I’ve got a theory.
Couldn’t help it.
No, I really do have a theory. It’s that Supernatural and Buffy have a huge amount in common as TV shows – besides the obvious escapist ghosty-vampirey-paranormalish stuff. And that, actually, they say an awful lot about us: the generation (I’m using this in a fairly broad sense, but bear with me) who watches them.
Both know that their audience is familiar with horror; has grown up watching it, reading it… stealing our parents’ Stephen Kings to read in secret, sneaking viewings of Amityville Horror or the Exorcist, Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween. We know all the lines. We know the twists, we know the tropes. It’s why Scream was so successful: it’s because we’ve spent our teenage years telling pretty girls not to go up the stairs, or screaming at the jock not to go and get that beer…
We were jaded before we hit 15. Christ, we were probably jaded before we hit 12.
Both Buffy and Supernatural grew out of this. They took our confidence that we knew it all and they played with it, and came back at us with added snark.
We know the rule about the blonde cheerleader in the horror movie: she’s always the first to get Monstered. Except, in Joss Whedon’s world, it’s the monsters who have something to fear.
We never believed in Ouija boards, but we sure as hell believed the story about theaxeman on the roof. Urban legends were our bedtime stories: “the call is coming from inside the house“, the serial killer on the doorstep… Supernatural (particularly the early seasons of the show) wraps this up in the small-town Americana that seemed so exotic when you’re from even smaller-town Wales.
And, had both shows stuck to this formula, they would have foundered. What they did was to become more. Look, you’re dealing with vampires, urban legends, ghosts, werewolves… you’ve got the audience suspending their disbelief even before the titles have rolled. Use it. Make the most of it. Talk about the Big Stuff: the life and death stuff, the relationship stuff, the what’s-it-all-about stuff, the free will and destiny stuff… all of it.
Both shows stepped up.
Both shows deal with death – which many of us are likely to have to face, really face, for the first time in our late teens or twenties. Major characters have to come to terms with the death of people they love. Major characters die.
They deal with growing up: emotionally, physically, practically. They deal with accepting responsibility. They deal with dreams denied and false hopes; with triumph and disaster.
They deal with relationships (has any show ever managed a more literal version of the two-sided boyfriend than Buffy, whose beau really did turn evil after she slept with him?) and with isolation–real or perceived: the real loneliness of the Winchester brothers against the institutionalised cliqueyness of Sunnydale High. Buffy dealt with doping,bullying and even that most shocking of subjects, a high-school shooting in Earshot, a Jane Espenson*-written episode. Supernatural, ever mindful of its older demographic, has covered (amongst other things) the spectre of unexpected parenthood and addiction & intervention.
They deal with family–family which we recognise as being flawed and imperfect and all the more real for it.
Take Buffy as a case in point: it was about friends as family. Sure, Buffy has actual blood-family (who were used to great effect several times throughout the run of the show: let’s not forget The Body, or the importance of Dawn…) but it’s her friends who become her real family, the ones she turns to.
Supernatural is about two brothers: two brothers who are barely on speaking terms in the pilot – but who are drawn closer through their shared experiences, their losses and gains. They are family, and family is all they have–and family is the burden they have to bear for good or ill.
Both versions resonate with us.
The characters become our avatars, our totems. They all have baggage, they all have strengths and weaknesses. Just like us. They talk like us. They dress like us (or, more usually, like the cooler versions of us).
We feel for Buffy and the Scooby Gang because we recognise them. We know them. We all know which of them we would be, which of them we empathise with. The same goes forSupernatural: you know which side of the Winchester line you stand on–and the writers are savvy enough to understand that, and will quite happily go meta on us, making us even slightly uncomfortable about how we see the characters.
It’s not the supernatural which keeps us watching these shows. It’s a great setting, one which keeps them from getting over-earnest (how can you, when you’ve got a demon turning everything into a musical number, particularly in such a thematically dark episode… or when your protagonists find themselves gatecrashing their own convention?) but for all the horror trappings, that’s not what they’re about.
These are two shows which use paranormal as a device to show us how we build our families, however fractured or unlikely they are; how we live our lives and align our moral compasses. They’re character shows, and these are relationships we understand and believe in.
All the ghosts and the ghouls and the things that go bump in the night are just window dressing, a facade of escapism. Ultimately, these are shows about us. We see that, and that’s why we fall for them as heavily and as deeply as we do.
You see? When we watch these shows, we realise it’s not just us.
* a perpetual blog-favourite, naturally.