Killing Demons and Blasting Sabbath: 15 Years of Supernatural
Austin stars Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki look back on the CW smash show
A long time ago, in a black 1967 Chevy Impala far, far away, two brothers started on a road trip that would eventually turn into the longest running live-action fantasy TV show to date – Supernatural. But behind the statistic is a show focused on engaging characters, relationships, and emotions painted on, as actor Jensen Ackles said, a wide canvas of "hunting monsters, demons, angels, God, and hell and heaven." The show has been a mainstay of genre television since its arrival in 2005, garnering a massive fan base as well as a wide swath of interesting cast members. Ackles and fellow Winchester brother Jared Padalecki have been on this Supernatural road trip for a long time – eons, one might say – but though the end is near, the road so far has been pretty friggin' great.
It's just going to take a little longer to get to the end of that road than either Ackles or Padalecki – both Austin residents – expected. The series was scheduled to come to an end this summer, but production has shut down due to coronavirus concerns. On March 23, executive producer Andrew Dabb announced that this is just a hiatus and that "we, the CW, and Warner Bros fully intend to return and finish the series. It's not a matter of 'if', it's a matter of 'when.'"
Much of what has kept Supernatural a continued presence from its debut on then-WB Network, now the more teen friendly CW, is due to Ackles and Padalecki's characters – Dean and Sam Winchester – being emotional touchstones through the show. Referring to an off-the-cuff remark from show creator Eric Kripke on the Winchester brothers as loose versions of Han Solo and Luke Skywalker, Ackles said he has always played Dean with a mix of "the drama, the action, and a little bit of comedy in there," to give people "a lot more color to look at when they're watching the show." (He admitted, of course, that "I was always much more of a Han Solo fan.")
Padalecki attributed some of his own love for the show to its writing, which allows him to explore deeper elements of his own life. As someone who has been open about his struggles with depression and anxiety, Padalecki said he wasn't sure if it were "happenstance or kismet or synchronicity or something, but Sam and Jared have gone through a lot of similar situations in life – both dealing with, you know, questioning their purpose and questioning whether the world is better off with them."
He added that fans have reached out to him because they see something deeper in his portrayal of Sam, which is due in part to Supernatural's writing staff. Often in hindsight, Padalecki said, "I can see that maybe part of what Sam was expressing on screen was correlated with what Jared was going through off screen. And that's a kudos to our great writing team ... A great writer will see what's going on between the character and the performer and gradually start meshing the two."
Fan participation has played a huge role in Supernatural's longevity, from conventions centered around the show to even one-on-one encounters that drive home the diverse range of fans getting into the "family business," so to speak. Ackles recalled that while the show's success wasn't overnight, it had a solid audience that has only grown since the Aughts in both size and age range. He put some of this down to the newer landscape of streaming, which brought in many younger fans – some who "weren't even alive when the show started."
"It's like a great grandmother watched the show because her daughter and granddaughter got her involved," he said. "And now there's an 11- or 12-year-old great granddaughter who started watching the show with her friends ... That's always surprised me and continues to surprise me as I get older. The show gets older, but yet our audience continues to be new."
The internet age allowed Supernatural and its cast to have a uniquely close relationship with their fans. It's far removed from the days when, as Padalecki recounted seeing once, forums would pop up to trade hot takes on whether his character on Gilmore Girls, the less Han Solo-esque Dean Forester, was the right boyfriend for Rory: Instead the "SPN family" is a strong and present force that has pushed the show to its current high place on pop culture mountain. To call the bond familial echoes the show's emphasis on both blood and chosen families as thematic overtones carrying over the 15-season stretch. "It's really equal parts of the equation," Padalecki said. "Like we're all cogs in the same wheel. And Supernatural was one of these funny shows where, you know, obviously the Supernatural fans exist because of Supernatural, but in a strange twist, Supernatural exists because of the Supernatural fans."
Yet, even with an audience that grows with each season and plots that have become wider in their scope, some of the strongest power in Supernatural has remained the chemistry between the cast. "As real people off-set, you know, we're all very good friends," Ackles said of the cast, including actor Misha Collins, who plays the rebellious angel Castiel. "That's really important, I think, the tone of the work environment you set and that you help set for others ... and Jared and I, and Misha, and all the amazing guest stars that we've had, recurring characters we've had throughout the years, we all strive to have as much fun and get as much enjoyment out of doing this work as we possibly can." When the people making a show about two brothers who've been to real Christian hell have a good workplace culture and environment, "it really shows up on screen."
With the show on hiatus, the future of the Winchester brothers remains a mystery, even if the two Austin-based actors have a clearer view of their futures. Padalecki has already shot the pilot for his next series, Walker (a reboot of Walker: Texas Ranger) while Ackles has his other passion, running the Family Business Beer Company in nearby Dripping Springs. But what if the brothers were to follow? If Dean were to settle here, Ackles suggested he might like his brewery's Dark Star IPA, which is dark, hoppy, and has a high alcohol content – "just like Dean." For his part, Padalecki said he could see Sam, floppy hair and all, settling in on UT-Austin's campus: "Sam is, at heart, an academic and a researcher, and he enjoys different minds, a plethora of books, and reading and research materials."
As Supernatural closes, so does 15 seasons of fandom excitement, passionate man tears, and hard-fought family business. Just remember to grab the salt and holy water on the way out.
Supernatural season 15 is currently streaming on the CW app for subscribers. All 14 prior seasons are now streaming on Netflix.