The CW will soon look different thanks to new corporate ownership. But this fall, it appears eerily familiar. The young(ish)-skewing network has finally launched a spinoff of Supernatural, the longest-running genre series in American TV history, after nearly a decade of trying to franchise the fan-favorite drama. Though two backdoor pilots were produced during the show’s impressive 15-season run (one much better than the other), neither made it to series. There are several reasons for this, but the most obvious—and also the most important—is that Supernatural lived and died by Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles). A show without the Brothers Winchester was always going to be a tough sell regardless of quality. But now, nearly two years after the codependent siblings drove off into the heavenly sunset, Ackles is back (notably without Padalecki, who stars on another CW show, Walker) to tell the story of a different, but still familiar, pair of Winchesters.
We first met John and Mary (née Campbell) in the Supernatural pilot. At the time, they looked like Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Samantha Smith, but we would also see the characters in their 20s during the show’s run, as the writers mined the Winchester and Campbell families for years of ever-complicated, but often compelling mythology. The Winchesters takes us back even further in the story, to John (played by Drake Rodger) and Mary’s (Meg Donnelly) meet-cute upon the former’s return from Vietnam. John’s father, Henry Winchester (played by Gil McKinney), long ago disappeared (we already know the how and why), but now Mary’s father, Sam (played by Mitch Pileggi in Supernatural and set to be played by CW royalty Tom Welling in this series), has gone missing as well.
Unlike Supernatural, this show isn’t a two-hander. Joining John and Mary—the latter of whom is already a talented hunter in her own right at the start of the show—are two other young hunters. Nida Khurshid portrays Latika Desai, an intelligent and intellectual hunter-in-training, while Jojo Fleites brings to life the confident and opinionated Carlos Cervantez. Aiding them in their search for Mary’s father is Demetria McKinney’s Ada Monroe, a bookstore owner with an interest in and deep knowledge of the occult. In short, this is an ensemble piece starring several young, attractive actors saving people and hunting things. It’s the family business, 1970s-style.
Normally, one would not think twice about the decision to order the show to series; not only is Ackles attached to the project as an executive producer and narrator, but the Winchester name, fictional or not, holds a lot of power at The CW. However, it’s been only five months since the network pulled the plug on Legacies, a spinoff of The Vampire Diaries and The Originals, and another ensemble drama about young, attractive people fighting the forces of evil. Furthermore, one could argue (and I have) that the network already has the perfect Supernatural successor in Nancy Drew, an exceptionally fun show with a similar ability to mix unique mysteries of the week with compelling mythology tied to its heroine. The Winchesters doesn’t—and can’t—exist in a vacuum. These things must be considered, especially with all the changes going on at The CW upon Nexstar acquiring a controlling interest in the network. But perhaps the biggest question surrounding The Winchesters has nothing to do with the cancellation or existence of similarly themed shows. Instead, it’s this: What does this show have that makes it any better than Wayward Sisters, the backdoor pilot that was The CW’s second attempt to franchise Supernatural?
Wayward Sisters—which drew its name from its parent series’ unofficial rock anthem—aired in 2018. While not instantly compelling, it was infinitely better than the first backdoor pilot, 2014’s Bloodlines, which featured supernatural creatures in conflict in Chicago and was simply too far removed from the world of Supernatural to ever succeed. Wayward Sisters, in comparison, was a decent attempt at expanding the show’s already big universe and featured an ensemble cast of well-known and well-liked characters like Sheriff Jody Mills (Kim Rhodes), Donna Hanscum (Briana Buckmaster), and Claire Novak (Kathryn Newton) fighting evil and growing as a family. With a more permanent setting in Sioux Falls and an all-female cast—notable because Supernatural was often heavily criticized for its poor treatment of female characters—the show would have been familiar, yes, but just different enough that it could stand on its own, too. Apparently, The CW didn’t think so, and it never moved beyond the backdoor pilot stage (the official company line is that the show wasn’t where the network wanted it creatively).
As a prequel series, The Winchesters seems to be trying to find some middle ground. The show—which is narrated by Ackles as Dean (and who pops up in a cameo in the pilot)—features familiar characters, if not familiar faces. It takes them on the road, but they have a homebase in Lawrence, Kansas, where John’s mother, Millie (Bianca Kajlich), runs a garage and is struggling with Henry’s apparent abandonment years prior. She plays a prominent role in John’s life, which is surprising only because she had no part in the narrative of Supernatural. Meanwhile, Mary, like Dean, has placed her father on a pedestal despite the fact he is never going to win a Father of the Year award.
Compared to Wayward Sisters, The Winchesters is more deeply connected to the family and the series’ mythology while also having a more balanced ensemble. The former is an obvious upgrade (sorry to Jody, et al.), but with regards to the latter, it mostly reads as a network attempting to draw a more balanced audience (former network CEO Mark Pedowitz once claimed Supernatural’s audience was equally split between men and women, a stat that, quite frankly, feels a tad unbelievable). But it’s just as plausible that this particular lineup provides more opportunities for hot young people to be hot young people with feelings.
With a few rare exceptions, Supernatural didn’t concern itself with romance—Sam and Dean’s life on the road was a lonely, dangerous one, and this fact is one of the biggest reasons their codependence reached the level that it did. Wayward Sisters was likely to follow in similar footsteps, but for different reasons. The Winchesters, though, has young romance and emotion built into its foundation through the inevitable relationship between John and Mary, while the opportunity for other characters to find love or have sex is wide open. And if you don’t think this has the potential to drive viewer interest, look no further than the angsty, slow-burning romance between Ace (Alex Saxon) and Nancy (Kennedy McMann) on Nancy Drew. The ships, well, they are a-sailing.
Of course, The Winchesters would also need to be a good show for any of this to have any real effect, and based on the first two episodes thus far (Season 1 is 13 episodes), it still has a way to go in that department. With weak writing and a lackluster hook, it gets by, to an extent, on familiarity: the characters of John and Mary; the narrative of missing fathers and their children seeking them out; the similar music cues; the contrast of studious hunters researching lore and people of action who prefer to ask questions later; and, of course, Ackles’ deep Dean voice (awkwardly) laid over the action. But it isn’t doing enough to prove that it’s any better than Wayward Sisters, nor does it set itself apart from any of the other recent supernatural team-up shows.
The fact that Legacies, which also featured mysteries of the week in addition to employing long-term story arcs, was canceled and The Winchesters ordered to series likely won’t sit well with fans of the former, potentially eliminating a chunk of the show’s would-be viewers. That there is already another CW show employing Supernatural’s playbook of bold, creative storytelling that is rarely low on physical or emotional stakes and never forgets to have fun—and excelling as a result—also leaves one to ponder whether there is actually room for two shows of this type on the same network. Better yet, whether there’s room for either show on the new version of The CW that is being shepherded by new president Dennis Miller.
The legacy of Supernatural is one of resiliency and reinvention. It far surpassed every expectation anyone ever had for it, surviving not just the 2007-08 Writers Guild of America strike during its third season, but also multiple seasons on the bubble or in the Friday night death slot (TV was a lot different before streaming made it easy to watch a show whenever you wanted). It was a creatively rich absurdist comedy inside a meta supernatural drama with deep mythology and countless contemplations on family and free will. Few shows could live up to that legacy. Bloodlines was so bad and existed so far outside that world that we should all be glad someone at The CW recognized it didn’t deserve to be anything but a quickly forgotten filler episode. But Wayward Sisters was capable of reaching the audience of its parent series with a narrative that featured familiar faces and similar themes, and it was original enough that it could appeal to new viewers and exist just outside of Supernatural’s long shadow. It’s a shame it never got the chance. The Winchesters has made it further than either previous attempt. The fact that Ackles is attached in a prominent capacity brings a certain weight and legitimacy to the proceedings, but the show has miles to go before it can be deemed a worthy successor. But whether it gets a real chance to grow on this new version of The CW is something not even Chuck Shurley (Rob Benedict) could possibly know.
Kaitlin Thomas is an entertainment journalist and TV critic. Her work has appeared in TV Guide, Salon, and TV.com, among other places. You can find her tweets about TV, sports, and Walton Goggins @thekaitling or read more of her work at kaitlinthomas.com.
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.