Supernatural: “Bloodlines”
C+

Supernatural: “Bloodlines”

Five monster crime families walk into a bar…

C+

Supernatural

"Bloodlines"

Season 9, Episode 20

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So finally we get the long-awaited Supernatural backdoor pilot for the appropriately titled spinoff series Supernatural: Bloodlines. Backdoor pilots are, sort of by definition, difficult to review as episodes of their original shows. This device forces a ton of awkwardly delivered exposition (“Your ex is getting married. You know that, right?”), which in turn makes it difficult to identify with any of the new characters who we are also be asked to learn about all at once, since they’re all just giving a bunch of stilted line readings. Backdoor pilots have to carry a heavy lead—so, with all of those limitations, how does “Bloodlines” do? Not too, too badly, as it turns out: Supernatural Bloodlines looks like it’ll be at least pretty watchable (which doesn’t sound like much but is more than I would’ve expected from a spinoff about all new characters).

Yeah, there is a ton of really dumb stuff going on here. The exposition alone makes it seem like a ton is happening, but nothing is also happening at the same time, especially when the main plot just seems to end for no real reason. A lot of that exposition gets swallowed in fast line readings that call attention to the woodenness of most of the cast—it’s sort of nice that “Bloodlines” expects you to keep up with it in that pace and, sort of by definition, doesn’t quite underestimate the viewer in that way-, but it’s the sort of complicated thing that usually works best handled by better actors and better writers. There’s a totally random, tossed-off twist at the end solely to suck in more viewers that feels simultaneously out of nowhere and complete expect. Maybe worst of all, there is a flashback to something that happened less than ten minutes ago, which, just, come on now (this, especially, is a huge pet peeve of mine).

But there’s enough of a hook here to hang a show on. Start with the cold open, which captures the tension between the color-by-numbers flatness of a lot of “Bloodlines” and the potential that flickers underneath. After briefly checking in with new protagonist Ross Ennis (a somewhat bland Lucien Laviscount), the sequence introduces us to a secret Chicago vampire club, which isn’t nearly as debauched as the similar secret vampire club in Blade. Though this particular horror trope, where highly attractive monsters mope around dimly lit rooms with droning, vaguely threatening music, is generally speaking pretty boring, it helpfully stealth introduces most of the main characters in the Chicago underworld before a robed figure with claws comes in and just sort of murders a bunch of people. One of the monsters, who we later learn is a son of the shapeshifting family, stumbles out of the club, interrupting Ross’ marriage proposal, until the robed figure appears and kills both him and the fiancé.

Ross might actually be the biggest drawback here. Laviscourt never really gives off the anger one might get from, say Ackles, and doesn’t make a compelling case for Ross as a unique or interesting character. Nathaniel Buzolic, as “good” shapeshifter Dave Lassiter, is easily the best member of the new cast, at least hinting at the possibility for a real character in the way the others mostly do not.  And the presence of the Winchesters doesn’t do everyone any favors. Even though Sam and Dean are used here mostly as gatekeepers, trying to prevent Ross from investigating the murder further, they’re still a thousand times more watchable, whether it’s chopping off a vamp’s head or actually managing to come close to cracking wise.

From a story perspective, the Winchesters are only around, really, to help resolve the main plot, which is in turn mostly a device to introduce the rest of the characters who will then be put in a hundred different romantic and moral relationships to each other if the spinoff gets picked up. A ton of information is being conveyed, but nothing much really seems to happen, and I was just barely able to pick up on every other player.  There’s the rest of David’s family—the scheming Margo and the near-comatose father. There’s the werewolf family, including David’s ex Violet Duval, and Violet’s brother Julian, who spews horrible sexist trash, getting to refer to women as bitches and whores in a single scene (all right!).  At least here he’s pretty obviously supposed to be a bad guy, as opposed to the way Dean’s use of the word bitch is positioned as triumphant in a lot of episodes of Supernatural proper.

As the episode progresses, we get a sense that there’s a war in the apparently thriving supernatural community in Chicago between these families, primarily those of werewolves and shapeshifters. But, as we are told repeatedly, there are five monster families: The shapeshifters, werewolves, vampires, ghouls, and djinn. This format sounds like it steers a bit closer in its potential for intrigue to The Originals than the Supernatural original, a shows which is a bit less my cup of CW tea, so I’m maybe already inclined to not love “Bloodlines.” (If anyone watches The Originals and wants to speak to how it compares to this, I’d be interested.) But this concept still sounds pretty badass, all things considered. As difficult as it would be to do all of these monsters all the time and do them justice (Will the shapeshifters just shift all the time? Are all of the djinn going to have intense henna tattoos?), it’s enough to conceptually put the show on the map.

So how would Bloodlines be different from Supernatural proper? Dean basically describes it as “The Godfather with fangs,” which is a really cool description that this episode never really justifies. And the tighter geographic focus means it will likely be more about the relationships between a bunch of different characters in a way that Supernatural is only really about the Winchesters. That seems like it’d be a good thing in some ways, but also give us a lot more, sustained time with boring characters who would just be one-offs on the flagship show.

Of course, the setting itself is another interesting change. Other networks have had some success with Chicago-set shows in the last few years, both with production and stories set around (and not quite around) the city. There are all of the requisite shots of the El trains that have been series from Happy Endings to Chicago PD have used as their main way of saying, “Hey, we’re in Chicago!” But there’s also just enough local color (I live in Chicago) to suggest that the production team might be able to find the same sort of cool stuff to do as the Wolf shows (though that’s led to some other problems for Chicago PD).

What’s really interesting about the idea behind “Bloodlines” is actually something else Dean says: “Sometimes you’ve got to work with the bad guys to get to the worse guys.” The relative ethical simplicity of Supernatural is fun a lot of the time, but I’m also interested in the show’s forays into compassion for monsters. The actual antagonist here (or the person we’re meant to see as the antagonist, because he killed Ross’ girlfriend) is a hunter, looking to get revenge for a human’s murder at the hands of monsters, while the secondary protagonist is a shapeshifter and several other monsters (especially Violet) are written as “good.” We’re supposed to believe them when they say the “peace” between the families is good, and that the bosses would never harm children (which, okay). The episode even concludes with Ennis being forced to kill the human hunter, who is the “real monster.”

Supernatural has been toying with its human-against-monster ethical core for a while now, and it’s really exciting to see that the spinoff basically takes that to its (super)natural conclusion (zing!), which will also hopefully just let a ton of stuff happen and turn this show absolutely crazy the way it only occasionally gets to hint at amongst the background information. I suspect that lack of ethical foundation will either help the new show substantially or sink it, since there might be no characters worth caring about (even if they’re acting totally nuts), or a ton—mostly, that ethical room also hints at the best thing about “Bloodlines” and Bloodlines: a real sense of potential, no matter how faint.

Stray observations:

  • My roommates (who only watch the show if they’re around me while I’m reviewing it) kept commenting on how violent this episode was—did it seem that way to everyone else?
  • “Margo, what’s with the NRA Christmas over here?”
  • “We shift our shape. It’s kinda all there in the name.”
  • Who would you want to optimally be in a Supernatural spinoff? I think Cas and Crowley in a van is the pretty obvious choice, though you could make at least one other good case.

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