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rachelmanija ([personal profile] rachelmanija) wrote2010-04-05 11:47 am

Writing meta and Supernatural: "The Dark Side of the Moon"

Writing meta below the cut.

This involves spoilers for a recent episode of Supernatural, "Dark Side of the Moon." I enjoyed the episode as fanfic, which would probably have had this label if it had been posted as such: "Hurt!Dean, Puppyeyes!Sam, Soulmate!Winchesters (but no explicit 'cest), angst, character death (but not really), sorry there's so little Castiel."

But it also reminded me of why I stopped watching the show regularly in S2, and completely in the abominable S3. After that I'd occasionally watch an episode to see if it ever got back to what I liked in S1 - pretty boy brothers who love each other but never say so, hunting monsters and angsting and saving each other. It didn't.

So, spoilery and not very squeeful, but also possibly of interest even if you don't watch the show at all, since it's meta about the problems of a long-running series.

Keep in mind that I am only aware of post-S3 events via fannish osmosis and occasional out of context episodes, so correct me if I'm wrong. Cut for post-S3 and possibly inaccurate spoilers:

What I've gotten from the above is that every single human and many non-human supporting characters except Bobby died, and the show stopped being about "helping people, hunting things" and became mostly about the apocalypse, and Dean and Sam don't associate with normal people (except Bobby) but only with angels, demons, and devils, and Sam is supposed to be the vessel for Lucifer and has been drinking demon blood, but hasn't actually turned evil or at least hasn't randomly killed innocent people yet (or if he did, the show doesn't care.)

Premise Bait-and-Switch

As you may recall from my Dollhouse post, the concept of "two brothers helping people and hunting (supernatural) things" is the show's premise. So this is an unusual example of a show switching premises in midstream, to, as far as I can tell, "two brothers are caught up in an oncoming apocalypse."

Note that I did not think that Angel switched premises in S5, as the concept of the show continued to be "a vampire with a soul tries to help people and redeem himself." This is, obviously, arguable, and a lot of people did feel that it had switched premises and did stop watching.

That's the danger of switching premises: viewers signed up for one type of show, and may not be interested in or may be actively turned off by the other type of show. Given the enormous weight of the tradition in American TV that premises don't change, the new premise had better either be pretty damn cool, or contain a lot of elements which people who liked the first premise are likely to enjoy.

(Note: TV in other countries often follows different rules. I am aware of this, and am only speaking of US network TV. Nor am I arguing that it's always artistically better to stick to the same premise. I'm just explaining why, on US TV, problems can arise when you don't.)

So, is the new premise pretty damn cool? Well, theoretically it is. I tend to prefer arc-heavy shows to episodic ones, and I love apocalypses. In practice... it doesn't look like it. I liked the execution of the old premise enough to buy DVDs of S1. I haven't liked what I've seen of the execution of the new one. Nor does the new premise have many of the elements which attracted me to the old one. See below...

Cut for spoilers for "Dark of the Moon." Good angst, but...

Life in a Snowglobe

It's always harder to pull off a show where all the characters are angels and demons or incarnations of them than one about real people, and this, sir, is no Angel Sanctuary. Without many ordinary people left, either as supporting characters or as helped person of the week, the show feels like it's in this claustrophobic, hermetic little bubble - just like the horrific "Heaven" shown in the latest episode, in which souls live in sealed cocoons of fond memories, never interacting with each other. UGH. Maybe Hell is other people, but so is any true Heaven.

Speaking of which, I don't mind weird theology, but if Heaven is a dystopia, it begs for either a storyline in which the heroes rebel against God (very unlikely on US TV) or one in which the happy ending is endless reincarnation on Earth (also unlikely on US TV.) As it is, it just seems weird. If both Heaven and Hell are populated by equally evil supernatural beings screwing people over... well, I can think of places to go with that, but without either rebellion or reincarnation it's kind of depressing.

Finally, the conclusion of the episode - that God was AWOL or not going to interfere - was obvious to the viewers from the get-go. Of course the story can't be fixed by God solving everything! The only way to make that conclusion not be a giant yawn would have been to focus the episode on the one person to whom that would be not only a shock but a soul-shattering blow - not Dean or Sam, but Castiel. But Castiel wasn't the focus. As it was actually played, it felt like treading water.

One more problem. If your main characters get resurrected repeatedly, the show loses all jeopardy.

Even more stasis

This show would be improved at least thirty percent if Dean and Sam stopped talking about their feelings. It's all tell and not enough show, and that goes all the way back to late S2. Remember when Dean couldn't say what he felt, so he smashed the Impala? Nothing that powerful has happened on this show ever since.

Also, though I did enjoy the emo porn of the last episode, what did all that angst establish? Dean is a needy person whose happiness is found only through his family (now only Sam). Sam wants to be independent and is happiest when free of his family. This dynamic hurts Dean's feelings and makes Sam feel trapped.

We learned all that in the PILOT. Why is it still being reiterated now? More importantly, why has nothing changed emotionally over five whole seasons?

Any sort of change or evolution would be more interesting than total stasis. Think of the Pembleton/Bayliss relationship in Homicide, which had a somewhat similar dynamic in that Bayliss wanted something from Pembleton that Pembleton couldn't or wouldn't give him. What exactly it was that Bayliss wanted was also subject to change and individual interpretation.

Over six seasons, we saw Bayliss change a lot, and saw how difficult it was for Pembleton to change even a little; we saw different sides of their characters revealed even when they weren't themselves changing; we saw them learn from experience, and backslide; we saw Bayliss try to want less, and Pembleton try to give him more, and Pembleton try to get Bayliss to get off his back; we saw them lean on each other; we saw the limits of their relationship; we saw those limits being pushed; and we saw them having deep and important relationships with other people, and interacting with each other in the context of those.

Maybe Sam and Dean ran through some of that in episodes I missed? But I see, in particular, a vast black hole in terms of important relationships with other people who are actually onscreen.
Without that the show gets very incestuous, and not in the sexy way. Plus, we can't care about the apocalypse when there are no characters we care about (other than Dean and Sam) who will be harmed by it.

I'm not even going to get into the show's politics, except to say that it's pretty sad when the episode with the dead girl, the magical Black gardener angel, and the dead mom getting felt up for the angst of her sons was... surprisingly non-offensive.
cofax7: climbing on an abbey wall  (Default)

[personal profile] cofax7 2010-04-05 08:24 pm (UTC)(link)
We learned all that in the PILOT. Why is it still being reiterated now? More importantly, why has nothing changed emotionally over five whole seasons?

YES THANK YOU. I was astonished at all the posts I saw where people were squeeing cheerfully over the angst, and I just didn't get it. This was all stuff we already knew.

I hate to rain on the parade of all my friends who thought it was the Best Episode in Two Seasons, but sweet jebuslug, it was totally treading water to me, both emotionally and plot-wise. ::shrugs::

[identity profile] spectralbovine.livejournal.com 2010-04-05 07:38 pm (UTC)(link)
Sam and Dean do still associate with normal people. They take time off from the apocalypse and do the usual saving people, hunting things business. But I would agree that the show is largely about the apocalypse these days. For instance, some of the saving people, hunting things missions tie into the apocalypse because they're caused by one of the Horsemen.

Sam has killed an innocent woman, and he feels really bad about it. It was pretty much the nadir of his downward spiral, and Dean's been subconsciously giving him shit about it since.

I've really enjoyed the evolution of the show and the continuing change in scope, although I do miss some of the old-school monster-fighting episodes. Those haven't completely disappeared, however. I also prefer shows with more of a mytharc, so I think the show's gotten better over the years.

I'm not really in it for the manpain and emo porn, but I am sure people who are would be able explain to you the detailed ups and downs of Sam and Dean's relationship and how it has changed and evolved as well.

[identity profile] lady-ganesh.livejournal.com 2010-04-05 11:15 pm (UTC)(link)
You know, I agree their relationship has changed, but I'm not sure it's evolved much. When I stopped watching-- and that was mid-S3-- the dynamic Rachel outlines was...still pretty much in place. With a side note of blaming Sam for pretty much everything wrong in the universe, kind of literally.

[identity profile] veejane.livejournal.com 2010-04-05 08:22 pm (UTC)(link)
I don't remember if you were there when I discussed the running-in-place problem with [livejournal.com profile] coffeeandink, probably 2.5 years ago now. The conclusion we came to was: there's a certain segment of any given audience that doesn't want characters to change. They must stay the same, and re-enact the same problems and emotions again and again, and that's satisfying. This strikes me as a very fanficky audience-need; it's perfectly acceptable for fanfic to repeat itself (and in some ways it's very satisfying when it does so) but it's boring and embarrassing and weird when a professional product does it. Like watching someone give a speech from doubled cue-cards without noticing that they're reading each sentence twice.

(Reagan did this once, presumably after Alzheimer's had kicked in.)

Supernatural is rife with fanficky traits, like maximal-suffering backstories and secret angst that isn't actually secret at all and using the whole chicken when a feather would do. And none of these are bad traits, per se. But when I see them in professional works, I begin to think that the work is not a thesis, a mediation between internal and external worlds, as I demand from a work for which I am paying (in ad-minutes or dollars). If it's professionally-made fanfic, i.e. a purely internal work, then I might find it anthropologically interesting, but I don't think I'll be paying for it.

[identity profile] sartorias.livejournal.com 2010-04-05 09:05 pm (UTC)(link)
Huh. Was just talking with a couple of people who watch a lot of TV about why we stop watching shows, and this discussion here parallels a lot of what was said.

We didn't talk too much about switching premises, but we did about shows where we feel that the forward movement of the story stops and the eps just tread water, lots of angst or action or angsty action that never resolves anything. Just more of the same sort of problem.
yourlibrarian: Angel and Lindsey (Default)

[personal profile] yourlibrarian 2010-04-07 12:25 am (UTC)(link)
This is pretty spot on, particularly in the discussion of how much of a bubble the characters keep moving in and how there's very little sense of a "verse" after five seasons. I really don't understand how they can actually avoid character development after all this time.

Slightly off-topic rant

[identity profile] gaudior.livejournal.com 2010-04-07 06:31 pm (UTC)(link)
I am so sick of the "God is AWOL" premise! Actually, I am quite sick in general of angels-who-aren't-terrifying and demons-who-are-more-sympathetic-than-evil and Christian-mythology-with-no-Jesus and Good-characters-who-are-more-pretentious-than-good!

I've seen good things done with all of these, but why the Hell do modern fantasists insist on writing Christian metaphysics in ways that are probably meant to be subversive, but mostly just back away from making things be truly wise or insightful about the nature of the universe? What else is religion for?

(Well, besides that I have a people-with-wings fetish...)