The fourth season premiere of Supernatural is on tonight. Whoo-hoo! While I was sick, I rewatched Supernatural seasons one, two, and three to cope when I was feeling my worst. I also learned a few things about writing:
Season 1 & 2 lessons
Writing doesn’t have to be serious to be good. Supernatural season 1 & 2 episodes are fun, well-written escapism. (Also, the leads can act and the episodes are skillfully shot). There’s a new monster/mystery each week and fun elements like the brothers impersonating: cops, FBI agents, Homeland Security, reporters, and even priests. They stay at rundown highway motels, use credit card fraud to pay the bills, eat gas-mart junk food, and drive across the country in their 1967 Chevy Impala entertaining themselves with fun banter.
Each week they solve some mysterious happening by questioning citizens and doing research. Then they fight the scary spirits and demons and save nice people in horrible trouble. In addition, there’s a season long arc, so the monster of the week plots are: 1) stories on their own, and 2) clues that add up to a long story arc as well. Fun elements and good plotting make this escapism worth watching.
Good writing has likable characters. Older brother, Dean, is basically a badass with a heart-of-gold. He’s skilled at hunting demons, playing poker, picking locks, escaping the law, and making funny quips. While he loves his 1967 Chevy Impala and listening to his collection of mullet rock, his job is his life. He’s a lot more insecure and dysfunctional than his smartass comments let on and he needs his brother to keep him going.
Younger brother, Sam, is the “sensitive smart one”. He gave up a “full ride” at Stanford law school to help his brother find their missing dad. He’s the one strangers open up to, the one who researches demon lore, and the one who keeps Dean going. The whole show works because you care about these two brothers and their relationship.
Good writing balances humor, angst, and tension. There’s a personal story line for each brother per season to provide the angst and drama. The monsters, demons, and spirits provide plenty of scary tense happenings. Balanced between the angst and tension, there’s a lot of humor and fun. It’s that balance that makes this show work.
Season 3 lessons
While rewatching the entire show, I noticed how uneven season 3 was – maybe it was the writers’ strike or maybe it was Dean’s tricky situation. Some of the episodes are great, but some, well, they’re disappointing. Here’s what season 3 taught me about writing:
Show, Don’t Tell: If want your audience to be afraid of the terrible times ahead, show it. The Groundhog Day episode did that nicely. Why is Dean’s situation so painful for Sam? We see why – over and over. It’s heartbreaking (and pretty funny, at times, too.)
How do you bore your audience? Have demons preach sanctimonious sermons warning of horrible happenings- again, and again, and again. Oy!
Keep the crucial fun-to-angst balance: Like concentrated dish detergent, a little angsty monologing goes a long way – too much, and there are soapsuds oozing all over my perfectly fun horror-detective show.
Make sure your characters maintain their internal consistency: I like Sam but Dean drives this show. So when Dean’s situation starts changing him, it’s tricky stuff. The thing I like about Dean is that even though he’s a smart-ass, deep down he cares about people and doing the right thing. He likes sex, but he’s always seemed fairly respectful of women. Sure he’s afraid of getting close; we saw in season one that getting close leads to nothing but rejection for Dean. Suddenly, in season three though, Dean’s a big jerk calling women bitches left and right. True, they’re demons and thieves, but it’s a bad look on Dean. There’s a big difference between badass and asshole.
Dean also suffers from the Joey Tribbiani–Sam Malone syndrome – where the writers can’t decide exactly how smart or stupid he is. One minute he’s perfectly smart and then the next – just to get the easy joke – he’s dumber than the beef jerky he loves. With good writing, even in trying times, characters have an internal consistency.
I can’t wait to see how things turn out in season four. Here’s wishing the new season gets back to the stellar writing I’m use to!