As an unwritten rule of thumb, genre television (and film) doesn’t get much awards recognition. When Game of Thrones won the Best Drama Series at the Emmys back in 2015, it was the first time that any genre show won a major accolade like that and deservedly so. It’s got fantastic writing, direction and acting, but it’s still a prestige costume drama with fantasy and horror elements (I’m not knocking the show, I really do like it). Hell, The Walking Dead (back in the Darabont days) was nominated for a few major awards, but didn’t win any. The exception being The X-Files back in its heyday (pulling acting awards and Best Drama at the Golden Globes). Usually the genre’s awards are relegated to the more technical awards, and sweeps the genre specific awards, like the Saturns, for instance.
So, its usual wheelhouse: A wheelhouse it doesn’t deserve to be locked in to.
But for genre shows, unless you have “American,” “Horror,” and “Story” in your title, you’re going to go mostly unseen by the average television audience, or get that sweet, sweet awards recognition, and especially if you’re not on a major network like AMC, HBO or FX. Forget about it.
So, let’s talk about the CW. It’s been steadily doing its thing in the background for several years now, amassing a slate of solid programming, but getting little to no awards awareness. Only in the latter years has any of its series even gotten trophies, but again, they’re not genre fare. And boy, am I glad for Crazy-Ex Girlfriend (everyone should be watching it, for what it’s worth). But today, we’re here to talk about a select number of genre shows that the CW has put forth, three in particular that deserve the accolades and critical attention that has been bestowed upon their peers. I’m going to talk about Supernatural, The Vampire Diaries and iZombie. Now, these three series have their own rabid fan bases, with conventions and the like sprouting up all around the world (I can’t speak for iZombie having its own convention). My intention with talking about them is just to make sure they’re getting all the respect they deserve from anyone with a television in their house, the fans of spooky shows and the ones who aren’t. For the record, I don’t watch The Originals (couldn’t and can’t stand Klaus and his family).
Out of the three shows, I’m going to discuss with you today, no show deserves the mantle of triumphant survivor and critical darling than Supernatural. It started in 2005, another show in a glut of genre shows following the wake of that breakout hit, Lost. Remember that time? There was Invasion, Night Stalker (the similarly themed reboot of the 70’s Darrin McGavin classic), Ghost Whisperer, Masters of Horror and Battlestar Galactica. Not only, did Supernatural outlast all of those shows, it also survived the death of its own network (the WB), switching through three show-runners and moving around the schedule so much, it seemed like a coy game of hot potato was being played on the fans of the show.
There’s a reason why it’s lasted so long, in fact being one of the longest running network genre shows. It’s got a simple built-in premise. You really needn’t watch every single episode to get the gist of what the show’s aiming for. But you should, because every single episode for bad or worse (and there are some clunkers, “racist truck” anyone?) offers something fun and scary for everyone. Two brothers travel from town to town, hunting monsters and saving people (you know, the family business). But like many genre shows before it (The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, namely), it also allowed for a building of mythology and worlds within its twenty-two episode seasons. And over twelve seasons and two hundred plus episodes, one would expect the proverbial gas to run out of the creative engine … but it hasn’t.
If anything, Supernatural has been stronger in its later years, mixing in strong mythology arcs amongst clever and twisty monster of the week cases. Just a few weeks ago, in its twelfth season, it took a simple case of the week and hooked a RESERVOIR DOGS-style framing device to keep things poppy and moving. It did a musical episode in season ten, one that didn’t feel like it was jumping the shark like so many other shows that did musical episodes and did it in such a way that didn’t feel shoehorned in, as though they wanted to do a musical episode and then worked their way back. Sometimes, they’ll do a siege episode (Season Three’s great “Jus in Bello”) or doing the found footage/reality show spoof (Season Three’s additionally great “Ghostfacers”).
One episode of the show that deserved awards and critical praise was Season Seven’s “Death’s Door,” an episode SPOILERS about the death of the Winchester’s beloved mentor and father figure, Bobby Singer. It’s an episode about the inevitability of death, and losing a loved one, and coming to terms with your past before your life is cut off. It’s beautifully done work. Both Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki do countless thankless performances, and for them to anchor the show without any appreciation is fairly sad. They deserve more attention, and honestly, more film work. Ackles was in the better-than-expected MY BLOODY VALENTINE remake, and however you feel about the FRIDAY THE 13th remake, Padalecki did more than serviceable work there. At least we’ll have the underrated 2005 HOUSE OF WAX remake.
The writing is so sharp sometimes, you wonder why people don’t perk up more when discussing it. Often times, it’s a little cyclical, ebbing and flowing too much, but when it’s on point, it takes the story and audience into new and interesting places. I’m not going to sit here and defend the show when it hits its low points (of which it can do many times), but if the show goes meta, it’s solid gold stuff.
For a show to alternate between horror, drama, comedy (sometimes in the same episode), the mere fact that it hasn’t gotten a bigger light shown on it from many industry types is an oversight that’s gone on for far too long.
I’ll try to avoid a hyperbolic statement here when moving on to my next show, The Vampire Diaries, but if this show were on a major network, or major cable channel, it’d definitely have gotten more respect than it has. And that’s why I’m bringing this show up, because in its heyday (let’s call that Seasons 1-6), it was one of the best genre shows on television. It’s dipped in quality over the last two seasons, but even in its down point, its miles ahead of True Blood and its schizophrenic storytelling.
It’s easy to see why it would’ve gotten dismissed outright. In 2009, Twilight was a monster hit, and it sent moony eyed teenagers into a hearts-afire love affair with all the dark and brooding boogermen (yeah, I spelled it that way) that the YA world could barely contain. The series itself was based on a series of books by L.J. Smith (I haven’t read them, it’s not my cup of tea) and actually predates Twilight by a few years. It was on the CW, which at that time was mainly known for being more of a teen-oriented network and ads for the show played up the supernatural romance between the living Elena and the dead Stefan. I passed on it so fast, I got whiplash.
I was wrong. My only initial pause at first in passing on the show was the fact that Kevin Williamson was showrunning the series. In my teen days, when I was young, dumb and full of … “heart on sleeve” values, I was a Dawson’s Creek fan and loved SCREAM. Jesus, I watched TEACHING [or KILLING] MRS. TINGLE. Twice. So his involvement meant that I would get snappy, crackling, popping dialogue amidst the swooning love stories.
I was right. There was trademark Williamson dialogue (the pilot even has a trademark Williamson opener). But the love story was no simple story. It played the angle much differently. It puts the horror of it all front and center in a major way, more than the glossy, idealized version that Twilight played. Here, you’ve got a mysterious attractive vampire but at his very core, he’s a killer. A bloodsucking monster who in his past (and boy, you’ll see a lot of the past) was known as a Ripper (shades of Buffy, though that may be from the book) whose insatiable bloodlust for carnage who would cause his victims to quite literally lose their heads. It takes a minute for things to move past the lovey-dovey story. But once it does, the show grows wheels and heads straight for the highway. And because of the strength of the material, the chemistry between the actors who grow and define their roles as time progresses, the show is never a slog.
Amidst the love story, (which as it goes along is portrayed more maturely and dramatically than most adult shows), you’re watching a complex and complicated plot unfurl over the course of twenty-two concisely written episodes. If I tried to explain to you all the crazy, batshit stuff that happens in just the first season, I’d need a HEAVEN’S GATE amount of time to get through it all. Every season has some intense stakes, shocking deaths (that sometimes get walked back, in surprising ways), and great episodes with fantastic plots (Season Two’s “As I Lay Dying” and Season Three’s “The Departed”). And further highlighting the brilliance of the writers, they break the story’s arc over three acts that all mesh up at the season’s finale (and in most situations, carry over into the next).
The latter seasons, Seven and the currently-airing Eight, have dipped in quality. The plots have become a little erratic, but still remains watchable on the strength of its core talent and the ability of the show to throw out some damn fine episodes even as it shuffles off its mortal coil. But I’d say that hardcore genre fans deserve to see something that will thrill and entertain them, even if they have to get past a love story in the process. I mean, GHOST is a fantastic movie and that’s a horror-romance.
Sometimes, it works great together.
Now, if Supernatural is the show that I wished got more attention from critics and awards alike, and The Vampire Diaries deserves more love amongst genre fans and critics, then iZombie is the show that I wished just had more damned viewers. It’s a bit newer on the slate, and some shows need to find their viewership footing, but I truly love this show and want to scream it from the rooftops so that selfishly, it’ll keep going and keep entertaining people.
Created by Rob Thomas (no, not that one), iZombie a comedy/crime-drama hybrid based on the titular Vertigo comic. What Thomas did in adapting the show was to take a procedural tack to a television series, marry that to an overarching crime-drama aesthetic and allow for the talented actors to throw out zippy one liners all while cultivating a pathos that makes their characters likable and keep you, the viewer, coming back for more. It’s like Pushing Daisies, but with way more zombies. And if you loved Veronica Mars or Party Down, Thomas’ other shows, there are amusing callbacks to those series.
I failed to catch it from the beginning, passing on it initially because I watch way too much television. But one night, they were running a marathon on TNT (they know drama) and was hooked by the tone and content in the pilot. Like, most things I come to late in the game, I was hooked. How could I not be? It was my kind of show.
Every episode offers something fun for the viewer, whether it be strong soundtrack choices (“Der Kommisar” in the season one finale) or taking the show’s character’s into different alleys than the audience member would have expected. See for example, Major Lillywhite, who ostensibly would be the dogged love interest on any other show. Here, he’s a driving force, working in his own plot and allowing for a smart, nuanced performance from the proficient Robert Buckley. The show sets him up as the doting fiancé and they swerve away from it, giving him his own agency all the same. And Rose McIver has a knack for skillfully pivoting through everything the writers through at her. In fact, from the leads all the way down to guest starts and one-line roles, it’s a minefield of accomplished, masterful work. Steven Weber makes a feast of his role as season two’s villain, Vaughn Du Clark.
Season Three starts in April, a month rotten with wonderful shows, but I ask you, dear television watcher, look to this show to provide you with forty-five minutes of sturdy, substantial television. I need my fix.