Smallville was a television series which ran from 2001 to 2011, built around a young Clark Kent’s adolescence in a small Midwestern town. While the series takes some liberties with comic book continuity, it was written around the founding principle that Superman is the hero he is because of the way Jonathan and Martha Kent (Annette O’Toole and John Schneider) raised Clark (Tom Welling). The series began with Clark’s entrance into high school, his crush on childhood sweetheart Lana Lang (Kristin Kreuk) and a “freak of the week” format with Smallville residents mutated by ‘meteor rocks’ that fell to Earth when Clark’s ship landed from Krypton – in short, mirroring the formulas of other teen shows of the time: Dawson’s Creek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Roswell. After that first season, Smallville found its own identity as Clark developed an ironic and strained friendship with future foe Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum) and met young versions of several heroes he would later serve with in the Justice League. He never flew nor wore the signature costume until the final episode, where he symbolically came of age as Superman.
With the new season of Smallville kicking off yesterday on The WB, I thought it’d be fun to go back and see what I’d said earlier. If you watched last night’s premier, then you’ll recognize that many of the themes I discussed in February have certainly been developed further and in interesting ways.
I’m also excited to see that a DVD of the first season is now listed on Amazon. What was for me a growing interest last winter has now become a downright obsession. My dedicated TV lineup this Fall: Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Smallville, Enterprise, The West Wing, Firefly.]
Smallville is turning out to be a surprisingly good show.
[Note to those who haven’t seen much of the first season but plan on doing so anyway:
This is quite long (and spoilerful) for a review. If you don’t have time, then just watch the show for three episodes, and pay close attention to Clark, Lex, and Mr. and Mrs. Kent. Don’t worry too much about the plots of specific episodes; the series is about the development and interrelations of the characters that happens parallel with the superhero vs. supervillain and high school silliness plots and subplots. Trust me, this is one of the top five shows to air on TV in a decade or two.]
Generally, I have been a Marvel Universe kind of guy, and I have no personal loyalties to any particular interpretation of the Superman cannon. Perhaps DC-heads out there may be bothered by some of the (heavy) rewriting of history that is happening in this show, but for the average viewer, that should not be a problem.
The main plots, for the most part, are set-piece comic book scenarios, with fairly predictable outcomes.
The main characters that are supposed to be in high school just don’t look like high-schoolers. Of course, that’s pretty typical for TV and film.
All that said, though, I highly recommend you see this show.
It’s all about the characters, man.
I could go on about some of the clever tensions created among all the different characters, particular that between Clark Kent and Lana(sp?). But for me, it all comes down to two particular relationships.
The first one is that between the boy of steel and his parents. The writers are quite clearly doing something deliberate and intentional with Mr. and Mrs. Kent. Last night’s episode was a great illustration of this:
Plot: Clark unsurprisingly saves a fellow student from a fall off a dam, and is not unexpectedly (for the genre) struck by lightning while the rescuee is holding an obligatory piece of kryptonite. (They were on a school geology field trip.) Result: Clark’s powers transfer to the new guy. Eventually, new guy is irresponsible with powers, scares and hurts people, and has a showdown with Clark in which Clark uses kryptonite to weaken him. During fight, also, there is some high-power electricity, and powers transfer back. End of plot.
Not terribly interesting? Well, what is extremely interesting and entertaining is what the writers decide to do with this from a character standpoint.
First, there’s the reactions of not only Clark, but of each of his parents. Clark has an identity crisis (not overblown), dad tries to reassure with “Your powers were part of you, but they didn’t define you,” while privately he is relieved. As the plot unfurls elsewhere, Clark comes to appreciate his “normalness”; he plays a two-on-two game of basketball, loses handily, and is grinning the entire time. When the new super boy on the block gets in the local paper after chucking a would-be-mugger across a street, Clark is a little unhappy; not only are his friends ooh-ing and ahh-ing over something that he himself had (secretly) done countless times, but the open and public nature of it all grates against his years of built up belief that such things should be kept secret.
You see, Clark is the ultimate “good son”. He is an honest, caring, loving, faithful, thoughtful, humble boy. He clearly got that way in part due to his parents both valuing and living these virtues themselves in an overt and deliberate way for their adopted son. In part. He also got that way because he, of his own free will, has chosen repeatedly to be that sort of person. The writing for the show supports this, amazingly enough. Anyway, mom and dad have the following primary motivations: to raise Clark to be a good man, to keep Clark healthy/happy/safe, and to keep the family farm in business and out of the hands of debt-collectors. Given this, they naturally foresaw that a child with wondrous powers would be targeted, misunderstood, envied, studied, etc., and thus raised him to not only use his powers responsibly, but also secretly, for his own sake. They clearly are in regular fear for their son’s well-being. (Yes, he is Superman, and they fear for him.)
So at first, Clark (who is the good son, but also a teenager and occasionally guilty of slips into selfishness, irrationality and foolishness in a quite normal manner) is miffed. Not only is it against his instincts, but it also hints at the idea that maybe he had foolishly cheated himself by hiding his powers the entire time he had had them. But he gets over this. He no longer has the weight of the world on his shoulders. His powers were a responsibility that he is coming to enjoy not having anymore.
Meanwhile, the new superkid has a pretty rough home life. His mother clearly loves him, but his father is a hard man who seems to never accept his son as something other than a screw-up and a reprobate (neither of which, objectively, is really at all fair). Plus, the kid has had a crush on a jock’s girlfriend; said jock at the beginning of the episode made typical gorilla grunting and thumping noises at the kid, warning him off the idea of talking to the girl under pain of a high-school bully style thrashing.
Now with these pains of teenagerdom, combined with not only newfound power, but also newfound respect and fame (thanks to the newspaper article), the kid-turned-superboy starts to make poor decisions. At first it appears that maybe he’ll handle the powers responsibly. When he boldly walks up to the girl, while she’s talking to the jock, and flat-out asks if she’d like to go out some time, you wanna cheer for him. But then the scene turns very ugly. He doesn’t just scare the jock, but chases him around the school parking lot, throwing cars. Clark tries to intervene in typical fashion, and is himself hurled across the lot and hurt pretty badly. The kid then rushes home in a panic, looking for support, guidance and protection from his parents, only to discover that his dad’s called the police and his mom is afraid of him.
Meanwhile, after he’s patched up by the local doc, Clark decides to grab some kryptonite (the writers have cleverly made kryptonite ubiquitous in the town’s environs due to the meteor shower that brought Clark to his adopted parents) and confront the superkid-gone-bad. As he says to his parents, “Even though they’re not my powers anymore, I somehow still feel responsible for them.” You know the rest.
All this begs the obvious question, “Why did this kid react so differently than Clark?” Well, the answer’s twofold. According to Clark’s dad, it’s because Clark is a good person. External evidence from seeing the interactions between the other kid and that kid’s parents, though, shows us that Mr. Kent is himself being humble, as it is also largely due to the very fine parenting Clark has received all these years.
Responsibility. Humility. Family. Courage. These are the themes of this show, cleverly folded into the mix with the teen-angst high school backdrop and with the genretypical plot structures that repeat over and over again. These, and a few more:
Friendship. Honesty. Trust.
Here’s where we get to what makes this show outstanding: Lex Luthor.
Lex is a young adult, VP or something in charge of the local Luthorcorp chemicals plant. Lex is not yet a supervillain, but he shows definite signs of heading that way. At the same time, though, he has many redeeming qualities, and so far is not even a “villain” at all. He’s very complex. To say whether he is a good person or a bad person is impossible. Most accurately, he is a man teetering on the edge. It breaks your heart, really, to see him like this. His good qualities can clearly redeem him, but anyone who knows anything about the Superman myth knows what choice Lex will make in the end. But within Smallville, Lex himself does not know, and in fact he has not yet reached a true crisis point (though after last night, it has clearly been set up).
Lex is not only brilliantly designed and written, but he is also brilliantly played. I don’t know, off-hand, the actor’s name or I’d give him more personalized kudos right here. (Just because I’m too lazy and in too much of a hurry, doesn’t mean you can’t look it up yourself in the Internet Movie Database: www.imdb.com.)
So what are Lex’s motivations? Well, at the top of the list is his complex relationship with his father, the Chairman and CEO of Luthorcorp. His father is a fully despicable man, ruthless to an extreme, callous, selfish, etc. Whatever basic paternal love he may have for Lex is rarely if ever visible. Lex hates this man, to the extent a son can hate a father. He craves his father’s respect and his father’s love, but has long known that he can never have the latter, and the former is always tainted. So he strives to constantly obey and satisfy his father in ways that will also confound and infuriate him. He will trump his father’s craftiness with craftiness of his own, trying to show that he can be more successful at underhandedness than his father, and thus, ironically, be worthy of respect. And he hates it as he does it, because he is a basically decent person at times, especially when it comes to the Clark family.
Lex has never had a friend. He and Clark refer to one another as friends, but at one point last night Lex described the relationship thusly: “Clark, you’re the closest thing to a friend I’ve ever had.” Very telling.
You see, Lex’s second motivation is to be loved in general, and specifically to be Clark’s friend. He is constantly helping or offering to help Clark. He uses his corporate power and Machiavellian Sun Tzu craftiness to protect Clark and the Kents from various mundane threats. He schemes and influences in attempts to help Clark out with his hopeless quest for Lanaís love and attention. And he confides in Clark more than in anyone else, albeit that’s not much. In return, he wants Clark to accept his help, to trust him, to be honest with him, to like him. He also wants Mr. Kent to not hate him, despite the deep animosity between Mr. Kent and Lex’s father.
Running neck-in-neck with the desire for a friend is his burning need to poke at, understand, control, manipulate and take advantage of everything that comes across his way. Lex, like his father, strives to be the master of his own fate, and understands that total self-mastery requires dominion over his external circumstances as well. To control his destiny he must control his environment. To control his environment, he must understand it and all it contains. He needs to know everything. Anomalies pick away at him like an unreachable itch.
Lex is in many ways the anti-Clark. He is crafty where Clark is simple, cunning where Clark is kind, bald where Clark is shaggy (though he seems to have recently gotten a haircut), haughty and confident (understandably, mind you) where Clark is humble and unsure. Lex is a young adult full of cynicism; Clark is a high-schooler with a basic belief in the good intentions of all persons. Both, however, are extremely good at what they do. And both are destined for greatness of one sort or another.
Lex firmly believes in his destiny, too. He just believes that it is a destiny he will create himself. A defining exchange:
In a complex chess game of counter-machinations, he has destroyed a Luthorcorp competitor by allowing the competitor’s CEO’s daughter to “steal” a false report that lead to the making of a financially suicidal investment. The daughter was also sleeping with Lex, claiming to want to work with Lex to thwart both of their fathers. Also, the investment was intended (by the daughter and her father) to be the move that would lay Luthorcorp prostrate and ready for a takeover. Anyway, upon discovering the counter-betrayal, the daughter said:
“Lex, we could have been great together.”
Lex’s response: “I plan on being great all by myself.”
It was a defining moment. Not only does Lex declare his life-view, but he also manages to: a.) win his father’s tainted respect, b.) increase his power in the corporate world, c.) avoid a trap set for him by a competitor, and d.) punish a person who had dishonestly masqueraded as a friend.
That is Lex in isolation. Put him together with Clark and things get wonderfully interesting.
Way back at the beginning of the series, Lex was in a car accident and drove off a bridge. Clark, who was nearby, dove in, pulled Lex from the car, and saved Lex’s life. Or so Clark claims. Maddeningly for Lex, there are incongruencies in this story. Things don’t add up. The roof of the car is torn open, supposedly from the impact with the water. He has the car pulled from the water and examined by a cadre of highly-paid-to-keep-quiet experts. Complex computer models are drawn up. Private investigators are hired. He buys off (and employs for himself) a man who claims to have a growing case to demonstrate that Clark is not all he seems. (This last is important, because the “buying off” satisfies all of Lex’s conflicting needs: it protects Clark from the unscrupulous guy, it provides Lex with another avenue of information gathering, and it puts Lex in the command chair of this person’s life.) Lex also personally – but very carefully – tries to use his encounters with Clark to ferret out the truth.
The truth, of course, is that Clark tore the roof open with his bare hands in order to save Lex. In fact, in last night’s episode, computer simulations suggested that the only possible sequence of events included Lex’s car slamming into Clark at over 60mph before crashing through the guardrails and into the water.
With this bit of seemingly conclusive evidence (the most solid Lex has garnered so far), Lex decides to confront Clark. He doesn’t tip his hand and reveal why he knows, but he tells Clark that he knows the story about his rescue is not quite true. Ironically, this is while Clark is powerless, and in fact is openly exhausted from trying to fix a fence like a mortal.
Lex doesn’t even appear to have a plan as to what to do with his knowledge once he confirms it. He is, for now, just digging at the truth out of long-developed instinct. For now, he just wants confirmation of what he suspects, plus further explanation. Above all, perhaps, he wants to clear the barriers that have existed between him and Clark due to Clark’s apparent secrets.
Of course, Clark, being Superman, not only keeps people at a distance out of a need for secrecy, but also tends to keep all his friends at a bit of a distance because, frankly, he rarely needs the help of others. For most of Clark’s friends, this is not apparent; they see him as a fairly self-reliant, nice guy who is fun to have around. For Lex, though, who is always trying to help Clark, the frequency with which Clark says “No thanks” is a constant source of subtle pain. (Of course, Clark’s physical near-invincibility does not translate to imperviousness to more mundane – e.g., legal, financial, social, etc. – difficulties, but it has conditioned Clark to generally seek his own solutions to things rather than accept the help of others.)
And here’s where the tragic seed is planted firmly. Clark, due to his upbringing and his nature – both of which have mostly netted positive things for him and all around him – will not concede that anything unusual happened. Watching Lex’s face (this actor has it down perfectly, not to overt, but still clear to be read), you see that a line is being crossed, a door is closing. The usually friendly Clark and the usually self-composed Lex raise their voices. They argue. Lex wants Clark – the closest he has to a friend – to be honest with him. He needs to know, and Clark is thwarting him. Meanwhile, it goes against the soul of his being to reveal to anyone – even his “best friend” – the truth about his powers.
Clark, perhaps, should have fessed up. We know that Lex is not a trustworthy person, but Clark honestly believes that he is. One could debate this. Also, having recently reconciled himself with the loss of his powers, Clark is somewhat childishly trying to lock up his former responsibilities to the world behind him. Meanwhile, Lex, inexperienced with real friendship or love (again largely due to his upbringing), has an unrealistic definition of what it is to be a friend. He wants total and unquestioning honesty and openness. He is not by nature honest or open about anything, and has a hard time seeing the gradations that exist in normal human relations.
Later, when Clark is laid low by the rampaging superkid, Lex visits him. Clark is initially combative, picking up the argument where it left off, but Lex, seeing Clark bandaged and bruised, is satisfied that Clark has been totally honest with him. Ironically, Lex decides to place complete trust in his friend and tells his paid experts that they must have got it wrong, despite their assurances of certainty.
This is the setup for a huge fall. Eventually, some episode, Lex will learn the truth about Clark. And the fact that he had decided to completely and unreservedly trust Clark will hurt and enrage him when he discovers that his best and only friend had betrayed that trust. This will be on top of what already would have been a major crisis point in Lex’s life even without the heightened sense of betrayal.
You see, at some point, it has always been inevitable that Lex would eventually have to face a character/life-defining choice: upon eventually discovering Clark’s secret, what would Lex do with it?
This would (and will) bring Lex’s motivations into direct conflict with one another (the basic formula for good character development and story-telling). So long as Lex doesn’t know the whole truth, he can continue to try to balance his various needs: to pick at the truth and to be Clark’s friend. Once he actually achieves the knowledge he’s seeking, though, his need to know will graduate to a need to take advantage. Will he try to incorporate Clark and his powers into his worldview of enemies and properties, or will he continue to exclude Clark from the target list and just be his friend?
Well, now, on top of that crisis, perhaps tipping the balance, will be this terrible (for Lex) betrayal.
Like I said, it breaks your heart to see where this is all heading in Greek tragic inevitability. And yet…
Who knows. They’ve so completely screwed around with the Superman myth up to this point, perhaps Lex will find redemption in Smallville’s reconstructing of the legend.