I’m going to start by admitting the thing no Supernatural fan wants to hear, myself included: Much of Supernatural is just plain not good. The show, about two brothers who travel around hunting monsters, demons, and other paranormal phenomena, can be repetitive, melodramatic, and so wrapped up in its own brand of bro-mythology that it drives potential new viewers away. Its saving grace has been its self-awareness. From the beginning of the series’s run, creator Eric Kripke wanted to signal to Supernatural viewers that he knew they were watching, and there are hints of that self-consciousness as early as the first season, like when the brothers meet a team of amateur ghost hunters trying to film a TV pilot. There’s no question Supernatural has since been most rewarding for its most devoted fans, those who keep up with the endless Reddit threads, DeviantArt accounts, and Archive of Our Own stories dedicated to the show.
For newcomers, that can make knowing where to start with the 14-season (soon to be 15-season) saga daunting. As much as I’d love to lob you into the depths of Supernatural’s meta game with “The French Mistake,” in which the brothers get sent to another universe where they’re actors on the television series Supernatural, it’s probably better to hold off on completely shattering the fourth wall until you know what the show’s deal is in the first place. And that’s where “Hollywood Babylon” comes in. It’s in Season 2 that the show hits its stride, and that season’s 18th episode is the best place for new viewers to jump in as Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) Winchester investigate a death and ghostly appearance on the set of a horror movie in Los Angeles. It’s a pretty normal monster-of-the-week plot—the series’s sweet spot—but then the episode starts looking back at us in true Supernatural fashion.
After a murder-y cold open, we find the brothers on a studio lot tour and encounter our first little nod to the audience as the tour guide points out the set of Gilmore Girls—a series Padalecki appeared in for a few years—which prompts Sam to swiftly exit the tour. Immediately afterward, they’re walking through the lot and Sam comments on the weather conditions as being “practically Canadian,” because the series is filmed in Vancouver, British Columbia. And the self-reflective jokes just keep rolling from there: The fake movie’s director is McG (Regan Burns), a send-up of actual film director and Supernatural producer Joseph McGinty Nichol, and Kripke gets his share of mockery when Dean tells the movie’s star actress Tara (Elizabeth Whitmere) that he loved her in Boogeyman—which Kripke wrote—and she responds, “Oh, God. What a terrible script.” The cast and crew seem to be having a great time skewering everyone involved, with a studio guy (Gary Cole) giving obnoxious notes to the director and writer that are real notes Kripke received from the network for Supernatural. The film sets are even reused from previous Supernatural episodes, and the final shot has the brothers walking off into a sunset … backdrop.
Of course, these jokes can also be frustrating, because they require a level of extratextual knowledge, but I find a little homework to be part of the fun of fandom. Knowledge about the show—not to mention reading the slash fic of others and watching drama play out at conventions I did not attend—makes watching Supernatural more entertaining, pushing me to continue to learn more about the show, a cyclical relationship I enjoy. That’s exactly what makes these meta episodes shine so brightly: Rather than getting dragged down in the maudlin weight of a season-long arc, Supernatural viewers can easily flit in and out of the weekly adventures, relishing the heavy-handed, dour episodes knowing they’ll eventually yield more comedic fodder later on. Without such intimate knowledge of the boys, for instance, I wouldn’t be able to appreciate “The Monster at the End of This Book,” where Sam and Dean discover a book series about them, which later becomes an all-girls college musical. This might sound alienating, but then, what fandom isn’t until you’re a part of it? And we want you here with us, because it’s always a joy to find a fellow watcher whom you can love and hate the show with.
If you need a show that can function as mostly background television with a handful of delicious highlights, and if you’re in the mood for the wildest riffs on Christian mythology, Supernatural is for you. (Just wait until you meet God’s sister.) While I want some sort of happy ending for Sam and Dean as the show comes to a close with its final season this fall, part of me really just wants to see them get back in their car and prepare for another adventure, driving off into the sunset backdrop. At least the fan fiction will never end.