Muscle cars. Classic rock. Scary monsters and evil demons. Chain saws. Handsome guys and hot girls. Jeffrey Dean Morgan dying. "Supernatural's" got it all, including a hard-core fan base who have built elaborate website shrines to the series. So why isn't it a bigger draw for the CW, especially among the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "X-Files" demo?
This is a question that keeps "Supernatural" creator-exec producer Eric Kripke up at night listening to things that go bump. Not that he isn't happy and grateful to just to have his spawn live for another season, its third, in the 2007-08 season. But he'd like to get the word out that there is hope in the Thursday 9 p.m. slot for people who like more other-worldly entertainment than the docs of "Grey's Anatomy" or the forensics of "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation." Hell, actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan, the cardiac-challenged martyr of "Grey's Anatomy," even died in the first episode of "Supernatural" last season, after cutting a deal with the devil to allow his older son to live.
"Because I believe in the humanity of man, I believe there's a wider audience out there for this show," Kripke joked over breakfast (brioche and coffee) the other day, down the street from Warner Bros. where "Supernatural" is produced. "I don't think we have to live on 'Grey's' and 'CSI's' scraps. But we do have to find a way to get the word out that this show is out there. The people who used to watch 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' are not watching anything else on the CW."
"Supernatural," exec produced by Kripke, Robert Singer, John Shiban and McG through the helmer's Warner Bros. TV-based Wonderland Sound and Vision banner, is wrapped up in a very specific mythos about two brothers, Dean and Sam Winchester, who learn the hard way as young kids (mom gets impaled by a demon on the ceiling above Sam's crib, then bursts into flames) that there are supernatural beings all across this great land of ours, and somebody's gotta fight 'em.
Dean, played by Jensen Ackles, and Sam, played by Jared Padalecki, travel the country in a 1967 Chevy Impala with a sawed-off shotgun in the trunk, beating the crap out of extraordinary bad guys wherever they find local tales of "mysterious" deaths, disappearances and dismemberment. (Kripke named his heroes for the lit-buds of Jack Kerouac's "On the Road," Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarity, only he couldn't quite get his head around having a young guy named "Sal," so he moved down one letter and went with Sam.)
At its core, "Supernatural" is a buddy road drama, or "Route 66" meets "X-Files," with plenty of dark humor and a driving classic-rock soundtrack (AC/DC, Ted Nugent, Boston, Journey, Cheap Trick, Nazareth, et al). What makes it stand out, especially among CW fare, is its unrelenting goofiness, which offsets the grimness just so. The "Hollywood Babylon" seg from this past season is a good case in point.
It had the usual trappings of the boys who grew up in Lawrence, Kansas, getting all starry-eyed as their travels bring them to Hollywood, nominally for a vacation but of course they wind up investigating mysterious deaths on a horror film set, infiltrating the scene as P.A.s, etc. It's got Gary Cole playing an unctuous studio executive type, it's got the boys getting excited about the mini-Philly cheese steaks piled high on the craft services table on the set of "Hell Hazers II: The Reckoning." But it's also chock full of wink-winks, like "Gilmore Girls" alumnus Padalecki getting a little twitchy as the studio tour bus drives by the set of the show, and not-so-flattering references to "the director of 'Charlie's Angels' and 'Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle.'"
The show's don't-take-yourself-too-seriously tone stems in part from the way it was conceived -- and then re-conceived at the last minute. Kripke, a native son of Ohio, had always had an interest in urban folktales involving macabre and supernatural goings-on -- the hook-armed man who kills people on lover's lane, the sudden appearance of Bloody Mary in mirrors, the being that specializes in stealing unsuspecting people's kidneys, etc. etc. An anthology series based on those tales tall and true was the first TV project Kripke ever pitched to a network, NBC to be exact, when he was a hot-shot USC grad screenwriter coming out of Sundance and Slamdance '98 with good buzz on two of his short films.
That pitch drew nothing but stares, and then Kripke (pictured left) became drawn into a long run in feature-writing hell, focusing on comedies, none of which ever got made. ("I was not a particularly good comedy writer," Kripke humbly allows.) But his first time out at writing a horror pic, "Boogeyman," went all the way to a Screen Gems theatrical release in 2005.
In the meantime, Kripke also ventured back into TV in 2003 for the CW's predecessor, the WB Network, when he was drafted to pen the re-imagining of "Tarzan" for Warner Bros. TV and producers Laura Ziskin and David Gerber. "Tarzan" didn't exactly swing for the WB in the 2003-04 season, but network and studio brass were impressed enough with Kripke's valor in the face of the apeman train wreck that they asked him if there might be some passion project he'd like to pursue?
With that opening, Kripke spent nearly four months working on a script about a reporter who travels the country ferreting out supernatural-ana. By his own admission, Kripke slaved a little too hard over the script and story and all the mythos he had in his brain. The day before he was to meet with Warner Bros. TV execs to pitch his idea, he jotted down a thought about how he might reshape it as a buddy vehicle -- maybe even a buddy-brothers vehicle -- if the studio wasn't keen on the idea of the protagonist being a reporter. It was a fortuitous bit of scrawl because in fact his reporter idea went over like a lead zeppelin with Warner Bros. TV's Len Goldstein and Susan Rovner, who noted that ABC was working on a similar concept that became the short-lived "Night Stalker" revival.
Fast on his feet, Kripke shifted gears and told them he had a "whole other idea" for the show to be built around the adventures of two brothers and....The studio sent him off to write that version, which he did in a matter of days, instead of months. He and "Supernatural" producer Peter Johnson had a lot of fun with the characters and the world (and some hard alcohol), and Kripke realized during this whirlwind rewrite that all of the scary-creepy-gory stuff would do well to be leavened with some humor.
"I removed all censors and got really loose with the characters in my frustration at having to do the page-one rewrite," Kripke says. "The humor is so important. Otherwise you're asking people to basically 'Tune in for an hour of unrelenting grimness.'"
"Supernatural" took flight during a season of unrelenting grimness for the WB, which effectively became a lame duck net about a third of the way through the '05-'06 season when the merger with UPN that yielded the CW was announced in January 2006. The show was a decent performer for the WB in its swan-song season, though it was overshadowed by the network's broader problems and bigger flame outs (anybody remember "Just Legal"?)
In its first season "Supernatural" was incongruously paired with "Gilmore Girls" on Tuesdays, but it did well enough to survive the merger and get invited back for a sophomore season on the CW, with a new dream time slot behind "Smallville." This past spring, Kripke sweated out a pickup ("Supernatural" pulled in an average of 3.8 million viewers in season one, compared to 3.1 million in season two).
Given the competition in the Thursday 9 p.m. berth, Kripke said he was happy to finish out season two in the same general ratings neighborhood as in its rookie year. The biggest problem is getting "Supernatural" some attention not among the "America's Next Top Model" crowd but among the "Battlestar Galactica" faithful. A "Supernatural" comic book series is debuting this summer, which should help spread the word, and Kripke and some of his staff are taking a field trip to ComicCon next month to squeeze as much free PR as possible out of that genre-freak circus.
"We just need to mobilize our fan base, and we have some crazy-passionate fans," Kripke says. "I love being a cult hit in that way. But I'd like to be a hit-hit too."