In early 2013, I decided to finally catch up – via the magic of DVD technology – on a show of which I’d been a huge devotee back in the earliest years of its existence. Coincidentally, I’d picked the 75th anniversary year of Superman in which to begin my viewing, but that was entirely accidental. I just felt like the time was right to finally see how Smallville turned out.
Debuting in 2001 and featuring a Clark Kent who was a high-school freshman, Smallville lasted all the way until 2011, and that longevity meant that it was able to go the distance: The series took Clark from well-intentioned superpowered farmboy to 25-year-old Daily Planet reporter who wears thick-rimmed glasses and dates Lois Lane, which in and of itself is maybe not so amazing. It’s a journey that’s been told and retold countless times in the comics and on the big and small screens. The difference is that Smallville did so more or less in real time.
The comic-book version of Superman holds the record for the longest running superhero simply by default; he was the first one, after all. So it seems just that Smallville should hold the record as “the longest-running North American science fiction series, as well as the longest running comic book-based series, in television history.” (Thanks, Wikipedia.) It speaks to the character’s mythic resonance, this ability to remain vital and thriving, even in the 21st century.
That said, there have been other television adaptations of Superman, including one about his teenage years (Superboy, which ran in syndication from 1988-92), but none of them ever broke any TV longevity records. Cleary Smallville had a uniquely winning formula, and it’s worth exploring what just what exactly went into it: What worked, what didn’t, and why, and what ultimately the series accomplished.
The Elephant in the Room
A generally consistent series throughout its ten-year run, Smallville had the same strengths and weaknesses from the start as it did toward the end. The strengths: Conceptualization and characterization. Creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar had a clear aesthetic in mind from Day One, including strong ideas about the characterization of all the key players: Clark Kent, Lana Lang, Lex Luthor, Jonathan and Martha Kent, et al, and demonstrated a real eye for the talent that could make those ideas work. With the strong acting and the distinctly lush, warm production design, the series struck a distinct and reverential tone that always seemed pitch-perfect for dealing with an American icon.
The show’s weakness was a big one: its scripting. The dialogue, though occasionally snappy, lacked subtlety and realism – subtext was quite often simply spoken aloud, shedding that whole cumbersome “sub” aspect – and the creators seemed completely unconcerned with verisimilitude (the quality that Richard Donner so notoriously placed above all other concerns on the production of the first Christopher Reeve film). Despite the show being primarily about the Kents – who are farmers – and the Luthors – who are businessmen – no one on the writing staff seemed to know anything about the realities of farming or business. As for plot holes, pretty much every episode had several … sometimes so blatant that one wonders if they were a perverse point of pride. (In the commentary to the second episode, Gough and Millar seem downright gleeful in pointing out gaping logic gaps in their own script.)
The sloppiness of the storytelling is something of a stumbling block in assessing the show’s achievements … it’s an elephant in the room that’s impossible to ignore. Yet the show’s overall vision remains compelling, and the sheer breadth of material demands attention; at the end of the day, this is 150 hours worth of live-action Superman stories. How can a self-respecting community of genre fans ignore that? So let’s dig in.
The Early Years
Amongst the series’ other arresting qualities, one is particularly obvious, the happy result of being the first live-action Superman adaptation to exist in a post-Matrix world. The Wachowskis’ watershed film revolutionized the field of computerized special effects, and Smallville took full advantage of those breakthroughs. While a viewing of various FX shots from throughout the course of Smallville will certainly reveal the budgetary constraints (on both time and money) that its creators were dealing with, they were still strikingly far above earlier attempts. (In an interview, Christopher Reeve once noted that he was dubious about the idea of a TV series about a teenage Clark Kent precisely because he thought the FX wouldn’t be able to sell the concept, but was turned around once he saw a few finished episodes.)
The meteor-shower sequence that opens the pilot – while not without its flaws (see: the laughter-inducing death of Lana Lang’s parents) – is rather breathtakingly cinematic, and puts the series on a tier well above the previous live-action televised Superman, Lois and Clark, which did little to impress on the technical or aesthetic level, even at the time.
Perhaps moreso than the quality of the FX themselves, a key feature of Smaville was its willingness (some might say “shamelessness”) to incorporate the aesthetics of its groundbreaking precursors with very little assimilation or disguise. The early seasons of Smallville are quite blatant in their use of Matrix-style effects to depict young Clark Kent’s super-powers; the stylized slow-motion that the Wachoskis made so famous is all over the first 50 or 60 episodes. It never goes away entirely, really, and later years actually extend the “homage”: We learn that some Kryptonians loved to wear stylized, black trench leather dusters, and we get more than one episode set inside a virtual reality scenario.
Smallville also happily borrowed from other shows as well in its attempts to delineate Clark Kent’s high school career. The pilot’s clever twist to the Superman myth was this: Due to a Kryptonite meteor shower over the town of Smallville twelve years earlier (the same cataclysmic incident that brought infant Clark to earth via spacecraft), this small American town was now riddled with irradiated humans, many of them teenagers, most of them psychotic, and all of them possessed of superhuman powers, making Clark the only one capable of stopping their various criminal rampages. While much of the set-up was steeped in Superman mythology, the weekly plots – in which Clark and his plucky fellow teens (Chloe Sullivan, Pete Ross and Lana Lang) faced supernatural threats in the halls of Smallville High – instead owed quite a bit to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Beyond the Matrix-inspired FX and the Joss Whedon-esque spin on the action, there was a third striking wrinkle to Smallville: It was a teen drama. That perhaps doesn’t immediately seem quite so significant; Buffy was too, after all. But where Whedon’s teens were wry and witty, self-aware and self-deprecating, the teens of Smallville owed their characterization more to shows like Dawson’s Creek and Felicity. Longing stares, meaningful pauses, tentative declarations, tearful confessions, impassioned accusations, self-righteous monologues … all of these were staples of the young folks of Smallville, and (with the usual exception of the acerbic Chloe Sullivan), always without a trace of irony. Early Smallville is classic “pretty people with problems” TV.
This last was, I think, the most brilliant twist on the part of Gough and Millar. After all, what have superhero comics been for decades, if not soap operas about pretty people? And while mainstream funnybooks have often rightly come under feminist fire for the double-standard inherent in its use of “idealized forms” – i.e., male characters conform to male ideals of ruggedness, strength and bravery while the females conform to (often ridiculous) male ideals of attractiveness, beauty and sexuality – Smallville can scarcely be accused of the same bias. Yes, its female actresses are gorgeous and sexy by the criteria of any self-respecting male gaze, but the show’s men seem cast as much to cater to a female ideal of male beauty as anything else. More than any previous actor cast as Superman, the 24-year-old Tom Welling who appears in the pilot episode of Smallville as 15-year-old Clark Kent is surely the most doe-eyed and sun-dappled of them all. I knew several female viewers of Smallville back during the early days of its run, and none of them had a bad thing to say about Welling’s looks, yet I’ve heard more than one male comic-book fan criticize the actor’s fey, male-model “pretty boy”-ishness as being completely inappropriate for the character of Superman, and the complaint fills me with glee. Decades of female superheroes molded to conform to male standards of beauty brings forth not a single complaint from male readers, but one example of the reverse, and it’s time for boycotts.
In short, I simply love that the Clark Kent of early Smallville is so defined by the female gaze. And it wasn’t limited to the casting of male model Tom Welling; the cheeky exploitation of Welling’s looks went further. Many early episodes, including the pilot, were constantly finding reasons to depict Welling shirtless – far more often than any of the female cast were asked to participate in anything of comparable titillation value. (No accident that the scene from the pilot – in which Clark is tied up with a red “S” painted on his bare chest – became the most prevalent early promotional image for the show, and the cover of the Season One box set.) This tendency to play more on the sex appeal of the male lead rather than the females was a striking feature of the show, rare amongst contemporary WB programming (at least that I remember), and it lasted almost throughout the entire first four seasons (the “high school” era). I genuinely think this was brilliant. What a great, simple, obvious means of increasing the character’s mainstream appeal. It feels so true, so just … so much the American way.
Welling’s appeal as an idealized male fantasy went beyond his absurdly perfect features. The characterization of early Clark factored into the equation as well. Welling infused the role with much emotional angst and brooding melancholy, always seeming on the verge of leaping Wuthering Heights in a single bound. A lot of viewers didn’t recognize this as a deliberate choice on the part of the series creators, and tended to disparage Welling’s acting talent as a result. In fact, Welling was perfectly cast for Smallville’s particular vision of the character, as was (nearly) everyone else on the show.
This was the other major weapon in the show’s arsenal – the thing that Smallville managed to nail time and time again, from the very start and right up to the end: Casting. Besides Welling (who ultimately proved to be second only to Christopher Reeve in terms of convincing live-action Supermen), the series also found dead-on perfect actors for Lex Luthor, Ma and Pat Kent, Maggie Sawyer, Morgan Edge, Perry White, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Supergirl, Jor-El and Lara, Zod … the list goes on and on. The creators even did a bang-up job when the show began to expand to other corners of the DC Universe, casting pitch-perfect versions of Martian Manhunter, Vic Stone, Granny Goodness, Aquaman, and even the Wonder Twins. (Plus, good lord … Pam Grier as Amanda Waller? Who could ask for more?)