When I first caught a glimpse of Supernatural I dismissed it as derivative and more of the same. All of this territory had been covered before by the X-Files, Buffy, Angel; and Medium and Ghost Whisperer of late. But the TV universe of the undead is very big and there is plenty of room in the genre for shows like Supernatural to eek out a corner. The show is bizarrely self-aware of its place within the the genre and often makes references to other shows and movies. One character is prone to visions and the other compares him to Patricia Arquette and Jennifer Love Hewitt.
Although the X-Files had its share of monsters and mutants, most of them had a pseudo scientific explanation. Agent Scully was always on hand to find a mutant gene or toxic chemical to explain them. The other worldly elements of the stories were literally from another world, rather than inhabiting some place between this world and the next. The other story arc of a massive and immoral government conspiracy seems nowadays hardly worthy of fiction, given the scant trust people now have in their governments.
With Buffy, the supernatural went mainstream. After a first season in obscurity, the show hit the big time when the forbidden love of the vampire and the slayer captivated audiences. The forbidden vampire love theme was reprieved most recently in the Twilight saga, demonstrating that there is room in the genre for stories that seem to occupy even the very same space.
Buffy was very tongue in cheek, and although the monsters and demons seemed like they might hurt someone, much of the action was played for laughs. As the show matured the evil became darker, more dangerous, and less funny.
Buffy was notable for its depiction of strong women. Apart from Buffy herself of course, the remaining female characters were also strong and powerful. Even bookish Willow, who was a weak nerd early in the series, grew to become a powerful witch. In the season finale when all hell was unleashed on the world, it was the women of the world saved it.
The men in Buffy were, by contrast, primarily present for their comedic value. Zander the hapless, clueless slacker sidekick and Giles the librarian "watcher" were very weak compared to the female characters and routinely needed rescuing from monsters and demons, and often themselves. Angel the vampire was strong, but when he had sex with Buffy his lust turned him evil. Perhaps this is a lesson for young girls everywhere.
Angel eventually left Buffy and began a new life and new series in LA. Angel's world was very different from suburban Sunny Dale. While the demons and monsters of Buffy were evil, bent on destruction, and had to be killed, life was more complex in LA. Here demons were a separate race, and not all were bad. Some passed for human and lived normal lives. There were demon bars and night clubs. It was less clear who was good and who was evil. More importantly, in Angel's LA evil was not inherent. It was more of a lifestyle choice. And of course it turned out that the most evil creature of them all was the LA lawyer.
Both Medium and Ghost Whisperer present audiences with a different view of the supernatural and of women. In both shows spirits of the dead are trapped between this world and the next. Most of what appears to be evil at first, turns out to be merely misunderstood. The role of the lead female characters in both shows is that of a listener, communicator, advisor, and mediator. They must figure out what the dead want, encourage them to reveal their secrets, their fears, and desires; and then relay messages to their loved ones. This is in stark contrast to the supernatural world of Buffy, and the woman’s relationship to it. Buffy was a slayer. If she ever did say “I hear you” it was a warning.
The territory occupied by Supernatural is somewhat familiar: a world of ghosts, demons, and spirits. But in this show, they are all up to no good. They are not to be reasoned with, merely destroyed. And destroyed by the male leads. The brothers, Dean and Sam, on a perpetual road trip, seeking and destroying, are manly men. They have guns, knives, and holy water. When there is an emotional epiphany in an early episode, Dean insists that there will be "no chick flick moments". And this show has very few of them. It is clearly ghosts and demons for men.
The roles of men and women are very different from other shows in the genre. Unlike the professional equal that Scully was to Mulder in the X-Files, unlike the strong women of Buffy, and the understanding women of Medium and Ghost Whisper, the women inhabiting the world of Supernatural are only only good for rescuing or screwing, or sometimes both. They are invariably victims in need of protection. One female character does try her hand at demon hunting. She ends up needing rescuing and her mom has to come and take her home. The few other strong women, who seem promising at first, all turn out to be in league with the devil. Perhaps this is a lesson for young men everywhere.
Supernatural has more to say about the role of men in the world than it does women. There are some familiar themes and stereotypes. Dean and Sam are protectors and avengers. The long arc in season one has the brothers searching for the thing that killed their mother and Sam's fiancée. Since they are continuously on the road there can be no commitment to women. Dean is allowed to chase women, but for much of Season 1 Sam is still loyal to his dead fiancée. The show deals with many traditional issues of masculinity: duty, loyalty, relationships with women (permanent and temporary), father figures, and family. And the brothers usually epitomize opposing sides of the roles men are expected to play in life. Much of the drama and themes revolve around this contrast. Sam is the returned prodigal son who defied his father by going to college, and now seeks redemption. Dean is the loyal son who followed in his father's footsteps and carried on the family business. Dean is the womanizer, while Sam carries a torch for his lost love. Sam is the sensitive thinker, while Dean is the actor.
Family is important too. Because the two men love each other, spend lots of time together, and share hotel rooms, they have to be brothers. Otherwise we might suspect they are gay. Just to make sure we know they are not gay, we are constantly reminded that Dean, at least, is not. On occasion they are confused for a couple, just for laughs.
Throughout the series the brothers explore the different roles men play in life, and how they can reconcile them. Perhaps that is why it is so popular. The guns, action, gore, and hot chicks are cool too.