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Struggling with Supernatural

So, having done my day's work on the galleys for Reluctant Mage, I turn my brain -- at last -- to a topic that's been nibbling away at the back of my brain for quite some time now. Please bear with me as a think my way through the things that have been bugging me. And please bear in mind that this is all opinion, supposition and speculation on my part and represents my point of view only. I don't ask or expect anyone to agree with me. Like I said, it's just me thinking aloud.

I'll start off by establishing my frame of reference . Here is my philosophy of dramatic storytelling:

Dramatic fiction is a funny thing. When we sit down to read a book or watch a movie or tv show or a play in the theatre, we're consciously playing a game of make believe.  We know it's not real, but we pretend that it is. Hey! says the storyteller. I'm going to tell you a story, so let's all pretend that what I'm telling you is real, that the characters are real people and the events are really happening. Let's all suspend our disbelief and lose ourselves in the story I'm telling, so that we enter a vivid world of imagination and you forget you're reading a book or watching people pretend to be other people for the next hour or two or three or a whole season of tv series. Okay, say we the audience. We'll go along with that. We'll pretend that everything you're telling us is real, and we'll have a real emotional response to it. We will suspend our disbelief, and trust you to see the story through to the end without any tricks.

That's what I think is happening when it comes to getting involved in a work of dramatic fiction. It's a contract. It's a mutually honoured promise. You'll tell me a story, and I'll stick around to hear the story -- for as long as you entertain me and I can keep believing the story is real. I stress here, this is what I think happens with dramatic fiction. There are many different kinds of storytelling, and some of it is deliberately self-conscious from the very beginning. Sometimes the storyteller sets things up so we are always aware of the storytelling vehicle and that we never completely lose ourselves in the fictional world. When that's the structure from the get go, when we the audience know what we're buying, and can choose -- before the story begins -- to partake in a self-conscious storytelling style, then there is no cheating and no reason to feel bad because the fourth wall gets knocked down.

You're probably familiar with the theatre term 'the fourth wall'. It's another way of discussing the suspension of disbelief, or the fictional world bubble. As observers of the story, we peer in through this invisible 'wall' and watch the story unfold as though we were flies on that wall, privy to the reality playing out before us, never directly involved in the action, always invisible ourselves. That's the general construction of dramatic fiction. It's played for real, it's played for keeps, and we the audience are not an active part of the narrative. We observe it and respond to it, we do not play a role in it.

Which brings us to Supernatural. From the pilot episode of Season 1, to the Season 4 episode 'The Monster at the End of this Book', Supernatural adhered to the dramatic storytelling convention I've outlined above. At no time was the audience a part of the story. The world of Supernatural was an enclosed and 'real' world, where events played out as though they were real events being experienced by real people, and we the audience were silent, unwitnessed observers. And while there were moments of whimsy and humour in those 3 and 3/4 seasons, never was there any hint that the fourth wall had been broken. Everything that happened happened for keeps, and for real. Jess really died. John was really possessed by the YED. Dean nearly gave up his soul to Tess the reaper. John really sold his soul to the YED in return for Dean's life. Sam really died and Dean really sold his soul for him. And then Dean really died and went to hell and Sam really lost himself grieving for him, and Dean came back because a righteous angel named Castiel raised him from perdition.

In the world of Supernatural, all these things happened and we, the audience, responded as though they'd happened. We were totally invested, emotionally committed, to this story. We maintained the contract, and we kept on believing. And the storytellers kept their part of the bargain too, and they kept it well.

And then something happened. In the episode 'The Monster at the End of this Book'  Supernatural's storytellers decided to poke a hole in the fourth wall. It wasn't a terribly huge hole, and they managed to plaster over it at the end of the episode and return us to the dramatic tension that was keeping the story going, that kept us believing in the story and the world and the characters. But still. They rattled the narrative good and hard. But then, going forward, they kept the fourth wall intact with totally self-contained, strictly unselfconscious narrative drive right up to the breathtaking season finale, 'Lucifer Rising'. And so successful were they in pushing season four to its brilliant conclusion, I thought they pretty much managed to hit the reset button and return the fourth wall to its original, pristine condition.

But then something else happened between season 4 and season 5. I have no idea what it was. I have some speculations, which I'll outline now. Feel free to disagree or throw up alternate theories.

I think they lost confidence in the story they were telling. I think they were afraid they were getting too bogged down in the internal mythology and that they might not get new viewers if they maintained the narrative trajectory they were on. I think they suddenly realised that in Castiel they'd created a huge problem for themselves, in that the character was becoming more and more important to the narrative as it was being created and that altered the established story balance between Dean and Sam. I think they lost their nerve when they saw how strongly many viewers were responding to the obvious actor/character chemistry between Dean and Castiel. I think they looked ahead to the logical narrative outcome of what they'd set up in season 4 -- the breaking of the brothers and their bond -- and lost their nerve about following through on the set up. I think they tried to hit the reset button, not only on the brothers and their fractured relationship, but on the entire narrative. I think they tried to pretend that what they set up in season 4 could be resolved in a couple of episodes and they could go back to stand alone MOTW kind of stories, as though the enormous dramatic weight of what had come before never happened. They thought they could have an apocalypse happen off stage.

And I think, as a result, season 5 so far has been little short of a catastrophic failure. Not only in how the narrative has been butchered, all the promises made not kept, but in the continuation of the self-conscious storytelling. That chink in the fourth wall that they created in Monster, that they then so successfully papered over in the remaining episodes of season 4, has had a bulldozer driven through it. And now the fourth wall is in rubble. From the gratuitous and cringe-inducing force-feeding of Wincest in the season 5 opening episode, to naming characters after internet message board adjudicators, to devoting entire episodes to the self-referential involvement of fandom in the convention episode, to talking about other people's narratives and poking fun at them, it seems to me that the storytellers have abandoned any pretence of continuing to believe in their own fictional world. Look, look, they scream at us, the audience. We see you, we see you watching us! And look, now you're in the story! See? See? Aren't we clever? Isn't this fun?

Well, no. I'm sorry. This is not fun for me. You have broken faith with me, your audience. When I sat down at the start of this story, you told me that this would be a real story, about real people, and that I could trust you to tell it with integrity. And now you're bored, or you've lost your nerve, or something, and you're busy throwing erasers and spitballs at me right through the fourth wall you've so gleefully torn down. And then, in the next breath, you ask me to take the story seriously again? To believe it? To trust you?

I am really struggling with that.

They've also done a bit of a hatchet job on their characters, I think. Try comparing the Castiel of the season 4 opening episode, or On the Head of Pin, to the Castiel who sat on a fart cushion. Compare the Dean of any episode preceding season 5 (with the cringeworthy exception of nearly all of Yellow Fever) to the ridiculous masturbating frat boy of season 5. This is the man who went to hell for his brother? This is the man chosen by heaven to defeat Lucifer? This is the broken hero at the end of Head of a Pin?

With a couple of exceptions -- notably The End -- for me this season has been nothing but wasted time, wasted chances, and an ongoing parade of character assassinations. It has been a wholesale abandonment of the story as set up from the pilot, and most particularly through season 4.  For me, the narrative of season 5 is almost entirely incoherent. I can see no plan, no logic, no sense of internal consistency.  I see the belief in the story's integrity sacrificed to juvenile, self-indulgent, self-congratulatory twaddle.

Here's the thing. If they had laid the ground rules from season 1, episode 1, that the storyteller was going to ignore the fourth wall and insert himself and the audience into the narrative? Then I would have no grounds for complaint. But they didn't. They asked me to trust them and believe in this story, these people, and then they went ha ha! Gotcha! All the promises they made about telling a dramatic story, about remaining internally consistent with their narrative, their characters, their logic, their mythology -- well, they've pretty much broken them all. And still they ask me to trust them.

Look at the tone and presentation of any episode leading up to season 5 -- yes, even Monster. There is such conviction in the storytelling. There is such belief in that fictional world that at no time, not even for a second, does the audience doubt the reality of the events or the people. We laugh and we cry because they are so real. And now they've been reduced to punchlines and mocking caricatures of themselves.

Wow. As I write this, I realise just how angry I am. I feel like I've been punked. I feel like I've been laughed at. If the people telling the story can't take it seriously any more, can't believe in these people and their lives any more, can't hold true to the story they started telling, then what are they saying to me? And what are they saying about themselves?

I realise that one response to this is to say, hey, get a grip, it's only a story. And that's quite true. It is only a story. But as  someone who sat down and gave my time and heart to the story, I can't escape how I feel. I take stories really, really seriously. Hell, I make my living telling stories. They mean something to me. Stories are central to my life. And for me, this story has been monumentally and irreversibly bungled. All the promise of season 4, all the wonderful narratives and themes and questions the entire series has raised? They've been pissed away. It's too late. They had their chance to build on the brilliance that was season 4 and they blew it. There was a reason season 4 saw the show explode in the ratings and the public's imagination. And they've taken all that good will and pissed it away. They've messed about with their own  mythology so much none of it means anything now. They've smashed the suspension of disbelief and made it impossible to trust their word - for me, at least.

You know, while I'm angry and disappointed and struggling to care or believe about this story now, more than anything I am confused. I cannot understand how a team of storytellers who got so many things so wonderfully right for 4 seasons have managed, in a handful of episodes, to ruin their story. At least, it's ruined for me. Pretty much. I'll see it through to the end of season 5 but likely I'll bail after that. I simply don't trust them any more. And to me, that is the single most crucial element in storytelling.

Trust me, says the storyteller. Give me your time and your money and your heart and trust me. I won't let you down.

Well, this little audience member is feeling really, really let down right now. And maybe it doesn't matter. Maybe the storyteller couldn't give a fat rat's arse that I feel that way. But  I do. And I needed to get it off my chest!

Comments

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galathea_snb
Mar. 15th, 2010 08:48 am (UTC)
Well said! You addressed a couple of points here that I feel very pissed about myself, like breaking down the forth wall and reducing the characters to caricatures for a huge amount of S5. I do think that S5 made a turn to the better from Abandon All Hope on, although obviously nowhere near the brilliance of their older seasons, but at least I stopped having the feeling to watch a completely different show most of the time.

However, the crucial point you make and that I wholeheartedly agree with is that the writers managed to completely destroy my faith in them and the story they are telling within the short span of 5 episodes, and I am inconsolable about that. I have signed that contract between storyteller and audience with my blood. I have never loved two characters more than Sam and Dean and to feel so deeply betrayed is killing me. I am not sure if I will ever be able to get over that betrayal. I guess that even if they will return the show I fell in love with to me at some point, there will always be those trust issues from now on. :(
karenmiller
Mar. 15th, 2010 09:00 am (UTC)
I think that trust is one of the most crucial elements in life, full stop. And I do believe there's a huge element of trust when it comes to storytelling. And since I can't begin to understand the thinking behind what these storytellers have done, I can't find it in me to say it's okay. Because not a single they've done is necessary, in the terms of narrative construction. All they've done is undermine everything they've achieved to date. It just boggles my mind. And since it's their story, they can do that. But I feel really cheated.
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llywela13
Mar. 15th, 2010 08:57 am (UTC)
This is a paragraph I wrote in the wake of 5.09 before deciding that the episode did not deserve to have a review written about it: Okay, one of the hallmarks of a really good novel is that it creates a coherent, consistent and credible internal universe in which readers can immerse themselves. And if a reader does immerse his or herself in the internal universe of that novel, taking delight in the characters and their adventures to the extent that they continue thinking about them long after they have finished the book, that does not mean that the readers are fantasists unable to distinguish between reality and fantasy. It simply means that the novel has done its job successfully – created a fantasy world strong enough and real enough to make the story worth reading, thus providing readers with the entertainment and escapism they were looking for when they picked it up.

The same can be said of a TV show.


I was going to go on to say much what you've said here, that the writers of this show have broken faith with their viewers, not only by destroying the narrative integrity of the show, but by making fun of viewers for caring about that narrative integrity in the first place - when having and caring about that narrative integrity is pretty much the whole point of storytelling!

There have been episodes this season that I really liked, but even those feel tainted. I have been thrown out of the Supernatural universe and can't get back in - not least because it no longer feels safe to do so. The impact of even those episodes that I really enjoyed, therefore, is massively reduced. I feel cheated and betrayed. I have lost my ability to write about the show - why should I invest such time and effort? Why should I care about exploring the detail when the writers have chosen not to include any?

Stupid show. I'm starting to feel that the damage caused by this season can never be repaired. At the moment I'm taking a complete break from it, not even rewatching old episodes, and - worryingly - I find that I don't miss it at all. :(
karenmiller
Mar. 15th, 2010 09:07 am (UTC)
Exactly so. Knowing what a train wreck awaits, knowing how little respect the storytellers now seem to have for not only their own story but for me, their audience, I can't bring myself to rewatch the good stuff.

It's as though, in exposing themselves so much to fandom, and being confronted by fandom's fringe and often loony elements, they've decided that everyone who likes their story is that kind of fan and so is undeserving of their care. As though they've lost interest in the story they're telling.

Interesting, for me, how that works. I absolutely adored the reworked BSG until the last season. Once they made some shifts in the narrative, clearly moving away from what they started to say in some cases, and the more in love they fell with the Cylons at the expense of the original refugee characters, the less I enjoyed it. And I hated the finale so much, for so many reasons, that I can't now go back and look at the early seasons I loved so much because I know where they're headed and I hate it so much. It really did feel for many in many cases that they were either making it up very much on the fly, or changing their mind mid-ride, and I lost my faith there, too.

Sigh.

But yeah. I am totally dispirited with what's happened with Spn. It's a salutary lesson for me, as a storyteller.
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harper47
Mar. 15th, 2010 09:34 am (UTC)
Extremely well said. I could not agree more. It's so sad what they did when they compare what they could have done. Dean has not even been recognizable since Episode 4. That's where the season came to a screeching halt. I despise what they did with Dean and Cas. Despise. Smoking chemistry that was thrown away, the fractured relationship handwaved away and I could not loathe the (as you say) frat boy characterization of Dean more if I tried.
karenmiller
Mar. 15th, 2010 09:45 am (UTC)
Indeed. Like I said, so many wasted opportunities to build on what was developed in season 4. This could have been a season of dramatic storytelling at its best. And now it's a dog's breakfast. Offhand, when it comes to tv, for me the only thing that comes close in terms of screwing up a good thing is what happened to the X Files post Mulder.
blackjedii
Mar. 15th, 2010 12:21 pm (UTC)
Hmm. I'm going to try my best to respond to you, but if it seems a little confusing, just try to tell me and I will clarify as much as possible.

First off, I will say: I (for the most part) like Season 5 better than Season 4. I enjoy dramatic storytelling from time to time, but drama-heavy with little to no happy moments is downright suffocating to me. Add to that a serious lack of fun, and you have one ex-viewer.
So - I think there were... three episodes I liked in S4? Yes, that seems about right.

That said, I am in no way saying that S5 is good - it really, really isn't. Even upon rewatch, Changing Channels doesn't hold up and lord knows Swap Meat was an absolute trainwreck. But I find it, as a quasi-serious-casual viewer, much more enjoyable in some respects.

As far as a strong story goes, S5 does not have it the way S4 does. However, S4 had to lay down a whole new mythology, which meant they had to spend a great deal of time focusing on it. I think this is the reason why S4 seems to overall hold together more, as did S1 where they were setting out the brother's story and the hunting world.
But I'm not going to say that S5's inconsistency is new - the worst offender of being aimless is S2. S3 was equally bad, and I remember quite a bit of teeth-gnashing about the meandering plot and the unrecognizable characters. And naturally, things only started to turn around at about 9 or 10... right before the Writer's Strike hit. S2 and S3 are the reason why I'm ironically expecting a much stronger late season now that the Tiki bar episodes are out of the way.

As far as an overall plan from the get-go goes - really, I think people give S4 far too much credit. It was a giant Reset Button from the start, and the writers admitted as much. Much of the plot was a tease until the very end, with Dean getting promised "something big" that was never fully addressed until this season where they decided to slot him into being Michael's chosen vessel. The conclusion of Sam's three-year journey had to be custom-fit for this particular season; while "Sam starting the Apocalypse" was in the cards, how he did it probably was not. Castiel, who had such a large arc, is entirely a response to fan opinion - the angel was originally only going to be around for three or so episodes before he was replaced by a brand new angel! Even Ruby wasn't exactly mapped out when filming began; Kripke commented somewhere that they'd considered maybe having her switch bodies each week so that only Sam would recognize her, however he enjoyed Cortese's performance and kept her as the single body.
So even then, decisions that affect the plot get made during the season and this can considerably alter things as episodes go on. Thematically, I do have to say I'd almost wish that Castiel had died in 4.22 because it's pretty darned clear that they really have no idea what to do with him outside of "People like Misha Collins." And while I can respect giving him somewhat of a storyline, ultimately this show is about two very damaged brothers, not two very damaged brothers and this angel guy who wants to figure out why those silly humans are so hung up on sex and chocolate.

I personally don't think the plot or the narrative have ever been the show's super-strong points - the more you look at it, especially in the last three years, what Kripke does is mimic some of the things he likes (Hellraiser, Constantine, Neil Gaiman) into his narrative and frame it around the Winchesters and the American midwest. Characterisation is usually supposed to be stronger, but ever since S2 they've had a tendency to fall back on Dean's angst when they need to have drama and I think that hurts the story more than the plot. The meta episodes are entirely nonsensical and boy do I have a low opinion of them, but overall outside of Monster (which is one of my MOST HATED THINGS EVER because everyone openly admitted it was just an exercise in self-indulgence for their "loving" fans) it can be ignored if you just bypass two episodes.
blackjedii
Mar. 15th, 2010 02:55 pm (UTC)
ahh, d'oh, I forgot: The way I view seasons also depends entirely on the length of time I see them in. S1 / S2 held up better because I was watching them within the span of a week; not the span of eight months.
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claudiapriscus
Mar. 15th, 2010 02:41 pm (UTC)
I think you've made some very good points here. There's been something kind of off about this season that I've struggled to put my finger on, but I think you've nailed a good part of it: they lost the plot, and have tried to make up for that by waving around shiny gimmicks.

The brilliance of season 4, I think, was that it had (for the most part) enough internal cohesion in its season-long narrative that even when it absolutely did not fit with some of the set up they'd done in previous seasons, it seemed to. If only because it had so much momentum and seemed to have a clear idea of where it was going. I loved season 4 (with one really big exception), and it is what got me hooked on the show. I even absolutely loved Monster at the End of the Book, because while I love metafiction, it's often used as a one-off gimmick and throw away lines. But they didn't, they used it to advance the story.

With Season 5, I'm no longer sure what story they are telling, and as a result of that, I can't stop from falling into the plot holes. I've still been watching, because they do occasionally do something interesting and I keep hoping they'll start telling the story again.
karenmiller
Mar. 15th, 2010 07:39 pm (UTC)
Exactly. In season 4 they knew where they were heading and they were heading there, for the most part, with confidence. There were some mis steps, for me-- hated Yellow Fever, was largely uninterested in After School Special, the suicidal teddy bear did very little for me -- the main story element they bunged this time was Dean's post hell recovery, where I think they totally bottled out -- and the fact that in keeping Lilith off stage and opaque as a means of creating narrative tension they actually ruined the narrative tension because she became a ghost and not a real menace -- leaving all that aside, there was enough really good stuff that I was swept along.

And now? Meh. And it's too late.
astri13
Mar. 15th, 2010 04:22 pm (UTC)
You know, while I'm angry and disappointed and struggling to care or believe about this story now, more than anything I am confused. I cannot understand how a team of storytellers who got so many things so wonderfully right for 4 seasons have managed, in a handful of episodes, to ruin their story.

That is a question I've been asking myself because I absolutely have to agree with your post.

I wasn't enamored with the psychic kids plot and especially not with the deal, and the show always had noticeable trouble with pacing their story, BUT it was much more forgiveable with "little" stories. I don't think Season 2 is really tight arc-wise but I still really enjoyed it. The individual episodes, the character work, I liked it.

However, now we have an apocalypse, a plot where I expect tension to heighten, not be sucked out of the room by pointless comedy filler after comedy filler. This is no longer a story about a couple of kids with X-men powers, the whole world is at stake - presumably. Last Season everybody trembled in their shoes at the thought of Lucifer rising. Well, he has risen and I gotta say his reputation FAR exceeds him. In retrospect Season 4 looks like Chicken littling.

Woohoo, funny Walmart apocalypse. And I don't buy the budget excuse because former WB genre shows certainly didn't have a lot budget-wise and they still managed some amazing epic storytelling, emphasis on epic.

And very much agreed with the character work done this Season. The overdone parodies from Tall Tales would laugh at those characters now for being charicatures.

It is more than unfortunate that even if this Season pulls itself together for a spectacular finish run, it will still be 75 % wasted potential.

Maybe it was the loss of Kim Manners. I know he did during early Season 4 but as they break the "main" story of the upcoming Season during the respective hiatus, maybe KM was the guy who previously went "you've got to be kidding me" in that period. Maybe Season 5 is what the show looks like when nobody says "you can't be serious" in the planning stage. If so, oy.
love_jackianto
Mar. 15th, 2010 04:38 pm (UTC)
'And very much agreed with the character work done this Season. The overdone parodies from Tall Tales would laugh at those characters now for being charicatures.'
Nicely put, I couldn't agree more. Quite a few times this season I could't help but think that they took someone's bad fanfic and filmed it; the characters (Dean in particular) are just that OOC.
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love_jackianto
Mar. 15th, 2010 04:49 pm (UTC)
Agreed! This season really has been a mess of OOC characters, an Apocalypse that seems to take place in a vacuum (when it gets mentioned at all) and a fourth wall that was decimated.

I can't say I'm angry, just very disappointed. I had such high hopes Apocalypse. I guess my reaction is because I used to watch Torchwood, but in the third series they really did completely destroy the show; it went from being a campy sci-fi that didn't take itself too seriously to being dark depressing melodrama. The characters were so OOC that I first thought I was watching some kind of weird AU.
karenmiller
Mar. 15th, 2010 07:12 pm (UTC)
Isn't that fascinating -- because I really loved CoE (though I thought the final ep was by far the weakest). But then I hated the eps of seasons 1 and 2 that were campy, and really liked the ones where they made an attempt to tell a serious dramatic story. Now there was a show that didn't know what the hell it was trying to be, with no clear vision or narrative drive. Massively flawed. But the season 1 ep where the plane flew out of the rift with people from the past, and Jack sat with the guy in the car? That to me is one of the finest hours of dramatic storytelling ever. And if the whole show had been like that I'd have loved it a lot more than I do.

Which only goes to show that not every story can please everyone. *g*

I totally appreciate that some folk think season 5 is hunky dory. And I say more power to them because I wish I could. I hate that I hate it so much, that my enjoyment has been all but eliminated.
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eido
Mar. 15th, 2010 05:22 pm (UTC)
I agree with a lot of what you're saying above. The season has been disappointing to me too. Something I keep saying is, as a "Supernatural" season in general, season 5 has been okay. It's nothing particularly special. I'd actually rank the unfortunately abbreviated season 3 higher than this. However, as apocalyptic fiction? With the exception of maybe one or two episodes, this season's arc has been absolutely piss poor.

This season has felt like a lot of stalling before the the big attack comes "Independence Day"-style (I'm guessing that will be eps 20-22). The sad thing is, I wasn't really expecting (or really wanting) "Independence Day", but I fear that's exactly what the writers thought they had to give us in telling a proper apocalyptic storyline. Like they felt it was impossible to tell an apocalypse story without giant explosions, chase scenes and automatic weapons firing every direction in every ep, so just decided to write a bunch of filler until they thought they could give us all that. Except all of that explosions stuff? It doesn't really matter. "The End" wasn't brilliant because of the expensive set, the zombie chases and the army's big guns, but the human condition, very fractured as it was, and taking full advantage of the talented actors they have. Which is the core of any decent apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic storyline, including (or especially) on film to me. Without that humanistic draw and good actors to convey it, you'd have nothing but a pretty set and loud noise. That humanistic draw, as relayed to the arc of Lucifer rising/pre-Apocalypse, in season 4 was definitely there. However, it's something I feel is very much lacking in this season, probably much in part to the largely absent apocalyptic storyline. I feel like I don't really care about the heroes or the events surrounding them in the same way I did last season.

I guess it doesn't do me any favors that I love apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction too and I was probably going to come into this season with a critical eye as it was. I'm also fully aware the "Supernatural" mytharc generally moves slow as molasses and this season likely wasn't going to be an exception. However, it's the apocalypse. I thought if at any time they were going to make an exception to that slow as molasses arc, make it a bit more urgent and tie the overall mytharc more concisely through the eps throughout the season and thus create a greater sense of mounting urgency? It would have been for the apocalypse. As it is, this season hasn't felt much different at all if they were hunting the Yellow Eyed Demon or looking for John. As I said I ranked season 3 higher than this season, I actually think there was more dramatic poignancy, urgency and it tied into all the eps better trying to save one man from going to Hell than the end of the whole world. There's just something really wrong with that.

ETA. Something else I keep thinking about is how different this season would have unfolded if they made a much bigger statement with Lucifer in 5x01. Like if he destroyed New York City and Los Angeles, for example. These are places Dean and Sam were likely never going to visit anyway (in other words, the Apocalypse out there that's happening, but we don't actually see it), but such devastating attacks would still be very muchso felt by them and everyone they'd have encountered. Even if the average person didn't know the real reasons for the attacks. Also mounted the sense of urgency for Dean and Sam to stop what was in the process of happening. However, that would have required them tying the apocalypse much more concretely to most/all the eps and, from how this season has unfolded, it seems like they didn't have much real inclination to do that.

Edited at 2010-03-15 05:51 pm (UTC)
karenmiller
Mar. 15th, 2010 08:49 pm (UTC)
In Australia we call this the Clayton's apocalypse -- the apocalypse you're having when you're not having an apocalypse (riff on a non-alcoholic beer ad).

You said it. Piss poor. A fail on every imaginable level. After all that build up, they're asking us to believe that everyone's forgotten about the end of the world stuff. That they can just pick it up and put it down whenever they feel like it and that makes any sense. Like I said, it's just shockingly poor narrative construction and I cannot wrap my brain around it.

Your idea is a good one, I think. Show us the stakes, show us the cost. I can't begin to comprehend how they expect us to take any of this story seriously now.

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karenmiller
Mar. 15th, 2010 08:56 pm (UTC)
BSG? Everything -- bar the resolution for Laura and Bill. It was incredibly poignant and remained true to itself. I hate that she died, but I'm okay that she died. I didn't feel betrayed by that story arc. I hated the Starbuck resolution. I think that was bullshit. I hated that they just completely lost the plot with Lee's character and had no idea what to do with him. From season 3 on, they just had no idea and wasted the actor and all the chemistry he had with Sackhoff. I never believed in the Starbuck/Sam story -- and they didn't either. It wasn't the story they started out to tell. But they changed track and then couldn't change back again and I think they ruined that entire storyline. I hated the ending. I hated the obvious make it up as you go of Ellen being the final cylon. By the end there were massive plotholes. I really really hated that there was never a reasonable explanation for 6 and how Baltar was seeing her. The whole religious cult thing went nowhere. I think they lost it, full stop. They got so far inside the process they couldn't see what they were doing. And I really hated the producer's cameo at the end, because I know what he looks like and I know who he is so hello, you just smashed apart your own story to be cute. I hate that with a passion.

And with the whole trust thing, again, it's a fine line. A storyteller must stay true to the story they want to tell -- but can never lose sight of the fact that unless they're telling it in front of a mirror, there's another side to the equation. You'll do what you do, but then you have to stand by it.
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seesmooshrun
Mar. 15th, 2010 08:20 pm (UTC)
Thank you for this discourse on storytelling. My attitude is and has been pretty much "It's Supernatural and I love it unconditionally because I am so grateful the show is on the air", so I tend to gloss over bad episodes like Yellow Fever as aberrations. But your article does help explain to me why so many people, some of them people whose opinions I respect, have been saying that the show is going downhill at a time when it seems the TV critics have finally discovered the show and are raving about it.

"They've also done a bit of a hatchet job on their characters, I think. "

I have been displeased and angry about the way the characters are presented in certain episodes, most notably those written by Dabb and Loflin, who I am convinced don't even LIKE the character of Dean and don't really know the other characters or how to present the kind of intelligent humor the show was so good at (witness Castiel on the fart cushion and the hairy palm "joke"). But I have tried to focus on individual episodes rather than seasons. Perhaps this keeps me in denial. I too was upset to discover that the creators of the show paid so much attention to vocal harpy fans that they gutted whole plotlines to placate them -- hell, I liked Jo, always did. I wasn't upset with her departure when I thought it was a valid storytelling decision, but when I found it was because Kripke had caved to the vocal minority of the fans my faith was shaken.

I'm not sure I buy your claim of "wholesale abandonment" of the storyline set up in Season 1, so much as an evolution of the storyline. The destruction of the fourth wall doesn't upset me so badly, although it has reached the point of "enough". Where I find my faith broken is the ill-treatment of the characters and the pandering to the fans. The *intelligent* fans have been betrayed by the concessions made to the screamers. It is sad that the storytellers do not trust themselves to be able to tell the story they want, and don't trust the fans to be able to accept that story. I still love and have faith in the Show and the story as a whole, but the "clinker" episodes I try/need to overlook are admittedly more frequent this season. I am going to steal galathea's line and say that I have never loved two characters more than Sam and Dean. And I have never loved a TV show more than Supernatural, and I am old enough to have seen plenty of TV. So I will continue to valiantly try to ignore what is wrong and focus on my willing suspension of disbelief to get by. I hope that the rumors I hear are true, the ones that say that they will wrap up the Apocalypse storyline this season (hopefully in a satisfactory way) and go back to the basics of Season One (family, love, brothers, heroes) for the sixth season. Because (again stealing galathea's words), I am committed to SPN and I know that I will see it through to the end, however painful that may be.

And lastly, this confused me: "From the gratuitous and cringe-inducing force-feeding of Wincest in the season 5 opening episode...." I have tried to replay the episode in my mind (yes, the DVR would be more accurate), but I confess I have no idea what you are referring to here, since I do not remember anything that would fit this description. So perhaps I truly am clueless.
karenmiller
Mar. 15th, 2010 09:06 pm (UTC)
I could be wrong, but for some reason I'm thinking D&L come from a comics writing back ground, which to me explains just about everything that I find totally problematic with their writing. No disrespect to comics/graphic novels or the people who love them and/or write them, but they're not about in depth character exploration or complex narrative constructions. They're flash fiction, they're short hand -- about as far from the narratively complex elements of dramatic fiction as you can get. And I think it shows in their work.

The rampant misogyny in the Spn fandom, the venom and vitriol and hatred spewed forth by women against women has to be one of the most distressing things about it, for me. I think there is something seriously awry in that demographic, that female characters are so attacked and demonised and actively hunted out of the story -- and that the actresses are also attacked. To me that is seriously unhealthy on many, many levels and it makes me despair. The rampant, foaming at the mouth hatred I've seen expressed towards Julie Niven and Alona Tal and Genevieve Cortese makes me sick, and it makes me ashamed to be a woman and a fan.

For me, in this season they've evolved so far from the story they started to tell, over all, and particularly in the implicit storytelling promises made in seasons 4 and 5, that it feels like an abandonment. Some stuff has held, but so much hasn't. I totally get that sometimes you undergo a course correction when steering a long term narrative to its conclusion. But there's course correction and then there's going completely off course.

Becky at the computer reading aloud her wincest fiction. Do not make me go there. *g*
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abrakadabrah
Mar. 15th, 2010 09:33 pm (UTC)
Hey Karen,

I tend to agree with a number of your points. First and foremost, the disappointment of the enormous loss of tension in the story after 5.04, The End. Up until that point, the tension was still ratcheting up between Sam and Dean, as the tight relationship between the two boys continued to unravel. And from that point on, they've used every method, including some incredibly, disappointingly sophomoric humor to work around the dramatic tension formerly created by that rift in the very middle of their story.

I, too, am left concluding, among other things, that Kripke did not at all understand what it was that made the storytelling of the story of season 4 and early season 5 so compelling, something from which you did not want to look away.

And because he seemed so willing to undo that, I've also at times had the very strong feeling that he listened to all the bellyaching from the "fans" about how horrible the split between the two boys was and that they couldn't bear it any longer - and he gave in to that as a favor to the fans.

OTOH, I do think the season plays much better as you watch it over now, then it did originally, perhaps because in the watchover, among other things, I'm already factoring a certain intense level of disappointment.

So, for instance, I think it is in character for a Dean who has shown what he was shown at the end of The End, to do everything in his power to prevent that end, including swallowing a great deal of rage and anger at Sam, though that would seep out in various ways. And also, to behave at time sophomorically viz. Sam, with the goal in mind of getting their relationship on different footing. So, it seems to me, one can look at 5.5-5.9 as riding around, doing random things, rather than facing off against the apocalypse, because Dean believes that the key to surviving it, or the world surviving it, is keeping their bond intact.

And then, from 5.10 - 5.14, we are starting to see the real direction of the season, which is the death of all possible hope. Dean keeps seeing all his options of getting an opportunity to win destroyed, and he keeps being shown how fragile and vulnerable are his allies, how they can be completely suborned in exciting new ways each and every week. And, in Sam Interrupted, we've even been given the template of the way that Dean can be destroyed, by complete emotional paralysis, so totalizing, that he is unable to react, even when Sam is in trouble right in front of him.

So, in the interim, it's the story about the withering away of all hope, every last shred, until however the writers have chosen to resolve the story, comes into play, whether that is through accepting their status as vessels, or in rejecting that.

Now I agree that I preferred the story I thought was developing last year more - the one where there would be a faceoff and Dean would have to kill Sam, who had been forced into becoming Lucifer's vessel, before saving his brother the following year - (however that would work). That looked to be the story coming out of last year, what they spent the year signaling, what they set up with all their foreshadowing and I couldn't wait. And I think this one takes less narrative courage among other things, and the narrative payoff is also going to be so much less because it is a much less wrenching story, at least at this point, than the other one would have been.

But at least there is a story. I think. [g]

Anyway, I wrote up this last week - discussing the template idea at some more length, if you are interested.
abrakadabrah
Mar. 15th, 2010 09:34 pm (UTC)
BTW, I really hope you are wrong about the tentative comparison to BSG. Because that would break my heart wrt this story. With BSG, I think their narrative mistake came about for an entirely different reason. That is, they lost sight of the story they were telling, and decided to be current and relevant to the political climate surrounding them. And so, in the latter seasons, they decided to stop telling the story they had been telling, which was splendid and timeless, and tell a different one instead, that was current and timely and ideological. And in their rush to be current, they broke the thread of the story that they had set out to tell, to tell something entirely different, that was partisan and moreover, broke the trust of the viewers who had put faith in them to tell the story they set out to tell. I never even finished BSG because of that. They lost me completely.

I'm currently watching Caprica. But my suspension of disbelief only goes partway, because I expect that at any minute the writers are perfectly likely to break faith with me, or indulge in politics instead of storytelling. I'm already seeing signs of it. So I'm only letting myself go halfway towards liking it because I realize my hopes that the story will continue to be interesting could be dashed at any point.
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lilisullivan
Mar. 15th, 2010 09:52 pm (UTC)
Hear, hear!
karenmiller
Mar. 15th, 2010 10:43 pm (UTC)
Well, in the spirit of misery loves company *g* I'm glad I'm not alone.
ibroketuesday
Mar. 15th, 2010 10:29 pm (UTC)
It's a really sad thing to say, but I agree with you. There's just enough there that I'm still invested, but it simply is not the same as it was last year.
karenmiller
Mar. 15th, 2010 10:42 pm (UTC)
No, it's not. That's probably why I'm having such a tantrum. You gave me filet mignon, you promised me more filet mignon, and now I've got cats meat offcuts.
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yourlibrarian
Mar. 16th, 2010 01:00 am (UTC)
Not that it's any comfort, but I feel you're hardly alone.

It's a contract. It's a mutually honoured promise. You'll tell me a story, and I'll stick around to hear the story -- for as long as you entertain me and I can keep believing the story is real. I stress here, this is what I think happens with dramatic fiction. There are many different kinds of storytelling, and some of it is deliberately self-conscious from the very beginning.

Exactly. It isn't the only way a story has to be told, but if that's how it's begun and you suddenly change things halfway through? It's really hard to readjust your view of events and characters. This is particularly true of stories that are already fantastical. What's more, in S4 SPN become the very definition of epic in scale. An additional problem is that this shift in the mythic landscape was itself already a pretty dramatic break for an audience who had been set up to watch a mythic tinged family drama. I didn't mind the change, depending on how it was handled, but that was the first break for a lot of viewers right there.

In short, I agree with 90% of what you said, but want to quibble about the length of time in which it took place.

I thought they pretty much managed to hit the reset button and return the fourth wall to its original, pristine condition.

I agree that it wasn't as disruptive as what began to take place in S5, but I think this was mostly due to its placement in the season. An important aspect of the fourth wall breaking in Monster is the many levels on which it was done. It would have been disconcerting, but far less disruptive, to suddenly have had Sam and Dean speaking internal monologues to the camera. That could have been written off as a one-off stylistic change. Because in that episode we had (1) the self-insertion of the creator (2) the writers' interpretation of some of the audience, and (3) the repositioning of the entire canon. Some might argue they privileged some of the audience over the rest depending on how you view the depiction of fans. My mileage definitely varies on that.

What's worse, none of it was necessary to the larger story arc. So far, Chuck has been of almost no use to the story, as his visions were discredited in 5.01. The biggest impact I think he had so far (besides further 4th wall disruptions) was his conversation with Sam in MotW. And, to me, that just underscored how completely opaque Sam had become that it was only by talking directly to his creator's stand-in that we get his perspective on what's been happening. It was Kripke's self-insertion into the fandom debate on what was happening with his central characters. I think that may have been overlooked given all the spitballs flying around in that episode, but I felt it was very telling. I also don't know as I've seen anyone meta specifically on Chuck as Kripke and what that means for the series, given his appearances.

But then something else happened between season 4 and season 5. I have no idea what it was.

I agree with your speculations, but I'm fairly sure that the reasoning was the likelihood of a S6. Even though it's been confirmed only recently, there was public discussion of it already early in S5, and I'm sure anyone looking at the state of the CW programming outcomes could guess they could not afford to dump their longest running yet most profitable series -- SPN and SV. I'm still wondering if there's going to be movement around the schedule for SPN next season, because they now have a strong anchor with Vampire Diaries.

However, your point still stands. The real problem has been the weakness of the storytelling, which has always been inconsistent and rarely delivered on the power of the premise and the characters that they had established on day one. I think it's no coincidence that the term "Kripke'd" had arisen so early in this fandom, and that it would result in the actual inclusion of Kripke, the fandom, and the fandom's loudest concerns in the very episodes of the show. All these problems became impossible to ignore in MotW, but they began earlier.
yourlibrarian
Mar. 16th, 2010 01:00 am (UTC)

I also think that the production side of things started to erode at the same time as the storyline did, due sadly to the departure of Kim Manners and the need to try to fill that gap. The real mystery I'd like to have explained, is why we heard from so many on the set that S4 was going to be the last one when from the start it was a 5 year plan (as it would be for any show, given it would take 5 seasons to reach 100 episodes). My guess is that it was because by the time the first episodes began to air, Kim Manners' health issues were already dire and the likelihood of him returning full-time (even if he recovered) was not high. Between that and budget cuts, there may have been a real lack of enthusiasm in the production offices for continuing the show. I believe the "don't care" that kicked off S5 and deepened across many episodes should be taken at face value. I think the show has been extended much further than many of the principals wanted it to be. So it's understandably hurtful to see the creators of a show have so much less care for it than the fandom has.

I remember a few years ago I saw this same thing happen to Due South. I wasn't part of the fandom, I saw the series on disc years after it had ended. But there was such a severe change in S3 (that only got worse and worse) it was pretty clear there were major changes on the production end of it. And sure enough, the lead actor had become a producer and they were engaging in everything from sloppy storytelling to self-satire by S4. It had been a charming, if sometimes silly show. But after a while it just came off as a vehicle for people's paychecks and an opportunity to play around on camera.
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fannishliss
Mar. 16th, 2010 01:06 am (UTC)
I totally see how angry you are, and I'm not going to argue with that. It's possible that supernatural, in trying to tell a story about the apocalypse, bit off something bigger than it could chew. I certainly agree that s4 is an amazing thing from start to finish. But I diverge from you in how I read s5. I think the pace of s5 has been very, very slow... point by point trying to allow the brothers to question who they are and how they got there, what it really means to be human beings at the crux of the apocalypse, and the absurdity of the weight placed on their shoulders if free will is a joke. I think tonally, the season has been light in direct contrast to the utter seriousness the apocalypse poses. I'm still with it, I'm not angry, and I wish I had the time to write the s5 Act 3 meta I've been intending to write. Anyway, I sympathize with you, even while I think that s5 is still under control and still will deliver a satisfying Winchester conclusion.
karenmiller
Mar. 16th, 2010 03:56 am (UTC)
Well, like I say, I'm always thrilled when I hear people are enjoying this season. If it's working for you, then hoorah! For me, even if they do miraculously right the ship between now and the end, there's just too much that's been done badly for there not to be a bad taste in my mouth. Sigh.
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