Lois & Clark & Chris & Ronnie: Smallville
Ronnie: Chris lost the Season 3 premiere document so as punishment to him and also all of you, we’re doing Smallville this week. What is Smallville? I’m glad you asked. It’s the most successful Superman show ever in terms of longevity, and it’s also a show that transcended the teen drama of the WB and became a flagship superhero crap CW show. It began as an effort to do a Bruce Wayne origin show; WB wisely went the direction of Batman Begins. Alfred Gough and Miles Millar (co-story credit on Spider-Man 2), hired to write the script of a young Superman coming into his own, devised two storytelling rules: no flights, no tights. For better or for worse, they stuck to that all 10 seasons, even after Gough and Millar departed the program to, uh, develop that Charlie’s Angels reboot. No, the TV show, not the Kristen Stewart movie.
The show begins with an inciting incident that has ramifications for years to come: Superman’s ship comes amidst a meteor shower, so he’s forever feeling guilty that his mere presence on Earth orphaned Lana Lang (Kristin Kreuk, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li) and, more importantly, turned Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum, Sorority Boys) from a shitty redhead to a bald freak. I mean that’s how you want your future Superman (Tom Welling, The Fog): riddled with guilt. The shower also provides a neat excuse for why there’s superpowered monster people all over the place; the meteors were riddled with Kryptonite. Rounding out the cast are Whitney (Eric Johnson, two episodes of Criminal Minds), Lana’s boyfriend; Chloe (Allison Mack, Wilfred), burgeoning cultist; and Pete (Sam Jones III, prison), the black guy. They’re pretty, they’re telegenic, and they’re mostly poor actors, making sitting through “Pilot” a chore.
As always, the parents are the standouts here. For what little we get of him, John Glover is fantastic as Lex’s disapproving father, and the Kents don’t disappoint either (Dukes of Hazzard’s John Schneider and Superman III’s Annette O’Toole). But they’re in short supply compared to the inane teen angst that populates this show. Now, I’m not opposed to teen angst; My So-Called Life remains a treasure. It has to be better written than this, and it has to be more than just a garbled combination of old X-Files scripts and half-remembered Buffys. To the creatives’ credit, I don’t recall either of those shows centering an hour on replicating a famous hate crime as a high school hazing ritual. Apparently Clark and Pete only want to try out for football so they don’t end up this year’s “scarecrow”. The scarecrow of course involves crucifying a kid and spraying an “S” on their bare chest, which is pretty homoerotic for something that is clearly patterned after Matthew Shepard. Why? Why would you even think to do this for your WB program?
There’s all sorts of stupid setup in “Pilot” that bears mentioning. For instance, Clark’s inability to get near his crush without making a fool out of himself is explained by her wearing a piece of the meteor rock that killed her parents as a necklace. Well, Christians do wear crosses, so. Because of this weakness, our hero has no choice but to view Lana from his barn telescope. Clark saves Lex from a car accident in an improbable fashion that both puts Lex in the youth’s debt and arouses suspicion in the circumstances. If you’re looking for why a dude in his 20s in hanging out with 14 year olds, you’re not getting a better explanation.
What a strange image to market your program on.
Chris: It was weird revisiting Smallville (sorry Ronnie, sorry everyone) after not really thinking too much about it since 2004 because while it’s a very different show from Lois & Clark, it also has some interesting thematic overlaps. Like L&C, Smallville is a show trying to meld two dramas into a new thing (in this case the Teen Nighttime Soap and Superhero Show) in a way that eventually became refined and streamlined. Unlike L&C it benefited from running over arguably the peak era for its kind of targeted product. Smallville aired long enough to wrap its run up on the CW network, but originally it was a WB show, and originally, that wasn’t the WB’s thing. I don’t know if you know this Ronnie, but when UPN and WB debuted within days of each other back in 1995, the WB initially branded itself as a place for black programming while UPN tried to dominate the fanboy eyes with Star Trek. The Jamie Foxx Show was on the WB, along with The Wayans Brothers and The Steve Harvey Show. Even Sister, Sister jumped from ABC’s TGIF to the WB.
But that started changing with 7th Heaven in 1996 and more importantly Buffy in 97 as the network grew progressively more oriented towards grabbing white teen viewers. Buffy is the really important one because it so successfully melded teen angst and fantasy and laid the groundwork for these season long arcs that are pretty much all anyone seems to do anymore. But there was also Dawson’s Creek, of course, and Felicity and Charmed and Gilmore Girls, Jesus, I could go on. Smallville arrived right at the height of all that and managed to distinguish itself by introducing a new spin on an old property and mixing it with a then unprecedented reverence for the past of it’s IP and references to other characters in it’s universe. Correct me if I’m wrong Ronnie, but I feel like Smallville was the birthplace of now standard tropes like casting performers from previous incarnations of the character in prominent roles and shit like that. Hell, I tuned in after not watching for years when they did the JSA stuff just because the idea of seeing a team on screen together like that was so novel.
Look at his magnificent hair. John Glover, not the ginger freak kid.
I only watched the first two seasons of Smallville (and I only watched that much because my father had an inexplicable fondness for it), and while I’m generally not crazy about the idea of judging a show by its pilot, Smallville’s pilot is pretty fair representation of the show I remember. It’s a bunch of good ideas and a couple of decent performances consistently undermined by the actual stories and most of the leads. I always like the idea of Smallville; I liked that Clark arriving would be a strange and frightening thing to the town at large. That a fucking meteor could crash into Kansas and no one would know about it might have made sense in 1939 (meaning that Clark arrived around 1910 or so) but Smallville taking place in 2001 when Clark is 14 would mean he landed undetected around 1989. That’s a harder sell. That Tom Welling was 14 in 2001 is less believable than the idea that a meteor could crash into Kansas undetected in 1989, but I digress. That the meteor would also bring a bunch of kryptonite and radiation that made lots of monsters to fight is also a perfectly good set-up.
But man, Tom Welling, Kristen Kreuk, Allison Mack and Sam Jones are not very good actors. I didn’t watch enough of the teen shows of the era to judge them as a part of that class, but there’s a reason people like Michelle Williams, Kristen Bell, Joshua Jackson, Alison Hannigan, and David Boreanaz went on to have sustained careers in movies and TV. The only time you hear about a Smallville alum is when they’re being arraigned. I think Rosenbaum is fine as Lex, and his bizarre subplot of becoming Clark’s surrogate big brother who’s always trying to get him laid is the kind of strange plotting I enjoy in my TV adaptations. But that’s later. In this episode there’s not too much of anything to feel good about. I didn’t even make the Mathew Shepard connection until you reminded me of it, I just thought that this teen superhero show sold itself on the image of a crucified half naked abercrombie model looking boy with an S painted on his chest was fucking nuts in a vacuum.
Between the two they’ve been sentenced to four years of prison.
Ronnie: I mean I think the main problem is Clark Kent. True, Tom Welling is both an old bitch and not a very good actor, but it’s the writing that downs the character. Now, I understand it’s tricky to write Superman as a young man, because how much is he fully formed and how much does he have yet to learn. The inclination is to make him perfect and that’s not going to make for interesting storytelling. Neither is making him incalculably boring, as you saw in our Superboy review. Smallville goes far in the other direction by making the character an angsty kid with guilt issues. Coupled with Welling’s acting it’s not a pretty sight. Riddled with guilt works for Spider-Man, not Superman, just like we don’t need to see him whining about his dad not signing his football tryout permission slip. Let’s not even get into his telescope stalking bullshit. Teen angst fits Batman better, which explains why that was the original pitch and Superman a bit of spackle.
The average Smallville episode goes like this: somebody interacts with “meteor rock”, gain powers related to their situation (for example, next episode a bug collecting kid gains bug powers) and Clark has to keep them from killing everyone on their list of grievances, the chances of which are high that Lana Lang is on it. X-Files fans will be familiar with the “Monster of the Week”; I believe “Freak of the Week” is the fandom’s preferred nomenclature. I keep bringing up X-Files because 1) I really like X-Files and 2) the pilot for Smallville was directed by David Nutter, who did 15 X-Files, and Mark Snow does the score. 3) It’s filmed in British Columbia, just like the early seasons of The X-Files. Unfortunately, the quality gap between the two is vast. Some of the freaks have novel premises, but so much of it is simplistic high school bullshit. Like the hotheaded coach gets heat powers, that sort of nonsense.
“I swear, it’s just fencing, it’s not some weird sex thing.”
Chris: The thing that always struck me about Smallville was how the central tension of the show was rooted in two separate plotlines: Clark’s friendship with Lex, and the love triangle between Clark, Lana and Chloe. I said this above, but I like the whole Clark/Lex dynamic. The two characters make sense together and the actors seem to enjoy performing together. The idea that Lex would be desperate for any kind of happy familial relationship leading him to latch onto the absurdly wholesome Kent’s makes sense, as does the shine he takes to Clark specifically. Lex is a young man who’s been pathologically insulted and emasculated by his father for his entire life, of course he would be drawn to a little brother figure who thought he was just the greatest. And of course Clark would be attracted to Lex, who wouldn’t be friends with a cool older guy with unlimited funds and no parents around? Clark is drawn to Lex’s darkness the way Lex is drawn to Clark’s light. It’s a charming plotline that’s deepened by the knowledge that they’d inevitably become bitter enemies. It gives the show a bittersweet dimension and is the closest it comes to any kind of real emotional depth. Well, that and Lex’s relationship with his father Lionel. But they’re flip sides of the same coin, plotwise, because the Kents are what Lex wants to be but Luthor is what he is.
The Clark, Lana, Chloe triangle on the other hand, is completely deflated by the exact same knowledge about where all this is heading. Clark befriending Lex is tragic irony because we know they grow to hate each other, but there’s no tension between will Clark end up with Lana or Chloe because we damn well know he ends up with Lois. And I’m not saying I can’t care about the relationships between teenagers if I don’t believe they’re going to get married, but you also can’t wring tension out of a decision that the audience knows doesn’t really matter. Shit feels super important and dramatic when you’re a kid, which is why these kinds of soap operas often work better with teenagers than adults (or they do for me anyway). But it’s hard to fall into the kind of adolescent haze these kinds of stories require if the center of the triangle is very famously in love with someone else. Stories like this about kids work because it’s easier to forgive the kind of melodramatic solipsism the whole world is ending because someone doesn’t like me energy when it’s centered on a teenager. With adults it seems, you know, childish. But you can’t really get into the whole everything is terrible forever vibe if it’s established canon that the main character meets the woman of his dreams at his first job and they live happily ever after. Every time Clark looked sad I just thought “hang on kid, you’re just running out the clock until you meet Teri Hatcher.”
Don’t look too close at the Wall of Weird because it gets pretty anti-Semitic.
Ronnie: That about says it all regarding Smallville, does it not? I believe we’ve covered everything and exhausted every conceivable angle of the pilot. We could’ve gone into how the show “evolves” but that seems outside of the purview of this article. Maybe another time, during another seasonal juncture we’ll do an episode or episodes where the action takes place almost exclusively in Metropolis and shit looks more like a bad CW superhero show instead of a bad WB teen drama. The “creative” lengths the powers that be went to prevent Clark from becoming anything resembling Superman perhaps bears further scrutiny. Smallville is very near and dear to me as a program I ironically enjoyed to the extent of gathering friends for a series finale party. It was stupid but it was also great, like most things I did in my 20s. For all the shit I give it I honestly do rate it superior to Arrow, Titans and the like. Whenever I’m watching one of those I wonder why it can’t be more like Smallville. See, superhero programs nowadays are all about the fan service, feeding you names and references and shit. Smallville though, Smallville gave you a drip feed. Maybe you’d get a Dr. Hamilton in Season 2. The rest is just Amy Adams as a fat sucking vampire or Shawn Ashmore gaining superpowers by touching Clark during a lightning storm. You learn to savor the measly crumbs offered to you. Also, a superhero drama wearing the skin of a teen soap is and remains an amusing novelty.
All that said, I give Smallville five buckets of popcorn and two sodas. Run, don’t walk to your nearest Blockbuster Video and check out the Season 1 DVD boxset.
Odds & Ends
-This show is rotten with ironic echoes to Superman. For example, Lana asks Clark “are you man or Superman?”…but HAHAHAHA it relates to him reading Nietzsche OH MY GOD I CAN’T BREATHE. Later on Lex asks him “do you believe a man can fly?” It doesn’t let up.
-Clark’s backpack has a skateboard on it. I both want to see Tom Welling skateboard but also never want to see him skateboard. I’m a complex guy.
-In one irritating segment, Lana talks to her parents at the cemetery with Clark in tow. Mom asks if Clark is upset about a girl. Dad asks if Clark is upset about a guy! Lana brushes it off as him having a “twisted sense of humor”. Ah, 2001, back when baselessly accusing people of being homosexual was considered a sense of humor.