Supernatural has a history of making self-referential nods through various meta-episodes. It’s one of the ways a show about a pair of monster hunting siblings who are repeatedly tasked with preventing the end of the world (not to mention repeatedly dying and coming back to life), manages to let off a little steam. A well-placed wink or two at the audience isn’t just blush-inducing, it’s an important part of the show’s internal checks and balances system, in place to keep the whole thing from becoming so unrelentingly dark nobody wants to watch it.
It also doesn’t hurt that stars Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki always seem game to have a laugh at the expense of their characters and, in some cases, Supernatural in general. One of the series’ best meta-episodes dropped the two in an alternate reality where the world saw them as Jensen and Jared, not Dean and Sam. It was a fun episode that wasn’t without risk of upsetting a passionate fan base uninterested in lightly mocking the show they love. But it worked, and has worked several times over. Now, with nearly 13 full seasons under its belt, despite inevitable changes behind the camera and in the writers’ room, going meta is old hat for Supernatural, which is why the long-in-development ‘ScoobyNatural’ comes off as a unique twist on a successful formula, even though, on paper, anyway, it never should have worked as well as it does.
There is really no escaping the sense that ‘ScoobyNatural’ is a gimmick — a fun gimmick, but a gimmick nonetheless — and the show mercifully makes no attempt in disguising that fact. Instead, it turns into the skid with an opening scene so abrupt it reads as deliberately disorienting. Sam and Dean do battle with a stuffed lizard possessed by some malevolent force and quickly dispatch the rampaging toy. As thanks for saving his pawn shop, the owner gifts the Winchesters anything in the store. Dean opts for a television to go in his new “Dean Cave” he’s set up in the bunker. As it turns out, though, the TV is also haunted, zapping the brothers into an episode of Scooby-Doo. Why Scooby-Doo? Who knows? And frankly, who cares?
The show and the characters just roll with it, and viewers will find it easy to follow suit. The blending of the shows is a more natural fit than most TV crossovers — I’m looking at you, New Girl and Brooklyn Nine-Nine — and ‘ScoobyNatural’ is keen to make the differences and similarities of the two series the crux of the crossover. The idea, then, becomes that the Scooby-Doo universe is pure and innocent, a place where ghosts and monsters are easily explained as (usually) crooked real-estate developers whose convoluted plans wind up being thwarted by a group of seemingly unemployed kids and their talking dog, with whom they travel cross country in a windowless van so suspiciously labeled it practically screams Amber Alert.
Supernatural draws on the relatively quaint, yesteryear simplicity of Scooby-Doo and presents it through a more cynical lens without re-writing the Scooby gang a la Riverdale. The result is that Sam and Dean bring with them a corruptive influence that threatens the essence of the animated series, which is something Dean holds close to his heart as one of the few reliable and normalizing elements of his otherwise unorthodox childhood. It’s a fun way to deploy nostalgia, by tasking a trio (Castiel is invited, of course) interlopers with preserving something they have a sentimental regard for rather than mercilessly poking fun at the relative guilelessness of Fred, Daphne, Velma, Scooby, and Shaggy. Though there's some of that, too, but it mostly backfires on Dean.
Still, Dean’s deep love and encyclopedic knowledge of Scooby-Doo becomes a tool for the Winchesters as they quickly adapt to their circumstances. After more than 200 episodes of Supernatural, the real shock would be in seeing either one of the brothers surprised by being sucked into a haunted cartoon, so the episode does away with incredulity in favor of diving right into the matter at hand: solving the Scooby-case and getting Sam and Dean back into their reality. To do so, ‘ScoobyNatural’ not only disrupts the usual Scooby-Doo narrative — this time using the plot of ‘A Night of Fright Is No Delight’, an actual episode from the first season of Scooby-Doo — it also uses the arrival of the Winchesters to upend the natural order of things in the Scooby-verse, introducing a bloody, life-or-death scenario that threatens to transform the characters into frazzled, paranoid, violence-prone shells of their former selves.
Although there’s a real phantom running around, stabbing and dismembering the relatively innocent bystanders hoping to inherit a fortune by spending the night in a supposedly haunted mansion, ‘ScoobyNatural’ somehow keeps things light. Make no mistake, the episode is violent, but the bloodletting is mostly in service to the contrasts in the two series. Though it’s a little troublesome that a decapitated head would elicit laughs, it does so in part because it feels so out of place. To that end, everything is out of place, so when the writers dial up the violence it not only augments the weirdness of Sam and Dean's situation, and their awareness of having become animated, but it also gives the episode a level of potential consequence that's frankly a little surprising.
The same is true of Dean’s pursuit of Daphne, who ingenuously rebuffs his advances in favor a more chaste, kid-friendly relationship with Fred, or Velma’s blatant attraction to Sam, which she covers up by regarding him with the same affectionate dismissiveness she affords Scooby of Shaggy. In a way, 'ScoobyNatural' feels like Supernatural by way of Pleasantville, but instead of liberating some emotionally and sexually repressed television characters, Sam and Dean run the risk of destroying something that's simple and pure and fine just the way it is.
In all, the episode adds up to a charming escape, one that upends the notion of what a meta-episode can be, while also delivering a weirdly effective dose of nostalgia. After watching ‘ScoobyNatural,’ the biggest takeaway isn't so much that it worked so well, but genuine surprise that these two shows haven’t crossed over before now.
Supernatural continues next Thursday with ‘The Thing’ @8pm on The CW.