One thing I can say is I never hate a spin-off solely for the fact that it’s a spin-off. As much as I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as much as the movie and series shaped who I am, I will stand in the middle of a crowded street full of 25-40 year olds and openly talk about Angel being better written and better directed. Frasier, is in my opinion, one of the best sitcoms of all time in my eyes (for the record, I’m a terrible cusp millennial because Friends isn’t even in my top 5) and yet, I know next to nothing about Cheers!
And every now and then a spin-off will be far more memorable and successful than its mothership, because does anyone recall a little one season show called Good Morning, Miss Bliss? Of course you don’t, but you definitely know its still beloved spin-off Saved by the Bell (shout out to my favorite SBTB fanboy, Jensen Ackles).
Spin-offs can work. Backdoor pilots can work. No one said they can’t; no one said writers and producers shouldn’t try. Ultimately, the goal in Hollywood is to keep working. Shows end, ratings crash or actors tap out, nothing can go on forever, and that includes the longest running genre TV show in the United States, Supernatural. After years of going toe-to-toe against a former network head who wanted nothing more than to cancel the show that didn’t fit her vision of the post-WB network merger with CBS, The CW, Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles now breathe easy as the current network head, Mark Pedowitz, repeatedly trots out his promise that the show will go on as long as Jared and Jensen keep signing. Yes, there’s a caveat about ratings holding in there, too, but given The CW is a network with several shows pulling 0.3 or lower and a knack for scoring primo Netflix deals, the nearly thirteen-year-old Supernatural, with its 0.6 average, has little to worry about.
That said, thirteen seasons is a long time for two people to shoulder a show. Eventually, Jared Padalecki will have Sam Winchester unfold himself from Baby’s passenger seat one last time, and Jensen Ackles will have Dean Winchester pocket her keys for good. And in the wake of that moment will be hundreds of people without jobs. Unless the writers and producers can secure a successful spin-off and segue over seamlessly. It’s business.
In 2013, staff writer Andrew Dabb began the task of crafting the first attempt at a Supernatural spin-off Supernatural: Bloodlines… and when it aired in 2014 it flopped. Straight up belly flopped. It was panned by not only critics and the fandom, but also by Jared and Jensen. A handful of years later, Dabb is now the Supernatural showrunner and taking another stab at expanding the franchise, and I’ll give him his; he listened. The primary criticism of Bloodlines was that the main characters were brand new, no one cared. Sam and Dean didn’t even know them so how could the audience be expected to care about them. So this time he and his writing partner, Robert Berens, scanned social media and the Supernatural convention circuit and found an idea to latch onto. They took the grassroots, Tumblr-centric fandom concept of Wayward Daughters and co-opted it, spinning a three (arguably five) episode introduction into their new project Wayward Sisters.
If you search the fantastic resource that is TV Tropes for “backdoor pilot” the first result is “poorly disguised pilot” which TV Tropes defines as “Episode in which the show’s primary characters take a back seat to secondary or, more likely, brand new characters in order to test the waters for a separate show. Differs from the traditional Spinoff in that the characters are clearly jammed in there just for the sake of the new show; it’s not a matter of primary characters becoming popular enough to break out on their own…As a general rule, if you’re watching a show and you find yourself asking questions like “Where did everybody go?”, “What are we doing here?”, “Who are these people?”, or, above all, “What is going on here?”, then you’re watching a Poorly Disguised Pilot.
In Bloodlines, Andrew Dabb threw new characters at the audience and the canon of the show out the window. With Wayward Sisters, Dabb and Berens managed to hit even more beats of the trope: new characters out of nowhere, the amazing disappearing Winchesters who are in the episode for approximately three minutes total and manage to steal their own show back in those brief moments and fridging of minority women.
Now, I can take the easy road. I can tell you why I’m not into the idea of this spin-off. I can be entitled and simply say “this is not the spin-off I wanted.” I can tell you that I felt backdoor pilot itself was just, in my opinion, not good television. I can tell you how the dialogue wasn’t fluid and how the blocking and directing were all over the place. I can tell you that I resent them taking the Kansas sanctioned Supernatural anthem “Carry on Wayward Son” and chopping up the title for the spin-off with a quaint gender twist. I can tell you how I don’t understand why Claire (Kathryn Newton) is considered a fan favorite when she’s just a cardboard cutout of the most standard “sullen white teen girl” on TV. I can tell you that, while I enjoy her in small doses, I don’t understand how the character of Donna Hanscum (Briana Buckmaster) is sustainable beyond joke fodder. I can stomp my feet over waiting weeks to see a dinosaur and instead, getting a mix between Marvel Comics The Thing and a Golgothan.
I can point out that stealing directly from the mothership nearly line for line, not once but twice, is trite, lazy writing. I can simply say, “I don’t like it” and walk away.
But that’s cheap, that’s easy, and that ignores the very real issues with Wayward Sisters:
1) It’s marketed directly to women; it’s being peddled as a revolutionary concept, this all-female cast… which is written, produced, directed, and edited completely by men. For a long time Supernatural has received criticism for being a boys’ club. The co-leads are two white males. Years ago, in season 3 the regulars were both women (Arrow’s Katie Cassidy and The Walking Dead’s Lauren Cohan), however, since then all contract regulars have been more white males. Despite how you feel about that, the fact is that Supernatural is a story about two brothers, the show has always done what it says on the tin. Diversity sounds great in soundbites, but it needs to come from the creative team, not just the visuals of the cast. With multiple shots of Briana Buckmaster’s posterior, lingering shots on Kathryn Newton’s doe eyes, and the soft music in the background of Kaia and Claire’s “you show me your scars and I’ll show you mine” scene, there’s no mistaking whose gaze this is written and shot in.
2) Speaking of diversity, let me tell you the problem with trying to write it from not only a place of gender ignorance but also racial ignorance: there are nuances white men will never understand about women and non-whites.
In the first backdoor episode, (episode 13.03, Patience) we see Patience Turner (Clark Backo), granddaughter of Missouri Mosley (Loretta Devine) who we hadn’t seen since season one. Patience is athletic, intelligent, well behaved and her father is someone we know exists, but rarely get to see: a successful black businessman who is also a single father, and a good one; loving, attentive, available. A man who wants nothing more than his daughter to grow up safely. And by the end of the episode, his entire parenting stance is blatantly undermined by Jody (Kim Rhodes), a white law enforcement officer who tells underage Patience that she doesn’t have to listen to her father. Eventually, Patience runs away. To Jody.
And oh yeah, Missouri was brought back just to be killed within the first act. So James Turner has now lost his mother and his daughter, leaving him alone and likely scared.
3) The next backdoor episode (13.09, The Bad Place) introduces Kaia Nieves (Yadira Guevara-Prip), here we have a haunted, scarred, dreamwalker. Who is also a recovering drug addict orphan. Who is later kidnapped at gun point by our hero, Dean Winchester. Let me repeat that: Dean Winchester pulled a gun on a teenaged brown girl and kidnapped her so he could force her to dreamwalk through worlds where monsters attack her so he can find his mommy. It gets better though. By the end of the official backdoor pilot (episode 13.10, Wayward Sisters), Kaia is gutted and left for dead by a hooded figure. A figure later revealed to be Kaia’s evil doppelganger. Not enough to kill a brown girl, gotta make her the Big Bad, too. All for Claire’s emotional path to begin.
For those of you watching and counting at home, that’s, if I’m not mistaken, three women Robert Berens killed within three episodes, two of whom were non-whites.
4) Herein we explore another crime Wayward Sisters is guilty of: White Savior Syndrome. Sheriff Jody Mills is a den mother, taking in any and all teenage girls in need, orphans, and runaways. Which totally makes sense for a sheriff, but I digress. Sheriff Donna Hanscum is cute and quippy, oh don’cha know? Teaching teens how to (poorly) handle shotguns, dimples brightly on display as she spits out all the right answers. Briana Buckmaster sells the hell out of the character, but she makes no sense beyond the actress’ endearing performance. Claire Novak is miraculously a super hunter within months, surviving on her own, desperate for her surrogate family to give her space until someone that matters to her (after about a day) dies.
And the brown girls in the ep? They spend their time mostly going “we don’t know what to do, help us, protect us.”
It’s… I loathe using the term “problematic.” Instead, this is deeply troubling. Not because it was all done, but because no one was there to say “wait, maybe this isn’t the way to do it.”
Years ago there were stories of how Sera Gamble would go to bat on issues of consent, specifically with regard to demons and angels inhabiting the bodies of women. Sam Winchester himself is a therapist’s dream; he’s been violated so often. This creative group needs a Sera Gamble. Hell, they need several Sera Gambles in varying races.
Now, make no mistake, despite the fact that the best part of the ep was the one and a half minutes we got of Sam and Dean surviving in the wilderness, I’m confident this spin-off will get picked up. Not only is it the second attempt, it’s the second attempt by the same writer who is the current showrunner. Additionally, Dabb and Berens crafted the perfect failsafe, if the fandom doesn’t receive it with open arms they clearly hate strong women, if the critics don’t fawn all over it they obviously hate strong women, if the network passes on it then the only answer the big wigs hate strong women, if it goes to pilot and crashes then the audience most definitely hates strong women. There is no mea culpa for these men; if it’s not a success it’s not their fault, it the lack of support for females. And if it does well? Heck, they get to be the great white male saviors themselves.
Well, played gentlemen. I’ll give you the hat tip you’ve yet to give Jared and Jensen for allowing you the opportunity to even try this. Good luck to you.
I just want people to THINK. To not be sycophantic sheep because their faves are praising it on social media. I want women and minorities to demand better. To create their own better. To stop depending on white men to deliver it to them on a platter.
And hey, since I’m playing nice and basically guaranteeing you a pickup, can I get a full episode of Winchester Survival Skills for Dummies, Andrew Dabb? Because my main take away from the backdoor pilot was that Dean is perfectly accepting and really, kinda content, with being stranded in a strange world foraging for food with only Sam by his side, and frankly, that’s the show I signed up for nearly 15 years ago.