This week, on Supernatural: Cordy and Spike have communication problems, as do Sam and Dean, and Jenny bites into the nastiest cupcake ever
Thus far, season 7 of Supernatural has been uneven- two strong episodes followed by two weak ones. This week’s episode isn’t fantastic, but it’s a step in the right direction, and at least that’s something. “Shut Up, Dr. Phil” follows in the tradition of “Tall Tales” (Sam and Dean meet the Trickster) and “Wishful Thinking” (Sam and Dean find a wishing well), starting as a fairly straightforward episode before taking a left turn into comedy. Though it’s not nearly as successful as either “Tales” or “Thinking”, which include some of the most transcendent moments of TV absurdism in the past 10 years, it does manage to succeed as a bit of fluff entertainment- light, but satisfying.
After seven seasons of increasingly epic battles, it’s refreshing to see the guys come up against beings far more powerful than themselves, and who don’t care about them, even a little. When one is on a first name basis with angels, the devil, and Death, it’s understandable that one would get an overdeveloped ego. As remarked upon in the episode by Dean, the problems of the world seem to end up resting on their shoulders and taking a week off from that is a welcome change of pace. In fact, it’s a shame the turn happens so late in the episode- Supernatural is often at its best with comedy, and some more (non-lethal) witchy hijinks would have been appreciated, particularly if it meant getting to see Jensen Ackles do physical comedy. He’s always game and absolutely commits, and getting to see just a bit of levity from a character who’s become so dour would be nice.
Dean’s moodiness and guilt seems to be an arc the writers are interested in exploring this season, with Jewel Staite’s character from two episodes ago popping up in the “Previously On”s again. While it would have been nice to see her in a recurring status, if only for Staite’s sheer likability, at least her appearance appears to be prompting some character development for Dean. One can only hope that this is the start of a journey that will get him out of himself and back to being the lighthearted wisecracker we love, instead of Bobby Goldsboro’s funny little clown (a song used to good, if not subtle, effect this week). Sam seems to be holding things together, as we get another week sans Lucifer, so it would seem to be Dean’s turn. Supernatural has long toyed with his alcohol dependence, which gets another mention here. One can’t help but wonder if they’ll finally pull the trigger on that, or if they’ll instead keep toying with it, unwilling to commit. The man’s liver must be destroyed at this point.
Much of the episode is devoted to the two main guest stars- James Marsters and Charisma Carpenter. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel fans will recognize them as Spike and Cordelia, respectively, and their dual casting is certainly no accident. Both are a lot of fun and, while they get little to do here, demonstrate why they worked so well on their previous shows and why any number of series would be smart to cast them full time. (Forget Whitney- this reviewer would much rather watch Cordy.) They work well individually and together, sparring admirably and selling absolutely ridiculous lines of dialogue that really shouldn’t work. Whedon alums tend to have a talent for turning on a dime, and what starts out as a fight scene late in the episode pirouettes easily into light comedy, thanks mostly to their performances.
Also helpful in this is the delightful choice to use Chopin as underscoring. Supernatural doesn’t always have the best score, but it rarely misses with its soundtrack and this is another great example. There’s something about setting a Black Magic Battle Royale/counseling session to a Chopin waltz that just works. It’s a touch that many may not specifically notice, but smaller choices such as these are what allows the show to succeed so incredibly at comedy, when it decides to take a week off from its usual tone. That’s not to say it’s all laughs- there are several gruesome deaths, as can be expected, and a particularly gross moment with bloody cupcakes that will certainly take a while to forget. It’s to their credit that even when going for lighter episodes, the producers don’t back off from the gore that is such a staple of the show.
On paper, this is a strong episode. Describing each of the elements, it should work. The closing anticlimax with the Leviathan is particularly fun. However, put together, it doesn’t quite succeed. Perhaps the comedy is too little too late, perhaps there is too much time spent on red shirt kills, but in this case, the sum is less than its parts. It’s not a disappointing episode- quite the opposite, actually. After the missteps and wasted opportunities of the past two weeks, this is a welcome change. However, one can’t help wondering if this same story, with this same cast, would have been better executed a season or two ago. Supernatural is off its game. It may be on the way back, but it’s not there yet. Hopefully, next week’s doppelganger episode will be the one to put it squarely back on its path.
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