Turning evil is the best thing teenage Clark Kent (Tom Welling) of the WB’s Smalllville has ever done. There is, after all, only so much corn-fed good boy-ness that the viewing public can take. Clark is the quintessential hero: wholesome, strapping, respectful to his parents, and a gentleman with the ladies, so when he goes bad, every moment is a delicious treat.

But Clark’s erstwhile boy-scout image, of course, can’t be taken at face value. He has a secret. He isn’t like other boys, and he suffers from the symptomatic fear of adolescence that when people find out who (or more appropriately what) he really is, they’ll reject him.

In last season’s cliffhanger, he was forced to deal with this fear when the “ghost” of his alien biological father Jor-El (voice of Terence Stamp) — downloaded somehow into the computer of the ship that brought Clark to earth — instructs him to embrace his destiny to rule humankind. When Clark disobeys this command and attempts to sever all links to his origin, there are dire consequences: his family’s storm cellar is destroyed, injuring his mother (Annette O’Toole) and causing her to miscarry her unborn child.

Shaken by the force of his (earth) father’s fury at his choices, Clark determines that the struggle to be “good” and “human” isn’t worth it. He dons a ring made of red kryptonite (the kind that makes him “not act like himself”) and roars out of town on a motorcycle, leaving love object Lana (Kristin Kreuk) in the dust. Oh yeah, he’s bad.

Season three opens with Clark (who is now going by “Kal,” a shortened version of his alien name “Kal-El”) reeking havoc all over Metropolis in fabulous super-villain fashion: driving hot cars, robbing banks, and doing it all with a smile. In Smallville, good is located in the country (i.e., Smallville), in plain, honest farm folks, and in helping people. Evil is flashy and ritzy; it’s the city (Metropolis), power, riches, and corruption. So it’s no surprise that when Clark hides from his pain within his alter ego, he does so in Metropolis.

Smallville is easy to criticize. It’s hokey, often contrived, and far tamer than most teen-oriented shows. In many ways, it’s more 7th Heaven than Buffy the Vampire Slayer or even Dawson’s Creek. But to appreciate Smallville, you have to shut down that overly critical part of your brain, even if you have to beat it with a hammer.

But Smallville works because it plays like a comic book come to life: it’s grand, mythical, and action-packed. The show is also unique in that its viewers know what happens beyond the series. We know Clark has to return to the good side, so he can grow up geeky and awkward and eventually work in the newsroom of “The Daily Planet.” We know Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum, the best thing on the show) becomes Superman’s nemesis. What we get here is a glimpse of a familiar journey with a preordained conclusion, so the show is all about the struggle to get there.

Evil, then, is depicted as a choice, usually born of pain or rejection. Clark, living as Kal, is a perfect embodiment of the inner battle between good and evil. In the world of Smallville, all villains have a wounded teenage boy living inside them. Lex wasn’t born evil; he’s slowly spiraling into iniquity due to the coldness of his family (especially compared to the family values warmth of the Kents). Like Clark, Lex has to decide whether to keep fighting or take the easy route and turn into what he seems “born” to be.

Lex also battles his dark side in the two-part season opener, “Exile (1)” and “Phoenix (2).” Missing and presumed dead, Lex languishes on an island, accompanied only by Louis (Ryan Robbins), who claims to have been marooned on the island for years, though we find out he’s really a projection of Lex’s own fears and paranoia. Louis is as dissimilar to Lex as Kal is to Clark. Lex is polished; he’s smooth. He is utterly refined. Louis is what pain and rage and passion look like when a person drops his composure. Louis killed his own father (Lex finds the skeleton) because they “couldn’t both live.” It’s no surprise that this frightening look into his own psyche causes Lex to finally make the decision to join forces with his evil millionaire father Lionel (John Glover); if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, I guess.

The simple good versus evil premise of the show, though effective, also hearkens back to the good ol’ days when men were the heroes and girls were the reward. Clark is nearly the only boy in a recent sea of small-screen kick-ass superheroines (think Buffy, Xena, Sydney of Alias, and Max of Dark Angel). As a result, the show isn’t as subversive as those contemporaries are and were. Despite his wholesome demeanor, Tom Welling, unlike tiny Sarah Michelle Gellar, looks like he could take care of business if he needed to. It’s just not as cool when he kicks ass. The Smallville writers appear to be slowly accepting the fact that heroes who save damsels in distress are a dying breed: Lana has started kick-boxing herself out of danger and Chloe (Allison Mack) is the real brains in the operation. The show is growing up and if it continues to evolve and progress like it appears to be this season, maybe Clark can keep up with the girls.