Smallville: Series review

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A word, first, about potential bias in this review.  There are some TV shows you only discover, or which indeed are only created, once you’re well into adulthood.  Then there are some that have the good fortune to air during a viewer’s formative years, establishing themselves permanently in the memory as nostalgia.  The exquisite ‘Batman: The Animated Series’ did this during my childhood.  Anime titans ‘Pokemon’ and ‘Digimon’ during my early teens.  ‘Smallville’ landed (pardon the pun) during my mid-late teens, quite possibly the perfect viewing age for its often soapy romantic drama, and this, coming alongside my developing obsession with DC Comics, and Superman and Batman in particular, at that age, enabled the show to take on a sort of mythological status in my mind- a privilege it retains to this day.  So with that in mind, this review is more likely to be coloured by positive bias than many of the other pieces I’ve written, or will write in future.  On the other hand, that doesn’t mean I think the show is perfect- far from it, and I hope that will come across in the review.

Kansas teenager Clark Kent has grown up on his family’s farm while hiding an array of extraordinary abilities from the world.  Learning from his adopted parents, the Kents, that he was found by them in a field close to a crashed spaceship in the aftermath of a deadly meteor shower, Clark deals with the startling realisation that he is from another planet while attempting to grapple with the complications of high school.  His longtime crush, Lana Lang, is dating school jock and bully Whitney Fordman, while wearing a necklace formed from a piece of the green meteor rock that accompanied the shower, a substance deadly to Clark.  Although taking solace from best friends Pete Ross and Chloe Sullivan, Clark is unnerved by budding reporter Chloe’s investigations into the strange happenings around Smallville, primarily the meteor rock’s ability to infect local people and give them powers, almost always coupled with a descent into evil, obsessive behaviour.  Naturally, he worries what would occur if she ever got too close to his own secret.  Meanwhile, billionaire’s son Lex Luthor sets up home in Smallville, essentially banished there by his father in order to grow as his own man, and after being saved by Clark when his car plunges off a bridge after hitting him, the two become firm friends.  Their closeness, however, is gradually threatened by Lex’s secret determination to solve the mystery of how Clark managed to rescue him without being hurt.

The brainchild of Tollin/Robbins productions and executive producers Al Gough and Miles Millar, ‘Smallville’ was originally intended to be a series about a young Bruce Wayne, until Warner Bros decided to focus on developing an origin story for the big screen instead that would eventually see life as 2005’s ‘Batman Begins’ (although a Batman origin series has subsequently made its way to television in the shape of Fox’s ‘Gotham’).  Shades of this can be seen in the series’ premise.  The doomed Clark/Lex friendship could easily have been Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent.  Keen reporter Chloe could be a young Vicki Vale.  The ultimately tragic Clark/Lana romance could have been Bruce and Selina Kyle.  In any event, the show quickly establishes its own identity as an origin fable of the boy who will become Superman, and the opening scenes of meteors striking a midwestern small town promise much about the overall tone of the series.

The show’s embracing of the Superman mythology is both its greatest strength and weakness.  In the early seasons, there’s a delight in seeing the then-rare arrival of key staples of the comics into this generally high-school-set romantic drama, from the activation of Clark’s spaceship and his gradual developing of brand new powers, to the discovery of his Kryptonian origins courtesy of both the ethereal presence (technically an AI system, but coming across more as a spiritual entity) of his biological father Jor-El and (in one of the show’s best episodes, ‘Rosetta’), the imparting of information from brilliant scientist Virgil Swann, played by the late Christopher Reeve.  The closing scenes of ‘Rosetta’, set to the strains of John Williams’ ‘Superman’ theme, lend a sense of the epic to a series that has previously followed a fairly formulaic ‘villain of the week’ pattern in the shape of the local ‘meteor freaks’.  And make no mistake: it is the ‘Superman: The Movie’ mythology that ‘Smallville’ specifically follows, from the occasional use of the music, to design elements, to plot points- in many ways, the series is an expanded retelling of that original movie in its structure.  Across the first few seasons, this gradual integration of the mythos into the show raises the hairs in excitement.

Alas, this later becomes too much of a good thing.  By season 6, and certainly by season 8/9, the show begins to feel less like an origin story, and more like an actual Superman show- which would be fine, if it wasn’t trying to be both things simultaneously.  The tone suffers, and begins, at times, to feel all over the place.  Some episodes hark back to that early midwestern innocence.  Others feel like a remake of ‘Lois and Clark’- again, no bad thing, if that were what the show was purposefully going for.  The setting of many of the later episodes primarily in Metropolis contradicts, if nothing else, the very title of the show, and the reliance of many later episodes on SFX and limited sets over the gorgeous locations and exteriors of the Kent farm creates a certain ‘stilted’ quality.

The introduction of various characters from the mythology, meanwhile, becomes the very definition of hit and miss as the series goes on.  There are many triumphs.  The ‘Smallville’ version of Lois Lane, introduced in season 4, is one of the best incarnations of the character ever put to screen.  Early appearances from other DC heroes are well-handled; and great fun; The Flash, Aquaman.  The villains are, on the whole, excellently done; James Marsters’ Brainiac, Callum Blue’s Zod, Sam Witwer’s (though very different from the comics character) Doomsday.  But other nods to the source material backfire.  Justin Hartley’s Green Arrow, though a good character in and of himself, is not the Oliver Queen of the comics, clearly designed, instead, to be the show’s version of Bruce Wayne, except that the producers presumably couldn’t get the rights to him.  The arrival of some DC characters begins to feel like overkill by the last few seasons (anyone who can tell me what business Booster Gold, Blue Beetle, or the Suicide Squad have being in a Superman series, please do write).  And the less said about season 4’s ‘Mikhail Mxyzptlk’, the better.  The series’ interpretation of Jor-El, meanwhile, voiced by Terence Stamp, has to be one of the most continually maddening features of the series.  Written inconsistently and designed more as a plot device than a character, he ranges from stern, oppressive and borderline evil in the early seasons, to seemingly proud and loving by the finale, flip-flopping between the two multiple times in the interim.  Marlon Brando’s take on the character, this is not.

Back to the positives, however, and ‘Smallville’ is blessed with a fantastic cast.  Leading man Tom Welling remains my favourite interpretation of Superman to date, extraordinarily handsome (which lends credibility to virtually every young female character in the show falling over themselves for him), the right physique (to put it mildly) for the character, and with a ‘purity’ to his portrayal, simultaneously innocent and wise, that makes us believe he will grow into a superhero who is an inspiration for millions.  Not that he can’t play darker, of course.  One of the best aspects of such a sci-fi show is that it allows all of the cast the opportunity to play different characters across the series, and Welling really gets to show his stuff when these storylines come into play.  Whether an amoral Clark hooked on red Kryptonite, evil doppelgangers Bizarro and Ultraman, or, best of all, Clark’s bodyswitch with Lionel Luthor (his best performance in the entire series), Welling does evil so well you sometimes wish these were the primary characters he was playing.  He’s at his best in the first half of the series, peaking in season 5, but remains a strong, steadfast presence right to the end, and the moral core of the show.

Kristin Kreuk’s Lana is…complicated.  The actress herself (especially in the later seasons) is terrific, going from wide-eyed innocent to proxy Luthor by season 6, and looking and sounding almost like a completely different character by then.  We’re enchanted by her star-crossed romance with Clark early on, her parents having been killed by the very phenomenon that brought him to Earth, yet the arguable source of that pain becoming the love of her life, while her borderline descent into villainy later allows her to spar brilliantly with the likes of Lionel and Lex.  But the character, as written, dangerously undermines this.  Passive-aggressive to the point of infuriating by season 3, Lana becomes so self-righteous and hypocritical over Clark’s keeping of secrets from her as to be anathema to many scenes, with our hero only getting to stand up to her a small handful of times across the whole series.  At least in seasons 5-7, when the character is flirting with outright evil, this feels appropriate.  When we are later expected to buy her as the hometown first love again, it’s problematic, to say the least.

Michael Rosenbaum’s Lex is one of the show’s triumphs.  Empathetic (indeed almost to the point of making us root more for him than Clark), he lends a tragic pathos to the story as circumstance after circumstance grinds him down deeper towards villainy, despite his longing for genuine friendship and acceptance.  Rosenbaum brings a quiet honour to many of his early appearances, in some respects the most noble character in the show next to Clark and the Kents, before later allowing himself to be genuinely menacing as the Luthor of the comics comes to the fore.  His final regular involvement in the show, season 7, suffers from a sense of things being rushed to manoeuvre the character into position as the arch-foe of the mythology, but the journey towards that point remains compelling, even if the denouement is hurried.

Allison Mack’s Chloe is the breakout hit of the series.  Originally seeming destined for a tragic fate, given her absence from the comics, she takes on a whole new lease of life after discovering Clark’s powers in season 4, becoming his ‘superhero BFF’ in one of the best, most genuine character evolutions in the series.  We trust her implicitly as a custodian of Clark’s secret, as she settles into one of the warmest presences in the show, all the more remarkable for her flirtation with betrayal in the early seasons over her jealousy of the Clark/Lana romance, and Lionel’s manipulation of this angst.  She’s the antithesis to Lana’s defensive, confrontational attitude as the series goes on, and a particular highlight for this reviewer is her calm, subtle, faux-polite warning to her to stop dragging Clark down in Season 7’s ‘Wrath’.

Erica Durance’s Lois Lane is the best thing about the later seasons, when the show is threatening to drift completely away from its roots.  Her early rivalry with Clark is enjoyable enough, the mutual (surface-level) dislike between them all the more rewarding once it gives way to romance, but it’s once the pair are established in Metropolis at the Daily Planet that the character really comes into her own as one of the show’s best assets.  Consistent, moral, determined, strong yet with believable hints of vulnerability, and just downright fun, she’s everything Clark’s relationship with Lana isn’t.  Healthy, organic, mutually-respectful and loving, and relatively angst-free.  Welling and Kreuk may have the more intense romantic chemistry, but Welling and Durance have the warmer one.  Both wholly believable in different ways, but with the latter free of the angst that poisons the former, and when Clark declares to Lois in season 9’s ‘Salvation’ that she was the person he always needed in his life, it’s a line that feels well and truly earned.

Sam Jones III’s Pete Ross is perhaps the mythology character poorest-served by the series.  Not because of the actor, who brings a likeability and, for want of a better word in a show about superheroes, ‘normality’ to the show, but because of the writing, and the general arc.  Early on, Pete’s discovery of the secret at the start of season 3 provides one of the most novel changes to the series status quo, coming not in a premiere or finale, but tucked a few episodes in, therefore coming as more of a genuine surprise to the audience (although the relative ease with which Clark comes clean to him makes one wonder why he agonises for so long over being honest with other characters).  It brings a refreshing new dynamic to things, the prototype, in a sense, to how Chloe’s discovery alters the show later on.  It’s a shame Jones leaves after season 3, not because of the timing of the departure (it feels like the right time to shake up the cast a little), but because his only return, in season 7’s ‘Hero’, sees him become more of an antagonist.  This works fine for Jonathan Kent in season 10, given that we see plenty of the ‘real’ Jonathan both before and after, but here, for Pete, it leaves something of a bad taste in the mouth- one of the key moments the show falls short for this reviewer.

It would be no controversy to call John Glover the best actor on the show.  His Lionel Luthor is the most compelling character in the series, stealing virtually every scene he’s in, and bringing out the best in all the other actors.  It’s no coincidence that Welling and Kreuk shine brightest in their interactions with him (witness Clark’s spine-tingling confrontation with Lionel in season 5’s ‘Mercy’, a scene that arguably sees Welling at his most dangerous, despite playing Clark’s regular self), while the interplay between Glover and Rosenbaum is probably the best villainous double act in television, the power-play between the two characters genuinely gripping.  In one of the series’ best elements, Lionel shifts gears completely in season 4, evolving into a wholly different character, to the point where one of the key moments of Lex’s evolution that the audience longs for after his father’s cruelty in the early seasons becomes a tragic moment by the time it finally occurs in season 7- no mean feat.

Laura Vandervoort’s Kara, like Pete Ross, is another character whose development suffers due to her general arc.  A laudable shakeup to the cast when introduced in season 7, she unfortunately never quite gets the chance to come into her own in a season packed with so many other storylines that favour the existing, longterm characters.  Ideally, her introduction to the story, and Lex’s pursuit of her secret, a novel echo of his obsession with Clark in season one, would have been the predominant arc of that season, but instead it becomes lost among the others.  Vandervoort herself, however, comes perhaps second only to Welling in her portrayal of a noble, moral, still somewhat innocent heroine, fitting given the characters’ blood tie (although, like Welling, when given the opportunity to play dark, namely channelling James Marsters’ Brainiac when the latter impersonates her in the season finale, she seizes it with relish).

John Schenider and Annette O’Toole, meanwhile, are the beating heart of the show, a believable guiding light for Clark, and the sort of parents the audience would feel blessed to have in real life (with some occasional exceptions- Martha’s chastisement of Clark in season 4’s ‘Unsafe’ for getting married while under the influence of red Kryptonite is a misstep).  They’re the most grounded characters in a show teeming with the paranormal, and lend a sense of authenticity to its world.  We feel these extraordinary things are happening in a very real place when Jonathan and Martha are on screen, and the two are sorely missed in the series’ later seasons (although their return is one of the very best things about the finale).

Lastly, Cassidy Freeman as Tess Mercer.  Brought in only in season 8, she could so easily have been Lex-lite, a cipher designed solely to take his place as the show’s villain.  But thankfully, the writers take a less predictable route, and, especially in Freeman’s hands, she becomes one of the most poignant, nuanced characters of the whole series, genuinely longing to escape a dark destiny and step into the light of Clark, Lois, Chloe et al.  If this reviewer has one major criticism of the finale, it’s that Tess’s only final interactions in that story are with villains, wholly removed from the joy of the wedding being attended by the other characters, before meeting her final fate.  It feels unfair (though her final scene with Lex is certainly powerful, however dark).

Elsewhere, among a vast array of guest stars, some notable performances stand out.  Sarah Carter’s Alicia gives the show one of its most poignant arcs, that of a troubled woman trying to reintegrate into society after a crime and convince those around her she’s changed for the better.  Jane Seymour’s Genevieve Teague is one of the series’ more enjoyable guest villains, sparking nicely off the Luthors, bettered only by the obscenely good James Marsters as Milton Fine/Brainiac, a cunning and manipulative character if ever there was one.  Callum Blue’s Zod is not the one-dimensional stereotype the character has traditionally been in popular culture, managing to engage us for an entire season when it would have been so easy to write the character as one-note (watch his instant regret after murdering Faora in season 9’s ‘Sacrifice’- breathtaking).  Meanwhile, Alisen Down as Lex’s mother Lillian, appearing to him primarily in dreams, is superbly, creepily ambiguous as to whether she’s trying to pull him back from a dark path, or subtly push him towards it.

The overall story structure of the series, minus a few missteps, is highly enjoyable.  Season 1’s slice of midwestern Americana is a beautiful fable of a seemingly ordinary boy discovering he’s someone extraordinary.  Season 2 introduces the Superman mythology as it would be seen through Clark’s eyes- familiar to us, yet strange, alien and scary from his perspective.  Season 3 descends into darkness, shattering the innocence of Clark and Lana’s early romance and showing us Lionel at his most evil.  Season 4 brings a fantasy feel to the show, with mysterious stones and evil witches, something some viewers who prefer Superman to be more sci-fi took issue with, but something this reviewer felt wonderfully complemented and deepened the existing mythology.  Season 5 takes the characters to college and the city, breathing new life into the series in a way no other season quite matches- it’s early episodes are among the most exciting and unpredictable in tone.  Season 6 establishes the characters as part of a wider DC mythology.  Season 7 sees, in a sense, the end of the show as originally envisaged, with Kreuk and Rosenbaum’s departure as regular characters.  Season 8 finally leaves behind the last vestiges of the early show (Lana) and starts manoeuvring the pieces into place to match the comics. Season 9 takes an unexpected last turn into darker territory, before Season 10 proves to be a season-long final celebration of the series’ 10 years, bringing back practically every significant character across the episodes as Clark finally approaches his destiny.

An extra mention, meanwhile, must go to the series’ soundtrack.  Aside from its excellent use of songs, often for end-of-episode reflections or montages, Mark Snow and Louis Febre provide a gorgeous score across the show’s ten seasons, Snow’s more gentle and introspective across the early seasons, Febre’s more bombastic and heroic as Clark heads towards finally putting on the suit.

Many have criticised ‘Smallville’ for lasting well after its time, the idea of a character taking ten years to come of age not ringing true.  To an extent, I can agree with them.  The show does begin to feel padded out by the later seasons, and suffers several times from a sense of not knowing quite where to go.  On the other hand, in today’s world more than ever, it doesn’t feel inherently unrealistic to suggest that it can take a decade for a person to find their feet as an adult, and in this respect, this reviewer as much as anyone can relate to Clark Kent’s journey.  Even if it feels overdue by the time it arrives, his moment of destiny is still a rewarding, uplifting moment that goes out of its way to thank longterm fans of the character (the last few moments of the finale play like the opening of a Superman movie, complete with background score).  Much like Clark’s journey within the story, there are moments of the show’s ten years where the viewer undoubtedly wonders, ‘is this worth it?  Are things ever going to get to where I want them to be?’  But they do.  In the end, they do.  And that, flawed and meandering though the journey may have been, resonates with me.

****

‘Smallville’ is not a masterpiece.  No objective critic could argue it is.  But it is made up of many moments that are, and that, for this reviewer, lends a sheen to the overall show that makes it feel like one.  It contributed hugely to my love of comics, and for that reason as much as anything else, will always be a show I look back on with love.

Christopher Moore

@Moore_27Chris

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