the Buffy and Supernatural essay
As with that time I was totally snotty about Tim Drake, the following criticism is not in any way meant to imply that I am not fond of Supernatural. I think it's rather obvious that I adore it to itty bitty pieces; it's far and away my favourite currently-produced TV show.
That doesn't mean, however, that I'm blind to its shortcomings, and the one I look at here is the one I consider to be its major failing.
Oh, and disclaimer 2: I also like On the Road. But I don't think it's perfect, either.
"Less Campy": Supernatural's attempted reassertion of a pre-Buffy status quo
Eric Kripke, creator of Supernatural, is a self-confessed acolyte of the 'Hero With A Thousand Faces' school of character arcs. One of the pivotal moments in this story-form is the 'return from the dead'; sometimes this journey is metaphoric, sometimes literal.
In the opening episode of season 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the heroine of that show is brought back to life and, struggling to live, thrusts her hand up through the earth of her grave. This image is repeated in the second episode of Supernatural but here the possibility of a young woman's return has become monstrous, the stuff of nightmares.
There is a female character in the first season of Supernatural whose character arc can be mapped onto the Hero's Journey, mirroring as it does the progression of Sam, one of the show's two regular cast members (both of whom are male). Meg, the woman in question, is shown moving through a "death" and then returning. Like Buffy, she is a young, fair-haired woman with demoniacally-imbued strength.
Meg is one of the central adversaries of Supernatural's first season, and a serial murderer. She is also one of only three recurring female characters in the season; the other two are 'good' women, and are both killed off incredibly violently after only a couple of scenes apiece (just enough time for the show to establish that they are 'nice' girls). They return in later episodes to swan around the afterlife in floaty nightgowns. Meg, the only one with agency or initiative, is thrown out a window; shot in the chest; put through an extended and apparently torturous exorcism; and dies with what sounds like every bone in her body broken.
I'm not suggesting here that Meg is a hero done wrong by the text. She's a villain. But there are no female heroes on Supernatural. There have been strong female characters in a number of the episodes (though the ratio of them versus the generic, simpering damsels leaves a lot to be desired) but they are never the ones to solve the mystery, kill the monster, or help the helpless.
This can be explained by the fact that it is, after all, the hero's prerogative to save the day, and Sam and Dean -- the heroes of Supernatural -- are both male. But the masculinity the characters attempt to embody is one which reinterprets tropes which were introduced into the postmodern horror genre by Buffy, and the ways in which Supernatural seeks to recontextualise these images is distressingly easy to read as an attempted regression away from the new frontiers opened up by Buffy.
Jared Padalecki, the actor who portrays Sam on Supernatural, responded to a suggested comparison between the two shows with "That was a great show and obviously went for several seasons and had a huge fan base, but I like to think that our show is different. I think it is less campy... Our show is more of a blue collar, in-your-face scary horror."
Padalecki's remarks are particularly interesting in light of the fact that Sam's own Hero's Journey is centred around his wish to leave behind his "family business" (hunting monsters) in order to attend college and become a lawyer. Kripke's invocation of Star Wars as a classic example of a pop bildungsroman underscores the role that discontent with the family legacy plays in a story such as Sam's: Luke Skywalker doesn't want to be a farm boy; Sam rejects the "blue collar" class coding which Padalecki marks the show as embodying.
If Supernatural is "in your face", then the implication is that Buffy is something else: Tricksy, complicated, smug, compared to Supernatural's honest straightforwardness? If it appears I'm reading too much into a throwaway remark, perhaps a concrete example is necessary.
Buffy's male offsider, Xander Harris, is a screwball sidekick often played for laughs. Of the three core characters, and the wider ensemble as well, he is the one without easily definable skills: he's not a Slayer, like Buffy, nor a witch like Willow. In a season 3 episode, The Zeppo, Xander's seemingly tenuous place within the group becomes the central narrative element.
In The Zeppo, Xander attempts to prove his usefulness by becoming "Car Guy. Guy with the car." The car in question is a classic Chevy, which Brett Rogers and Walter Scheidel point out "brilliantly evokes American car culture and cinema in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, an era when cult heroes like James Dean were making movies about tough teenage rebels and dangerous chicken fights of masculine bravado".
The Chevy owned by Dean in Supernatural is from 1967, a full decade after Xander's model, and the cultural connotations shift slightly with the difference and with the switch from Bel Air to Impala. However, the Chevrolet is a symbol of a particular kind of mythic branding in American pop culture, no matter what the make. In Buffy, it's played for irony, for hypereality -- "imagery of the 1950’s appears repeatedly in “the Zeppo,” reinforcing the connection between the Chevy and a specific brand of rebellious American machismo" (Rogers and Scheidel) -- while in Supernatural it's straight-faced.
In another car-related plotline in Buffy, Xander spends the last months of his time at high school reading Jack Kerouac's On The Road and planning a road trip across America. Buffy mocks him for this dream and, by extension, can be seen as mocking the particular brand of mid-20th-century, male-centric romanticism which such narratives are seen to carry. Xander's travel plans are thwarted when the engine falls out of his car in Oxnard.
Sam and Dean of Supernatural are named for the two central characters of On The Road, and their endless road trip is a direct counterpoint to -- and, I would argue, a refutation/backlash against -- Xander's inability to tap into a traditional form of American masculinity.
Xander and Dean are very similar characters in many ways -- they both pepper their conversations with references to popular entertainment, their libidos are extremely active, and they both tend to avoid emotional vulnerability with quipping and wisecracking. Neither are as formally educated as those they fight alongside. Dean is, it can be argued, what you get if you strip the irony away from the make-up of a Xander.
The real irony of this is that Xander's eventual ease with himself, and confidence in his abilities, affords the character a far less generic and more honest concept of himself as a man than simply adhering to the motifs later taken up by Supernatural would have provided him with.
Another way in which Supernatural directly addresses ground previously covered by Buffy is in each show's relationship to firearms. While Buffy will use them when she needs to (season 2 sees her wield a rocket launcher), she doesn't put any faith in them at all -- "These things? Never helpful." In contrast, guns are Sam and Dean's primary weapons, and make up the bulk of their arsenal. Firearms, like the Xander/Dean figure, are given back their traditional signification and narrative place by Supernatural; a role Buffy had removed them from.
Finally, and perhaps most obviously, a parallel between the worlds of Buffy and Supernatural can be found in season six and the episode Hell House respectively.
Season six of Buffy features a trio of villains; a group of young men who fit the stereotype of the sci-fi nerd. They collect action figures, hang out in a basement, attempt to dabble in the occult, speak with exaggerated self-importance and earnestness, and dream of the day when they might have sex with a girl. The characters are intended to be, for the majority of their appearances, read as comic figures, but are eventually revealed to be extremely dangerous.
Supernatural's season one episode Hell House features a pair of characters who adhere to almost exactly the same template as Buffy's three. They collect action figures, hang out in a trailer, attempt to dabble in the occult, speak with exaggerated self-importance and earnestness, and dream of the day when they might have sex with a girl.
In one scene, as the pair attempt to gather their thoughts, one reminds the other of their mantra: "What Would Buffy Do?"
This, then, strongly suggests what Supernatural really sees Buffy's legacy as: bumbling, inept, absurd male characters out of their depth in the world. No matter what role these characters were put into within Buffy, or what other nuances and strengths various depictions of male characters on the earlier show may have had.
Buffy gave the world a story in which the traditional roles of masculine hero figures were questioned, and Supernatural responded not only by attempting to restore those revisioned tropes, but also by putting the girl back in her grave and leaving her there.