The cast, crew, network executives, and fans of Supernatural have all said it for years: What made that series so special and beloved was the bond between the two brothers at the center of the show (Dean and Sam Winchester, played by Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki, respectively). Without that relationship to follow, stories set in the same universe simply have a lot to do to prove themselves worthy of such strong devotion fans attend weekend-long conventions, get tattoos of symbols and quotes, and name their babies (both fur and human) after characters. At the time of the prequel spin-off pilot, The Winchesters has not reached, let alone cleared, that bar.
"At least in the pilot, The Winchesters feels like it's trying to serve a few different masters, tapping into the early seasons monster-hunt mystery vibe of Supernatural while also trying to be a good-looking, young ensemble supernatural show that can attract general CW fans of former hits like Vampire Diaries and The Originals," wrote Trent Moore of Paste, whose review constituted the only truly positive one for the new series. "It can be a bit paint-by-numbers at times."
The monster- and demon-hunting drama Supernatural that follows the aforementioned Winchester brothers on the road, "saving people and hunting things," ran for 15 seasons and has an overall series Metascore of 60. Its first season, which debuted back in 2005, earned a Metascore of 59. The Winchesters, which goes back in time with the "family business" to Dean and Sam's parents Mary Campbell (Meg Donnelly) and John Winchester (Drake Rodger) after they meet and being hunting things across the country together in search of information about their missing fathers, just debuted Oct. 11 and has a Metascore of 51. That almost 10-point difference may not seem so great, especially since both scores keep both shows in the yellow, denoting "mixed or average reviews," but what is notable about the difference is just how much has changed between freshman seasons.
The world of television criticism looked very different in 2005, with fewer online-only publications existing at all, let alone being given early access to screeners in order for their writers to formulate reviews. Metacritic has added new critics to the roster of those the site works with to formulate Metascores through the years, so the total number of critics has grown, but the level of publication at which they must be employed has not changed much.
In 2005, 22 Metacritic approved critics reviewed Supernatural, resulting in that Metascore of 59 for Season 1. In 2022, only five Metacritic approved critics reviewed The Winchesters. And only one of those critics was the same (Brian Lowry, who wrote for Variety in the early aughts but is now with CNN).
The first season of Supernatural actually received a majority positive reviews, Philadelphia Inquirer's Jonathan Storm comparing its spooky thrills to The X-Files. But the overall consensus was that it was not a high-brow program. As Seattle Post-Intelligencer's Melanie McFarland put it, "You could be mildly ashamed at how much you like it."
And even The Hollywood Reporter's Barry Garron, who credited the show for being "unlike anything else out there," couldn't help but note that it wouldn't be for everyone. It "should build a following among viewers who appreciate its combination of spooky mythology and mystery adventure," he continued.
By contrast, The Winchesters immediately had big shoes to fill because of its predecessor's success, and it was found wanting.
"The Winchesters lacks what made Supernatural exciting and other CW programs watchable: that iconic charisma. Without it, The Winchesters is an incredibly boring, lifeless prequel that's unsure about who its audience is or even why it exists. It's not so bad, it's good; it's not bingeable. Instead, The Winchesters is just... there," wrote The Daily Beast's Chris Panella.
The world of television in general looked very different in 2005. The content volume was significantly lower because streaming platforms had not yet entered, let alone dominated, the conversation. In 2021, the year The Winchesters was ordered to series, there were 559 scripted series alone fighting for critics' and viewers' attention.
When Supernatural was premiering, The WB, a Warner Bros.-backed network, was known for 7th Heaven, Dawson's Creek, Gilmore Girls, and yes, genre fare including Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Charmed, and Angel. What these series have in common is their focus on teenage stories, and that was the intention of the powers that be at the network, as they tried to broaden the offerings of traditional broadcast television and appeal to a different demographic than the one captured by the Big Four networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC). It worked for a while, but the number of series The WB could call hits began to dwindle. Though it would go on to run for 15 seasons, Supernatural was not a hit from the start.
Despite middling reviews at launch and low ratings, Supernatural managed to survive The WB's shutdown, going on to serve as a legacy title on The CW, the new broadcast network from parent companies CBS and Warner Bros. in a joint venture. It is there that Supernatural grew its dedicated fanbase and went from being an "on the bubble" show whose every season finale could have been a series finale, to a "sure thing," scoring early renewals in its later years.
Around The Winchesters' premiere, The CW was in the news for a similar decline-turned-network change, though this time it began with an acquisition by Nexstar Media Group, has led to Supernatural universe champion and CW president Mark Pedowitz stepping down, and includes speculation that once again, there will be an eye on "broadening" content offerings.
Over the years, The CW tried other attempts at Supernatural spin-offs, but The Winchesters was the first and only thus far to move forward to series. Being Dean and Sam's parent, Mary and John, therefore, should offer a lot of what Supernatural fans love about the flagship series (the banter, the teamwork, the willingness to sacrifice yourself for your partner), plus the added emotional drama and high stakes of a love story. However, while Supernatural took a while to add regular supporting players to round out Dean and Sam, The Winchesters starts with an ensemble in the pilot, expanding perspectives through three completely new and unique hunters/helpers working alongside Mary and John: Ada Monroe (Demetria McKinney), Latika Desai (Nida Khurshid), and Carlos Cervantez (Jojo Fleites), while seeing a return to the beloved Dean as narrator, too.
"Drake Rodger and Meg Donnelly work the two-hander dynamic well enough to anchor the series on their own before it introduces its Scooby gang (complete with Mystery Machine)," wrote LaToya Ferguson in Variety. "The rest of the ensemble is hit or miss, as are the comic beats that come along with them."
And Moore wrote, "The new team has some true blue Scooby-Doo vibes, and at one point literally set off in a 1970's shag-carpet van as they chase answers on the mystery that launches the series. It's a choice that feels natural to the setting and mostly works due to the strength of the young cast, though also comes off a bit earnest and on-the-nose for a franchise that has reveled in the meta-corners of genre storytelling over the past decade."
Premiering in 2022 means the practical technology used to create the on-set special effects and the post-production VFX have improved leaps and bounds from where Supernatural started. Demons used to be represented by thin wisps of smoke, as the team did what it could with the resources they had at the time, leaning into mood lighting and increased sound effects to really sell the horror and fear. Yet, The Winchesters is still a CW show, which means it has a significantly smaller budget than most sci-fi or fantasy series.
Perhaps it is unfair to compare this show with, say, Stranger Things or House of the Dragon, then — or perhaps critics just didn't think the effects were notable, even in comparison to the original series — but no one who reviewed The Winchesters touched on them more than Panella, who simply wrote that the show's "tonal reset often came courtesy of fun, fast-paced monster-hunting. The Winchesters hardly borrows that beloved convention, save for a scene or two with some exorcisms set to generic classic rock."
Whether critics covered Supernatural over the years and are now also covering The Winchesters, or are jumping into the spin-off with fresh eyes, they know you can't write about the new one without drawing comparisons to the original. That's what the fans have been doing since the show was announced, after all.
Many of those longtime Supernatural fans raised an eyebrow at The Winchesters from the start because Ackles is involved but Padalecki is not; because the premise that John gets involved in hunting in 1972 is not what Supernatural said happened; because there is a large contingent that hates John for the way he raised his boys and doesn't want to follow his origin story — take your pick. But that was all sight unseen.
Supernatural fans are nothing if not extremely protective over a series that, for many, felt that "saving people" motto literally and personally. Their passion, attention, and, let's face it, money are the reason the show kept going, despite the low ratings, lack of major awards attention, and lackluster critical response. So, now that the show has premiered to its public, the true test of how The Winchesters will fare, let alone compare to Supernatural, should be revealed with its user score, not its Metascore.