He inherited the most engaged fans in TV. Making people mad is ‘part of the deal’
Two of the fall season’s biggest new shows, “Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” and “House of the Dragon,” have come with high expectations, and at times controversial responses, from viewers. But no new series may be more scrutinized than “The Winchesters,” which premieres Tuesday under the watchful eye of “Supernatural‘s” #SPNFamily fanbase.
Based on the lives of monster hunters John and Mary Winchester, the parents of “Supernatural” protagonists Sam and Dean Winchester, the CW show has already garnered some strong reactions , from a series announcement that caused cast drama to the first trailer. But though most of the advance chatter has been positive, that doesn’t mean “Winchesters” executive producer Robbie Thompson wasn’t nervous.
“My fear was, ‘How the heck is this going to work?’” Thompson said of his reaction when “Supernatural” stars Jensen Ackles and Danneel Ackles presented him with the opportunity to do the show. “One of the things we had as a touchtone was the recent success of ‘Better Call Saul.’ I have a lot of friends who have only seen ‘Better Call Saul’ and haven’t yet watched ‘Breaking Bad’ — which blows my mind — but they’re out there. One of the many brilliant things that show did was it allowed itself to live in its own space.”
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“The Winchesters” may look to build off of the original’s popularity, but that audience was built over 15 years and 327 episodes. There was a time when the fans of “Supernatural” were among the most active around, and even with the show ending two years ago, there’s still enough of a following for Ackles and co-star Jared Padalecki to stir up support for their new shows (Ackles in “The Boys” and “Big Sky” and Padalecki in “Walker”). Briar Marum, the owner-editor in chief of Nerds and Beyond, is among the fans who’ve made “Supernatural” capable of carrying a fictional universe.
“‘Supernatural’ is the main reason I created it,” Marum said of the site. “I wanted a place to be able to write about what I liked, and ‘Supernatural’ was a big part. I wrote some ‘Supernatural’ stuff and it would get picked up online and on social media and it would blow up every time. So I started deep-diving into episodes and I really started getting to know the cast and follow their other projects. But our biggest audience is 100% ‘Supernatural.’”
Marum, like the wider #SPNFamily, initially had questions about “The Winchesters”: Where in the timeline would the show take place? How can the main characters be ‘hunting’ together when it was previously established that one knew nothing about the secret life of the other? And, most importantly, why choose these characters to spotlight when the fanbase adamantly didn’t like one of them?
Thompson, not only a showrunner and former “Supernatural” writer but also a fan (“born and raised”), expected and understood these qualms. So, despite having to stay mum on future plot twists, he and the creative team had answers to key questions.
”We had a rule from very early on that we are not breaking anything from ‘Supernatural,’” said Thompson. “I can tell you as a fan of the show that we did not want to upend anything that ‘Supernatural’ did — and I’m going to phrase this very specifically — past, present or future.
“That much I can promise viewers, and we won’t be coy about it for multiple seasons,” he continued. “It’s something that we will unpack in our 13th episode. It’s an opportunity for us to let fans, returning and new, get to know these characters without the burden of 327 episodes.”
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Whether fans stick around long enough to see it unpacked may depend on whether “The Winchesters” can sustain the moody, horror-comedy tone of the original with a slightly different point of view.
“One of the bigger differences between the two shows is that we’re an ensemble,” Thompson said. “‘Supernatural’ eventually became an ensemble, but those early seasons were really built around Sam and Dean on the road. The ensemble nature of this allows us to have different voices from the jump, while still hopefully living within the tone that ‘Supernatural’ established on the mothership.”
Marum has heard from and discussed with fans the reasons for the focus on John and Mary, and though she’s excited to see it play out, she knows that it could be an uphill battle for some diehards.
“I know a lot of people didn’t like John based on the source material and how he treated Sam and Dean. It’s going to be interesting because in the show what really drives John to do that was Mary’s death. So is the show going to show us, ‘Hey, this was John before that happened, and this is how he got to be that person’? I think it would be cool to see that aspect, but I know there are people that are worried,” said Marum.
“[Older] John was a bit of a jerk,” Thompson admitted. “There are pretty strongly worded opinions on [him]. I think part of the appeal of doing [‘The Winchesters’] is popping the hood on the characters and seeing how they got to where they are. One of the things that we are playing around with this season is trying to understand John’s darkness and where it came from. And to understand Mary’s trauma of being born and raised a hunter.”
The pressure to tell a good story that satisfies core fans while attracting new ones. is a balancing act that Thompson knows all too well.
“Part of my job as a storyteller is that people will get mad at me. Part of my job is to take characters that were either beloved or hated and do nice things or mean things to them. That’s part of the deal.”
For fans like Marum, Thompson did allow one small detail, and hinted at the symbiotic relationship that shows like “The Winchesters” have with their supporters.
“We are going to do a vampire story. I guess I can say that. Whenever we can and however we can, we try to find new monsters. [Our writers] will go to the ‘Supernatural’ Wiki and make sure that it doesn’t have an entry, and our goal is to have a creature added to it! We still have the same rule that [former ‘Supernatural’ EP] Sera Gamble used to say, that we want our monsters to be Googleable. But our versions of whatever you Google.”
Ultimately, the promise of Easter eggs and familiar faces and rewarding answers is all in the service of connecting “The Winchesters,” and its viewers, to their roots.
“When it ended in 2020, that’s part of your life ending,” Marum said. “Now, you can revisit that world.”
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