Lois & Clark & Chris & Ronnie: Superboy
Ronnie: We’re back everybody, and as is customary for Lois & Clark & Chris & Ronnie between seasons of Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman we’re going to be taking a look at a different adaptation of Superman. This time we’ve chosen Superboy, the Superman show you probably never heard of and never knew you needed until now. Running from 1988-1992, Superboy existed almost up until the premiere of Lois & Clark. In fact, Superboy star Gerard Christopher allegedly secured the role of Clark Kent until somebody realized he had already played Clark Kent. The series came at an interesting time because the comics had just erased Superboy from continuity, instead professing Superman began his superhero career as an adult. The result is a strange, malformed TV show that underwent multiple revamps, recasts of both Superboy and Lex Luthor, settings changes and the like. But me and Chris are nothing if not connoisseurs of misfits–we’re doing a Lois & Clark retrospective in 2022–and while I cannot speak for him, I will say I was slightly charmed by the three episodes we sampled. We’re doing the Season 1 premiere, a midseason college basketball point fixing episode, and the finale. Who knows, if we get enough positive feedback on this we’ll explore other seasons, such as the one where Clark becomes a paranormal investigator before The X-Files was a twinkle in Chris Carter’s eye.
1X01 “THE JEWEL OF TECHACAL”
Rarely a good sign.
Ronnie: “The Jewel of Techacal” isn’t an origin episode per se, though it nonetheless sets up the premise, setting and characters for Superboy. I still was taken aback by how in media res it is, because in under two minutes we’re introduced to Clark, Lana Lang, T.J. (think Jimmy Olsen meets Pete Ross meets a static shot of a jar of mayonnaise), Lex Luthor and his male companion Leo. Lana’s dad is a professor who’s brought home a Mayan artifact. Said artifact has the same effect on Superboy as kryptonite does, if kryptonite exists in this universe yet. I won’t mince words: this is pretty fucking terrible, and it’s terrible in a way that makes me long for the relative competence of Lois & Clark. I think I speak for Chris when I say the acting on that show is pretty good, sometimes bordering on very good in certain circumstances. In chat Chris compared Lex and Leo to porn actors, whereas I’d go so far as to say they all belong in Shuster Girls Gone Wild rather than television meant for people. There’s no other way to put this: rather than coming off as menacing, Scott James Wells’ (nice political assassin name) Lex Luthor just seems gay. Pretty fucking gay. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s like Superboy’s main threat is Cedric and Bob from Seinfeld. It’s hard enough taking things seriously with the Superman IV-esque special effects.
He looks like if you raised your arm he’d reflectively flinch.
A lot of the 22 minute episode is about Lana and Professor Lang’s strained relationship, and it’s difficult to care when you have no prior investment in the characters. Lois & Clark didn’t dive in head first with Lois’ dad augmenting boxers with robot parts, yeah? It’s such an odd approach. Why this first episode? Lex and Superboy have a familiarity with a one another and yet Lex calls him “the one they call Superboy” like he’s a fucking space alien. Lex and Leo are straight out of a David Decoteau film without hint of irony. Our Boy of Steel has to tail them and cause a crash so authorities can recover everything. Professor Lang survives his ordeal and Lana thanks Supeerboy rather than modern medicine.
…and the same applies to his Superboy portrayal.
Chris: Wow, where to begin? So yeah, there was this era in the late 80s and early 90s when cable and UHF had dramatically increased the number of channels and there was a sudden need for a lot of television for channels that didn’t have a lot of money. What we got was, among other things, a bunch of shitty shows that tried to grab attention by cashing in on name recognition. There were shows based on Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street, and War of the Worlds (I used to watch that one) and scores of others I can’t remember. The best of this crop was far and away Star Trek: The Next Generation, and while I haven’t seen all of the lame tie-in shows of that era, I’m still confident that Superboy ranks among the worst. Those other shows all had cheap, goofy elements (yes, even TNG), but the pilot of Superboy doesn’t look any more polished than your average YouTube fan film. It’s shockingly amateur.
Let’s start with how the show takes place in Florida. That’s because that was the cheapest place to film, fine, but there’s no explanation as to why Clark, Lana, and Lex are all going to college together in Orlando, Florida. Superman is universally known to be a product of Smallville and Metropolis, so from a fan perspective randomly sending them to Disney World with no explanation is really weird, especially when a couple of ADR lines could have given some simple context. And I’m not a stickler for fidelity to the source material, I’m not the guy yelling about how Hank Pym created Ultron, not Tony, it’s fine to do it your own way. But Superboy only works if you bring outside knowledge to it. This isn’t an origin story the way L&C’s pilot was, it doesn’t set up or explain anything about the world. Lois, Lana, Lex… T.J., they’re all just presented as if we should already know who they are and what their relationships to one another are. It’s not even the first day of school or something, where certain characters can meet for the first time and others can look surprised and say what are you doing here to one another. The show only works if you already know who everyone is, but if you already know who everyone is, it doesn’t make a lick of sense.
I don’t say this lightly: Superboy has real Pumaman energy.
It would be both cruel and accurate to say that “The Jewel of Techacal” doesn’t have a single decent performance or sequence. Lex is really bad, really, really bad. I guess they’re going for that evil preppie type that was big for a minute with the Revenge of the Nerds and Caddyshack movies, but while Scott James Wells looks enough like a shitty fraternity scumbag, he’s nothing like Lex Luthor. This isn’t a person with any power or authority. He’s not even particularly smart; he just breaks into a room in an office building and drives away in his buddy’s sister’s car. Also, he’s one of the worst actors I’ve ever seen on a TV show. Also shockingly bad is John Newton as Clark/Superboy. He looks nervous every time he’s on screen and actually appears to recoil or flinch after some of his dialogue. As for the action, I’ll say this: Superboy’s big opening involves a prop plane with landing gear that won’t deploy correctly, so Superboy flies up and straightens the wheel out. There’s no fire or smoke, it’s not a 747 or space shuttle, and it’s not crashing or anything. It’s a prop plane circling a small runway, with faulty landing gear. And it still looks bad.
Odds & Ends
-In terms of comic book references, there’s more than a few. The college is named Shuster after the Superman/Superboy co-creator, the Siegel Arena is named after the other co-creator. T.J. is the son of Perry White and places such as Smallville and Metropolis are mentioned in dialogue.
-Lest you worry about John Newton, he failed upwards to a season long role on Melrose Place and 42 episodes on The Untouchables. Hey, it ain’t syndicated.
-Instead of being a scientific genius or a billionaire industrialist, Lex Luthor is… senior class president.
-The writer of “The Jewel of Techacal” was 73 when it aired, one year younger than Siegel and Shuster were at the time of shooting. How about some fucking youth on the Superboy writing staff?
1X08 “THE FIXER”
Ronnie: This episode has no larger implications within the canon of the series, but I wanted to pick what a “run of the mill” Superboy was like, and also I found the prospect of the Boy of Steel running afoul of college basketball profiteers utterly hilarious. You know what, the show doesn’t disappoint; “The Fixer” crams in a whole lot of absurd nonsense into 20 minutes of television. It’s a marked improvement over the first episode. That said, it’s still terrible. As is to be expected, Lex’s scheme du jour is fixing basketball games. Luckily for him, he has blackmail on the star player, “Stretch”. Lex has photos of him smoking a joint–that is, a marijuana cigarette-at a party. In reality there’s no way a team would cut or reprimand their star player for doing drugs. In all likelihood they’ll sweep it under the rug, thus inviting hypocrisy charges because regular students do not receive the same consideration. That this is the big plot crux is what makes the episode so amusingly quaint and watchable.
To bring us back to the homosexual undertones of the pilot, here they’re just tones. Like, there’s a pool scene where Lex is pawed at by girls but he shows no interest. His eyes light up when Clark is there (calling him “my dear boy”), and when his male companion Leo shows up in a goddamn banana hammock and a captain’s hat, I’m like, pause no homo. I get that it’s customary for Lex to have a dumb sidekick, but we didn’t see Ned Beatty in a speedo. The country would revolt if that happened. You can, and I have, take any random screenshot for this scene and tell your friends it’s from gay pornography and they’ll believe you. Then they might wonder why you’re sending them shots from porno tapes, but that’s neither here nor there.
I mean, come on.
Superboy’s participation is minor yet very Silver Age as he susses out another man on Lex’s payroll: the referee. Superboy refs in his stead, and while it’s a missed opportunity in that they don’t have money to do anything novel with his powers, it’s still a left field twist that again would not be out of place in a Superboy comic book. Sure, he’d probably be interceding between two teams of gleep glops to determine the fate of a world, but I’ll take what I can get.
Chris: I’m gonna switch sports to describe this episode. Imagine a batter up at the plate, who swings so early and so wildly at a pitch that he spins completely around before the ball gets there and accidentally hits a homerun. It’s an impossibly entertaining episode of television just because of how many strange and wrong choices it makes. Ronnie covered the sexually omniverous “Lex surrounded by bikini babes while being attended to by a greasy beefacke” scene, as well as the hamfisted ant-drug message that lines this Superboy up with other “very special episode” shows of that era. It’s all very weird, and the staging has to be seen to be believed. The Lex scene is obviously shot at a hotel pool, complete with deck chairs and umbrellaed tables for outdoor eating, but there are no extras as bathers or diners, so it’s got an eerie Omega Man civilization-in-ruins vibe. And a sequence where Lex berates Stretch is so obviously and awkwardly blocked to set up a pratfall that the actors may have well been actively looking for their marks on camera.
It takes more than being an asshole with a whistle to be a referee, Superboy.
But I really want to talk about the racial politics of the episode. It turns out the basketball squad is almost all white, which is less surprising than it might first appear because if sports movies have shown us nothing else, they’ve really hammered home just how far southern teams will go to not integrate. What’s more troubling is that it turns out that along with poor Stretch, Lex has also flipped another member of the team, Moose. Moose is the only black member of the team, and he’s not being blackmailed, he’s just greedy. Stretch is afraid of losing his scholarship, whereas Moose wonders how much Corvettes go for. If that weren’t awkward enough, after Superboy neutralizes Moose, and teaches Stretch to straighten up and fly right, we learn that Lex has a ref in his pocket too. This guy doesn’t take chances. Guess what color the ref is? The opposing coach is black, and he doesn’t run onto the court and smash anyone’s knees with a lead pipe or anything, so I guess that’s something. But how do you not make the crooked ref white, or have both refs be black or just have more black guys on the team? How about a speaking role for a single black character who isn’t crooked? I know this is 1988, but Jesus, In The Heat of the Night had long since been released.
This heady mixture of weed panic, sexual confusion, and oafish racism all comes to a head in the basketball game, a sequence that asks “Do you believe a man can float while also blowing a whistle and calling traveling?”. Like Superboy’s repairing the busted landing gear in “The Jewel of Techacal”, “The Fixer’s” dramatic climax Superboy action is hilariously low rent. That said, the idea that Superboy would become a kind of celebrity fill-in ref is exactly the kind of wholesome plot that the Boy of Steel fits into. His square Midwestern goodness is especially entertaining in contrast to Lex’s uncut malice. His plans to burn Stretch regardless of whether he throws the game are so purely hateful that even his Bachelor Friend Leo questions its necessity. It’s also short-sighted as hell; why go out of your way to destroy a guy who you could exploit for the rest of the season, the rest of his collegiate career and maybe even beyond? That’s why I said it was an accidental home run–it hits that perfect incompetent spot that delights instead of irritates. You spend twenty minutes marveling at the choices of the writers, directors, performers and ultimately the characters themselves. It’s breathlessly inept, with one poor, inexplicable decision tumbling onto the next, it’s impossible not to be engaged and entertained by the complete lack of craft.
Just some white kids, whiting it up.
Odds & Ends
-For a Florida college basketball team there’s a real dearth of, uh, black people.
-”The Odd Couple. Make that ‘The Odds Couple’.” quips T.J. about seeing Lex and Stretch together.
-Shuster College’s basketball team’s coach is played by James Hampton, best known as the dad in Teen Wolf. Apparently if you were shooting a project involving supernatural shenanigans on a mostly white amateur basketball team, Hampton was the go-to-guy.
1X26 “LUTHOR UNLEASHED”
Lex looks like he’s in the stages of Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
Ronnie: Adaptations of Superman sometimes seem reluctant to make Lex bald, at least initially. I think it’s because bald people are generally upsetting to look at, so TV, being the province of the pretty people, doesn’t want to give them more retail than absolutely necessary. Whatever the reason, Lex finally loses it (his hair, not his virginity) in the final episode of Season 1. Coincidentally, “Luthor Unleashed” is the final episode for both John Haymes Newton and Scott James Wells, the respective Superboy and Lex for this first season. (It’s also T.J.’s last appearance but who cares.) From what I can tell they were dismissed due to disappointing ratings and a desire to revamp things. Maybe if we do another one of these we’ll analyze the changes wrought in Season 2. Anyway, let’s move onto the show itself. Lex and his flunky dress up in ROTC uniforms and wield one of those heart attack guns the CIA tried using on Castro. Lex starts doing science in his dorm room, next thing you know the meth lab is on fire and Superboy has to save his archemesis.
Immediately Lex seems most concerned with keeping up the charade of his heterosexuality, so he expresses his love to Lana, serenades her with music, gives her flowers, all the while concealing his chromed dome. The thing I don’t get–okay, one thing–is that Lex and his companion infiltrate a military base to get a powerful gun…and they infiltrate via a powerful gun. Sure, the one they stole is heat seeking, but their weapon seemingly can affect everyone, from Superboy on! Why the need for the other weapon? It’s stupid, much like the show. Lex strikes a deal with a trio of assassins–whomever kills Superboy can have the heat seeker. The assassins consist of a ninja, a shirtless Arabian Knight and a boozehound Indiana Jones cosplayer. Look, I’m gonna leave the rest to you, Chris, because I don’t get it.
The Three Stages Of Man
Chris: So I want to see if I have this right, Lex goes from fixing Division 7 college basketball games to… stealing top secret experimental military weaponry with the intention of selling it to the highest bidder? That’s quite an escalation. Also, the military brings in a college reporter and his photographer buddy to investigate this possibly treasonous crime? That’s what’s happening, right? “Luthor Unleashed” is clearly intended to be a showcase for Scott James Wells. He gets to bug his eyes and gnash his teeth and generally act-it-up as Lex crosses the line between douchey frat boy and frothing maniac. Not surprisingly he’s not up to the task. At one point, after he loses his hair and is doing the falling-to-his-knees-cursing-the-heavens-and-screaming “NOOOOOOOOOOOOO” bit, the camera actually pans away from him and onto Leo presumably because Wells wasn’t making the sale. That they would keep the moment but actively deny Wells the screen for it is remarkably disrespectful. It’s warranted, but still, ouch.
He also falls in love with Lana for a minute? And she might also fall in love with him too? It’s confusing. I think we’re supposed to think he has a change of heart after the explosion that scares him straight until the next morning when he sees that his hair is gone and just breaks down? Maybe? This show is both ridiculous and very fast moving, a lot of inexplicable shit happens in a very short period of time. Lex trying to woo Clark’s girl, whoever it is, is pretty consistent, it’s the part where Lana just decides that the man who tried to kill her dad in the first episode may have turned over a new leaf is what’s harder to buy. Anyway, it doesn’t last long as she comes to her senses after Lex punches her in the face while screaming that Superboy stole his hair. I don’t know if it’s possible to have a show where a college co-ed gets assaulted and Superboy is nearly suffocated by a ninja using his nunchucks, but Superboy is not the one to pull it off.
“No, of course we belong at this top secret government facility. We’re STUDENT JOURNALISTS.”
Odds & Ends
-The army colonel is played by Rance “father of Ron and Clint” Howard. Having him on Superboy seems like elder abuse to me.
-The episode was directed by David Nutter, who’d go on to do a shitload of X-Files and the underrated Disturbing Behavior.
-Before the accident, Lex has his hair in a ponytail, as though he’s begging to lose it all. He looks like such a douchebag.
-After the accident he goes through three or four increasingly unconvincing pieces in as many minutes. He ends up in a cowboy hat slash blond wig for the scene where he attacks Lana and is on horseback and Napoleon hair and uniform for the scene where he sics the assassins on Superboy.
-The climax of the episode can only be described as Lynchian. Lex and Leo use the weapon on Superboy, knock him unconscious, freak out and run away, leaving the weapon for him to recover. They are last seen dressed as monks, engaging in group prayer and swearing revenge on Superboy. How any of it connects, or what Lex’s ultimate plan was, remains a mystery to this day.
Ronnie: Superboy is ill-conceived on so many levels I’m unsure of where to start. Objectively it’s terrible, failing at action, drama and humor at equal measure. It does represent the last gasp of the Salkinds’ control over the Superman property. They had some highs, sure, but they also allowed Superman III to occur. Superboy is another low, as in the name of keeping costs low (seemingly) the show jettisons most everything that people associate with Superman and Superboy. In the episodes we covered, there’s no supervillains, no kryptonite, no Kents, no real feats of strength, no Metropolis, no Smallville…it would be easier to tweak a few details to change it into not Superboy than to change some things to make it more LIKE Superboy, you know? That said, I do believe there’s an undeniable camp factor to this show. I couldn’t help from bursting out in laughter multiple times per episode. It wasn’t intentional, but so what? The laughs were still laughs.
Chris: When we decided to do Superboy we agreed that each episode should only get a couple of paragraphs because they were so short and we were doing more than two episodes. With hindsight, I wish we’d gone longer. Superboy is bizarre and chaotic, the kind of show where a whole lot of confusing things happen in a very short period of time, and to try and unpack any one moment means ignoring a whole bunch of others. I don’t know if I need to watch any more, but I’m really glad that I watched what I did, because Superboy is the kind of mess that’s engaging and surprising. It’s short, punchy, and completely unhinged. That said, I probably will end up watching more because I want to see if it’s any better with a different cast and more actual comic writers involved behind the scenes. Also it apparently turns into a proto X-Files and that sounds amazing.