Welcome back, Supernatural!
(Note: if you're watching at UK pace, there no season eight spoilers here!)
Good shows, if they're allowed to live, eventually go bad. Much like the curious idea that married men's eyes start to wander when they experience a “seven-year itch”, many shows start to wobble in their seventh season. I'm a huge Buffy fan but even I have to admit that it lost something around year seven. I adored The X-Files , but during its seventh year I found watching it had become a chore. And Stargate SG-1 used to be one of my favourite ever programmes, but seven was no longer heaven – I felt as though I'd seen every variation of “team visit alien planet and fight bad guys” there could possibly be.
There aren't that many sci-fi and fantasy shows that even make it to a seventh year, of course, and I'm thankful that some do. But all shows reach a point where they're just going through the motions, churning out episodes because they have to, rather than because they're still enjoying the process.
Not so Supernatural .
Let's be honest, year seven was a bit scary, and I'm not talking about the monsters. Many fans weren't happy with the direction showrunner Sera Gamble took for that year's arc plot: separating the Winchester brothers from all the things they depended upon – which included Bobby, Castiel, their base of operations and even their car – so that they were out there on their own. By stripping back so many of the things we loved about the show, something was lost; it was an experiment that was brave, but didn't quite pay off. The ratings weren't impressive either (not that The CW gets impressive ratings anyway) and for a while there, an eighth season seemed long shot.
But the show was renewed. When I first heard this, I was thrilled, but also nervous: I enjoyed season seven, but could see that things were starting to wobble (most particularly when the show aired its very first episode that I could barely finish watching, the meta-titled “Season Seven, Time For A Wedding!”). Another telling sign was that I only watched my DVD box-set once . My other Supernatural box-sets are currently laughing and pointing at it, sneering, showing it how worn out they are.
Like myself, a lot of fans were worried that eight years would be too long; that the format had run out of steam, and this series we once loved would become a shadow of its former self. Was it going to die a long, slow death, like so many seven-year itch shows before it?
Ha! Bollocks to that. Season eight, emboldened by a new showrunner (Jeremy Carver, who had a huge influence on Supernatural 's earlier seasons), has done something hitherto impossible in the realm of US sci-fi telly: it's improved. It's as if someone has taken a giant needle filled with adrenaline and jabbed it into the Winchesters' pert buttcheeks. Suddenly Supernatural is slicker, funnier, grosser. Its arc plot this year is a play on Raiders Of The Lost Ark , and it's flowing beautifully. Castiel – who many thought had been poorly treated last season – is back on board and every episode he's featured in has been a joy. The writing's sharp and spot-on, and you get the sense that the writers' room is filled with people at the top of their game who spend much of their day giggling at what they can get away with on screen.
Most of all, the show's regained the swagger it first exhibited in its second and third years; in fact, if season eight resembles anything, it's season three with its wonderful arc featuring Dean's deal for his soul.
There are a few issues: some of the flashbacks in the first half of season eight are a little trite, for instance. But by, say, episode eight (“Hunteri Heroici”), all the mojo lost over that beleagured seventh year has been replaced. People are talking about Supernatural , and they're saying “You stopped watching? You should start again, it's got really good!” And what's more, the ratings are holding steady – even improving – which is pretty much unheard of for such an old show.
I don't know what the writers have done to make this year so good. Perhaps they made a deal with a crossroads demon. Maybe, just maybe, Jared Padalecki's hair has Samson-like powers: when it's shorter, the show isn't as good, and because it's so long now it's having a positive effect (don't cut it, Jared). I just hope things don't change. If Supernatural ends at this level in May, season nine could be magnificent. This show may be no spring chicken, but it's still the biggest rooster in the barnyard.