Over the course of the past decade there have been few shows that I have consistently enjoyed more than Smallville. As a student of television, I watch a large number of shows, including most of those that are considered the best in the medium. Objectively I have never ranked Smallville among the dozen or so best shows on TV, but I nonetheless retain an affection for this show that transcends its aesthetic achievements. What is more, I sometimes find myself looking forward to the next episode of Smallville more than the next episode of more acclaimed shows like Breaking Bad or Big Love.
Certainly there is little on Smallville to justify ranking it among the elite shows on TV. The writing is inconsistent and occasionally downright awful, though it must also be conceded that there are times when it is unexpectedly and delightfully memorable. The acting is not going to win many awards. While Tom Welling—given his uncanny resemblance to anyone’s expectations of what Clark Kent should look like—is absolutely perfect for the lead role, he will never be nominated for an Emmy or Golden Globe. While the revolving cast (only Welling and Alison Mack, who plays Chloe, remain from Season One) is adequate to the task at hand, the show is not going to win any awards for ensemble acting.
The narrative has at time been turgid, especially near the end of Lex Luthor and Lana Lang’s turns on the show. Things on the series bottomed out when Lex and Lana not only had a romance but married (with Lana pregnant with one of Lex’s science projects). I personally liked Kristen Kreuk (aka “The Cutest Girl in the World”) as Lana, but they had milked every possible aspect of the Clark/Lana romance and it more and more delayed the inevitable. We’ve all read the comics and we know who Clark ends up with. Once Lex and Lana were gone, the whole show took on new life and became the show it could have become several years earlier.
The craziest thing is that while the show has always been enjoyable, even in its leanest years, the past two seasons have been among the strongest yet. No doubt part of this is due to the change in executive producers. The creators of the series – Alfred Gough and Miles Millar – were extremely coy about bringing in elements of the traditional Superman mythos. They declared at the outset that on their series Clark would never fly and he would never wear the famous blue tights and cape.
There were two problems with this single-minded devotion to their mission statement.
First, it was fine to have the no-fly rule when everyone assumed that the show would be lucky to last five years. But after seven seasons (when Gough and Millar were still in charge of the show), the rule seemed less a principled mission statement but instead mere stubbornness.
Second, the prohibition against tights and flight would have been OK if they hadn’t also failed to integrate the Clark of Smallville with so much of what we all know about Superman and the universe he inhabits. We all know about Superman, because he is, along with Batman, the one superhero who is completely embedded in our culture. The refusal to embrace this amazingly rich cultural well became increasingly weird.
For several seasons the closest we got to Superman was winks and nods about Clark’s future. Many of the Superman elements on the show were merely subliminal. For instance, Clark persistently wore dark blue jeans along with windbreakers and T-shirts that were red, yellow, or blue, the colors of the full-blown Superman uniform. In addition, characters would make comments taken word for word from the famous intro lines to the thirties comics, forties cartoons, and fifties TV show.
Or there would be foreshadowing of the future, such as when Lois would complain to Mrs. Kent that she would never find the right guy. Clark’s mom would reply that there had to be someone perfect for her and that she would someday find him, and a half beat later Clark would enter the room.
Gradually Clark’s Kryptonian origins were explored and his destiny was increasingly hinted at, but even so the development of the mythology aspect of the show has been glacial at best. During the past two seasons, however, the pace has picked up considerably.
The key was the departure of Lex and Lana, which both created more room for new villains and made possible the inevitable romance between Clark and the gorgeous Erica Durance’s Lois. Let me go on record as saying that Erica Durance is my all-time favorite movie or TV Lois. She is a throwback to the Fleischer brothers Lois, a Lois who was hardly demure and timid, but more likely to pick up a machine gun and attack the bad guys than faint or panic. More than this, the new quartet of executive producers – Kelly Souders, Brian Peterson, Todd Slavkin, and Darren Swimmer – have been willing to bring Smallville more in line with current Superman and Justice League mythology.
A sort of imprimatur was placed upon the show by the current writing god of the DC universe, Geoff Johns, writing not one, but two episodes of the series, one of them the two-hour “Absolute Justice.” The episode featured not only Clark and recurring characters Oliver Queen (aka The Green Arrow) and John Jones (aka J’onn J’onzz aka the Martian Manhunter) – three key members of the Justice League of America – but Hawkman, Dr. Fate, and Stargirl of the Justice Society of America. (For those not familiar with the DC Universe, the JSA is an earlier assemblage of superheroes associated with an alternate earth, while the JLA is a more recent group that operates in our version Earth.)
It says a lot that Johns has been willing to write a couple of episodes. His work on the Green Lantern, the Flash, the JLA, and as lead writer on the recently concluded DC mega-event Blackest Night adds considerable weight to his involvement with Smallville. In recent years perhaps only Grant Morrison can rival Johns as the dominant crafter of the DC Universe.
The increasing convergence between the standard Superman story and Smallville is certainly one of the reasons I’ve continued to find so much enjoyment in the show. Like so many people, I love all things Superman. As a child I was a fan of the George Reeves Superman (though I now find it rather difficult and unsatisfying to watch). As an adult I’ve loved the endless recreations of superman in DC Comics, from Infinite Crisis to Kingdom Come to 52 to the rebirth of Krypton to the recent, glorious All-Star Superman of Grant Morrison. I’ve delighted in rewatching the old Fleischer brothers Superman cartoons and enjoyed the more recent appearances of the Man of Steel in his own TV cartoon series as well as in Justice League and Justice League Unlimited. I loved Christopher Reeve’s Superman films (not including Superman IV) and watched The Adventures of Lois and Clark religiously. It is almost impossible to ruin the Superman story and certainly Smallville has not achieved the near impossible (though Bryan Singer miraculously did).
Certainly one reason Superman is exciting is because it is fun to imagine possessing powers that remove almost all physical limitations. As a small child I desperately yearned to be able to fly like Superman or possess his super strength.
But Superman is equally appealing because he is the ultimate outsider. Along with his cousin Kara, he is the sole survivor of the destroyed planet Krypton (though exceptions are always managing to emerge). But he is also an outsider because his powers make him unlike everyone else on his adopted planet and because he has to hide his identity from all but a small group of friends. Clark gets to be both the coolest superhero in the world while also suffering his own form of existential angst.
Smallville also manages to succeed because of the strength of the serial, character-driven drama. If Smallville had been purely episodic, it would have been cancelled years ago. As it is, the show has had far too many standalone episodes, but overall there has been an ongoing story. Even a weak ongoing narrative instantly elevates a series above episodic shows (I frankly find episodic series unwatchable, which is why I am repulsed by the seemingly endless string of CBS police procedurals and the various Law and Order spin offs). In a serial you become invested with the fate of the characters; you want to know what happens next to them.
Watching Smallville we become invested in the characters, in Clark and Chloe and Lois and Oliver, and before that Lana and Lex and Jimmy and the Kents and Lionel and many, many others. The focus on character is evident in the way each episode is structured. Virtually no episodes of Smallville end with a bang (except for season finales, which tend to be very bangy indeed). The main conflict of a typical episode is resolved several minutes before the end, with the last few minutes devoted to the sifting of feelings and emotions by the various characters. The point of each episode is not merely what catastrophe Clark has averted, but how the events have changes and altered the relations between the characters on the show. Clark will save Lana from impending doom and then in the final minutes of the episode she will visit him in his barn, where they will spend some time processing what they have gone through.
Nonetheless, as much as I enjoy Smallville, I believe that the show has gone on too long. For a few years I have harbored the hope that the CW will ask the producers to end Smallville and then immediately proceed with a new series entitled Metropolis. It is way past time for Clark to grow up, break his ties with Smallville, learn to fly, and embrace his destiny. He should leave the farm and his barn and move permanently to Metropolis, along with Chloe and Lois. Why precisely do they continue to live in the Talon despite spending nearly all their time in Metropolis? It is long past time to take the show to the next level.
In effect, the show has already partially morphed into Metropolis. All of the major characters apparently return to Smallville only to sleep and virtually all of the story arcs are urban rather than rural. Moreover, Clark, as the Blur (formerly the Red-Blue Blur, before Clark switched to a stylish all-black superhero outfit in Season Nine), has all but embraced his destiny. In superhero mode now he even sports a bit “S” on his chest. Allowing Clark to become Superman would breathe new life into the series and make possible a host of new storylines. Although the series has been renewed for a remarkable tenth season, the Superman universe is rich enough to enable several more seasons of stories, but not if the show stays rooted in Smallville.
Ironically, the CW may have reluctantly come to realize how valuable, not to mention resilient, this series is. Many fans rightfully suspected that the network moved the series to Fridays as a prelude to cancelling it. That is the fate of most shows relegated to the death slot. When the ratings were unexpectedly strong for a Friday night series (indeed, its ratings are stronger than most of the midweek CW series), they were forced to renew the show. They now happily have one of the rarest of animals: a cult series that performs well on Friday nights. It is easy to imagine the show being renewed for an eleventh season.
But why not shake things up?
Let them all move to Metropolis. Let Clark learn to fly. Put the man in tights. Let Clark and Lois and Chloe and Oliver continue on their adventures for as long as we and they want.
It is just way too early to think about bringing this show to an end.
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