Four Color Television - SPECIAL - Always Hold on to Smallville
The Four Color Ark
Always Hold on to Smallville
Long ago the conventional wisdom was that superheroes were the domain of children’s storytelling, and even though comic books themselves grew beyond that – it took longer for other media to come around to the idea that four color characters could be used to tell complex dramatic stories. No matter how enjoyable Richard Donner’s Superman, or Tim Burton’s Batman are – there is no denying that both films were made with their tongues firmly planted in their cheek.
The comic book television series of today are infinitely more mature and sedate than their predecessors, even light hearted romps like Legends of Tomorrow or Supergirl are much more serious ventures than shows like Mutant X or Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. The modern approach is inspired by one groundbreaking Warner Bros. TV series that changed the scope of television forever: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I know, based on the title of this column you thought I was going to say Smallville – and while I will be effusive in my praise for the 10 seasons of Clark Kent growing up to become the Man of Steel I also want to fairly portray the paradigm shift that created the world we now live in.
Premiering in late 1996, just after the surprise sleeper hit of Wes Craven’s Scream, Buffy exploded onto the small screen and created a zeitgeist that propelled the nearly dead WB Television network to sudden success. The net result was that Hollywood finally took notice of the teen demographic and their incredible buying power, which shifted the way TV was marketed and the kinds of shows that got made on networks like The WB, UPN, and Fox. The teen explosion gave us Dawson’s Creek, Charmed, Felicity, The Gilmore Girls, Angel, Roswell and many more, with many of the writers and producers of those shows going on to create and produce a lot of our modern genre television. Greg Berlanti the mastermind behind Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow was the head writer on Dawson’s Creek; Drew Goddard and Douglas Petrie – the minds behind Daredevil and The Defenders were both staff writers and producers of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Buffy shifted the way TV targets an audience, it served as the proving ground for talented writers, directors, and actors that now define not just genre television but all television – and it created a very simple formula for a live action superhero show. Each season focused on a “Big Bad” whose villainy was the overarching plot of the entire season; standalone episodes were the main focus with a monster of the week – but the “Big Bad” plot would slowly unfold until it erupted at mid-season and then came to a conclusion at the end of the season. Many shows have now copied that formula, including the DC CW TV series’ and the Marvel Netflix series’.
The first show to take the Buffy formula and apply it directly to a superhero format was indeed Smallville which premiered in 2001 a little over a month after 9/11. Originally pitched as a “young Batman series” Al Gough and Miles Millar’s WB project was retooled to focus on a young Superman when it became clear that Batman was unavailable – the result was a show that took the young man who would one day be Superman and turned him into a modern teenager just trying to squeak by unnoticed with special powers Rules were set up from the get go that there would be “no tights and no flights” meaning we would spend the series focused on the more human elements of Clark Kent than the fantastical hero he one day becomes. Relative unknown actor Tom Welling took on the role of Clark Kent, being raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent as portrayed fantastically by John Schneider and Annette O’Toole. Clark’s friends in the small farming community of Smallville were made up of cub reporter/alien aficionado Chloe Sullivan (Allison Mack,) all around good guy/car enthusiast Pete Ross (Same Jones III,) and girl next door/Clark’s unrequited crush Lana Lang (Kristen Kreuk.) Making things difficult for Clark would be bad boy who hasn’t quite gone evil yet/Clark’s new best friend Lex Luthor as envisioned by Michael Rosenbaum – who has been banished to Smallville by his father Lionel Luthor (John Glover) to prove himself.
The first four seasons of the series focused on Clark making his way through High School while discovering his Kryptonian origins and developing his new powers slowly. Clark at first only has his invulnerability, his speed and his strength – the rest comes over time. Clark is given ample opportunity to test his powers as they emerge, because in a brilliant move on the part of the producers Clark and his ship crashed in Smallville the same day as the meteoric debris of Krpyton – while the radioactive bits of meteor rock known as Kryptonite are deadly to Clark – they have a different effect on human physiology. Most of the people who come into routine contact with Kryptonite are mutated by the element and gifted with amazing powers that often lead them to becoming the “freaks of the week” that Clark must stop to save his town. An early meteor freak was Amy Adams who would go on to play Lois Lane herself in Man of Steel. If this meteor infected bad guy of the week formula sounds to you like a familiar plot point, it should – in Smallville it is Kryptonite that turns random people into potentially villainous meteor freaks, but in Central City it is the particle accelerator that created the metahumans that The Flash must face.
Lex Luthor is Clark’s friend, but he’s far from stupid, and he realizes that Clark is way too close to all the mysterious goings on in Smallville; so he begins to investigate his friend. Lex will draw closer and closer to the truth about Clark as the series progresses, and this will put Clark in considerable danger. On the flip side of the coin the friends who wouldn’t dissect Clark for his secrets all eventually learn the truth, Pete learns earliest – then Chloe and then finally Lana. Chloe Sullivan’s cousin Lois Lane (Erica Durance) is introduced in season four and spends a great deal of time circling the secret herself.
Season One is a simply a “freak of the week” season that introduces us to the world of Smallville, and the threat of the Luthors. Season Two introduces more of the Superman mythos in the form of a mysterious voice named Jor-El (General Zod himself, Terrence Stamp) that attempts to exert control over Clark. Season Three reveals the true danger to perhaps the entire world is the influence the truly vile Lionel Luthor has had on his son Lex. Season Four features a plot by a cabal of rich socialites to capture a “traveler” they believed had been sent to earth who would have a storehouse of great alien power and artifacts, and ends with Clark uniting those artifacts to create The Fortress of Solitude. If you’ve never seen Smallville – these are the best four seasons of the series and Season two of Smallville is one of the finest 22 hours of television you will ever watch.
Moving beyond High School, Smallville has a three meandering seasons where Clark goes to and drops out of College, Jonathan Kent dies, Clark meets other superheroes like Aquaman, Green Arrow, Cyborg and a speedster named Bart Allen. Lex gets possessed by the spirt of General Zod which is able to escape The Phantom Zone, Lex gets freed from that possession, marries Lana, finds yet more weird prophecy from the rich people cabal that leads him to discovering the Fortress of Solitude and Clark’s secret. Lex murders his own father and then attempts to kill Clark by toppling the Fortress of Solitude on top of himself and the Man of Steel in a season finale that marked Michael Rosenbaum’s departure from the series.
The loss of Rosenbaum causes the series to refocus during the next three seasons. Clark and Lois get jobs at The Daily Planet, and it turns out that Clark wasn’t the only being launched from Krypton – a young man named Davis Bloome (Sam Witwer) it turns out is a living bioweapon better known to comic fans as Doomsday; the creature known for killing Superman. Season 8 focuses on Clark discovering Doomsday and stopping him before he can destroy Metropolis (the conceit of a show called Smallville taking place in Smallville having long been obliterated.) Season 9 of Smallville focuses on the arrival in Metropolis of Kryptonian clones from the city of Kandor lead by Major Zod who was cloned from the General himself. Lois officially learns Clark’s secret and Season 10 is spent wrapping up all of the elements (specifically the power of flight) that are required to finally take Clark Kent from being the secretive hero known as “the Blur” and turn him into Superman so that he can face the season’s Big Bad who we discover has been manipulating the shadowy rich people cabal all along, an alien despot named Darkseid whose plans for Earth can only be thwarted by Superman. After 10 years the series finale wraps up the journey to become Superman by having Clark Kent finally put on the tights and save the day, even if it is incredibly brief.
As previously stated, the first four seasons are the best. What comes after is never quite as powerful or as well conceived as the first few seasons were, but in Season 8 and beyond Smallville gets playful with the DC Universe source material and introduces The Justice Society, Hawkman, Blue Beetle, The Legion, Superboy the clone that is part Lex/part Clark, Checkmate, The Suicide Squad, Deadshot, Deathstroke, Metallo, Booster Gold, and many many more.
At its worst Smallville was a show that attempted to respect the DC comics source material and the Richard Donner Superman movies to give us a show that tried to be true to the spirit of the comics – even if it sometimes fell short. At its best Smallville gave us the definitive version of Clark’s youth and experiences coming to grips with his powers. Arrow, Flash, Legends of Tomorrow and Supergirl are the direct descendent of Smallville in many ways – not least of which being that they also shoot in Vancouver and often use many of the same actors and shooting locations. For example, the Queen Family mansion in Starling City, is the same mansion used as the Luthor Mansion in Smallville, and many Smallville actors have appeared on the new DC CW Series; most recently Smallville’s Lois Lane Erica Durance took over the role of Kara’s mother Alura on Supergirl.
One of the things that will always make Smallville stand out for its fans is the amazing casting choices the series made. I enjoy Kevin Costner and Diane Lane in Man of Steel, but John Schneider and Annette O’Toole are iconic as Jonathan and Martha Kent. When I think of Lex Luthor, my mind doesn’t jump to Jesse Eisenberg – it envisions Michael Rosenbaum. The core original cast of Smallville were near perfect, which is why there was such talk about a petition to have Tom Welling appear as Superman on Supergirl. The only real shame is that we never got to see more than just five minutes of the Superman Welling’s Clark would grow up to be.
Thank you for joining me in our brief look at the daunting ten-year experience that is Smallville, in the future we may dig a little deeper and explore the series some more – but in the present we’re getting closer and closer to the fall premieres of the CW TV series’ so it’s time to get back to the Arrowverse.
Next Week: Four Color TV Meets The Scoring Session to talk about Blake Neely’s score work across the Arrowverse AND The Flash/Supergirl crossover musical.
IN TWO WEEKS: Who survived the explosion? What does the future hold for Oliver Queen? It’s our Arrow Season Six Sneak Peek.
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