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11 Feb

Metaleptic Genre-Mixing in Supernatural

Written by Michael Fuchs
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"Three hundred channels and nothing's on": Metaleptic Genre-Mixing in Supernatural

Supernatural (WB 2005–2006; CW since 2006) has been described as "a testosterone-charged romp about two excessively good-looking brothers who, armed with phallic weaponry, roam the country in a '67 Chevy Impala hunting monsters from American folklore" (Tosenberger, 2008, par. 1.1). Indeed, on their journey across the United States, Sam and Dean Winchester have confronted the archetypical monsters of TV and movie land that have run the gamut from vampires to Christine-esque haunted cars, faced the Riders of the Apocalypse, and have even braved Lucifer himself. In addition, they have found and lost their father, have tried to overcome their dead mother’s specter, have repeatedly died, and have averted the apocalypse. At least, this outline roughly covers the show's first five seasons, for the episode under discussion, "Changing Channels," is part of Supernatural's fifth season.

Although one cannot claim that Supernatural's individual episodes feature consistent openings, already the first few moments of "Changing Channels" feel different, for the episode opens with a view onto Sun 'n Sands motel, a motel that is surrounded by palm trees, and a bright blue sky in the background. If regular viewers are not at least a little surprised by these opening visuals, Dean's (or actor Jensen Ackles's?) voiceover, "Supernatural is filmed before a live studio audience," most certainly will have viewers puzzled. To top it off, the voiceover is followed by a scene reminiscent of a sitcom (which even features a laugh track) that pokes fun at Dean's food obsession while also underlining his tendency to get distracted from work when he encounters beautiful women. This scene segues into an extremely cheesy opening theme and montage that both pays tribute to and satirizes 1980s' sitcoms while also self-deprecatingly ridiculing Supernatural. All of these elements provide a stark contrast to both the typical opening sequence, which merely features a title screen that changes each season, visuals, as Supernatural is dominated by rather bleak landscapes and mostly employs nightly outside views onto motels, and—related to the visuals—the overall tone of the show.

The episode's title sequence—if one can term it as such, for it was only used in "Changing Channels"—is succeeded by a title card that introduces the setting: "Wellington, Ohio. Two days earlier." The black background overlaid by the white lettering indicating the setting is slowly replaced by what seem to be images of a hospital in Wellington. However, the attentive viewer will quickly notice a sign in the upper left-hand quarter of the frame which specifies that the hospital is, in fact, Seattle Mercy Hospital, i.e., a hospital in Washington State, not somewhere in Ohio. The narrative mystery surrounding the scene's setting is clarified rather quickly, for a zoom-out reveals Seattle Mercy Hospital to be the setting of Dr. Sexy, M.D.—a thinly veiled Grey's Anatomy (ABC, since 2005) parody that has Dean glued to the tube. When Sam enters the room, Dr. Sexy's magic spell over Dean appears to be broken, because after Sam has challenged Dean's masculinity ("When did you have menopause?"), the older brother stresses that he was merely channel-surfing while waiting for Sam.

This is when the episode finally, yet merely seemingly, comes to more clearly resemble a typical Supernatural episode, as Sam and Dean, disguised as FBI agents, head over to the local police department in order to inquire about an apparent bear attack they believe to be of supernatural nature, especially after the victim's wife has told them that she "could've sworn [she] saw the Incredible Hulk" rather than a bear. After finding several pieces of evidence, the Winchesters conclude that the creature they are looking for must be a trickster, possibly the one they had already encountered in the past (in the season two episode "Tall Tales" and the season three episode "Mystery Spot"). The brothers intercept a police call that leads them to an old paper mill on the outskirts of town, where they expect to find their foe.

When Sam and Dean go through the door, of course thinking they will thus enter the paper mill, their transgression of the door sill not merely marks the "crossing of [a] basic topological border" (Lotman 1977, p. 238), because as they enter the presumably hostile and dangerous place, they also enter an alternate universe. Thus, "[t]he door not only signals the crossing from one physical space into another, but it also invokes the transport from one ontological . . . realm to another" (Elsaesser & Hagener, 2009, p. 50). This second world is, however, not just any random additional timespace within Supernatural's larger storyworld, for as the Winchesters pass the door, they enter Seattle Mercy Hospital, effectively entering the storyworld of the (embedded) television show that Dean watched earlier in the episode. Entering Seattle Mercy Hospital, however, merely represents the starting point for the Winchesters' journey through TV land, as they subsequently move through the worlds of a sitcom, a Japanese game show, Knight Rider (NBC, 1982–1986), CSI: Miami (CBS, 2002–2012), and a genital herpes medication commercial.1

Stepping into TV Land: Metalepsis and Television

In narratology, the abovementioned transgression of ontological boundaries is referred to as 'metalepsis'. Despite being rooted in Ancient rhetorics, 'metalepsis', as a representational phenomenon, has only been studied for a relatively short period of time. In his book Narrative Discourse, Gérard Genette describes the phenomenon as "any intrusion by the extradiegetic narrator or narratee into the diegetic universe . . ., or the inverse" (1980, p. 234). Even though Genette's elaborations on metalepsis published between the mid-1970s and 1980s are still counted among the foundational texts in the study of the phenomenon, the increasing interest in metalepses in the early twenty-first century has led to several critiques of Genette's rather restrictive conceptualizations. For example, Genette disregarded transgressions between diegetic and extradiegetic worlds and extratextual reality—for instance, when a character directly addresses recipients—in his early publications on metalepsis. Additionally, his focus on print fiction has opened up Genette's definitions to attacks from scholars working in the field of transmedial narratology. From such a transmedial vantage point, Werner Wolf has, for example, proposed a more inclusive definition of metalepsis as "paradoxical transgression of, or confusion between, (onto)logically distinct (sub)worlds" (2005, p. 91; original in italics). Another traditional notion concerning metalepses that has undergone re-consideration is related to the question of immersion. While conventionally thought to deconstruct texts and thus distance recipients, more recent studies have demonstrated that metalepses can, in fact, be employed to heighten immersion. Sonja Klimek has, for instance, shown that, especially in fantastic tales, metalepses can "celebrate the magical power of fantasy . . . and thus work towards . . . immersion" (2011, p. 37).

While these theoretical shifts have introduced new perspectives and allowed for an increased awareness of metalepses' varied functions to the theoretical discourses surrounding the phenomenon, television, especially live-action television, has been largely neglected in the field. Even though televisual metalepses have been broached in a handful of publications—most prominently in Erwin Feyersinger's piece on the metaleptic potentials of television crossovers (2011) and Jeff Thoss's chapter on the remote control as a kind of magic wand that allows viewers to enter televisual timespaces (2011)—the fact that these studies focus on television series from the 1990s onwards implies that metalepses in television are a side-effect of the "metapop" (Dunne, 1992) that has been proliferating in popular culture since the early 1990s. Werner Wolf has termed this "remarkable change in the degree and quality of metareferentiality in a number (if not all) of (the) media and arts over the past few decades" (2011, p. 1) the 'metareferential turn'. Although Wolf employs various rhetorical tools in order to hedge some of his claims, one can discern that he believes this "meta-rage" (Butler, 2009) to be rooted "in more or less sophisticated highbrow literature" (Wolf, 2011, p. 9). Metaization, argues Wolf, has since "become an almost hackneyed convention" that "has spread across . . . all levels in literature in addition to being found in most if not all popular media and genres" (2011, p. 9). In his abovementioned chapter, Thoss supports Wolf's thesis of a trickle-down effect from elite to mass culture by stressing that the 'metaleptic remote control' "appears as a genuine pop-cultural form of [metalepsis]," a "device that was formerly deemed to be rather avant-garde" (2011, p. 169).

One could argue that Thoss commits a fallacy not that dissimilar from the one made by several media scholars in the 1990s who were overzealous to claim that certain new TV programs (including The Simpsons [Fox, since 1989] and The X-Files [Fox, 1993–2002]) were indicative of television having (finally) become 'postmodernist', while ignoring that "[t]elevision has always been textually messy—that is, textural rather than transparent" (Caldwell, 1995, p. 23; italics in original). As John T. Caldwell continues:

Any systematic look at the history of television soon shows that all of those formal and narrative traits once thought to be unique and defining properties of postmodernism . . . have also been defining properties of television from its inception. . . . From a postmodernist point-of-view, 1940s and 1950s television had it all: self-reflexivity . . ., intertextuality . . ., direct address . . ., pastiche . . .; and social topicality . . .. (1995, p. 23)

The Burns and Allen Show (CBS, 1950–1958) presents a perfect example of the 'textual messiness' outlined by Caldwell, for the show employs an elaborate "mise-en-abyme structure, an endless stage within a stage, a bottomless pit of representation" that caught audiences "in an endless quagmire of metarealities" (Spigel, 1992, p. 166). The season eight episode "Hypnotizing Gracie" wonderfully illustrates the show's narrative complexity: Following the opening scene, George (the titular 'Burns') is suddenly sitting in his study, watching the very scene the audience had seen only moments earlier on an intradiegetic screen. George thus occupies a borderland space between the fictional television show and the audience, similar to the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder's Our Town (1938). The existence of these two distinct worlds within the show's storyworld is used for comic effect when George appears in the main world some minutes later (metaleptically transgressing ontological borders in the process) and tells a hypnotist that he "saw [him] on television." The hypnotist is confused, for he has "never been on television." However, George and the audience know better. This mutual understanding between George and the viewers concerning Burns and Allen's textural quality is underscored by George's concluding wink at the audience.

Lynn Spigel has suggested that "viewers experienced a kind of layered realism" when watching Burns and Allen. Throughout its run, the program never "attempt[ed] to sustain the illusion that it [was] a real space at all" (1992, p. 167). Early sitcoms like Burns and Allen "brought to the forefront the theatrical nature of domestic life" (Spigel, 1992, p. 170).

"Changing Channels" taps into this television tradition inspired by the theatrum mundi, for the episode stresses that Sam and Dean are expected to play their roles in a divine play that wants them to follow in the footsteps of Michael and Lucifer and Cain and Abel, respectively, and enact the fraternal strife that defines their bloodlines and (life) stories. However, in the course of the fifth season, Sam and Dean actively resist this predestined existence by taking their lives into their own hands. In order to do so, they 'merely' need to re-write the word of the quite literal Author-God, which, in fact, allows them to avert the apocalypse at the end of the season.

This participatory and possibly subversive aspect proves crucial, for it underscores the recent re-consideration of immersion. While Klimek's abovementioned notion of immersion originates in a (dated) literary studies perspective that assumes the creation of an alternative universe that (usually) appears to be unmediated, Frank Rose has proposed that immersion, today, means "to get involved in a story" (2011, p. 8). Contemporary audiences want "to carve out a role for themselves, to make [the story] their own" (Rose, 2011, p. 8).

But not only Sam and Dean become active agents on the battlefields of participatory culture; arguably, by merging various genres and appropriating other television texts, "Changing Channels" allows Supernatural per se to participate in contemporary remix culture.

(Re-)Mixing Television on Television

Sam and Dean's repeated transgressions of ontological borders separating (believed to be) distinct worlds are not merely random metalepses, for through their jumps from one televisual timespace to the next, Supernatural fuses genres. Indeed, a spatial metaphor may be employed here, too, for the characters transgress what were once believed to be fixed and clearly definable markers separating one genre from the other. Of course, this notion of fixed and 'pure' genres has long been abandoned by scholars—and arguably much longer by the people working in the entertainment industry.

When tracing Supernatural's generic genealogy, one will quickly realize that the show "was conceived as a hybrid of the horror and road movie genres" (Abbott, 2011, p. ix) from the get-go. Numerous intertextual references—to movies ranging from Night of the Living Dead (1968) to The Shining (1980)—and the employment of various conventions (settings, framings, scoring, etc.) highlight the program's roots in the horror tradition. The road movie genre, on the other hand, serves not only as a plot device (that is, to get the main characters from point A to point B), but is also used as a means for characterization (Dean and, to a lesser degree, Sam are free from certain societal constraints) and symbolism (their journey takes the brothers across the United States, turning their tale into an explicitly American story). Besides merging horror and road movie conventions, any regular Supernatural episode adds elements of mystery (several plots borrow from mystery programs and The X-Files is repeatedly explicitly referenced) and family melodrama (as so many American gothic tales had done before Supernatural).

Yet, as indicated above, "Changing Channels" takes this genre fusion much further than the program-defining genre hybridity might suggest by sending its heroes on a journey through TV land, from a commercial to Knight Rider. On first glance, Sam and Dean's trip through seemingly unrelated shows and genres could easily be considered parodic in nature. In this context, Steve Neale and Frank Krutnik have pointed out that

in contrast to genre hybrids, which combine generic conventions, parodies work by drawing upon such conventions in order to make us laugh. . . . The result is not the combination of generic elements, but the subordination of the conventions of one genre to those of another. (1990, p. 19)

Ignoring the dated notion of genre purity implied in the quotation above, "Changing Channels" provides a more complex example than outlined by Neale and Krutnik, for the episode is not 'just' a parody of numerous past and present television programs that subordinates these shows' conventions to those established by Supernatural. Rather, several of the Winchesters' stops in the course of the episode prove to be highly meaningful in the larger context of the series and help Supernatural contextualize some of its running themes, such as gender, class, and fandom.

Oh, no—a Procedural Cop Show! Metaleptic Genre-Mixing

The first of these stops finds Sam and Dean in Seattle Mercy Hospital and contributes to Supernatural's constant questioning of traditional (if not stereotypical) gender roles while also poking fun at Supernatural itself. Supernatural's complex depiction of gender is too broad a topic to satisfyingly tackle within the confines of this chapter,2 but let me here just mention that, generally, Dean, tellingly the older brother, is the strong, manly type, who loves porn, pie, and burgers, whereas Sam represents the more emotional, feminine man with a penchant for books and a healthy diet. With this in mind, Dean's (girlish?) obsession with a medical drama presents merely one of many elements throughout the series that counters any clear-cut gender definitions.

This critical engagement with gender also comes to the fore in the Knight Rider segment. This chapter's opening quotation introduced Supernatural as 'a testosterone-charged romp', which underlines the importance of masculinity to the show, a feature shared with Knight Rider. All three main characters (i.e., Sam and Dean on the one hand and Michael Knight on the other) are men who can succeed in a bar fight, get things done, and drive muscle cars. And the cars are significant parts of their respective masculinities.

John Fiske has argued that Michael Knight's black Trans Am represents "an attempt to close the gap between the penis and the phallus, between the real and the imaginary" (1987, p. 210) and that the car "allows an interpersonal dependency that is goal-centered, not relationship-centered" (1987, p. 263). While I would question Fiske's latter claim due to the buddy-type relationship that emerges between Michael and KITT in the course of the series, the coupling of Knight and the Trans Am contrasts sharply with Dean's relationship with his car, lovingly dubbed 'Metallicar' by Supernatural's fan community: On the one hand, the Impala forges a link to the Winchesters' lost father, for he bought and owned the car prior to Dean. The Impala thus functions as a constant reminder that Dean is 'merely' the son, effectively widening the gap between the penis and the phallus in the process. On the other hand, Dean repeatedly feminizes the car by using the female pronoun when referring to the Impala. Even though Dean stresses 'her' beauty and promises to protect 'her' time and again, the feminization of the car does not establish Metallicar as a replacement for a girlfriend, lover, or even possible wife. Rather, the Impala assumes a maternal role. In this interpretation, the car's interiors represent a womb; a place that promises safety and the illusion of coherence and unity—things Dean yearns for, but which also preclude ego-formation and thus keep Dean from accessing (phallic) power according to the Lacanian model (2001).

In addition to the topic of gender indicated above, Dean's depiction as an ardent fan of Dr. Sexy, M.D. (while Sam obviously thinks little of the show) underscores the different cultural spheres the two brothers belong to—Dean the blue-collar hero and Sam the academic overachiever who was just about to be interviewed for Stanford's law school when their father disappeared. From this perspective, "Changing Channels" at first seems to cater to certain stereotypes by suggesting that Dean, the somewhat less 'intelligent' of the two who occupies a lower rank on the social ladder, is ready and willing to passively watch whatever is on the tube, whereas Sam more selectively chooses what he watches on TV. However, Dean's fannish obsession with some of Dr. Sexy's most trite and insignificant details implies that he, too, does not just watch anything that is being broadcast; rather, he watches Dr. Sexy because he wants to.

The viewing behavior exemplified by Dean provides a telling example of why television's 'flow' has recently been re-conceptualized. Traditionally conceived as a fusion of disparate texts into "a current of images and sounds that are in large measure outside our control, where we can barely escape from its powerful fascination" (Buonanno 2008, p. 31), conceptualizations of the 'flow' have lately focused on "tactics of audience/user 'flows'" (Caldwell, 2003, p. 136). This emphasis on audience agency is made most explicit later in the episode when Sam and Dean find themselves in a police procedural (more specifically, in the world of CSI: Miami) and Dean complains: "Oh no. . . . I wear sunglasses at night. . . . I hate procedural cop shows. It's like three hundred of them on television and they're all the freakin' same." In these few sentences, Dean clearly asserts his power as a viewer; that is, the power not to tune in.

Within the context of audience power, it is noteworthy that Dean's apparent addiction to Dr. Sexy, M.D. saves the day (at least momentarily), for his insider knowledge of the show's conventions and working principles allows him to understand that Dr. Sexy is not Dr. Sexy, but the archangel Gabriel (still believed to be a trickster at that point) in disguise, for "a part of what makes Dr. Sexy sexy is the fact that he wears cowboy boots; not tennis shoes." Dean's outing as a fan—which he downplays as a "guilty pleasure"—presents just one of numerous shout-outs to Supernatural's own fan community, made most explicit in the episodes "The Monster at the End of this Book" (2009), "Sympathy for the Devil" (2009), "The Real Ghostbusters" (2009), and "Season Seven: Time for a Wedding" (2011). In all of these episodes, Supernatural fans are, in fact, depicted in the diegesis. In "The Monster at the End of this Book," fans complain online about the "trite and craptastic" storylines. Becky Rosen appears as the (stereo)typical fanfic writer in "Sympathy for the Devil" and as organizer of a Supernatural convention in "The Real Ghostbusters," where her knowledge of the show (which, in the storyworld, is a book series) allows her to help the Winchester brothers. In the final episode mentioned above, fanon effectively turns into canon when Becky sees her formerly unanswered fangirl wishes fulfilled when she marries Sam thanks to a love potion.

Even though one might describe the representation of fans—especially Becky—in these episodes as outright mean at certain points, Dean's fannish rise to heroism presents just one example of how this apparent meanness becomes appreciative of fandom. In addition, Dean's depiction as fan in "Changing Channels" ties in with the larger Supernaturalverse, within which the show and several actors have repeatedly taken humor to unexpected self-deprecating levels. In sum, fans' representation within the show's diegesis thus becomes a tool in forging a bond between the fan community and the show—if the show can laugh at its ridiculous cliché-ridden moments, why shouldn't the fans laugh at some of the more ridiculous aspects of their existence (such as writing and publishing cringe-worthy slash fiction), too?3 Finally, due to Supernatural's repeated thematization of fandom, one could even argue that the show’s appreciation of fandom is turned into practice in "Changing Channels." After all, by creatively interacting with a number of other shows, the episode effectively allows Supernatural to assume an active role in contemporary remix culture; a role usually reserved to fans.

Of course, the abovementioned self-deprecating humor capitalizes on fans' knowledge of the show (and its production) and their awareness of the differences between fiction and reality.4 This awareness is emphasized when Dean tells Sam that Dr. Sexy even features a ghost. Sam's consternated reaction—"This show has ghosts?"—is certainly humorous, for Supernatural, as the show's title implies, has repeatedly featured ghosts; in fact, already the pilot was a ghost story. However, the entire situation's humor capitalizes on recognizing that the ghost in Dr. Sexy's parodic target—Grey's Anatomy, that is—was portrayed by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, the same actor who not only played Sam and Dean's father in Supernatural but even appeared as ghost on the program. In this way, the joke is, at the end of the day, not only on Grey's Anatomy, but just as much on Supernatural.

Finally, this episode that mixes seemingly disparate genres provides a larger message about genre proper. As Jason Mittell has stressed, genre parodies "highlight the generic assumptions that often go unspoken" (2004, p. 159). Indeed, even though one could argue that "Changing Channels" primarily lampoons specific genre shows rather than genres per se,5 these spoofs entail implicit assumptions concerning genres and how the audience at large (which, of course, does merely exist as a conceptual construct) categorizes certain shows into specific genres—the laugh track, domestic setting, and somewhat cheesy humor emblematic of sitcoms, the gendering characteristic of medical dramas and action series, the unquestioned weirdness of Japanese game shows for Western viewers, the ridiculousness of commercials proper and the capitalist drives spurring them, and the triteness of standard horror plots. Although "Changing Channels" can be productively interpreted from various perspectives, ranging from enacting Sigmund Freud's notion that "an uncanny effect is often and easily produced when the distinction between imagination and reality is effaced, as when something that we have hitherto regarded as imaginary appears before us in reality" (1990, p. 367) to engaging with postmodernist discourses surrounding the blurring of the boundaries between reality and artifice, reviews of and various online commentaries on the episode indicate that what it, in fact, is most successful in is parody. As such, the episode "foreground[s] the role that genres as cultural categories play in situating texts within larger contexts" (Mittell, 2004, p. 195). Indeed, "Changing Channels" has much to say about the various genres out there in TV land, both in terms of what distinguishes various genre texts from Supernatural and the common features they share. Thus, "Changing Channels" effectively suggests that a singular genre show cannot exist in a vacuum. Not only does said program need other genres to define itself, the generic history it is part of, and the generic expectations it draws on, but it is thus also constantly influenced not only by its generic forefathers and siblings, but also shows from other genres, not to mention the maybe most important of all televisual genres, commercials.


1 The metaleptic quality of the genital herpes medication spot is emphasized in "The Devil You Know" (2010), which, in part is set in Niveus Pharmacetuicals' labs. In the labs, a Herpexia poster is prominently on display. | return to main text |
2 See Calvert (2011), Palmer (2011), and Wright (2008) for some publications on gender in Supernatural. | return to main text |
3 Not all (real-world) fans have reacted positively to the representation of fandom in the show. For commentaries on negative fan responses, see Schmidt (2010) and Zubernis & Larsen (2012). | return to main text |
4 At times, Becky's characterization questions the fans' ability to distinguish between fiction and reality. In "Sympathy for the Devil," Supernatural's author, Chuck Shirley a.k.a. Carver Edlund, calls Becky, telling her that he "need[s her] to get a message to Sam and Dean." After initially emphasizing that she doesn't "appreciate being mocked," for she "know[s] that Supernatural is just a book," Chuck's insistence that "it's all real" makes her forget her reservations instanstaneously and proclaim: "I knew it!" | return to main text |
5 Even the somewhat 'unreal' Japanese game show Nutcracker has an equivalent in the real world, as the clip embedded below demonstrates. | return to main text |


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