Thursday night's "Changing Channels" was a tip of the hat to the culty 90s John Ritter movie Stay Tuned, where a poor sod (Ritter) is sucked into his tube and must endure a hell of genre television shows. The episode begins with a fantastic sendup of sitcom credits and opening dialogue, complete with laugh track. Watching Sam and Dean ham their way through a wacky-doo apocalypse scenario is fun partly because it reminds you how goofy Supernatural already is.
But when the boys find themselves in a version of Gray's Anatomy called Doctor Sexy (complete with plinky girl rock), everything starts to get ugly. A trickster that the boys have tangled with before shows himself, admits he's playing a game with them, and then a disgruntled patient shoots Dean. Things really get ugly when the newly-patched Dean is sucked into a Japanese game show where he and Sam have to answer questions in Japanese to avoid having mallets smash into their balls.
When Castiel arrives in the game show but can't use his powers to rescue them, the brothers realize that the trickster is far more powerful than they expected. Earlier, Sam begged the trickster to help them stop Armageddon, but the possibility that he will help is getting slimmer and slimmer. The trickster seems both more hostile and more powerful than what they'd expected.
After uncomfortably mouthing their way through genital warts commercials, more Doctor Sexy, and a completely silly sendup of CSI Miami, the boys are getting desperate. As long as they stick to their roles, they manage to survive each show. But the trickster is getting creepier, and banishes a beaten-up looking Castiel again before the Winchesters can do anything about it.
Turns out that the trickster is using the TV torment to teach the boys that they have "roles to play," as the vessels of Michael and Lucifer - "your celebrity deathmatch," he clarifies. When the brothers refuse, he banishes them to a stint on CSI Miami, and Dean fumes, "I hate procedural cop drama!" Things get even worse when the boys stab the trickster with a stake - which should kill him - and find themselves weirdly thrust into a Knight Rider episode where Sam is KITT. At last the brothers connect the dot: The trickster's obsession with the boys becoming angel meatsuits makes it seem like he might be an angel.
So Dean captures the trickster in a ring of burning holy oil. And wouldn't you know it - he reveals that he's been the semi-fallen angel Gabriel all along (which is kind of a retcon since we saw this character before and he came off as a regular old trickster).
"Where'd you get the holy oil?" Gabriel asks.
"You might say we pulled it out of Sam's ass," Dean growls. Ah, the KITT jokes just keep on coming. This show rules.
Like all the angels, Gabriel is stick of living in a world where his brothers are killing each other and his father is MIA. He just wants to get the whole Earth enema over with. "What you guys call the apocalypse I used to call Sunday dinner," he yells. "This is about two brothers betraying each other." That's why two troubled brothers have to play their roles as angelic sausage casings.
"I wish this were a TV show . . . easy answers," Gabriel adds.
I like the bittersweet final moments of "Changing Channels," where the nightmarish torture that is television turns out to be better than a real world where angels are trying to kill each other. Then, after Gabriel whines some more about how there is nothing the Winchesters can do about the apocalypse, Dean gives him the total armchair psychologist smackdown.
"This is about you being too afraid to stand up to your family!" he shouts at Gabriel.
As we learn more about the deep game that is Armageddon, it's becoming obvious that heaven was some kind of hippie fascist dictatorship, where a loving Father expected unquestioning obedience from his loving children. The angels are all like recovering abused children, or maybe badly-deprogrammed cultists with no direction now that their charismatic guru is gone. It's an interesting interpretation of Heavenly politics, and provides a nice counterpoint to Sam and Dean's own family traumas.
Another way to look at this episode is as another chapter in the "meta" arc that's being developed this season. The meta episodes began with "The Monster At The End of This Book," an episode last season where the brothers discovered that a prophet/genre writer has been chronicling their lives in a series of books called Supernatural. Since then, the brothers have met fans of their books, and even discovered Wincest fanfic online. Supernatural is a show that constantly comments on its own fandom, and in this episode it comment on the kinds of television that inspires fandom.
These fan-loved shows offer a glimpse of a simpler world, one that even angels yearn for when times are tough. But the trouble with TV is that it's always locking people into narrow roles that leave no room for choice. In the Supernatural metaverse, television is our salvation - and our prison.