Sunday, July 09, 2006

TV: Supernatural -- a tale of bad TV

The WB is still the WB until this fall when it and UPN merge to become CW. We wonder if that stands for "conventional wisdom"? Or just "crappy writing"?

Both come to mind when viewing Supernatural (a show that will "cross over" to the CW). We're not sure what to make of this show. On the one hand, it's like really bad gay porn where the leads forget to take their clothes off. On the other, it's as though someone had a secret fondness for The American Girls.

That quickly forgotten show aired a few episodes in 1978 (white slavery was a theme of one episode) as two "lookers" took to the road to find out the truth. These days, brothers Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) bounce around the country, from one 'adventure' to the next, and the show tries to add a little X-Files flavor -- only instead of wondering what happened to a character's sister, they're motivated by what happened to their mother and finding Daddy.

Times are tough, the news is not good. Maybe you need to hit the road with two 'lookers' once a week just to have an outlet? If so, have at it. Most people will just be bored with the WB's latest attempt to 'mature.'

That was what this show was supposed to do. They'd nailed the pre-teen set with offerings from Dawson's Creek all the way up to One Tree Hill. The problem was, as the kiddies leave high school, the shows tend to lose their audiences. So what if, it was thought, we cast two dreamboats as characters already out of school!

To really pimp the show, in the fall it aired twice a week. What most of us would call "repeats," the WB generously dubbed "encore presentation" -- akin to claiming Kelly Osbourne was brought back for an encore after really rocking the house. But when your network's all hype anyway, what are you going to do? (Merge this fall, apparently.)

The ratings started off well enough and the suits thought they'd build. That really hasn't happened. Though a few females and males continue to tune in to drool over the two leads, it really hasn't managed to pull in a large enough audience to term it a 'hit' (not even by net-let standards) and, in fact, it's also started to lose some of the viewers it initally had.

Ackles left an actual hit (Smallville, though it, like the characters, were aging) to do this show. By the way, he's from Dallas, Texas -- remember, we've been all over that emerging 'trend' -- actors from Texas on prime time for over a year -- even if AOL only recently saw fit to 'main page' it. He's the blond, the one who looks less like a CK ad model. He poses as Dean. He can't play him and it's so hard to watch him try. Ackles isn't the silent type and watching him try to be nonverbal is like watching Little Richard try to 'butch it up.' He tries so hard. He storms around in a perpetual snit, as though someone told him, "Pick one hair color and stick to it!"

Padalecki was also born in Texas. (San Antonio, we told you, it's a 'trend'! Water cooler critics take note!) He also left a successful WB show to do this (Gilmor Girls). On that show, his character was named "Dean" and on this show he plays "Sam" -- that's about it for his "stretching" from role to role.

If you've ever seen Padalecki speak as Padalecki, you know he favors exclamation points. He's quite exuberant. Possibly that's why he was given the showier role of "Sam"?

He plays the part just as you'd expect to him, just as he performed every other role he's been cast in -- with a lot of exclamation points. It's as though all those years studying acting were spent learning at the feet of Barbi Benton.

So while Padalecki eats the scenery and Ackles works so hard to blend into it, they go from one place to another and encounter not-so-scary supernatural events. The only real jolt (the special effects are a joke) in this show comes from the moments when someone reaches up through a sink drain or someone pops up behind a character.

The big problem is that the 'thinkers' behind this series failed to grasp is that the WB's hits are always about interlaced relationships. When the audience grows bored with a Joey and Dawson, they need that Andi and Pacey to quickly move from the backburner to the front burner. The scripts tell you that Sam and Dean are brothers. There's nothing else the show has to offer to the audience who wants to see ahead to high school traumas (or relive them).

Sam and Dean have "conflict" from time to time. In last week's episode Sam even tried to kill Dean -- in a really convoluted story that would have made more sense if the actors had instead argued over who spent more time in make up each morning.

For a full season the show played out like we feared The Ghost Whisperer might (but fortunately did not and got a larger, continuing storyline): Touched by a Supernatural. It doesn't play to the kids (of any age). They need the messy relationships, they need a show to be locked in, not traveling across the country.

That's bascially true of most audiences today and why you see so few successful shows set "on the road." (We understand that even Charles Kuralt struggles these days.)

What the WB audience wants (and presumably the CW audience will as well) is Sam and Dean in one location. They want them in messy relationships, long term ones, possibly alternating the same woman, arguing with friends and enemies. They aren't interested in the whole "This week, we're in Phoenix!" thinking that appears to go into this show.

When you have no real supporting cast, you need strong leads or a strong storyline. Supernatural has neither. If they were smart, the first thing they would fix would be Dean. Early in the second season, Dean would decide he was tired of being the "responsible" one (translation, Mr. Brooding Grumpy). They'd let Ackles bring some humor into the part. That could potentially carry them through two more seasons if they played the whole thing as a camp send-up. If they're intent on playing it serious, they need to put the brothers in one location and give them a strong supporting cast because no one's tuning in for the shifting locales.

The truth is, not that many are tuning in for the show that much anymore. (If that's a shock for anyone -- when you not only can't hold your lead-in audience but are also being beat by UPN's Eve -- not picked up by the CW -- to come in dead last of all networks and net-lets -- you aren't a "hit." Nor does being the 19th ranked show for males ages 18-49 make you a "hit.") A second season pick up was surprising, especially considering it was competing with shows not only airing on the WB but also on UPN. We understand the most surprised were advertisers who've looked at the demographics, such as they are, and balked at the ad rates.

The show is, mainly, two things: a tale of offscreen 'talent' that doesn't know an audience and a tale of the downfall of the WB.

Supernatural is a testement to "creators" never grasping the core audience. Like an ugly poly-blend that never breathes in the summer, the show started off wanting to be everything (comedy, horror, thriller, drama) and ended up being nothing. (Despite some critics who rushed in to gush over the show. We'll be kind and not name names.) From plotline to dialogue, the show was troubled the moment the pilot was filmed. If that wasn't clear enough to anyone early on, all they had to do was check out the music the show regularly uses such as Bachman-Turner Overdrive ("Hey You" played in last week's episode), Grand Funk Railroad, Quiet Riot and Ratt. The WB, home to Sarah Mac, the Wallflowers, the made over Liz Phair and assorted others, traditionally ran with the hoped for new 'hot' song (emphasis on "new"). The WB shows were notorious for their efforts to be trendy (which was novel when Square Pegs attempted it in the eighties). There is nothing trendy about Grand Funk Railroad. There wasn't anything trendy about the group 'back in the day.'

The only other show the WB offered in 2006 that was so woefully mistargeted to their audience was the unfunny Jerry Bruckheimer attempt to corner the sitcom market. Ratings have been down for the WB period. The CW lineup won't change that. Shows that needed work done have had no work done. Shows that should have been retired are brought back. Their isn't one solid night of programming, despite the fact that they're not only raiding two net-lets but also bringing on new "attractions" (apparently someone thinks Donnie Wahlberg is an "attraction" -- although we're actually hearing good things about Runaway, his new show).

The WB officially goes out in September with plans for a look back at the pilots of four of their 'biggest' shows: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawson's Creek, Felicity and Angel (yeah that last one must be included for a laugh). There's a story in those four. Buffy remains the only show that was a hit when it went out (on the WB, it floundered in it's two additional years at UPN) and still entertaining. Had they been paying attention, they would have attempted to recreate the formula which tallked to viewers (possibly talked up to them in some cases) but never talked down. The "thrills" were usually not the reason to watch (with the two-parter "Becoming," the show achieved everything many hoped for it). It was the relationships, the dialogue and the acting.

The WB's attempts at photo-copying Buffy got worse each season. First up was Dawson's which had the relationships and the dialogue but, rarely, the acting. (Michelle Williams was the stand out and would have been on any show; however, on Dawson's she had little competition for bragging rights.) Then came Felicity. Like a photo-copy of a photo-copy, it left out a lot of details and focused only on the 'relationship.' The infamous hair cut may have indeed hastened people tuning out but the truth was the show was heavy on the 'after school special' and light on the involvement. Watching Felicity decide which of the two boys she loved that year (similiar to one of the WB's lowest rated shows of 2006, What I Like About You), didn't inspire a strong core following. By the time they got to Angel, an early attempt by the WB to grow up (and grab the straight teen males), the net-let was dead. Like all the other attempts to grow up, it failed miserably. The constant cast changes and the constant refocusing only demonstrated how ill thought out the show was from the start.

Angel's the story of the WB's downfall. Airing a show that struggled to find an audience for five seasons may have helped 'syndication!' (the same reason Reba got a thirteen episode pick up from the CW) but it only forced viewers to tune out. Playing like the worst fantasy show in syndication, Angel was a detective, he was a father, he was bad, he was good, he was, above all, boring. Year after year. As the show continued to fail to pull in the desired demographics, it repeatedly raided supporting characters from Buffy (Wesley, Spike, Harmony, Faith, etc.). It dropped the voice over, it dropped one thing after another in its attempts to become something, anything, other than a really cheesy show. In it's fifth season, it finally received the mercy killing it had long deserved -- the stake through it's heart was consistently poor demographics.

That storyline appears ready for a repeat with the CW. There's not a show with "heat" on the list. (When your target audience is teens, "heat" is important.) Supposedly, One Tree Hill is going to "explode" this season. That's the current talk. That this is the year it puts to rest the comparisons to The OC. Maybe it will. If it does, it could pull in an audience. (There is also talk that the 'explosion' makes the new suits nervous.)

But what you have currently is a Sunday lineup that can boast one of the best shows on TV (Everybody Hates Chris) and not much else unless you enjoy Kelsey Grammer's interpretations of African-American females. (Failing with his company's "sketch" "comedy," he's going back to the well with The Game.) Mondays offers another year of 7th Heaven (we may review it this year, if we feel the need to punish ourselves) and the Wahlberg show. Tuesday will offer Gilmor Girls (which, as we've noted before, but Ty says the e-mails require that we note it again, we will not be reviewing because we know too many people involved with that show) and the overly praised and underly critiqued Veronica Mars. Everwood had higher ratings and better demographics but it was bumped and Moronic Mars got picked up. The CW's already touting Tuesday, to sponsors, as "girls' night." We'd argue "girls night" is about to get really dumbed down. (And add that, at it's height, every night on the WB tended to be "girls night.") Wednesdays will offer America's Next Top Model (also closing out Sunday's prime time) and the already addressed One Tree Hill. Thursdays finds the WB asking the question of exactly how many people still care about Smallville? (We think the answer will disappoint them.) And pairing it with dead last in its time slot, Supernatural. On Fridays, proof of how little they know their target audience, they intend to carry over UPN's Smackdown.

Despite raiding two net-lets, you may first note that they couldn't come up with seven nights of programming. (Fox still can't either.) But what you'll probably notice second is that there's not one night solid enough to make people tune in (even on the nights where only two hours of prime time programming is aired!). Joss Whedon was never able to recreate the success he had in Buffy so it may not be that much of a surprise that the WB also failed.

But it says something about how miserable TV is today that not only could they not program seven nights, but they have nothing new to offer. One half-hour comedy, one hour of drama. That's it for offering anything new. The shows that make up the bulk of the schedule have underwhelmed for some time. It's as though Nabisco merged with Pepperidge Farms and had nothing to offer but the products that never made it off the shelf to the check out counter. It's so bad we honestly wonder if fall 2007 (provided it survives that long) will find the net-let rescuing what ever the big three cancels and attempting to build six nights around that.
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