‘Supernatural’ and the Social Contract

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Supernatural and Philosophy

10 Years, 200 episodes, and Millions of Fans

Supernatural and the Social Contract

By Jillian L. Canode

 

The 2014 fall television season marked the beginning of the 10th year of Supernatural. Despite the show’s longevity and fans who are über devoted to it, many people still say, “I’ve never heard of it.” This saddens me, but it also leaves me wondering: How has a show so many people have never heard of lasted so long? The answer is that the fans have always had a very special relationship with those who run Supernatural. The people involved with the show, both in its production and in its fandom, are called the Supernatural family. This so-called family dynamic raises a philosophical question: in cultivating this family atmosphere, have show-runners created a kind of moral community as well? That is, do fans of Supernatural and the people who make the show owe each other anything, morally speaking? While I do not want to frame the relationship in terms of debt, I cannot help but do so.

Though we sometimes feel icky about framing morality in terms of indebtedness, it is difficult to talk about the relationship between a TV show and its fans without referencing debt somehow. When I think about the interaction between the show and the fandom, I cannot help but think of moral contractualism in a Hobbesian sort of way. I am not referring so much to a kind of state of nature situation where we are angry fans roaming the streets looking for shows to watch, but rather, that we, both fans and show-runners alike, have implicitly agreed to an arrangement that benefits us mutually though in different ways. Fans, after all, do not make millions of dollars if the show does well; we merely are made very happy. In essence then, as fans we sign the contract by watching; we agree to keep watching the show as long as it benefits us. The writers, actors, and producers of the show sign by producing; they agree to keep making the show as long as it benefits them. Sure, it is a very egoistic sort of relationship, but it is still a morally binding one; to not hold up one’s end of the bargain is immoral. Therefore, as soon as the show makes fans unhappy, the writers hear about it; as soon as people stop watching, the show gets canceled. Indeed, it is a more complex process than that, but those are the terms of the contract.

Sometimes, contracts need to be reviewed and evaluated to ensure all parties are happy. While the show is on hiatus, or, as we fans call it, hellatus, I want to take a look at how the show wrote one of the most loving thank you letters in the history of everything to its fans in the form of its 200th episode, “Fan Fiction,” written by Robbie Thompson. This episode will go down as easily one of my favorite episodes ever, and that’s special for season 10, as it’s been a rough go for the show since the end of season five when the show’s creator, Erik Kripke, moved on to other projects. Many fans think the show should have, was meant to, and could have ended with “Swan Song,” but most fans are grateful the show is still on, even if the majority of fans think it hasn’t been as good since Kripke was at the helm. Now, post-Kripke Supernatural and fans’ reactions to the show demonstrates the existence of moral debt dictated by the contract more so than previous seasons ever could have. Season six was rough; I don’t think there’s a fan who would deny it. The show has certainly lost long-time fans since the beginning of six, and the vitriol I have seen on Twitter and Tumblr over the last two years or so regarding the way the show has been written recently has been intense. So, it would seem, fans are making the argument that while they are holding up their end of the contract, the show is not, and that is a moral failure. So when I say “Fan Fiction” was a love letter, I do think that’s exactly what it was, but I also think it was a way for the show to remind fans they haven’t been reneging on their side of the deal.

This contract illustrates something unique about the relationship between Supernatural’s staff and the fans: the former actually listens to the latter. This seems to have been the case from the beginning, but fan influence has undoubtedly grown in recent years thanks to the power of social media. The Supernatural fandom routinely wins all manner of on-line contests for its show, including numerous People’s Choice Awards. And the show’s writers and actors respond to fans on Twitter, too. Misha Collins, who plays the angel Castiel on the show, is especially interactive with fans, and he uses his powers for good, channeling the fandom’s energy to help with a number of charity events.

So while fans donate to charities, win the show prizes, and generally flood the internet with love, the show has returned the favor in a number ways. The best display of love from the show has been through the “meta-episodes,” where the line between fiction and reality blurs significantly. I don’t know another show that is so utterly self-aware, so able to break the fourth wall so smartly, and so willing to make fun of itself; what is more, these meta-episodes reward fan loyalty: if you watch the show, you will get the jokes. The meta-episodes include “The Monster at the End of the Book,” where the Winchesters find out that they’re the subject of the Supernatural series of books written by the prophet Chuck Shurley; “The Real Ghostbusters,” where the Winchesters find themselves in the middle of a Supernatural fan convention; and “The French Mistake,” the meta-est of all meta-episodes, where Sam and Dean are catapulted into a world where they are actors named Jared and Jensen who play characters named Sam and Dean on a show called Supernatural. All of these are masterworks in self-parody. “Fan Fiction,” if it happens to be the last of the meta-episodes (though I hope it is not), was a very good way to close them out, for “Fan Fiction” talked to the fans in ways no other episode of Supernatural ever had.

It was, in my opinion, a perfect episode. I wanted to run around and yell at everyone I knew about how amazing the episode was. And though I do not represent the entirety of fandom, there are some general things I think nearly every fan wondered about that hadn’t been really addressed before. This episode, which saw the boys tracking a case that led them to a very Rushmore-esque all-girl school that just happened to be putting on a musical in honor of the Supernatural books, finally got around to answering our questions, and giving many of us what we may not have even known we wanted. They gave us Adam, the Samulet, the music, and Chuck!!!! They acknowledged shipping (so important in/for fandom), and they even threw a bone to the fans who were dying for a musical. The contractual ball, it seems, is now in our court, and I have just given you six reasons why.

A show can’t succeed without people to watch it, and Supernatural has, throughout the years, managed to cater to its fans without pandering to them, maintaining, I think, their part of the social contract quite well. “Fan Fiction” thanked fandom beautifully, and it really showed fans how appreciated they are. It was as if the writers had kept a list of things the fandom had been discussing for years, and decided to tick them off, one-by-one, throughout an episode that was funny, creepy, and completely feels-inducing. I am a fan of Supernatural, and I am a fan of many other shows as well, but Supernatural is special to its fans in ways I believe other shows are not; I also think the fans are special to the show in ways other fandoms are not. And for the show-runners to gift to the fans its landmark 200th episode this way speaks volumes about why Supernatural has the fans it does and why it has lasted as long as it has. Though I don’t like to think of the relationship I have with a show as one of moral debt, I feel like I owe Supernatural much more than it could ever owe me.

Jillian L. Canode received her Ph.D. in Philosophy and Literature in 2011 from Purdue University. Her current work and publications focus on popular culture, feminism, and Marxism. Jillian teaches courses in English, Literature, and Philosophy at the Center for Global Education at Universidad San Ignacio de Loyola, in Lima, Perú.

 

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