For this month’s column, I’ve decided to focus in on a specific episode from a specific fandom-beloved show: “Changing Channels” from the fifth season of Supernatural. I chose this specific episode, not only because it’s an episode that in many ways caters to its fanbase but also because it directly comments on and uses other genres. Please note that season five has a lot of dramatic happenings and SPOILERS are ahead so please read at your own caution.
“Changing Channels” is my favorite episode of Supernatural. In addition, I put it in my top-25 episodes of any television show of all time. I know, I know, these are some major claims I’m making here, but I’m not making them willy-nilly.
Supernatural is a show known for episodes that play with dramatic structure and formula: from the alternate universe show-within-a-show of “The French Mistake” to the 200th episode which featured a musical based on the lives of the characters within the show. “Changing Channels,” however, is one of the first times they so obviously upended the nature of what makes a show. The cold open reveals the Winchesters partaking in a strangely forced version of a comedy, complete with opening credits that seem to be ripped from Three’s Company era shows, including a cheesy theme song.
We then jump back in time to see how the boys ended up in this predicament. It involves a Trickster and some inter-angel warfare, so I’m not going to get too far into the why. What it boils down to, though, is that the Winchesters are stuck “changing channels,” i.e. jumping from generic examples of different television show types until they can figure out how to get out of the loop. This allows the show to capitalize on the full conceits of many popular shows: romantic medical drama (Dr. Sexy, MD) to the afore-mentioned laugh-tracked situational comedy to a CSI: Miami that includes the characters all wearing sunglasses at night. The show utilizes not only the dialogue beats of each type of show, but also the camera-work, music, and acting.
The episode becomes a kind of meta-commentary on what genre is and also how hard it is to fit into a genre when you don’t belong within it: Sam and Dean desperately want to return to their own show’s universe. Supernatural is at its most compelling when mixing genres: the show has never been purely horror and it knows that. This episode seeks to say that genres are things to jump between.
And, lastly, one of the reasons I find this episode so compelling is that it hides maybe its most brutal line of dialogue ever within the episode. Stuck in a Japanese-style game show, Dean must answer a question that he doesn’t understand (being that it’s spoken in Japanese). The question is whether the Winchester’s mother would still be alive if Sam was never born. The answer, which Dean gives correctly, is “Yes.” What’s brilliant about this is not only that it’s hiding a hopeless truth about the show within one of its most surreal and comedic moments, but that the truth is never actually revealed to either the Winchester’s, as neither understands Japanese which in some ways makes it a kinder moment.
While I’d love to dissect this episode in more depth, I’m running out of space. However, I’d love to know what your favorite episodes are? Favorite moment from “Changing Channels?” Let us know, @lunaquarterly or @PintsNCupcakes. Next month, I’ll be back with an interview with the editors behind an exciting new anthology! Til then: Keep Fannin’ On!