Last fall, I set out to do something I should have done ten years ago: watch [Supernatural](series:200506). People had told me for years that it was "right up my alley" and hugely entertaining (if not wholly cerebral), but still, I resisted. It was, well, the CW, and there were just so many seasons. It was hard enough for me to keep up with shows that had just started, let alone get through the backlog of a series that had been running for the better part of a decade. How would I ever catch up?
But it came to pass one night that I found myself curled up on the couch under a blanket, doing my best to fend off a sinus infection and in need of something that would entertain but wouldn't be too long or complex for my cold-medicined brain to handle.
So I started my first episode of Supernatural, and I haven't looked back since. Last week, I finally clicked play on the most recent episode, and when it was finished, I realized...I was done. Caught up. There were no more episodes until the next week. Ten full-length seasons of a series in half a year.
I am nothing if not a completionist.
Yet obsessive binge-watching has given me a unique perspective, a bird's eye view of the show in its entirety instead of it being revealed in bits and pieces. It's standing on a ladder and looking down at a mostly-completed puzzle rather than sitting cross-legged on the ground and assembling a puzzle a piece at a time to reveal the full picture. Neither way is better, but watching that many seasons of a television series all in one go has taught me a few things about what it takes to create a cult hit — that doesn't get canceled too soon.
The first thing Supernatural got right was that it aimed small, and in a good way. The decision to pitch it to The WB network (later became The CW) is probably the one reason that Supernatural has been able to ride out the choppy waters of waxing and waning ratings. Dipping to an all-time low to an average of only 2.03 million viewers per episode in 2007 would have seen the plug pulled quickly had the show been on a larger broadcast network. But it's all relative. With The CW pulling in a smaller audience, 2.03 million isn't as low by comparison.
Niche and genre shows, until very recently, have tended to not fare as well with the larger, more general audiences of broadcast networks. One need look no further than to shows like Joss Whedon's Firefly and Dollhouse or Dan Harmon's [Community](series:714858) for evidence of that. Now, genre rules the airwaves, from [Game of Thrones](movie:817617) on HBO and [The Walking Dead](series:201193) on AMC to [Once Upon a Time](series:720994) on ABC. But back in 2005, when Supernatural first aired, genres too fantastic weren't yet de rigueur; airing the show on a cable network devoted to a younger demographic was the smartest move.
Being on a smaller network also helped shield the series from the damaging writer's strike in 2007-2008 that saw many other shows unable to recover: Those who watched each will remember the brilliant Scrubs coming to an undeserved, limping finish in its ninth season, and the promising Heroes being derailed in its second season due to the strike.
But if it's all about location, then equally important is figuring out what to build once you've planted your flag. And that's something that Supernatural has done very, very well over the last decade, something for which it doesn't get nearly enough credit. To the uninitiated, Supernatural is nothing more than a silly show about silly things. To those in the know, it's built up a sprawling, complex mythology that rivals anything found in a George R. R. Martin novel or Harry Potter franchise, and that matters. In a time when Hollywood is obsessed with mining familiar, already-told stories to adapt and every pilot season on TV finds itself welcoming a rush of cookie-cutter projects, it's clear that there are no new stories. But what a show can do is take old stories and put them together in new ways. Supernatural may be an amalgamation of various other genres - horror, procedural, road trip, and Western, to name just a few - but the show's creator, Eric Kripke, and its writers managed to take it all and turn it into a pastiche that somehow felt wholly new and unlike anything else on television.
And though one of the supporting branches of the show is its nods to the classics and what's come before, that doesn't mean the series has ever taken itself overseriously, despite the melodrama. The cast and crew have taken Supernatural to some truly wacky, weird, often hilarious places. For a show that can be genuinely scary, a show that wrestles with big questions regarding faith, theology, and the ugliness of human nature, Supernatural is surprisingly funny. Yet somehow, the craziness works where other shows would return a jumbled mess.
Simply put, Supernatural trusts its fanbase enough to take risks, having faith in fans' collective intelligence and loyalty enough to try new things simply because it can. The result is that it's up there with the best in terms of parody and satire when it wants to be, and it's those off-the-wall episodes that have become some of the show's most beloved.
Loyalty matters, and it goes both ways. The smartest shows and studios have recognized the importance of seeing their fans as more than ratings numbers. In a changing landscape where fandom culture rules entertainment right now, the most successful series are the ones that connect with their fans, listen, and respond accordingly. To that end, Supernatural was the first series to do this. The idea of "fandom" - at least, in way we recognize it today in our post-MCU, Tumblr-fied, Comic-Con world - was shaped and created by Supernatural. It's rare that a show will tip its hat directly to its fanbase and with such pointedness as Supernatural, but the 200th episode, an impressive number for a series to hit, was centered around the fanfiction that its fans had been writing for years. It was a direct and genuine "thank you" to the fans that had kept the show on the air year after year.
But building a fanbase is just as much about what the people involved with a series do off-screen as on. The show's stars are some of the most social media savvy and accessible personalities out there, with all of them regularly engaging with fans on Twitter and social media, and encouraging their fans to follow along as they live-tweet each episode as it airs. Philanthropic causes and charity work are also coded right into the cast's DNA, and they are absolutely vocal about getting their fans on board.
Because it truly is the cast with which fans ride or die. A good story will fade out if it's carried by a bad cast. A good cast, on the other hand, can carry a show even when the storyline wavers. And a great cast with great chemistry can create enough loyalty from fans that it would be folly to cancel it, even if it hits a rough patch. And Supernatural has a great cast, more than capable of fully realizing their characters, turning them into something a step away from reality in fans' minds through the sheer force of lending their chemistry to already charismatic characters. It's an abundance of riches that the recurring characters that inhabit the world of Supernatural are just as fully formed and wonderfully engaging as the Winchesters themselves.
Is the show perfect? My God, no. It has had well-documented problems with cringe-inducing queerbaiting, fridging every ally (and enemy) for the sake of a plot device, and the fact that it can't write non-trope female characters to save its life. And I struggle with those things, greatly. It has major problems, and I absolutely understand why people might be turned off to the show or view it through a critical lens.
But despite that, the show has been beloved. Fans love it in spite of its flaws, if not because of them. In watching the entirety of ten seasons of Supernatural in a few months, I can reduce it to the very basis of why it works, of why it's lasted: It has always had the voice of its fans in its ear. Fan reaction has always been its compass. At a time when so many TV networks are scrambling to give 'em what they want, but failing, Supernatural succeeds because it listens to what its fans are saying. And that symbiotic relationship has made each half stronger.
Ten years in Hollywood, after all, is an eternity. And a series that can keep consistently delivering at a high level over those ten years is in some truly rarefied air. If ever were a new series searching how to endear itself to its fans, I'd tell it to look no further than Supernatural as its blueprint.