Wednesday, December 11, 2013


As of sometime around the middle of last week, I have officially seen all 218 episodes of the television series Smallville. It's taken me a little while to process the finality of it (including the requisite scouring of the internet to read other geeks' thoughts on the tenth season) and it's still somewhat strange to think that I'm done, there's no more to catch up on, I am forever spoiler-proof (though, fair warning, this post will not be) and will no longer have Smallville frequently popping up in the rotation of Things I Watch on the Daily Commute.

I watched the pilot episode of Smallville when it was broadcast, in October of 2001 when I was living with my mom in New Jersey after being laid off that spring and agreeing to a marital break (that would end up in divorce) that summer. I tuned in faithfully for most of that first season, and (interpret this with what pathos as you will) it was a dumb yet entertaining bright spot in a year that I often retrospectively refer to as rock bottom. Then the following fall I moved back to Virginia to take a much better job than the one I was killing time with in NJ, and I didn't have as much time for weeknight teen soap operas. But when I bought my own place a couple of years later, and my own tv and my own DVD player, I picked up the box sets of the first three seasons of Smallville and started reacquainting myself with it. At the time, I had a couple of other friends who were watching the show live, and I held some nebulous goal in mind of catching up with them so we could discuss the finer points of the series from a comics fan's perspective. But I never quite managed to re-sync with the broadcast version. I was always a year or three behind at least, as evidenced by my viewing in December 2013 of a season finale which originally aired in May of 2011. The pop cultural moment for Smallville, if ever there was one, has since passed.

But I hung in there out of a combination of sheer stubbornness and genuine attachment, and in the process I amassed a shelf's worth of box sets which I will now own forever (and which will give me reason to hope that all next-gen successors to Blu-ray technology continue to be backward compatible for reading DVDs). My wife suggested I might make Smallville available for our kids to watch some day, and that I'd possibly revisit it with them, which is certainly true enough. The question remains open at what age I would consider the sheer amounts of cheesecake and fan service to be age-appropriate for our little angels, but I've got several years yet to figure that out (or for the coarse vulgarity of society to simply overwhelm everything and make the question moot).

At any rate, as tempting as it is to perform an in-depth examination of the entire ten-year run of Smallville, I tend to think there are so many hooks upon which I could hang such musings that it would be a full-time job (or at least a separate blog) in and of itself. It's not like I haven't posted extensively about Smallville in the past as I was working my way through (see various links scattered throughout this post, for starters), and it's also not as if getting to the end of the series caused a myriad of things to click into place and fundamentally shifted my understanding of the whole. But it was a good ending, and since I'm marking the end of my serial consumption of the show I might as well just focus in on how well the show stuck the landing.

It's interesting to think how much Smallville changed over the years. It started out as yet another melodrama on the WB overflowing with teen angst and an emo soundtrack which also happened to have mysteries and monsters and (brief) action sequences. It also borrowed a lot of iconography from Superman, although it concerned itself with examining what it would be like to be a young Clark Kent, discovering each of his powers above and beyond mortal men, slowly piecing together the lost history of Krypton, grappling with being the last of an alien race living secretly among humans, &c. Obviously as the show progressed all of Clark's powers had been mastered (or almost all; they kept delaying true flight until the bitter end, believing it should be the big payoff to the series) and he became the foremost expert on all things Kryptonian, not to mention sharing his secret identity and extraterrestrial origins with at least half a dozen people. The teen melodrama fell away as well, and as I commented on elsewhere they even pulled the trigger on getting Lois and Clark together in a permanent romantic relationship, so by the end there was neither unrequited love nor any other font of adolescent agony. By the time the series concluded, the only way to be invested in the fates of the characters was to have been following along from the start.

But for all that the showrunners allowed the heroic career of Clark Kent to progress at the same time that the emotional plots matured, they remained insistent that Smallville would never be a show about Superman, but instead a show about Before He Was Superman or How He Became Superman. That was the high concept of the premise, and to deviate from it would have been a step too far. To comics fans who wanted to see the S-shield, the red cape, the archetypal costumed superhero saving the world, this was infuriating. To anyone with a sense of how long stories should spend on prologues before moving on to main narratives, this was maddening. But it was consistent, for TEN YEARS, because it wasn't a movie or a miniseries, it was a television show that had great financial interest in running as many seasons as it possibly could. The writers tied themselves in knots within knots of pretzel logic to stay within the confines of the concept for as long as they did and still work in tons of comic book references which would normally only make sense in a world After Superman, and whether that's seen as an impressive feat in and of itself or completely pointless, I have 60 discs of proof in my possession that this was a thing that happened, on network television, for the vast majority of the 00's.

(Seriously, the Green Arrow and Hawkman characters on Smallville had a contentious relationship which very much mirrored the one they had in the comics, which is a minor bit of characterization for a couple of C-list superheroes, yet Smallville put it on screen. Smallville also, in the final season, went through not one but two different plots involving Lex Luthor's cloning technology from the comics, by combining them into one arc that ran through much of Season 10. I admit, I come down on the side of being impressed by the sheer audacity of it all.)

I think I made a passing comment earlier to Season 10 being like a victory lap for Smallville, and I stand by that, but I will acknowledge that they did a couple of clever things in the final run which I would in no way accuse of being any kind of phoning it in because the pressure to get renewed was off. One of the episodes in the back half of the season was a blatant ripoff of The Hangover, because of course the whole season was building to Clark and Lois's wedding and so there needed to be some kind of bachelor/bachelorette party riff. The structure of the episode is almost exactly like the movie: friends gather, a toast is made, and then everyone wakes up with no memory of the night before and must retrace steps and reconstruct events. The Smallville version is barely funny at all (and clearly, as a prime time show, can't remotely replicate the R-rated movie humor) and the plot is borderline nonsensical, but set all that aside. If I retroactively could, I would nominate the episode for an Emmy in costume design. When the revelers wake up the next day, they are mostly in wacky new clothes. Clark is in the same classic black suit, slightly worse for wear, but nerdy Dr. Emil and high-strung Tess are in costume as Elvis and a go-go girl. Oliver Queen is in a lime-green tuxedo with a ruffled shirt. Chloe is in a wedding dress a la Madonna circa Like a Virgin. Lois is in the same leopard-print dress she was in the night before, although her high heels have been stolen and replaced by a homeless person's boots.

OK, this is probably giving way too much credit where none is due, but I felt like the writers and costumers were collaborating to point out how one of the great things about Superman is how timeless he is. Superman has been around since 1938 and there have been great Superman stories in every decade since, from the 40's (Lois's leopard-print) to the 50's (Emil's Elvis) to the 60's (Tess) to the 70's (Ollie) to the 80's (Chloe) to the 90's (Lois again, as things come back around, plus clunky grunge boots) and through it all simple, classic Superman (Clark) endures. If that wasn't deliberate, it's a phenomenal coincidence to pick up on (even for an overthinker).

Another interesting tack taken as the show readied itself for the end was to face head-on the fact that it wasn't the end, that by design and by admission of its own concept, whenever the final curtain fell on Smallville it would only be so that it could be raised on the next act, the actual career of Superman As Superman. To a certain extent it seemed as though young, un-codenamed Clark Kent had already hit all the major high points of the Superman mythos which might beg the question as to what there would be left for Superman to do. So an entire episode was dedicated to foiling a plot in which several minor supervillains who hadn't been permanently vanquished banded together, in a direct homage to the Legion of Doom from the old Challenge of the Super-Friends cartoons. Granted, given the need for decisive victories over Big Bads in the course of ten seasons, they had to slot in the Toyman as the leader of this Legion. (I could do another couple thousand words on Superman's rogues gallery and how Smallville handled it over the years, believe me.) But the point is, the Legion of Doom was introduced as a concept toward the end of the episode, and never heard from again, with the obvious implication being that the audience shouldn't worry about post-Smallville Superman, as he will have plenty of bad guys to keep him busy in the never-ending battle.

But the thing that hit me the hardest about the end of Smallville, specifically the double-sized finale, was that they brought it full circle and made it once again all about fathers and sons, about the House of El and the Kents and the Luthors. Lionel and Lex had both been killed off in previous seasons, but between the cloning subplot and a couple of episodes with a recurring motif of an evil mirror universes, both Luthors were there for the final chapter. Lionel ended up being murdered by Lex's illegitimate half-sister, then reanimated by a cosmic god of evil to face off one last time against Clark, while Lex threatened to embrace his destiny as Clark's antithesis forevermore, until that same half-sister dosed him with neurotoxin that caused him to forget he knew Clark's secrets. Crazy comic book stuff, in other words, but intertwined with notions of twisted love and loyalty and legacies of pain. Which was counterbalanced by the ghosts of both of Clark's father figures, and Clark ultimately embracing his two families equally and finding untapped reserves of inner strength there, learning that he could be more than either Jor-El or Jonathan Kent and that in doing so he would be revering them, not disrespecting them. (i.e., Clark grows up.) In the time between discovering Smallville and finishing it, I became a father myself, and even something as cheesy as a disembodied Jor-El telling his son "The greatest honor a father can have is to be humbled by his child" can get to me.

And so with mere minutes to go in the life of the Smallville series, Clark finally reaches a state of peace with who he is, where he came from, where he needs to go and how he's going to get there, and he finally learns to fly. He punches the Lionel/evil god hard enough to vaporize him, and then puts on the red and blue tights for the first time because the evil god's home planet is about to crash into Earth and the world needs a beacon of hope. Also, Lois Lane is on Air Force One as the President is being taken to a secure facility so they can launch U.S. nukes at the evil planet. So Superman flies up to alter the course of the incoming evil planet but before he does he saves the plane. If you remember my dissection of the problems with the Man of Steel movie, you might recall how important I think the symbolism of Superman saving the plane is. I wrote that back in June, before I had any idea that Smallville had managed to latch onto that idea as well. And, honestly, it's kind of shoehorned awkwardly in there, a way to connect Lois to this outsized physical contest between Superman and AN EVIL PLANET so that she's there in the middle of it when Clark debuts the Superman look at the hour of humanity's greatest need. But still, somebody knew it was important enough that it was better to cram it in than leave it out. Smallville got it. Man of Steel seriously has no excuse.

Sorry, not to get sidetracked. For some reason Smallville felt the need to append a weird "seven years later" epilogue to the series, showing that the story they had just finished telling for a decade did in fact result in the familiar Superman status quo, including Perry White as editor in chief of the Daily Planet (Perry was introduced on the show but not in the newspaper's management) and Jimmy Olsen as photographer and cub reporter (despite Jimmy having been killed as a season-ending shocker a couple years earlier; some awkward dialogue explain this is his near-identical cousin or somesuch) and Lois as star reporter and Lex Luthor as President of the United States (loooooooong story) and ... Clark and Lois as romantically involved but still unmarried. Their wedding was interrupted in the finale (because of course it was, by Soap Opera Laws of Nature) and for some reason they never completed the ceremony, although they talk to each other about intending to, only for Clark to be called away on a Superman emergency, implying a seven-year running gag that this always happens. I suppose that allows the fans to have their cake and eat it too, with those who prefer Superman unmarried having just that and those who prefer Clark and Lois hitched seeing that it's just about to happen. Personally, I thought the whole epilogue was unnecessary, although I get that only by advancing some amount of time and getting Clark out of his wedding suit and back to the Daily Planet can they end on this rooftop image:

But the romantic in me found the not-married bit highly disappointing.

But now I've devolved to quibbling, when really my main point was that Smallville stayed true to itself for ten bugboink insane seasons and carried that through right to the end, which delivered on the most important expectations as satisfyingly as could be expected. That still somehow sounds like faint praise, and maybe more than a little conflicted and confused. But that's pretty much Smallville for you.

No comments:

Post a Comment