Supernatural Season 10 opens with the best premise it’s seen in years, but it’s hard to tell if that will pay off.

Supernatural is not the same show it was 10 years ago. That’s not a bad thing at all: it’s just the nature of the beast. Eric Kripke originally planned for five seasons that would escalate a story of two brothers hunting ghosts to an apocalyptic war between Heaven and Hell. And those were five glorious seasons, but once it reached the supposedly definitive ending, no one, creators or fans, were ready to say goodbye to Sam and Dean Winchester… So the writers stumbled forward, trying to come up with threats that could stop characters who fought Armageddon.

The results have been mixed. Other than the surprisingly good Leviathan storyline from season seven, most episodes are still variations of the angel/demon wars from five years ago. Season six tried making the fan-favorite Castiel an evil God (it didn’t stick). Season eight saw the Winchesters try to kick all demons off of Earth, only do to the same to angels in season nine. To its credit, Supernatural still puts out some great, pulp-horror adventures. But it clearly backed itself into a creative corner, offering little that can surprise or shock any longer.

But season ten? Well, I have some good news and bad news. The good news is that “Black” introduces the best Supernatural premise we’ve seen in years, shaking up the Winchester’s bromance with a massive game-changer. The bad news is “Black” doesn’t take full advantage of those changes, and since the episode ends in a cliffhanger, we can’t be sure whether Supernatural has finally regained its footing.

First, a brief recap of season nine: After Heaven’s angels were cast to Earth, Dean and Sam Winchester found themselves turning to Crowley, the King of Hell, for assistance in controlling the chaos. The end result was Dean receiving the Mark of Cain, a symbol bestowing great demonic powers at a high personal cost. When Dean was killed in the finale, Crowley revealed what that cost was: Upon death, the wearer of the mark is transformed into a demon.

When season ten opens, four months have passed. Sam and Castiel have been looking for Dean ever since Crowley spirited him away, but haven’t had any breaks. As it turns out, Dean and Crowley are now demonic partners, and have been celebrating the transformation at bars and karaoke clubs. But now Crowley wants to get back to managing hell with an unstoppable Winchester at his side, while Dean isn’t as ready to commit as his demonic side implies. Meanwhile, several angels are refusing to return to Heaven, Castiel’s condition is worsening without an angelic grace, and a well-armed enemy arrives with the intention of killing Dean Winchester for good.

Want to catch Supernatural for yourself before you read the rest of our review? It airs on The CW Tuesday nights and if you missed out, you can watch it on The CW’s website or Hulu.

Making Dean into a demon is a stroke of genius. Supernatural has long implied that Dean is a great monster hunter because he’s a failed human being, so emotionally damaged that he can’t fit into normal society. “Black” takes this point to its natural conclusion, literally making Dean into a monster he’d usually hunt. Sam was the only thing keeping Dean from fully losing his humanity, and thanks to Crowley and Cain’s Mark, now he doesn’t even have that.

So what does Dean do with these newfound abilities? Become a prince of hell? Hunt monsters more effectively than ever? Or spend most of his screen time drinking, getting laid, and badly singing karaoke? Supernatural goes with the latter option, which starts off amusing, but quickly gets old. Dean still has a few brief fights with demonic rivals, but the overwhelming theme of the episode is that being a demon has made him more washed-up than a badass monster should be. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great character moment and metaphor for Dean’s well-established depression. But for a show about monster hunters fighting demons, it really slows the pace down. Supernatural is at its absolute best when it balances character developments with monster encounters, and this episode doesn’t quite strike that chord.

Still, I’m not sure I can fault “Black” for that. Supernatural premieres tend to be the weakest episodes of each season, focusing on long-term plot points instead of self-contained stories. The concepts introduced here will probably have great payoffs later, but for a first chapter, watching Dean drink and misbehave gets weary after a while. The subplots are a little more balanced, such as Castiel tracking down rogue angels who want to be left alone. The episode also introduces a seemingly human villain with a personal beef against Dean, but doesn’t take much time exploring why that is. It’s almost like Supernatural planned a two-hour premiere where this all went somewhere, but only gave us the first half to watch. Since the episode ends in a cliffhanger, perhaps that’s literally what happened.

Thankfully, everyone’s performances help make up for that. Jared Padalecki convincingly throws himself back into the role of concerned brother after that awkward breakup Sam and Dean had last season. Misha Collins’ Castiel finally seems to be coming to grips with humanity, but his illness and the violence of fellow angels now weighs heavier than ever. And Mark Sheppard continues to steal the show as Crowley… although I don’t think I’ll ever get used to watching Dean and Crowley hang out and play foozeball together.

Bottom Line: Supernatural‘s “Black” has a great hook, but spends too much time letting “the Deanmon” (ew) wallow in his own misery. Character developments and performances across the entire cast are top-notch, but the story really doesn’t go anywhere, likely because payoffs are being saved for future episodes. Hopefully the next chapter will pick things up a bit, but until then, it’s hard to say whether Supernatural is returning to its prior glory just yet.

Recommendation: “Black” will probably mean more to long-time fans than new viewers, but it’s a perfectly adequate episode nonetheless. Here’s hoping the others can build from it.

[rating=3.0]

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