a couple of ideas to pitch to the network that brought those things together. His first idea was of a reporter who traveled around the country investigating urban legends. Nobody was interested. His other idea was of two brothers traveling around the country in an old-school muscle car, fighting supernatural forces, and stumbling upon urban legends come to life. And now we come to the deep underpinnings of what would become Supernatural. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was an obvious influence, and Kripke said that while “Buffy’s” plot (high school girl trained to kill vampires and demons) was obvious, what the story was ABOUT was high school.


And so Eric Kripke knew he wanted to create a show that had to do with ghost stories, folklore, and Americana, but once he dropped the more sterile “reporter on the beat” structure and decided to make it an extended family road trip, he stumbled upon what the show was ABOUT. And what the show is ABOUT is family. The demons they fight are incidental, almost. In every single show, that primary sibling relationship is explored and deepened. It’s the POINT.


That’s what Kazan was talking about in terms of the spine drilling down from the entire work as a whole into every individual moment. I think it’s the main reason I respond to the show in such a primal way, because it is ABOUT siblings, something I know a little bit about.

Along with Buffy, there is a lot of inspiration for Supernatural found in X Files, with its two-lead-character format and a spooky supernatural plot-line (not to mention a gloomy and moody look and feel). There’s a Scully and Mulder reference thrown in to the Supernatural pilot, a clear tipping-of-the-hat. I see a lot of Quantum Leap in Supernatural as well. Quantum Leap was pure episodic, each episode being a self-contained story, something which is almost (almost) entirely out of style now. In Quantum Leap there are only two lead characters.


They drop in and out of different worlds and situations each week, the only continuity being the relationship they have to one another, and also the strange unexplainable fact that Sam (Scott Bakula – and please, just note the name of the character: one of the brothers in Supernatural is named Sam. Coincidence? Nah.) keeps leaping. The meaning of the Leaps in and of themselves (i.e.: “What the hell is really causing these Leaps? And why can’t we stop them? Who is really in charge here?”) becomes that larger series-wide arc which comes to gorgeous fruition in the powerful final episode, which ties together Sam’s journey as well as Al’s, something that had been set up two seasons before. Granted, there were entire episodes, though, that had nothing to do with that larger series-wide arc, episodes where the only thing on the table was the various issues having to do with one individual leap. Supernatural, for the most part (there are exceptions) never loses sight of that larger arc. It’s ALWAYS there, like static, white noise buzzing on the periphery of the episode. Each story line in each episode somehow dovetails into the larger issue of what the hell is going on in that primary relationship and the “case” they work becomes a pressure cooker of their own emotions and urgency about said emotions. It keeps the series afloat.

Another obvious influence, and perhaps it’s the most important one, is Route 66.


There are two many similarities to count. Two young men on a road trip across America’s heartland in a cool cool car. Pulling off the interstate, going into small towns. The world has changed a lot since the 1960s: the culture has been so much more homogenized, and highways have now exploded with look-alike rest stops serving brand-name food. But all you have to do is pull off the interstate and you’ll find plenty of unique weirdo little towns with grubby diners, and rickety gas stations with one pump, and falling-down roadhouses with motorcycles lined up outside. This is the majority of America. This is the landscape of Route 66 and it is the landscape of Supernatural.


On the Road is obviously a huge influence on Supernatural, even down to the names of the two lead characters, Sam and Dean Winchester. The brothers’ last name is, of course, a nod to the famous rifle, which played such a huge part in settling this country it’s called “The Gun That Won the West”. Of course these two outlaws would have that last name. Kripke loved horror movies but he always saw the series as a Western. But then there’s the first names: Sam and Dean. If you’ve read On the Road, it will jump out at you right away. The book “stars” two male characters, one named Sal (Jack Kerouac’s alter ego) and one named Dean Moriarty. Dean Moriarty, as everyone knows, was based on Neal Cassady, the poet-criminal-druggie-all-around-charismatic-good-looking-bisexual muse who inspired a generation. Lucky him. Lucky us.

Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac

On the Road‘s famous final paragraph is a gorgeous ode to Dean Moriarty:

“So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, and all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all the rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.”

Supernatural fans, can you not feel the romantic earthy and yet almost spiritual inspiration for the show (and the character of Dean Winchester, specifically, and his “erotic muse”-like qualities which I went into at some length here) in that paragraph? That’s the engine of the show: it gives it its look, its feel, its music, its characters. It’s super American (even though it’s filmed in Vancouver).

The conception of the two main characters was, at first, rather broad (one was the smartypants, one was the sexy brawn), but even in the pilot you can see deeper shadings and complexity that will come to fruition, slowly, deliberately, over the next nine seasons. Which is amazing. That’s a good writing staff. They’ve fumbled the ball a couple of times, forgetting what they wrote in the past, but that’s bound to happen. Continuity is a bitch. But, in general, the two main characters, as they are set up for us in the pilot, remain consistent. Even after watching the whole damn series, if you go back to watch the pilot, you RECOGNIZE those two people (which, as I mentioned, is not always the case – see Melissa in thirtysomething, where you basically have to discount the first few episodes in terms of who Melissa eventually turned out to be). With Supernatural, this consistency is certainly due to the writing and production staff, who had a crystal clear idea going in what they wanted to create. But it is also due to those two actors, so beautifully cast, so perfect in their roles, Jared Padalecki as Sam and Jensen Ackles as Dean.


You’re working blind. You don’t know where the characters are going to go. How can you know what Season 6 will hold when you’re only filming a pilot and you don’t even know if the show will be picked up? But the sense of Arc was strong in the Supernatural creative team (to quote Yoda), and speaking of Yoda, during casting, when they saw everybody and their grand-mama for those two main parts, they pitched it to actor Jensen Ackles as: “Sam is the Luke Skywalker of the series. And Dean is the Han Solo.” (They had originally brought Ackles in to read for Sam, but then Padalecki came in and blew everyone away with his sensitivity and accessibility in the part, so they went back to Ackles and sold him on playing Dean with that “Han Solo line”. Ackles took the bait. Thank God.)


Okay. So Luke and Han Solo is just one image, but it is one powerfully suggestive image. Any smart actor would be able to run with that, and run as far as he can. These two guys have. And it comes back again and again. There are repeated nods to Empire Strikes Back, and one of its most famous moments, in the Charlie Arc. “I love you.” “I know.” she says. It becomes a running motif. And in Pac-Man Fever, the tables are turned: She tells Dean she loves him. Dean gets the emotion of the moment, he really does, he FEELS the love from her and he experiences the same love in return, but his response to her statement is: “I know.”

You can see how the creators remembered the genesis of the character, throwing in a wink to that genesis 7 seasons later.

Sometimes the characters have switched off in sensibility, as happens in life (especially with siblings), Luke becoming more Han-ish, and vice versa (which you can also see in the original Star Wars trilogy, especially in the storyline where Luke discovers who his real father is), but the concept is elastic enough to be able to include a hell of a lot of complexity. These are Classic Story Tropes, and they have withstood the test of time. The Supernatural team was also smart enough, in the pilot, to already introduce complexity into both of these guys, complexity that would just deepen and broaden as the series went on.


Who’s more rigid, Sam or Dean? Well, there’s not an easy answer. It depends. Dean calls Sam a “control freak” in the pilot, and that’s partly true, but please, Dean, look in the mirror. Rigidity has a different look depending on where you stand and what the motivations are. Rigidity can mean strength, but it also can mean weakness (there’s that image that I love of oak trees being far more susceptible to falling over in hurricane-force winds than willow trees, because the willow has more “give”). Each character’s strength is also his potential Achilles heel, which, naturally, is a story concept going back to the Greeks.


Dean would do anything for his family. This is supposedly a good thing. But it leads him into very treacherous waters, morally, spiritually, and physically. His love for his family is used against him. And to a man who values strength and honor, it’s extremely destabilizing to know you have this chink in the armor and you can’t do anything about it. Additionally, Dean is in his mid-20s when the series starts. He clings to the family circle in a way that may be admirable but also feels like he’s in a cult. What, neither of them are allowed to live their own lives, go to school, get married, move on? Well, no, they’re not. We’ve seen the teaser that opens the series, we know the trauma Dean experienced at 4 years old. No wonder he clings to his brother so much it’s suffocating Sam. Sam, while seemingly more cool-headed than Dean (in the beginning, anyway), as well as being a man who has his appetites under control (which Dean most certainly does not), as WELL as being an independent-thinker who actually removed himself from the clusterfuck that was the Winchester family, has a deep strain of violence and rage that makes Dean look like a pussycat peace-maker. Both brothers underestimate one another, which is great, it’s so how adult siblings often operate. You’re grownups but you still see each other as 2-foot-tall chubby beings in feetie pajamas with mouths full of Cheerios. It’s a trigger, too, for these Tough Guys(™). They are men with a capital “M”, they handle guns with as much familiarity as they handle their own dicks (we assume, anyway), they know how to do shit like fix cars and cook a greasy breakfast and work machinery and hit a bulls-eye, every time. They always have a roll of duct tape on their person at any given moment. But growing up together means the adult man right there is often superimposed with his child-like self, small, scared, and physically weak. And so they often have to pump themselves up, and hide that vulnerability from one another, because intimacy like that is too fucking much and “I’m a GROWN-UP now, man!” (The show would be so different if the two demon-fighters were not related, if it was more of a classic Starsky and Hutch buddy-show. You wouldn’t have that deeply unstable familial underbelly which threatens to derail both characters at all times.)


The things we admire in Sam or Dean can also become the very thing that holds each man back. It’s fascinating, as are all of the switch-backs and internal/external contradictions that put pressure on these exceptional men. The guys we see in Season 9 are not the guys we meet in Season 1, and if you have hung in with the series for that long, you know how gratifying it is to watch characters you love grow and develop, even if it’s in ways that seem destructive or scary. It’s a process. The series is far enough in it can relax now. And the actors know these characters as well as they know their own real-life personalities now. Comfort is not really set at a high premium for actors, and rightly so: without high stakes, you’ve got NOTHING. But the comfort that comes from knowing this is a job that will continue can often show in the work itself in gorgeous and exciting ways.


On the face of it, you could boil down Sam as the conventional one, in the pilot, with the college degree, the sweet supportive girlfriend, his stated monogamy, the plate of homemade cookies on the table left for him. However, once we learn how the Winchester family, all male, has been run, we see that Sam is the most unconventional one of all of them. He saw a way out, and he took it. He’s the rebel. And Dean, once we meet him, is obviously a cocky promiscuous warrior-type, who finances his life through credit card scams, pool games, poker games, and other illegal activities, and is so far outside the mainstream that he is totally off the grid. And yet his values are downright conservative (in the classical Burkean sense). He’s from ‘Merrica, dammit. Guns and cars and burgers and family and, of course, pie, apple or otherwise, yes sir, he’d die for those things. (And if you think I’m knocking any of those things and their political resonance then all I have to say is: You’re new ’round these here parts, aren’t you?) The whole Christian political thing which has come to define mainstream conservatism would obviously hold no attraction for Dean, since he’s seen up close what “dicks” angels can be, Castiel notwithstanding, but that’s why I say classical conservatism. Dean is not a prude sexually, he loves porn, and he likes a good time with a woman who knows the score, and his values are of the take-care-of-yourself-no-handouts-man-up-whatever-you-do-is-your-own-business-as-long-as-you-don’t-hurt-anyone variety. Dean probably doesn’t vote, but if he did, you can take a guess what platform he’d go for. So he’s a criminal and a slut and he’s also a devoted family man. ALL of the above is true.


But … and this is fabulous, in terms of establishing character and depth without saying a WORD … the characters’ first scene together is a mostly-silent and absolutely ferocious physical fight. Sam lies asleep in his college housing, beside his girlfriend, and he is woken up at night by a sound. He goes to investigate. He senses a figure moving around in the next room. He attacks. A fight ensues in the dark. And it is instantly apparent that this is no awkward fumbling fight. This is Ninja stuff, from both sides. This is Assassin Territory. Of course, a second later, Sam has Dean pinned on the floor, and suddenly Sam can see who it is he is trying to destroy. Dean grins, drawls, “Easy tiger” into Sam’s face (and it’s a classic Han Solo wisecrack moment), and their first scene commences, the two of them heaving for breath, still pumped-up with adrenaline. The brothers haven’t seen each other in years at this point.


But that first conversation (where we get so much information about these two guys) does not start before we see that fight, and the fight is (in many ways) the most important piece of information we get about these two men we are meeting for the first time as adults (and they are men, despite the fact that the series insists on referring to them as “boys”, even now, when they’re both in their 30s.) That fight, with both of them in silhouette against the dark blue window, is superbly performed by both actors (both of them are amazing athletes, and great physically – none of this “I save my best work for my closeup” stuff which suffuses shows like Grey’s Anatomy). Nothing we have seen (briefly) of Sam up until that point has prepared us for how he fights. He seems gentle, humble, in need of the validation of his friends, and almost shy. He hints to his friends that his family is not “the Bradys”, but he doesn’t seem dark and brooding or anything like that. If you’re watching the show for the first time, your brain will have to re-adjust what you think of Sam once you see that fight. That was my experience watching it for the first time. I thought: “Oh. Okay. So … he’s freakin’ scary as hell. Good to know.”


The brothers may chill out on occasion with each other and eat fries and listen to music, but their inner Cato is never far away. These guys are always on high-alert. (Dean, recently, in an episode in season 9, was in the process of hooking up with a woman when he saw Sam was calling. He glanced at the phone, turned the ringer off, murmuring to himself, “Not now, Cato,” one of those fun pop culture references the show is drenched in, a detail that gains in resonance when you think back on their relationship).

What is extraordinary, if you have seen the entire series, is that it’s all there, in the pilot. Yes, much of it is barely a seed yet, but the seeds are there, ready to grow and sprout and explode all over the place. The show is both CLEAR and AMBIGUOUS. No easy feat. The entelechy is in the pilot, and that’s what you want to see.

And, like most great shows, it all hinges on character. Monsters are great, demons are awesome, the apocalypse is fascinating, but it’s Sam and Dean we come back for, it’s Sam and Dean we want to watch. The ensemble will grow as the seasons pass, bringing us more investment, more characters to latch onto, like Bobby and Ellen and Jo and Ash (I love Ash, I miss him) and Rufus and Bella and Castiel and Charlie and Lisa and Crowley and others, all whom weave in and out of “the boys'” lives throughout the show. But in season 1, it’s all on Padalecki and Ackles. And we’re hooked. They are both awesomely appealing and talented actors.


And a word on the music of the show: Supernatural, from the get-go, has, as its soundtrack, heavy metal and classic rock. We’re talking Lynyrd Skynyrd, Styx, Bob Seger, Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Rush … basically nothing past the 80s (well, Alice in Chains makes an appearance in one episode). Also, almost no women grace the soundtrack, except when they’re making fun of something, like Celine Dion suddenly blasting from the radio. To Dean, women musicians do not exist. It’s kind of annoying because there are plenty of rockin’ women out there (where’s Joan Jett?), but it also is all of a piece with the swaggering Navy-SEALS type atmosphere these “boys” live in, where women are usually peripheral. I’ll talk more about the music in re-caps. I love the music of the show, because so much of that metal stuff from the 80s has to do with Evil and Devils and God. It’s a great fit, both sound-wise, theme-wise. Eric Kripke talks about how essential it was to the show that these guys would be gearheads and metal-heads and classic rock fans. Supernatural’s music would not just be background, but part of the ways these guys operate, part of their emotional landscape. Most episodic television uses pop music, ballad-y or generic, and sometimes (as with Grey’s Anatomy), the songs used go on to be hits due to that association. Supernatural wanted to set themselves apart from that style. In Supernatural, the music is not just background. It’s the music that these guys actually listen to. They argue about it (“Why are you arguing with a dog … about Styx?”), they discuss it, they take the night off and drive hundreds of miles out of their way to catch an Ozzy show. It’s the music I listen to, and have been doing so for my whole life now. Black Sabbath, Motorhead, AC/DC, Metallica. Hell, I haven’t stopped being obsessed yet and we’re going on many many years now.

And lastly, I swear: Dean and Sam hail from Lawrence, Kansas. One can’t help but think that Dorothy from Wizard of Oz is also from Kansas, and her desire to get back home, to get back there, is what drives her forward, keeps her alive, keeps her hopeful. We can see that in Sam and Dean. We can also see the implications for the brothers in her famous line, “We’re not in Kansas anymore.” Every episode they face something daunting, life-threatening, mysterious, unheard-of. Every step they take moves them further and further away from “Kansas”, which equals home. It is the overall Arc of the series as a whole. And with each season wrap-up, the series does a “The Road So Far” re-cap, all played out to the strains of Kansas’ “Carry On Wayward Son”.

1. The band’s name.
2. The lyrics.

Carry on my wayward son
There’ll be peace when you are done
Lay your weary head to rest
Don’t you cry no more

Once I rose above the noise and confusion
Just to get a glimpse beyond this illusion
I was soaring ever higher, but I flew too high

Though my eyes could see I still was a blind man
Though my mind could think I still was a mad man
I hear the voices when I’m dreaming,
I can hear them say

Carry on my wayward son,
There’ll be peace when you are done
Lay your weary head to rest
Don’t you cry no more

Masquerading as a man with a reason
My charade is the event of the season
And if I claim to be a wise man,
Well, it surely means that I don’t know

On a stormy sea of moving emotion
Tossed about, I’m like a ship on the ocean
I set a course for winds of fortune,
But I hear the voices say

Carry on my wayward son
There’ll be peace when you are done
Lay your weary head to rest
Don’t you cry no more no!

Carry on,
You will always remember
Carry on,
Nothing equals the splendor
Now your life’s no longer empty
Surely heaven waits for you

Carry on my wayward son
There’ll be peace when you are done
Lay your weary head to rest
Don’t you cry,
Don’t you cry no more,
No more!

It’s all there.

I’ll do more proper re-caps from now on but I just had to get this out of my system first. I take my cue from Lester Bangs. Or at least I try.

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58 Responses to Thoughts on TV Pilots, including the Supernatural Pilot: What Works, Story Arcs, Starting Out Confidently, Working Blind

  1. Rinaldo says:

    What I can say in reply is limited (still haven’t seen Supernatural!), but I did respond to what you say about pilots and knowing the spine(s) of what you’re doing.

    I’m glad you mentioned thirtysomething, because I still love the series too, and I so agree that the pilot has a lot of the show in place but isn’t quite there overall. (And I suspect that some critics and viewers saw that pilot, turned off, and never checked it out again, dismissing it unseen as whiny yuppies, or whatever.) As I said in my review of the DVDs on another blog, it’s one of the few series to have successfully made genuine drama out of more or less everyday life, the ups and downs we all face. AND at the same time, there’s always that bit of fantasy or stylization or parody, as in the examples you mention.

    There are famous examples of “figuring out what you’re about” at a late point in writing for the stage too, of course. The classic instance is Fiddler on the Roof, where Jerome Robbins kept driving the authors nuts by asking at meetings “but what it is about?” and not being content when they simply told him the plot premise. Finally someone said, “It’s about the end of a way of life,” and he relaxed and said “OK. Now you can write your opening number.” (Which was of course “Tradition.”)

    • sheila says:

      Rinaldo – oh my God, that Fiddler on the Roof story. I did not know that. It brought tears to my eyes. YES. You know just what I am talking about – and you’re right – the opposite can be true, too: You have a plot, but you have to search for the STORY. Amazing!

      In my first meeting with my agent, she said to me that I should be thinking about my script in terms of a one-sentence re-cap. I should be able to describe what it is ABOUT (not the plot) in one sentence. I have never forgotten that. During my process writing the script, any time I would find myself babbling on and on about what a certain moment meant – I knew I hadn’t found it yet. Because each moment (and the script as a whole) should have a spine – like “It’s about the end of a way of a life.” BOOM. That’s it. And once you know THAT, you know where to go, you know that THAT has to be in every single individual moment.

      And yay for a Thirtysomething discussion! I’ve never really written about the show – and I was so thrilled a couple of years ago when it finally was released on DVD with special features and commentary tracks, etc. It was just as good as I remembered. The ACTING. My God were those people good.

      And yes, the pilot is almost already a parody – although I do remember Timothy Busfield having a pretty phenomenal moment in a scene with Michael when he confesses his infidelity – and there it is, a glimpse, of where the show was going to go with those characters. How GOOD those actors all really were.

      I think with Melissa they were unsure at first of how to write a single woman in her thirties. Their main interest was in the procreating side of the thirties – and so they fell into a cliche – with her and with Ellen – at first. Ellen is the career woman who put motherhood on hold, and Melissa is the wacky artist. But thankfully, they let go of those cliched reins and that show remains such a gorgeous exploration of what it is like to be a single woman in your thirties – and I wasn’t even in my thirties when I first watched the show!

      Like, Melissa is a mess in many ways, but in so many other ways, she is living the dream. She’s an artist, she works hard, she wants to fall in love, it hasn’t worked out for her yet. I am so glad that the creators really listened to Mayron’s complaint after that pilot – because Melissa went on to be one of my favorite ones on that show.

      I’d love to read your review of the DVD – do you have a link to it??

      • Rinaldo says:

        OK, it was a quick guest column in 2010, nothing deep. For a friend’s blog, “A Follow Spot” (title taken from her and my favorite musical, Follies). It covers the arts in central Illinois, with occasional excursions further; I’ve guested there maybe half a dozen times.

        Anyway, here it is.

        • sheila says:

          Wonderful. You make me want to watch it all over again. I have the same “You could never do that now” feeling – with the long long scenes with two people just talking, and then the freedom with which it leapt into some fantasy sequence. It was awesome.

          Also: while, of course, all of the actors are attractive – they also look like normal people. They aren’t bombshells. They wear Mom Jeans. You know? Would any of those people get starring roles on a series now?

          Thanks for sharing!

  2. george says:

    If the language, lexicon, hieroglyphs, or encyclopedia of semeiotics exists somewhere with which I could adequately express my praise of this post, I am not aware of them.


    There, I’ve just proved my postulation.

    At a loss for words and utterly dumbfounded, all I can say is… do it again (get more out of your system).

    • sheila says:

      George!! Wow – thank you!

      Please say more when language returns – I’d love to hear your thoughts.

      These posts are a lot of fun for me.

  3. Melissa Sutherland says:

    Entelechy. OMG, you slay me!

    • sheila says:

      Best word/concept ever – I have Ellen Burstyn to thank. She introduced the concept to me in the workshop I took with her and I have never forgotten it. She said softly, “The entelechy of an acorn is a giant oak.”

      I still have goosebumps. :)

  4. Dan says:

    Posts like these are why you’re still a daily read for me after all these years. And I’ve never even seen Supernatural.

    Curious – have you watched any of Route 66? Worth checking out?

    • sheila says:

      // Posts like these are why you’re still a daily read for me after all these years. And I’ve never even seen Supernatural. //

      What an awesome thing to say, Dan – thank you!

      Route 66 is great for a lot of reasons – but it’s awesome for the almost documentary-like glimpse of America at that time, the cars, the gas stations, it was mostly done on location. It’s a lot of fun!

      • Dan says:

        You’re most welcome. You’ve hipped me to an awful lot of awesomeness (Carry Grant and A Winter’s Tale spring to mind but there’s been much more) in that time, so I’m very grateful for what you do here.

        • sheila says:

          Passing on the love! I’m gonna read Mark Helprin’s latest this year! I’m almost afraid – Winter’s Tale is the only thing of his I’ve read, and it’s so important to me I almost don’t want to ruin it. :)

          • Dan says:

            I have that one in the TBR pile as well.

            Have you seen the trailers for the Winter’s Tale movie? I was a little underwhelmed.

          • sheila says:

            Yes. I found the entire thing dismaying.

            I don’t know if it’s possible that a movie could be made of that book that I would actually like.

          • sheila says:

            Speaking of which: the Hudson River has been frozen for two days, and it always makes me think of Winter’s Tale and that amazing scene with the ice wall up the Hudson and people skating down towards the city. Unbelievable.

  5. Dan says:

    Yeah, you could lift images like that them in a movie, but I’m not sure how you could get all the parts of the book to hang together in a coherent way on screen.

    Maybe a very long and very well funded mini-series.

    I do think Colin Farrell could pull off Peter Lake though.

    • sheila says:

      Yes, I think that is excellent casting.

      I agree – a mini series would be the way to go. There are so many stories, they’re going to have to leave some out – and what will that do to the whole? The IMDB description is ridiculous – something like “a thief and a sick woman discover time travel” – or something equally not right.

      • sheila says:

        Horrible IMDB plot description: “A burglar falls for an heiress as she dies in his arms. When he learns that he has the gift of reincarnation, he sets out to save her.”

        I mean, yuk.

  6. Jessie says:

    Ha! I popped in because I saw Stage Door for the first time yesterday and I wondered if you’d written about it, and BAM Supernatural.

    I loved Stage Door so much by the way. All the women, all the talking, all the support they lend each other, so much of it disguised. How perfectly it charts the Hepburn persona. The depth of emotion in her throat on stage at the end made me cry. Ginger Rogers pretending so hard she gives zero fucks. Lucille Ball stealing every scene from everyone. I kept wondering who on earth they could cast in a modern day remake.

    Let me switch from all those women (even the cat is a lady!) to the men of Supernatural.

    You’re so right about the way that the show sets itself up as ABOUT family. It’s pretty neat then that one of the main characters is also entirely ABOUT family. The first five minutes of the show not only embed that theme in the show but also the character.

    I always felt like for the first half of the first season, maybe, they intended for Sam to be the viewer identification entry point. Dean is a dazzler. Sam is, apparently, normal with normal desires. All those binaries get so complicated over the years. Luke corrupts himself. Han gets PTSD. Luke becomes his father. Han becomes his mother. Lucky we’re not working with a Lucasian idea of good and evil here. (that SW photoshop cracks me up!).

    And then halfway through they hit on this weirdness of Sam, this potential corruption that he’s been hiding for 20 years, the guilt and fear of it. And then I think Dean becomes our eyes. So much of our time is spent worrying about Sam.

    I miss the music :-(

    Is there a vague schedule for recaps, so I can follow along in time?

    Damn, gotta go, but hopefully can come back soon!

    • sheila says:

      Oh man isn’t Stage Door great?? I wanted to LIVE in that boarding house when I first saw it as a kid. And yes, Lucille Ball walks away with every scene she’s in. Wonderful movie!!

      And I’ll try to get the first re-cap up this weekend. I’m slow with these things sometimes, but it’s already in the works!!

      I really like your observation about Sam being set up perhaps as viewer identification – the semi-“normal” one we can enter into that weird world through. Dean is off the charts, Dean has been in ‘Nam too long – but Sam is recognizable.

      And what’s so great about Sam’s transformation is that probably without knowing going in that Sam was “corrupted” (he wouldn’t have seen the scripts from the following seasons, many of them didn’t exist probably) – Jared Padalecki plays a character where we end up believing that that could be true. Even back in the pilot. That’s what I mean by “working blind” – many actors couldn’t have established such a complex character at the get-go. For instance, his insistence on breaking free, his willingness to sacrifice his relationship to his family in order to go after what he wants, his eye-roll contempt for Dean’s criminality – all of these things ground him morally but they also set us up for his “different”-ness in the later seasons, the different-ness that will make him far more open to temptation than Dean ever would be. So it all still makes sense even though Padalecki could have had no idea that, say, his dalliance with Ruby would even be in the cards when he was filming the pilot. But the POTENTIAL is there. The entelechy.

      He’s such a fine actor!

      And imagine the show without that keen of tenderness running through it – if it was just two hot guys fighting monsters and slinging guns around. That still would have been aesthetically pleasing but it wouldn’t have had the resonance that the show clearly has. The vulnerability of these two guys to each other! God!!

      The Christmas episode still kills me – the look on Dean’s face when Sam hands him a present. He’s suddenly 8 years old, and kind of shy, but so super psyched that someone loves him enough to give him a present (a bottle of motor oil and a candy bar.) That moment is all on Ackles – filming a TV series is way too fast and furious to belabor over such moments – you need smart vulnerable actors who can tap into what is REALLY going on and tap into it immediately and intuitively. No director said to him, “Okay, so be like a little kid when he hands you the present.” Ackles knew what the moment required and he did it – and it’s just a tiny subtle flash across his face but it’s so vulnerable that I almost want to look away to give him some privacy.

      Talk about a fine actor.

      More to come!!

      Thanks Jessie!

      • rae says:

        Oh my gosh, that Christmas episode! I think I cried the first time I watched that final scene. What a subtle thing — their exchange of presents, their reactions, etc — but what a BIG deal!

        I really like Jessie’s point about Sam as our beginning viewer identification. And I absolutely agree that later on, Dean becomes our eyes. Maybe it’s part of how well they’ve hooked us into caring about these guys, since Dean is all about caring for family. (I mean, I know it is for me. I’m emotionally invested, dang it!)

        I also think that as I grew more accustomed to the Supernatural world and way of life, Dean didn’t seem so off-the-charts anymore. There were realizations that other hunters they encounter do similar things, so maybe Dean’s not so crazy in his lifestyle (except that he really still is). That was also when Sam’s “corruption(s)” started: as an audience, do we want to identify with the “corrupted guy” as semi-normal to us anymore? Maybe we still do — we want to be redeemable; we want there to be hope. And it’s nice to know there’s someone who *always* has our back. (But this all just ties back in to my emotional investment. Firmly hooked!)

        • sheila says:

          Yes, rae – I think you’re right: once we understand that world, we see how conventional Dean is in terms of living by its rules and how rebellious and unconventional Sam is. But then of course they start to switch as things get darker for Sam. It’s just fascinating to watch.

          And the Castiel relationship is so important. I said in my original Dean piece that Supernatural wants us to be worried about Dean, because nobody else seems to be. In one of the lines in Season 3, when Dean knows he’s going to die – Sam blows up at Dean’s cavalier attitude saying, “I don’t want you to worry about me anymore – you need to worry about YOU.”

          But that is just so not Dean’s style. He doesn’t know how to do it. It seems weak, unmanly – his dad would have contempt for him, whatever.

          and then turns out – Castiel is out there. whose whole job is to worry about Dean (and Sam, too, but mostly Dean).

          Talk about redemptive. It’s still complex – and dark – we don’t get a goopy-eyed “Touched By an Angel” thing – it’s much more ferocious – but you can tell how Dean leans on Cas, it’s a totally unique relationship – something he totally NEEDS. It’s up there with his relationship with Lisa and Ben – being a dad and a husband-type – fills a primal need in this guy. Like, primal – way more primal than it is even for Sam.

          Maybe because Sam is, somehow, more integrated emotionally – he’s not as afraid of that soft side. (although that, of course, changes). But, you know, Dean is split off – he’s okay with that – but it makes it even more necessary for him to have SOFTness in his life. He needs it like air because everything else is so tough and hard. His sexual exploits have always seemed to me to be FRIENDLY and APPRECIATIVE as opposed to a more macho conquest thing – even though he may swagger a bit afterwards. But most guys swagger after getting laid. I sense for Dean that the softness of sex and the tenderness, or whatever you want to call it, is something he NEEDS to counteract everything else. It’s not just letting off steam. It’s providing something very essential for him. He gets to be soft there. Women love it, don’t judge it, and he’s none the worse for it.

          The show runs so deep – I love thinking about it and talking about it.

          Thanks for adding your comment!

          • sheila says:

            and yes, that final scene in the Christmas episode is killer. it could have been so schmaltzy but they both underplayed it, underplayed the sentiment, so that it was truly powerful. Great work.

          • rae says:

            Absolutely yes about Castiel! He’s their third wheel, adding extra grip, greater stability.

            I agree with you on Dean’s friendly exploits — and on the relationships he needs to fulfill. Spreaking of, I’d just like to reiterate how much I love that they’ve adopted Charlie as a kid sister. It’s a different kind of sibling relationship, and they need that, especially Dean. I love it from coaching Charlie through hitting on a guard to the Han Solo referential acknowledgement of love.

          • sheila says:

            Oh, the whole Charlie relationship is absolutely glorious.

            Dean: “She’s like the little sister I never wanted.”

            It’s a whole new kind of way they have to relate to a woman with her – it can’t be sexual, it’s not a maternal thing either – and it’s not adversarial. It’s friendship.

            It’s so heartwarming and I LOVE her.

      • Jessie says:

        Sheila and rae —

        I think what Jared caught on to right from the start was that iron-core need for Sam to be his own person. In that family, it expresses as normalcy — or he would have had to go pretty nuts to be his own person in the other direction. The need for Dean to trust him as a man, not a kid is so often married to the desire for Dean to conceive of himself as his own man. In season 3, he begs Dean to believe that he’s worth worrying about. In Season 8, he begs Dean to trust him that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel — a few episodes later he begs Dean to believe in him as a brother. What would Sam do with his life if he weren’t atoning?

        later on, Dean becomes our eyes. Maybe it’s part of how well they’ve hooked us into caring about these guys, since Dean is all about caring for family. (I mean, I know it is for me. I’m emotionally invested, dang it!)
        Oh right there with you! The attractiveness of that codependence is maybe the nastiest, nicest trick the show ever played on us. I have said elsewhere that maybe the show would have to end the day that Dean could look at his brother without qualm. That foundational disconnect is so much the engine of the show. At the same of course I hope that they can grow — remain entangled in some new, healthier way. Perhaps the world can helpfully reorganise itself so that fate no longer requires them to subordinate themselves. That would be a start.

        Sam’s such a good guy, that’s what breaks my heart about him. He wants to do and be good. He cares about people. But — and I love this — he can turn it off. He has the steel to make hard, necessary decisions. Dean makes easy decisions. He sacrifices his body, his morals. It’s better than the dissolution of no brother-purpose. When Sam did that, after season 3, he was nearly ruined.

        Hmm, this has moved far away from pilot thoughts.

        The vulnerability of these two guys to each other! God!!
        “You could do this by yourself.”
        “Yeah, well, I don’t want to.” — almost abashed. I’m still the same. I still need this. As viewers we still have no real idea what those four years of Sam being away at school was like for Dean.

        Speaking of S3 my god I loved that Xmas episode. Such a perfect blend of humour and heart. I think it’s my favourite ever episode.

        • sheila says:

          and the devastation Dean feels when he learns that Sam didn’t look for him while he was in Purgatory. Dean can’t get past it. Hell, I can’t either.

          Was that ever explained? I’m sorry, my memory is sometimes not sharp as a tack.

          I think it’s in character that Sam would find a girlfriend and hide out in the life he always wanted – but to not even look or try …


          Dean will always need Sam more than Sam needs him. To Dean, need IS love. To Sam, those two things are different. He loves Dean, but he doesn’t need him in the same way. Dean knows it and it makes him a MESS. Like a little kid – because if Sam doesn’t need him, then who the hell is he?

          John Winchester was an asshole. :) He BROKE Dean.

        • sheila says:

          and yes: in that very first episode, we see Sam’s hard-ness. It takes hard-ness to resist the Winchester call. He will NOT be bossed around. And Dean? Well, it is established that he IS bossed around – but he doesn’t experience it that way, not at first. He sees it as being a good son.

          One of the most important scenes in the entire series is from Dream a Little Dream of Me when Dean is confronted by himself in the dream. I still get goosebumps thinking about it. And Jensen Ackles is off the CHARTS in that scene. It’s played in dual closeup – and it’s BOTH him – but you can always tell which Dean is speaking. That is some serious high level acting right there.

          But boy, that’s opening up the basement of Dean’s damage and what that father did to him and how ANGRY he is about it.

          • Jessie says:

            John Winchester has so much to answer for. I can empathise with the guy to an extent — but seriously, how dare he do that to his children. Dean’s in his mid-thirties now and he is still playing out this protector role and it’s destroying everything he has. Witness the most recent episode.

            And Dean — he knows it. He has confronted this in himself many many times throughout the series! Dream a Little Dream, case in point. He knows that the coping mechanisms of his childhood, that the patterns of behaviour that kept his family alive and together when he was a teenager and pre-teen — he knows that they are counter-productive now. But in trauma and fear we fall back to what we know. My partner was raised in a house where she frequently felt unsafe. I can predict her defence mechanisms like the tides.

            Oh man, Sam not looking for Dean for that whole year was painful. I don’t think it was never fully explained in-show. That hurts. I feel like the show made it seem kind of like, oh well, I’m free now, tra la la la. Eventually, from Sam’s point of view, I think there was probably no choice but to move on, having learned the lessons of past deaths. He had no resources left. No contacts left. No clues. No higher powers. No lower powers. Nothing. For the first time in his life. Nothing. But what of the week after? The month after? Did he mourn? Why were we denied that?

            And I don’t think D&S talked it through enough (of course). And of course Dean was hurt and angry. Christ.

            To Dean, need IS love. To Sam, those two things are different.
            Oh, well said! There are quite a few references in the series to “sloppy, needy Dean.” They need to be able to live without each other or they’ll never be able to live together.

          • sheila says:

            Something is broken forever in Dean. He needed to be cared for, he was only 4 years old. I don’t think he’ll ever recover, but beautifully – he keeps running into people and meeting people who love him. I love that in that same dream episode – Sam’s the one who dreams about hot sex with Bella and Dean’s dream is a schmoopy picnic with Lisa and her saying, “I love you.” Perfect. And his embarrassment at Sam seeing his dream. “I’ve never had this dream before,” says Dean. Really, Dean? You sure about that?

            I think I said somewhere before that I think PTSD is a strong undercurrent of the show – especially in Dean, who took the full blow of his mom’s death (Sammy was too young). Sam never knew what it was to have a mom. Dean has memories of it. Then, of course, there’s the trauma of an almost 100% violent life. Which is then compounded as the series goes on – and Dean’s sort of numb-ness to actual pain (it’s normal to him, it’s also just what he deserves) – and it’s his experience in Hell that somehow cracks that open, allows him to actually experience grief about what has been taken from him. This is a bit too simplistic – it’s not that neat – but those are some of the stepping stones in that PTSD journey.

            Look at what happens to Sam after his time in the pit. He emerges a cold hard killer-dude, who sleeps with a hooker who then won’t accept payment because it was the best fuck of her life. Hahaha. I mean, it’s not funny, but still, it kind of is. Not that Sam is better off than Dean – but Dean comes out of the pit completely traumatized, openly so. He can’t hide how shattered he is, and that is devastating for such a tough guy. Sam emerges stronger, meaner, and colder (of course there’s a reason for that – but NO SPOILERS.)

            It’s still fascinating that Dean would emerge from the pit traumatized and yet still human, and Sam emerges stronger and yet somehow not human.

            And goes back to some of my original thoughts somewhere – that the show is really about what it means to be a man. A hot topic. But it investigates it, up-ends it, examines it – it’s not afraid to go there, to look at what happens to boys who are not allowed to have softness in them, who are shamed out of having vulnerability. How damaging that is to men, how fucked up. I think of my teenage nephew and I don’t want that bullshit put on him. He’s perfect just as he is, vulnerable and strong, smart and caring. John Winchester’s “man up” “you’re a real man if you do THIS” has nearly RUINED his sons.

            It is interesting to contemplate how John Winchester would have handled it if he had had two girls. Was it easier for him to hole up in warrior-mode because his kids were boys, and so he over-identified with them in a way he wouldn’t if they were girls? Because, of course, girls are there to be PROTECTED, and sons are there to be THROWN TO THE WOLVES.

            Mad Men does this too, looking at how isolating male privilege is – not just for women, but for men! – but the context is different.

            I’m with you. Sam is heartbreaking. He’s such a good guy. “You’re my big brother.” The way he says that. It’s just heartbreaking.

            And when Dean decides to show Sam how to fix the car?

            Forget it. You have to mop me up off the floor.

            These actors, man. Clicking into that. Hats off.

          • sheila says:

            and the Castiel factor. The comfort Dean gets of knowing that there is someone out there whose job it is, whose only job, is to look out for HIM. It’s a profound relationship.

            And I wish we had seen more of Sam in that year off with the girlfriend. The way we did with Dean and Lisa. I wish that had been developed more. Maybe it will be. You never know with Supernatural.

            and I find it hopeful that the creators of the show are still going back and filling in those gaps (Dean in the boys’ home as a teenager). I would LOVE to get some story lines about Sam’s college years and what the hell Dean was doing and how he felt about it.

          • Jessie says:

            Something is broken forever in Dean.
            I cannot believe that! Something is lost forever, yes — possibilities, paths — but there is always a chance of recovery, which is not being fixed but finding perspective and forgiveness and behaviours. Like you say there are so many people, even still, who love him (it is easy to love Dean, unless you are his brother, and unless you die).

            The trick is getting the apocalyptic world to comply. What devilry of the writers to give Dean those limited choices in S9E01. I thought last season they grew so much — made active, positive choices together in full understanding and consent — that I regret this step backwards.

            I think PTSD is a very strong undercurrent. There’s a fan on tumblr who writes very eloquently about the lasting effects of family dysfunction and how it creates hero and scapegoat children — how lasting the effects are — and then to load on top the violence, the torture — being a torturer — the overwhelming loss of support structure. Really it’s amazing they haven’t cracked yet. With all the goofiness and the gradual shifts in tone over the years (cinematography lighter & happier, depression and betrayal and stakes heavier and sadder) sometimes I forget where we are up to in their emotional realities. But I want them to be HAPPY dammit.

            Yes, Hell did crack him open. All those S4 episodes ending in tears by the Impala. Then the apocalypse happened and he never got a chance to actually work it through.

            These actors, man. Clicking into that. Hats off.
            Rewatching the first two episodes last night with this post in mind was a delight. They really get in there and there is a consistent throughline. You can tell the writers were only able to go where they did in later episodes and seasons because of that foundation. There’s this amazing moment in the “shotgun shuts his cakehole” exchange where JA does this little laugh at his own big-brothery annoyingness. That is pure Dean. It could have been in any subsequent season. And I love that JP is allowed to not be grumpy all the time. He laughs at Dean’s jokes. He finds things absurd. His brother is ridiculous. He loves him.

          • sheila says:

            The way my “thread” function works on my site makes it easy to get lost – I continued the conversation down below to start fresh. :)

  7. tracey says:

    Two words: holy crap.

  8. Maureen says:

    OK-I am just going to come out and say it-Sheila, I love you! Where else can I come to see an integration of Supernatural (my new obsession), Buffy (my old, but so beloved obsession) and thirtysomething (an obsession that I never felt anyone else shared with me).
    I am giddy at the thought of you doing recaps of Supernatural. I am in Season 4-and the next episode is one I am afraid to see. The synopsis has Dean torturing Alistair, and I am not ashamed to say-I am scared to watch it. I think the episode’s title is “On The Head of a Pin”. Can someone hold me???

    • Jessie says:

      I’ll hold your hand! Oh Dean. The worst thing Hell ever did for him was provide external verification that he was worthless. Not a good enough man — broke before John did (what is John?). Not a man at all — disposable, daddy’s blunt little instrument, a monster. And in this very episode then the angels come along and use that. Yup, those angels are dicks all right.

      • Maureen says:

        Thanks for the offer, Jessie! I will admit to making my cat watch the episode with me. What gets me, is all that talk how he broke before his dad, and I keep thinking “30 years! 30 years of unimaginable torture everyday!”-like WHO could withstand that. It feels like such an injustice, the way Dean is treated-I never thought I would ever hate angels as much as I do on this show!

        • Jessie says:

          I know — WTF is John Winchester? Is he literally made out of adamantium? You know what, Dean’s not as fast a runner as Usain Bolt either. What a loser!

    • sheila says:

      Maureen – I promise I will try to avoid spoilers for those of you who haven’t seen the whole thing.

      That episode is super painful.

      Dean, used, abused, tortured, emasculated, God, we’ve fallen so in love with that poor character that it’s horrifying to imagine him in that position. But it implicates us too. We want to see him hit back – but what does that say about us? How far can he go?

    • sheila says:

      Maureen – many thanks for your love!!

      1. Very psyched you have joined the Supernatural obsession.
      2. Go, Buffy!
      3. Yay Thirtysomething! Up above in the comments thread, Rinaldo put a link to something he wrote about the DVDs of the series which is super gratifying to read. I’ve never written about the show – I was so into it that I remember the episode when Garry died coming to a close – I was living in Philadelphia at the time with my boyfriend, and we sat stunned on the couch, and I was in tears and the phone rang immediately and it was my friend Mitchell back in Rhode Island – I picked it up and all I heard was sobs.

      What a show!!

      • Maureen says:

        Sheila, you hit the nail on the head for me, when you said that episode was painful. I found myself cringing through so much of it. I find so much of this show heartbreaking, that my husband asked why I am watching it.

        About spoilers, I certainly don’t expect to be kept unspoiled after a series has been shown on TV. I am pretty good at skimming when it looks likes certain things might be discussed, even in the comments, on episodes I haven’t seen yet. To me, once an episode has aired, all bets are off-and it is my responsibility to avoid being spoiled.

        I remember that thirtysomething episode so vividly-I felt like I had been punched in the stomach, I was literally gasping for air. Incredible writing, that had us so involved in these characters. I am actually getting choked up thinking about it, all these years later!

        • sheila says:

          In re: Thirtysomething: Yes, it was a masterpiece of structure that episode! Nancy gets better, Garry dies. And they did it artfully – because life is sometimes just that awful – AND they kept it a secret. I had no idea it was coming.

          So well done. Every scene in that episode is just masterful.

          But the whole series was like that.

          I have goosebumps just thinking about it.

  9. Patty says:

    Love, love, love this discussion about how narratives work on so many levels. It reminds of “Sex and the City” and all the chatter about the show and the characters and what they represented for the female psyche, etc. etc. but what that show is really about is the individual and the tradeoffs we make (or don’t make) as we figure out who we are, the dynamics that make or break friendships, the layers of meaning that sex brings to our lives, about loyalty and what’s spoken and unspoken in friendships and love relationships, and the losses we sustain along the way. Yes, that show modeled women who talked about sex openly with their female friends–and it was exaggerated– but it was about so much more than that–about authenticity and the rewards and risks of being real to ourselves, our friends, our lovers. There are TV shows that get *it* right (as you talked about) and I cherish those. I watched Thirtysomething as a twentysomething but wish I had been living through that age when that show was on.

    • sheila says:

      Patty – I’m right with you on Sex and the City. I don’t remember the pilot – I should go back and check it out. I know that Samantha went through a pretty big transformation in terms of who she was – and I credit Kim Cattrall on that. Once it became apparent that the woman is a freakin’ comedienne they could go broader with her character. I seem to recall that in the first season she “fell in love” with someone and cried in a bathroom stall about it – totally not who Samantha would end up being. But the structure of the show was solid from the get-go: a column Carrie was writing would then be explored from four different angles. Pretty cool. It held up.

      And I agree with you about the larger themes of the show. The sex talk and the conspicuous consumption (Carrie’s shoes!!) got a lot of the press – but that’s only because everyone in the culture is addicted to WORRYING about what women do with their own time and their own money. The subtleties of the show were vast. I mean, Miranda’s whole thing with Steve, and what that brought up for her in terms of independence, feminism, and living her own life. Charlotte’s perfect marriage which ended up being a nightmare of Tartan and impotence. Carrie’s whole relationship with Aidan – FASCINATING. I never liked Aidan for her. The show was not afraid to make the characters look bad, or flawed. They made mistakes. Everyone had to make compromises. The friendships had to grow and change – the show was devoted to exploring those adult friendships, and that was always why I clicked into it.

  10. sheila says:

    Jessie: The way the “threads” work on my site make it hard to converse – I have to search for the “Reply” button. So I’m continuing on down here. :)

    I love your hopeful attitude about Dean. I don’t know, I feel like he was so marked by losing his mom and then being trained-up by his bullying dad – that he is not sure which end is up half the time. He’s all instinct, as smart as he is. Like, erasing Lisa and Ben’s memory of him … It’s in character that he would do that, but it shows his limitations. I have a hard time forgiving him for that. I understand his motivations but the entire time I was thinking: DEAN. STOP IT.

    Because maybe their memories of you would be GOOD and actually HELP them later on in life – even if they never saw you again – maybe Ben would benefit from the memory of the kind guy who came into his mom’s life for a while and took care of him – maybe that could have had some impact. And for Lisa too.

    Ugh. I hate that he did that. I love that Charlie clocks him on it – and he says, “Yeah, it wasn’t my finest hour.” That’s an understatement.

    It is unbearable to him to be loved. STILL.

    It’s kind of tragic – and makes him the compelling and beautiful presence that he is. So strong, and yet so damaged.

    I have conflicting feelings so far about Season 9 although some of these one-off episodes have been fabulous, moving, and entertaining. But the Larger Arc we’ve been discussing seems tepid to me. I wish Dean had done the “trials”. I think the show is better when Dean is somehow on the rack for something. JA is so good at playing tortured. And it’s unbearable to see the character be tortured, because he is so appealing. And being on the rack for saving Sammy through nefarious means is something we’ve already seen. I don’t know. It boxes Dean in, into a guilty shame-faced stance – that just somehow limits the character.

    I mean, I realize that we’re on winter break now and we’ll be coming back – and I am sure the creative team have lots of horrors in store for us. But I want that underlying stuff to not be forgotten in the shuffle – the underlying conflict in the brothers, about who they are to each other, and what life is going to mean for them, and how they feel about it all. It doesn’t do to get too complacent about those themes. Without them, the show really is just a Monster of the Week. You know?

    But the jury is still out. We shall see.

    I will check out that Tumblr you mention. PTSD and what it does to people is key to the show. Especially since it’s guys who place a high premium on being tough and self-reliant. They both get destabilized when they even approach feeling their own pain about their own lives. And of course that’s appropriate – you WANT them to question what happened to them, to get pissed off about being victimized, about not having a choice.

    I just re-watched Yellow Fever which is one of my favorite episodes. JA is on full clown display there – with some of his funniest moments EVER. BUT – and this is the genius of that script – that episode becomes the “excuse” to get Dean talking about what happened to him. Through being infected with fever, he cannot hold back the fear – of little dogs and scary noises and all kinds of stupid stuff like that. But it is that fear that he is finally allowed to experience that opens the gateway to the memories of the trauma and it is so horrifying he actually quits the job in a huff – in that hyped-up hilarious monologue by the car which is so entertainingly performed by JA – such desperation and humor at the same time. Not to be attempted by amateurs!! He, the character, MEANS what he is saying and yet he, the actor, knows how funny he is being too. I love JA for that so so much. That’s why I wrote that first post. Comedy like that is a generous quality – not everybody has it. Very few people have it. It’s a gift.

    But I digress. The way the flashbacks come to him, the nightmares, the way he cringes away from himself when he looks in the mirror – these are all just classic PTSD signs – and he just can’t believe that “talking about it” will help, especially when he wants so badly to block it all out.

    The script of Yellow Fever is so good because it shows how the Monster of the Week structure is used to open the doors to these emotional issues in the brothers’ lives – it’s done very very well, so much so that sometimes you can’t even tell it is happening. They HIDE their intentions. So that the fans out there who are only in it for the Mosnter of the Week stuff will go away satisfied, and the fans who love the angsty-brothers-talking-about-pain will also be happy. Everyone wins.

    There’s this amazing moment in the “shotgun shuts his cakehole” exchange where JA does this little laugh at his own big-brothery annoyingness. That is pure Dean. It could have been in any subsequent season. And I love that JP is allowed to not be grumpy all the time. He laughs at Dean’s jokes. He finds things absurd. His brother is ridiculous. He loves him.

    I love that entire scene in the car at the gas station. YES. It’s character-based and has nothing to do with driving the plot along – and that is a bold choice to have in a pilot. But you get so much information about the both of them in their banter about music, and cassette tapes, and Motorhead.

    And yes, Jared is wonderful in finding Dean funny and absurd. Some of the funniest moments in the show have to do with Jared looking at Jensen with this deadpan look on his face, taking in his brother’s absurdity, and not saying a WORD.

    • Helena says:

      Have been reading this avidly, as I’m still ploughing through the series (just finished Series 4). Great stuff. Entelechy – yes! Yes to what you say about the pilot. Just have a question about Season 9 since you mentioned it – is it still running in the course of running on TV or is it complete? Noticed it isn’t really available on DVD (I mean, there seems to be a DVD of 9 episodes on Amazon, but you can’t actually buy it.)

      • sheila says:

        Helena – yes, Season 9 is still running! They’re at the halfway mark, about.

        You can “rent” the Season 9 episodes on Amazon Instant Video soon after they air on television. But yeah, no DVD yet!

    • Jessie says:

      Erasing Lisa and Ben’s memories was AWFUL. And it wouldn’t even keep them safe! Because everyone else still remembers them! He does this self-defeating unilateralist things so often. Like the whole Ezekiel thing. He just has a completely whacked conception of what is under his control. He cannot handle (what he perceives as) his own failures in those areas and he makes these HUGE mistaken choices to rectify them.

      That said, faced with Sam’s death (thanks writers), it’s hard to blame him. Without that choice at the end of Season 2 we wouldn’t have a show.

      I want that underlying stuff to not be forgotten in the shuffle – the underlying conflict in the brothers, about who they are to each other, and what life is going to mean for them, and how they feel about it all.
      I want the writers to remember that the don’t have to tackle this by having the characters repeat the same old mistakes. I liked Sam doing the trials (I can’t hate anything that gave me this!), but, you know, then he keeps the coughing etc a secret.

      I love episodes like Yellow Fever. The show has a real knack for those dog-leg plots and tonal shifts and some of their best episodes use it: Mystery Spot, Monster at the End of the Book.

      • sheila says:

        Yes, and erasing Lisa and Ben’s memory means that he then deprives HIMSELF of the comfort of thinking about them from time to time. He shuts the door.

        Again, in character, but I hated it so much!

        Jessie – the screen grabs you have at your fingertips are so awesome! Hahahaha

        Yes: it’s frustrating to see them make the same mistakes. There has to be other things at stake for them, things we haven’t seen before. I have hope!

        What’s the End Game for these guys? I know we’ve discussed this before. But that’s gotta be on the table somewhere. You felt that End Game early on – during that entire season where Dean knew he was going to Hell and was fucking/drinking his way there. Brilliant.

        It was this underlying thread, this emotional continuity, that shifted from episode to episode – but kept us moving forward.

        It’s hard to keep track of such things, I imagine – with the ups and downs of the larger arcs, but it’s gotta be in the pot somehow.

        • Jessie says:

          But Dean can still remember them, right? So he still gets to use their memories for good or, more likely, regret.

          The End Game? We’ve seen it: nothing less that total reconciliation, perfect understanding, a life of minor threat and crime, a faultless car, happy and healthy with a soupcon of aesthetically pleasing, grizzled angst…

          I dunno. My read on last season was that it separated them, gave them each new girlfriends, let them choose each other with increasing clarity and positivity; kind of rebooting the relationship. It didn’t stay like that. In the end I guess they did not address the underlying pathologies. An addressed pathology, that’s what I want for the end game!

          • sheila says:

            I think addressing pathology would be an awesome End Game.

            And bravo, yet again, for the perfect screen grab in the perfect moment.

            Dean as the best PA in Hollywood? That’s the best End Game I could think of. He had a knack for it! “Copy that.”

  11. Helena says:

    Thanks for the quick response!

  12. Lia says:

    A reporter tracking down urban legends? Sounds a lot like Kolchak to me. No doubt, Kripke watched The Night Stalker too.

  13. Kim says:

    Hi – I love you.
    This was a marvelous piece about a truly worthy show.

    I discovered Supernatural this year (thanks Netfl*x) and have been obsessed or is it possessed?

    Thank you!

  14. Dawn says:

    Hello Sheila!

    I’m joining this party a little late, but I just wanted to say THANK YOU for your analysis and thoughts on this show…I only watched it because my 14 y.o. daughter begged me to let her see it, and (being the responsible mom) I said ok, as long as I watched it with her. (She is still freaked out by Nightmare Before Christmas, so I was worried about the monster/gore/violence aspects). We started with the pilot in March of 2016, and pretty steadily binged through 10 seasons by the end of August(thank you, Netflix)!

    Typically, I regard anything broadcast by the WB/CW network as “teenybopper” fare, so I was perplexed as to why I really became so enthralled and connected emotionally this series at the lovely age of 47. In my youth, I was an original Star Wars ‘Fangirl” before that term even existed–we were just fans.

    I recently began the series from the beginning again, to catch the nuances and foreshadowing and to try to figure out what it is that fascinates me so. When I revisited “Heart”, I was curious as to how Jared P got into his very emotional state for that wrenching final scene, so I googled and discovered your recap/analysis. Eureka!!

    My new process is: rewatch episode, then read recap post with the episode on pause in another tab, to rescan scenes as I read…this is awesome! I was delighted to take a sociology/communications class back in college called “Film as Communication Art”…which really broke down the cinematic components of setting, lighting, camera , etc etc…all the yummy ingredients which you are able to guide me through. I am really LOVING having your collaboration in my attempt to understand the depths of this story. The connections to classic film and television predecessors are spot on! I LOVE Quantum Leap…have also binged that one on Netflix..made my kids watch it too! I also LOVE Elvis and classic cinema. Finding your site has been like discovering a hidden treasure to dive in and explore!!

    But, mostly, you have validated my love for Supernatural. I knew there was something deeper there than “hot guys fighting monsters”, but was not really able to discuss it with anyone or explain that I knew it was much more, but couldn’t quite explain. You have allowed me to stop thinking of this show as just a “guilty pleasure” which I was (to be completely honest) embarrassed to let my peers know I watch.

    Thank you for that gift!

    • Linda Suarez says:

      I am so totally you! I too have a 14 year old daughter who started me on binging on this show about two gorgeous brothers driving around the country in an old car. When I found Sheila’s pages, I was so happy. Each and every post has had so much insight. I love Elvis!
      For my 50th birthday in July, my daughter and I are going to Chicago’s SPNCon.
      Other’s don’t get it, but this has so brought my daughter and I together!

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