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TV Genre Smackdown: ‘Supernatural’ vs. ‘Kolchak The Night Stalker’

It’s time. Time to settle, once and for all, which genre shows rule and which ones drool.

Talk to the fans and you will always run into people who feel one show with a premise of x is so much better than that other show based on x.

Today’s Smackdown: Supernatural Vs Kolchak: The Night Stalker

The Premise

Investigations into the supernatural world to solve mysteries and crimes.

Supernatural (2005 – Present):

The Winchester boys were trained by their father, a Hunter, to hunt demons and other supernatural monsters and threats. They travel the country in their father’s ’67 Chevy Impala, hunting demons, solving crimes and usually getting into loads of trouble.

Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-1975):

Intrepid newspaper reporter Carl Kolchak investigates mysterious crimes involving paranormal and supernatural elements in the city of Chicago.

The Road So Far… [Cue “Back in the Saddle”]

When their mother is killed by a demon in front of their father’s eyes, the Winchester boys, Sam and Dean, find their lives changed forever. Their father John, a Vietnam war vet, embraces the life of a Hunter and raises his boys to be Hunters as well. Their childhood is mostly lost as John drives them to grow up fast, using strict, military precepts with them to prepare them for the battles to come.

When skeptical newspaper reporter Kolchak comes across a string of inexplicable murders involving the victims being drained of blood, he finds himself wondering if maybe the killer believes themselves to be a vampire. Like any good investigative reporter, he investigates and the more he sees the more he starts to believe that maybe the killer doesn’t just believe he’s a vampire, maybe he really is a vampire.

The Investigation

As Hunters, Sam and Dean work outside the law. Sometimes, they even work in direct opposition of the law. Because of this, they break a lot of laws to get the job done, often posing as police, FBI, reporters – whatever they have to do to find the demon and stop it. To this end they have multiple fake ID’s, ‘costumes’ and uniforms they wear from time to time.

Since they have no real jobs, they also engage in identity theft and credit card fraud to bankroll their endeavors. Usually they learn of some mysterious happenings somewhere – crop circles, people disappearing, murders, sometimes there can be other evidence in the form of ‘signs’ – like storms, mass animal deaths or mutilations that point to demonic activity. Once they are on the trail of something supernatural, they roll into town, ask some questions, dig around and eventually hunt whatever it is down – not without a few mistakes or hiccups along the way, but they get the job done.

As a newspaper reporter, Kolchak is uniquely placed to hear about strange goings on. He doesn’t necessarily seek out the supernatural as much as he falls into it while on the trail of something interesting. In a big city like Chicago (he was run out of Las Vegas and his vampire story was kept from being released), there are lots of strange things going on and few people willing to admit to seeing any of it. This often puts Kolchak out on the fringe where disbelieving authorities and his own friends and employer/boss, dismiss his theories, evidence and stories outright.

This also forces him to not only investigate alone, but solve the crimes and deal with whatever supernatural menace is running rampant in his city without any help. Doing so also, conveniently, causes the loss of the majority of whatever evidence he compiles.

The Supernatural

To date, the Winchester boys have had to deal with a menagerie of supernatural threats including: Demons, vampires, ghosts, werewolves, angels, God, gods, fairies, shapeshifters, zombies, ghouls, helhounds, banshees, witches, shtriga, succubi, chupacabra, leprechauns, djinn, wendigos, wraiths, poltergeist, viruses (viruli?) and reapers.

In Kolchak’s world, our intrepid reporter had to deal with such supernatural menaces as: vampires, zombies, Jack the Ripper, immortals, aliens, werewolves, dopplegangers, demons, devils, bogey men, gods, spirits, robots, virulent entitles, witches, the undead, succubi, mummies and lizard people.

The Cars

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the cars.

The Winchesters drive an American classic – a black ’67 Chevy Impala purchased by their father in the 70’s and handed down to Dean who would honestly be lost without her.

She’s been tricked out to carry an arsenal of supernatural hunting weapons in the trunk and has been dinged, damaged, bent, shot, burned, completely totaled and rebuilt over the course of the last six seasons of the show.

Kolchak drives a yellow 1965 Ford Mustang convertible.

I don’t recall anything particularly bad happening to the car during the run of the series (just 1 season).

Origins

Supernatural is in its sixth season. It remains to be seen if there will be a seventh. Originally, series creator Eric Kripke intended the show to run for five seasons, having created a story arc for the series that would comprise all five seasons similar to JMS’s Babylon 5. Unlike Babylon 5, strong ratings for the series prompted The CW network to commission a sixth season. Kripke has been quoted as saying that the show developed from his fascination with urban legends and road trip shows like Route 66. He tried for a decade to get the show picked up before the WB took a chance on the show.

Kolchak was born in the mind of author Jeff Rice, whose novel The Kolchak Papers inspired a 1972 made for tv movie on the ABC television network. Adapted by Richard Matheson, the movie did so well that ABC commissioned a second movie and then, in 1973, a weekly series. Both the movies and the series starred Darren McGavin in the title role of Kolchak, though poor ratings for the series lead to it not being picked up for a second season by ABC.

Both shows feature ‘monster of the week’ episodes, largely encapsulated, though Supernatural often weaves these into the over arcing story line from season to season. Kolchak did not appear to have an over arcing plot, which isn’t surprising given that such connected threads were uncommon in television at the time. Varying reports indicate that it was this very ‘monster of the week’ premise that lead Kolchak leading man Darren McGavin to welcome the end of the series at the time of its cancellation. Supernatural has used over arcing plots each season to tell a greater story.

Season 1: The brothers search for their missing father who in turn is hunting the yellow-eyed demon who killed his wife and their mother.

Season 2: With their father dead, sacrificed to save Dean, the brothers pick up where he left off, hunting the yellow-eyed demon and trying to stop him from opening a ‘gate to hell’.

Season 3: The brothers try to fix what they caused, hunting the demons released when the gate to hell was opened while also trying to save Dean from his deal – his soul in exchange for Sam’s life.

Season 4: Rescued from Hell, Dean find himself being used as a pawn in the battle between Heaven and Hell as demons try to break the 66 seals to release Lucifer who will take Sam as his vessel on earth.

Season 5: With the seals broken Dean and Sam are on the run from Angels and Demons alike, both groups wanting to use them for the final battle of Armageddon. They have to hunt the Four Horseman to reseal the gates of Hell and stop Armageddon from swallowing the world.

Season 6: So far, season 6 has dealt with the aftermath and upheaval caused on earth, in Heaven and Hell after Sam & Dean stop Lucifer by sealing he and the archangel Michael in purgatory along with Sam’s soul. Sam is returned to earth, soulless, along with Sam and Dean’s grandfather, Samuel, who now works for the new Demon leader of Hell. Castiel (a large part of season 4 & 5), is away much of the time, trying to restore order to a Heaven at war with itself where a still absent God is believed to be either dead or having abandoned them.

Legacy

A relatively young show, I am unaware of anything out there being directly influenced by Supernatural, however – you can see the shows that influenced its creation if you look closely enough. These shows include: Route 66, The X-Files, The Dukes of Hazzard, Knight Rider and Kolchak itself.

As for Kolchak, this show has been credited with influencing many modern shows including: The X-Files, The Dresden Files, Twin Peaks and Fringe. Much like the Beatles influenced a generation of musicians, Kolchak inspired a generation of writers, actors and producers despite running for only one season and two television movies. It also inspired a brief revival in the form of a rebooted series, Night Stalker starring Stuart Townsend in the role of Kolchak. In the re-imagined series, an over arcing plot is introduced in that Kolchak is driven to investigate the supernatural because he believes them to be somehow connected to the death of his wife. It was cancelled after just six weeks but 10 episodes were produced.

Conclusions

Kolchak holds up really well, still creepy, well written and acted. It has its campy moments that can be chalked up to the limitations of television sfx of the day but its fairly easy to get past those once you’re immersed in the stories. The legacy and its influences are clear as you watch the episodes, your brain triggering on moments, moods and monsters that flavor later shows like spices in the genre tv recipe. How’s that for poetic analogy?

Supernatural is fun, sometimes intense, sometimes over the top and sometimes it pokes fun at itself and the shows that came before it and does so brilliantly. The earlier seasons are much stronger and entertaining for me but I haven’t stopped watching despite the mess created by the Angels/Demons, Heaven/Hell/Armageddon story arcs that have dominated the past few seasons and taken the show away from its heart – the exploration of the Winchester brothers and their relationship, and the urban legends which originally inspired its creation.

I find myself missing the monster of the week format when it becomes mired in garbage, throw away plots that put the characters in useless, comic-book type death plots that you know will never stick. Batman can’t stay dead, neither can Sam, Dean or even Bobby. The only character to successfully remain dead in the show is their father, John – played magnificently by Jeffrey Dean Morgan. Oddly, in a world where death doesn’t mean so much and is used mostly to annoy me, I wouldn’t mind his returning as a ghost or something if it meant kicking the brother’s assess and setting the show back on track.

While Kolchak is fun, weird and witty, watching the show (you can stream the series on Netflix, btw) fails to satisfy simply because you realize that you want more and there is nothing you can do about it. (Well, you could check out the Kolchak comics released by Moonstone books).

As frustrating as the lack of episodes might be, one could argue that, being cancelled after just one season, the show never had the chance to jump the shark or overstay its welcome like the shows it influenced did (I am thinking specifically of The X-Files here, who went on far longer than it should have). You could also say that, like a show produced for the BBC, a single season was all it needed, especially considering its longevity and sphere of influence.

Supernatural had been planned with a (tight?) five season arc. Had it ended after that, perhaps it would have forced a better season four and five since the end was in sight. Then again, other such tight arcs with definitive ending dates did not help Lost or Battlestar Galactica end with any sort of satisfactory finales. Sadly, we will never know how it would’ve affected Supernatural as The CW, and not the producer/writer/creator, made the decision to continue the series beyond five seasons.

With that in mind, I have to give this one over to Kolchak.

The shows legacy is firmly in place and well deserved. Supernatural will earn its place in the annals of television history, but for now, and like so many others shows, it really owes part of its existence to the shows that came before it – like Kolchak: The Night Stalker.

Two clips for you – first, Supernatural: Eye of the Tiger

Second, a clip from the Werewolf episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker

Last, a clip from the ill-fated remake:


About Patrick Hester (527 Articles)
Patrick Hester is a writer, blogger, podcasting dude, Denver transplant and all around Functional Nerd. Don't hate him cuz he has a cool hat.

4 Comments on TV Genre Smackdown: ‘Supernatural’ vs. ‘Kolchak The Night Stalker’

  1. In your face, Supernatural! Kolchak rules!

     

    I think X-Files would have been a better match with Kolchak, or Buffy with Supernatural. But, since you picked Kolchak, I’ll let it slide.

    Mike

     

  2. MikeP – A show isn’t limited to a single Smackdown!

    X-Files is on my list… as is Buffy, Angel and a slew of others…

    Bwah. Ha. Ha.

    ~P
    @atfmb

  3. I am truly a die-hard Supernatural fan.  However, like you I loved the early shows based on the urban legends much more than what’s happening today.  There was a time in my life when I would not miss a show.  Didn’t really matter what was going on in the world–if Supernatural was on I was in front of the TV.  Now it doesn’t bother me to miss a show.  I figure I can catch it on a rerun.  I will watch it eventually, but it’s not that overwhelming need to see the show I had in the first three season.

    Excellent article.  Thanks for sharing.

  4. Brin Norton-Poole // February 14, 2011 at 12:26 pm //

    I love supernatural, and I loved the old seasons, but I don’t mind the new ones to be honest. They do have a great story line, but the urban legends were great. And Sam’s hair looked cooler in seasons 1-3 :D. But, great review! Thanks for sharing.

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