Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Weddings and Fight Clubs

Last week I watched a bit more Smallville, so I’m down to four more episodes to go before the end of season 6. What a strange storytelling beast this season is. I went on at length earlier about how the writers clearly wanted to do a Superman/Batman story, couldn’t, and settled for doing a Superman/Green Arrow story. But as the season rolls along, it becomes apparent that they really only had about a half-season’s worth of those kinds of episodes in mind. So while a good chunk of the overarching storyline is about Clark Kent learning about whether heroes should be proactive or reactive from a fellow costumed adventurer who is a stark contrast to him in every way, another good chunk of the storyline is about Clark hunting down superpowered monsters who escaped from the Phantom Zone due to the events of Season 5’s cliffhanger and Season 6’s resolution thereof. Cocky rich dude with a bow and arrow on one side, alien embodiments of evil from a prison dimension on the other – it’s a weird combo.

But there’s a third ingredient, too, and arguably it’s the most important one of all. One thing I’ve been almost constantly surprised by over the past decade since Smallville premiered is how many people fervently despise it. And the theory that I’ve developed is that they hate it for not being what they want it to be, although the reason it fails to be that is because it was always intended to be something else. These “people” I am strawmanning are of course comic book geeks who heard “Smallville” and “Clark Kent” and thought “Right on, an action-adventure tv series based on the early days of Superman from the comics I know and love, bring it on!” But Smallville is actually a teen soap, which uses a couple of sci-fi elements (the protagonist being a human-looking alien with powers, and various other bits of mad comic book science) to propel plots and give it a distinct flavor. As a faithful adaptation of the source material, Smallville fails miserably. As generic action-adventure, it’s hit or miss. As teen soap, though, it’s almost always firing on all cylinders. But teen soaps aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. I don’t think Smallville ever meant to fool the hardcore comic book geeks into thinking it was aimed squarely at their sensibilities. (It was broadcast on the WB for crying out loud.) But, geeks latched onto it early and then came the immense, inevitable backlash. So haters gonna hate, what you gonna do.

So, right, that third element, the teen soap stuff. This is where season 6 gets completely insane, as Lana Lang (who was introduced in the pilot episode as the object of Clark’s affection) becomes more and more emotionally estranged from Clark (they got together and broke up in season 5) and ends up in the arms of … Lex Luthor! And impregnated by him! And engaged to him! Clark for a long while is convinced he and Lana can never be together because she would never be safe considering how dangerous his life is (and the geeky haters can suck it on that point, because that is straight out of the original comic book playbook) and when he belatedly tries to see if love can really conquer all, Lana gets manipulated into marrying Lex via complicated blackmail coming from the direction of Lex’s father. And then it turns out she was never pregnant, and the explanation seems to be that Lex orchestrated a chemical pregnancy with a shady doctor to trick her into marriage! This is all unapologetically bonkers, of course, but I watched a lot of Days of Our Lives in college so I’m taking it in stride.

I admit I was genuinely surprised they pulled the trigger on this plot.
It’s interesting to me, though, from a story-crafting perspective, how the showrunners structured this patchwork season of Forbidden Romance plus Monster Hunting plus Contrast of Champions. It’s a little bit easier for me to see some of the seams as I watch back-to-back episodes on DVD, but I was especially struck by the wedding episode itself and its follow-up.

The wedding episode is 110% teen soap, wall-to-wall people monologuing about their feelings and discovering secrets and making threats and it all culminates in the exchange of vows between Lex and Lana and then a sad ballad while the bride and groom leave the church and Clark watches from the crowd and Lana looks back at him regretfully &c. There is no Villain of the Week. Clark barely uses his powers, and then in the most mundane way possible (detaching and then repairing a stuck door when his friend gets locked in a walk-in freezer) which really only happens so that Lana FINALLY (after six years!) sees incontrovertible proof that Clark is a little more than human. This would be one of the “miss” episodes on the action-adventure front, and it’s a huge deviation from the source material as Lana and Lex never had any relationship, let alone a (sham, only-in-soaps) marriage. It’s pretty unequivocally a chick-oriented episode.

The episode after that, to its credit, builds off Clark’s feelings of utter betrayal stemming from Lana actually going through with it and marrying Lex, so there isn’t a total disconnect. But it seems like an episode of an entirely different series. Clark finds out (from Ollie Queen, off-screen pre-opening, seriously where was the actor who played Ollie/Green Arrow during the second half of the season?) about a fight club that streams live deathmatches on the interwebs. Their star performer is clearly a superpowered Phantom Zone escapee named Titan – and is played, I’m 99% sure, by the professional wrestler known in the WWE as Kane. (Frankly, considering one of my good buddies used to watch Smallville a lot and is the biggest Kane mark on the planet, I was shocked he had never mentioned this episode to me before.) The emcee is a hilariously over-the-top huckster, and the ring girls are hot and scantily clad, as is one of the fight club’s security guards who is practically a parody of all bad girl imagery, combining snakebite lip piercings and strippertastic schoolgirl outfit. Lois Lane, who is now working for a tabloid as a reporter, somehow gets wind of the fight club and investigates it, and for some reason her undercover investigation requires her to wear a red vinyl catsuit. Basically I am saying this one episode had more fanservice in it than the last five or so I’ve cited combined. And the final five minutes are special-effects heavy with Titan and Clark just whaling the holy hell out of each other. It is pretty unequivocally a dude-oriented episode! And it’s plain to see that it was totally intended to directly counteract the gauzy romanticism of the episode that aired one week prior. Watching the pair consecutively makes for a nasty case of tonal whiplash, though.

But I guess that’s one thing I do so love about Smallville. It may be a teen soap that borrows (and abuses) tropes of the Superman mythology, but it recognizes that a multitude of different kinds of stories can be told within that framework, and dang if it isn’t trying to tell at least one of each kind before it’s done.

No comments:

Post a Comment