Eternal Life, Thanks to Angels and Abs: Secrets to the Long Life of ‘Supernatural’

By Mike Hale for The New York Times

SURREY, British Columbia — The first episode of the scary-monster show “Supernatural,” in which a college student came home and found his girlfriend on the ceiling, roasting like a blond marshmallow, was shown by the WB network on Sept. 13, 2005.

Since then quite a few shows have come and gone — “Breaking Bad,” “Friday Night Lights,” “30 Rock,” “Dexter,” to name a few — but “Supernatural” is still here, now on CW on Tuesday nights. Midway through its ninth demon-stabbing, vampire-decapitating, angel-ganking season, it’s the sixth-longest-running drama currently in prime time — and it’s already been renewed for another season.

How does a show that gets relatively little attention and even less credit in the age of the prime-time drama find itself on a short list with series like “Law & Order: SVU” and “Grey’s Anatomy”? We went to the suburbs of Vancouver, where the 190th episode was being shot, to ask. Here are some possibilities.

It’s about the hair.

Between takes at the seedy-motel location — an actual seedy motel here, about 40 minutes south of Vancouver, just above the American border — several young women trot out and run their fingers through the hair of the stars, Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki.

“The way my hair is, if I get out of the shower and put a beanie on or something, it just kind of lays,” said Mr. Padalecki, whose leonine tresses are one of the show’s trademarks. “But it doesn’t lay well for the camera, because it’ll cover” — he gestures to his face — “the thing.

”Mr. Ackles, whose laugh is like the crack of the show’s magic Colt revolver, said, “I’m fairly certain that that mop is solely responsible for the 10th-season pickup.”

It’s about the brothers.

Mr. Ackles and Mr. Padalecki play Dean and Sam Winchester, brothers with a family tradition of demon hunting. Mr. Ackles was 26 and Mr. Padalecki 22 when the show began, and they are “Supernatural” — conversations with co-stars, show runners and network and studio presidents always come around to Jensen and Jared, Jared and Jensen.

In the motel parking lot, through endless takes in the February chill, they set the tone, joking with the crew, then discussing with the director how to block a scene in which they’re thrown against their black 1967 Impala by the flick of an angel’s finger.“

At the end of the day we have a very good understanding that a lot of it comes down to he and I, and how we relate to each other on- and off-screen,” Mr. Ackles said. “That was impressed upon us very early on by Eric Kripke,” the show’s creator. “He sat us down the first episode and said, ‘Listen, guys, this begins and ends with you.’”

It’s about Joseph Campbell. And masculinity.

Misha Collins plays the naïve but deadly angel Castiel, the Winchesters’ mascot and fellow warrior. He studied social theory at the University of Chicago and worked in the Clinton White House and he’s a very smart man, so we should probably listen: “The show deals with universally appealing mythology story lines, the kind of stuff that Joseph Campbell would be proud to see on television,” he said, “but grounds it in personal relationships.”

“It’s really a show about boys becoming men,” he added. “It’s about manhood and these guys who vacillate between testosterone-infused knife fights and gun battles and then crying on one another’s shoulders, having their intimate brotherhood-of-men moments. And I think that’s something you don’t see that much of on television.”

And angels.

“It used to be about guys on the road hunting urban legends,” Mr. Padalecki said, referring to the first four or five seasons sketched out by Mr. Kripke, who pitched the show as “Route 66” meets “The X-Files.” “And then angels came in,” he added, and that annoyed them. “We’re like: ‘We didn’t sign up for a religious show. I don’t want to make a statement on angels. I came to do “X-Files.” ’ But it’s kept on finding new ground.”

Robert Singer, the series’s longtime show runner, said: “The biggest tipping point was the introduction of angels. It seemed to be a natural place to go once we’d gone so far into demon stories.”

It’s about Netflix.

As with many other shows these days, everyone involved credits online streaming of past seasons for increasing current viewership. “We’ve had a real jump in teenagers who are watching the show,” Mr. Singer said. “They were 5 or 6 when it started, and they didn’t know the show from Adam. The fact that they can go back and see it from the beginning and get themselves invested to watch it now is a big thing.”

It’s about beefcake.

Mr. Padalecki is 6-foot-5, Mr. Ackles is 6 feet, and together they are, as Mr. Padalecki puts it, “400 pounds of dude.” Misha Collins said, “Yeah, I think we would be lying to ourselves if we weren’t admitting that that’s an aspect of this dynamic.”

The Winchesters politely demur. Mr. Padalecki: “As flattering as that is, out of 190 episodes I think I’ve taken my shirt off less than 10 times.” Mr. Ackles: “We probably keep our clothes on more than any other show on this network.”

But what the heck. “If people watch because Jensen’s handsome or they like my hair, and then they say, ‘This is a really cool show, they really put their heart and soul into this and I’ll tune in again,’ fine,” Mr. Padalecki said. “Whatever gets them in the seats, right?”

It’s about the fans.

Whether it’s angels, abs or both, the cast members spend part of every summer break traveling around the world to “Supernatural” fan conventions.

“When we go to São Paulo for a convention and there are 50 people camped out on the hotel doorstep just waiting to get a glimpse of us,” Mr. Collins said, “and when we go into the halls and there are 1,500 or 2,000 people and the screaming will be so deafening we have to cover our ears — it’s like we have this one moment where you can feel like you’re a Beatle. And then you get to go about your normal life the rest of the year.”

Not all fans are content simply to attend conventions. Some of them want to take a hand in the story, and their fan fiction can explore areas mostly untouched on the show, like the latent homoerotic suggestiveness of the Winchesters’ intense relationship. Asked if he reads any of this material, Mr. Ackles said: “I don’t. I know it’s out there, and I’m, I’m — the people that have asked me about it are well aware that I would rather not know about that.”

It’s about humility.

The Winchesters — that is, Mr. Ackles and Mr. Padalecki — are enthusiastic and accommodating interview subjects, seeking out a reporter at every break to talk up their underdog show, finishing each other’s sentences, always agreeing. They reflect their characters, or vice versa: Mr. Ackles is the quiet, watchful older brother, keeping an eye on the eagerly talkative Mr. Padalecki.

Jensen: “We both had strong fathers who instilled a good work ethic in us.”

Jared: “And I think a gratitude for the work. And there’s certainly times — ”

Jensen: “A respect — ”

Jared: “A respect for everybody — ”

Jensen: “And humble.”

Jared: “There have been times when I’ve let myself get overwhelmed with, ‘Oh, I feel so overworked.’ And Ackles has been like: ‘Dude. Remember.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh yeah.’”

It’s about the future.

“Supernatural” is projected to hit the 200-episode milestone next season; a pilot for a spinoff series, “Supernatural: Bloodlines,” will be shown April 29. How long can the magic last?“

As long as these numbers keep up, and as long as these guys want to do it, ‘Supernatural’ will stay on the air,” said Mark Pedowitz, president of CW. If he doesn’t keep the promise, there’s a 12-inch angel dagger with his name on it.

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