Lois & Clark & Chris & Ronnie: “Barbarians at the Planet”/”The House of Luthor”
Chris: Well friends, here we are, at the end of the first lap of our journey through comic book television history called Lois and Clark and Chris and Ronnie. And I don’t know about you all, but I’m no closer to answering the questions posed in our first entry than I was then. What is Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman? Is it a good show that tends to drift into bad, or a bad show with occasional flashes of goodness? Is it charming or annoying or both? How do you make a TV show about Superman when you’re not really interested in Superman? Will smooth catch on in the wider vernacular as a synonym for cool? Okay, actually we know the answer to that last one.
And we have a pretty good idea of the answer to the question before it, too. The one about making a Superman show without caring about Superman, and the answer is: not well. For the vast majority of the first season of L&C, Superman was consistently among the least interesting characters. His appearances were usually brief, relegated to final act, and supported by effects work that could charitably be described as rickety. The result was a show that did well enough in the ratings to support a second season, but also necessitated significant changes behind and in front of the camera. Season Two shifted focus more on to the Man of Steel battling his rogues gallery and away from the romance between the two leads and the business of The Daily Planet. But that’s all still in the future, for now, we’re here to talk about the season closing one-two punch of “Barbarians At the Planet” and “The House of Luthor.” Two episodes that are far and away the best entries the series has produced since “Pilot.”
Taken together, the two episodes tell the story of Lex Luthor waging psychological warfare against Lois in an attempt to get her to marry him, and how it all results in his apparent death. It’s tight, exciting, well written and acted; it’s one of those entries that makes you wonder why they couldn’t knock stuff half this good out over the other nineteen odd episodes. What happens is Lex proposes, and while Lois is thinking it over, he browbeats the powerbrokers of Metropolis into blackballing The Daily Planet, cutting off advertising revenue and any lines of credit. Then, when the paper is about to go bankrupt, he swoops in and buys it in a seeming act of generosity, but reorganizes the organization in such a way that reassigns Jimmy and Jack (who’s almost palatable in some scenes) to the printers and forces Perry into early retirement. Then he has the building bombed, pins the blame on Jack, says it’s too expensive to rebuild and immidiately hires Lois over at his twenty four hour news network LNN.
“You don’t know what it’s like in here, Clark! They confiscated my earring!“
All this happens so quickly that it has the effect of making Lois’s head spin and effectively blinds her to Lex’s manipulations. Remember, she still thinks he’s a decent guy. But Clark sees it, and his mounting frustration at Lois’s inability to recognize what’s so obvious to him makes him desperate. Clark confesses his feelings to Lois, but she gently rebuffs him. Then, Lois confesses her feelings to Superman, which he rebuffs, believing that she’s only interested in him because of his super powers. All of a sudden Lois is alienated from her best friend, crush, and all the rest of her friends and co-workers. Lex makes himself the center of her world so quickly that she doesn’t have time to think too much about it and, feeling lonely and afraid, as well as thinking she has no future with Superman, she accepts the proposal.
That’s the majority of the plot of “Barbarians At the Planet” and again, it’s good. Every decision every character makes, makes sense from their particular point of view at that particular moment. I don’t think of myself as a person with particularly high standards when it comes to television. What I want more than anything is for the characters to make decisions that make sense, and for the most part these last two episodes operate with an almost clockwork precision on a character level. Even Jack manages to contribute in a way that is grounded in his particular noxious personality. He makes a snide, shitty comment to Lex one day when they’re all at The Planet, and it sticks in Lex’s craw, so when it comes time to blow the building up, it’s Jack who takes the blame. I wouldn’t say the little confrontation justifies Jack’s existence, but no other character in the show would be so recklessly antagonistic as to sassmouth Lex Luthor to his face and that chutzpah gains him a measure of sympathy. When he gets busted for the crime I felt a little bad for him. And God help me, when he busts out of juvie (in Metropolis a teenager who blows up a populated building still goes to juvie? Huh.) to rejoin the gang, I was actually happy to see him.
A young Thomas Lennon?
Anyway, we’re obviously treating this two parter more like one long episode and not breaking the article into two parts, but even with that in mind, I’ve gone on long enough. What about you, Ronnie? Were you as pleased with this closing as I was?
Ronnie: I believe if there’s anything to conclude from the first season of Lois & Clark, it’s that they don’t whiff when it comes to the major moments. The pilot, the introduction of Kryptonite, this two parter are all among the show’s best. It only falters when it has to fill, you know, 22 hours of scripted television. You pare down the order to 13 and you get a better show. You compress everything this show accomplished over one season into one day… it looks decent! But onto the episodes themselves. These should be called “Lex Luthor’s Big Swinging Dick” because he is firing on all cylinders, doing everything he can to get all his affairs in order, be it buying Kryptonite off a dude who looks like Cliff Clavin, buying the Daily Planet and stripping it off its core asset (Lois Lane, who’s real and spectacular).
This is John Shea’s final moments as a regular but boy do they ever make them count. He’s in fine form with “Barbarians at the Planet” and “The House of Luthor”. He gets to do anything and everything, including be Superman in a confusing virtual reality segment of the second episode. I know we don’t award MVPs for episodes–in part because it’d be a struggle a lot of the time–but Shea deserves the honors in shows with appearances by both James Earl Jones and The Belz. I love how quickly the calm veneer of Luthor unravels and he’s just a crazed madman jumping off the highest building in Metropolis to his death. Speaking of which, how weird is it that we receive important exposition about his body being stolen through spinning newspaper? By the way, his body would be DESTROYED by that drop, let’s not kid ourselves.
How much do you think the Daily Planet story is a reflection of the behind-the-scenes at Lois & Clark? With these shows the workplace is always a thinly veiled stand-in for the show, and it felt appropriate that this came at the end of the season, the point at which options would be considered, budget considerations weighed, etc. Considering the entire writing staff (to say nothing of Scoggins, Landes, and Shea) departs with this season I don’t think I’m crazy to draw the connection. There’s a number of pointed lines about not having the necessary money to do the kind of reporting that’s expected of them that makes me believe the show ran up against a dwindling kitty by season’s end. Jimmy and Jack are literally fired in-show and in real life.
Chris: Oh I agree a hundred percent that it’s a metaphor for the production for the show, and it’s an angle I wish they’d dipped into more often throughout the season. For a show centered around the production of a newspaper, there was very little about the day-to-day life working under those conditions. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I expected Lois & Clark to get into the nitty gritty of, like, fact checking or type setting or anything, but I can imagine that there’s more than one parallel between producing a daily newspaper and a weekly television show that could have made for interesting plotlines. It would have been neat to see a little more of what Lois and Clark’s actual jobs were, what they were expected to cover and how often they were expected to produce. Their beat seemed to cover whatever bullshit the writers thought up this week which makes sense but also cut a swath from political corruption to crooked magicians.
All Superman actors must learn to pretend to writhe in pain due to an imaginary rock. Dean Cain’s efforts are average so far.
And that leads into the one real complaint I had about these episodes (well, one of two, we’ll get to that later). At the end of the day, Lex Luthor was pretty easy to foil, once Clark, Perry, Jimmy and Jack set their minds to it. How much of a criminal mastermind can you be if you can be taken down by a lone reporter and his three wacky buddies over the course of an afternoon? All they had to do was make a few phone calls and flip a few flunkies and that was that. A better show would have taken the time to set it up a little is all I’m saying. Lex would have screwed someone over in an earlier episode who popped up again to screw him right back. Or Tony Jay’s character could have had a crisis of conscience after Lex asked him to do something too despicable and flipped or something. That, by the way is my other complaint, what the fuck happened to Tony Jay and why is Beverly Johnson doing his job all of a sudden? What was that about?
The point is, when you leave the important work of laying plot until the very end of an arc it tends to feel rushed and half assed, and it didn’t need to. The main characters of the show are two investigative reporters and a rich and powerful psychopath pretending to be a benevolent altruist. There could have been episodes that allowed the people in Clarks life to slowly realize Lex was toxic through the work The Planet did, rather than cram it all in at the last minute. Perry, at least, could have started to put the pieces together, and maybe they could have beefed up Belzer too, made him more of a force in the show. Maybe that would have left less time for love potions and wacky amnesia plots, but that’s a loss I’m willing to live with.
Ronnie: Lex’s revolving door of henchmen is definitely something I noticed. Remember when he had the guy in the turban? Or the black man and white woman combo? That could’ve been a plot point–his ruthlessness means he churns through henchpeople at an alarming rate, but instead I think it’s just down to actor availability. The shift from Tony Jay to Mrs. Cox is odd, though. It’s as though we’re supposed to know her, yet her only appearances are these two episodes. I would understand if she were a legacy character like Miss Tessmacher, wherein affection from outside compensates for lack of depth, but she’s not. Beverly Johnson does a good enough job. The show definitely lacks a deep bench of supporting characters or distinct supporting characters. Did you know Henderson showed up before he was Richard Belzer? He was black!
Now that you bring it up, the final two episodes of the show have a definite ramshackle “oh shit, we have to do something” feel to them, perhaps spurred on by Shea’s impending departure. There’s really no buildup to anything that happens. When was the last time Lex showed overt interest in Lois anyway? Oh, right, “Fly Hard”. Well, exclude that because that episode sucked. Lex has been an intermittent presence on the show that it’s difficult to call him an active threat when really he’s more part of the supporting cast than anything else. “Oh that Lex, let’s see what that rascal is up to” and so forth. It would’ve been better had a series of small escalations occurred to turn Lex from asshole to major threat. But as we’ve said in previous articles, though, TV didn’t work that way in the early 90s. Such buildup really only occurred in soap operas, which Lois & Clark may mimic in ways but is decidedly not. So while the events of this two-parter could’ve been bigger, I’m satisfied with what we got, knowing that within the confines of this show it’s pretty much the best we could’ve hoped for.
Not the best we could’ve hoped for? That scene at the end of Part 1 where Superman goes to the Arctic to scream “no!” at the prospect of Lois marrying Lex. Not only is it unintentionally funny, the special effects look like shit. Those expecting a big special effects battle will be disappointed; there’s not much more Superman in these ones than there usually is. I had to laugh that the reason Lex dies is that Clark can’t shake off Lois long enough to turn into Superman and save him. It oddly reminds me of Peep Show in that an awkward situation prevents him from doing the right thing so Lex ends up splat on the pavement. It’s the biggest Superman dereliction of duty I’ve ever seen. Now I’m imagining that famous scene in All-Star Superman where he prevents the suicide only in this case he doesn’t because he can’t get out of a conversation with Jimmy. Jimmy’s anecdote about giving a larger than average tip at Starbucks killed a young woman!
It looks like he’s on the rooftop from The Room.
Chris: The big scream at the end of season one was rough. I imagine they were trying for their version of that moment toward the end of Superman: The Movie where Superman finds a dead Lois Lane and breaks down sobbing repeating no until he roars into the sky set on turning back time itself in an attempt to bring her back to life; a moment, I might add, that thinking about still gives me goosebumps (settle down ladies, I’m spoken for). To say that Dean Cain doesn’t equal Christopher Reeve is an understatement. They film his breakdown super wide, I suppose to underscore the epic loss and frustration he’s feeling at the moment, but you can’t help thinking it had a lot to do with Cain being unable to manifest anything close to the genuine grief required to sell the moment. It, uh, it sucks.
But I think you’re not giving the L&C writers enough credit regarding building up Lex’s relationship with Lois. Not only does the previous episode “Fly Hard” have the two of them out on a date, in the previous episode “Vatman” it’s Bizarro Superman’s growing attraction to Lois that leads to his eventual split from Lex. Lex had that picture of Lois that Bizarro was leering at, and Lex basically said Bizarro could have anything he wanted except Lois. It’s a small moment, but it does as effective job showing how attached Lex is becoming to her, not just because he doesn’t want Bizarro to rape her, but that he would have a picture of her around his office. She’s someone he actually thinks about. Add to that his getting involved in the hacker plotline back in “Ides of Metropolis” mostly to keep her safe and offering to shelter her in an exact replica of her apartment recreated in an underground bunker during the potential asteroid collision event back in “All Shook Up” and I think they planted enough seeds in the last half dozen episodes.
“Just remember: he didn’t ask you to sign a pre-nup.”
And I’m inclined to think this was probably the best way to bring Lex’s time as a series regular to a conclusion anyway. It’s like we’ve been saying all season, Lex is a great character and Shea gives a great performance, but his consistent involvement in every scheme hatched across the entirety of Metropolis had the effect of deluding the character more than anything else. Having Lex being constantly thwarted made him seem less threatening and Clark’s coworkers inability to see how evil he was made them seem stupid. But I mean, there were moments when Clark was literally standing next to a life-sized cardboard cutout of his alter ego and no one was able to connect the dots. So maybe that’s just consistent writing. Either way, there was no chance that Lois would actually end up with Lex and him showing up every week just to be defeated by Superman was probably a case of diminishing returns, I think it was probably better to let him flame out than to fade away.
“I’m Darth Vader. I’m the voice of CNN. And you think I want to do your silly little Superman show? Well, if the check clears…”
Ronnie: Something else we ought to talk about is the bait & switch of Clark confessing his love to Lois in part 1 and rescinding it in part 2. He explains he’d try anything to talk her out of marriage, and that includes falsely confessing he was in love with her. It’s a cheap way to put the genie back in the bottle and I’ll be disappointed if Lois buys it. Who knows with Season 2; it’s a whole new writing staff, so how they choose to deal with this plot point is up in the air. I’m more about looking forward than looking back, honestly; I’m excited to see the car accident that turns Michael Landes into someone else entirely. I’m also curious if James Earl Jones, the new owner of the Planet, will be a recurring presence on the show. Wikipedia tells me he’s a character in the comics and he never appears again. Figures. James Earl Jones ain’t doing your fucking TV show on any regular basis.
That wraps things up for the first season of Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. I’d give the season an overall “C” grade, maybe “C+” if I’m feeling generous. We’re going to take a one week break from the show but won’t be taking a break from producing content. That’s right, we’ll be taking a look at the current Superman show on the air, Superman & Lois! Which do we prefer? The answer may surprise you…or it might not. Who knows.
Odds & Ends
-Cheers alum tracker: Chip, the officious prick Luthor brings in to oversee Perry at the Planet is played by Alex Nevil who appeared on Cheers as lovable bartender Sam Malone over eleven seasons and two hundred seventy five episodes. Hold on, that’s actually incorrect. Actually, Nevil appeared in one episode as Martin Teal, a smug asswipe who sexually harasses Rebecca. We regret the error.
-”Is that Kryptonite in your pocket or are you glad to see me?”
-Cat is namedropped in the finale, as one of a number of names Lois hasn’t heard from in weeks.
-When Lex plays his little VR game as Superman we see Lois lazily reclining in Lex’s penthouse, Clark trying and failing to make progress on his novel, Jack in prison, Jimmy homeless and Perry happily in retirement. I appreciated that his insane fantasies included a happy ending for Perry, but what did JImmy ever do to Lex to deserve hobo status?
-Phyllis Coates guests as Lois’ mother. Coates was Lois in the first season of Adventures of Superman. Is this the first case of the infamous Superman stunt casting? (As in, stars from a prior Superman project go on to have roles in a subsequent Superman project. Both Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher will appear on Smallville, for instance.)