Smallville: Up, Up and Away (How They Got It Right)
by James L. Carey
I am a wreak.
I haven’t gotten out of bed, haven’t showered, I haven’t opened the curtains and certainly haven’t put pants on. I look like I just went a week hanging out with the post-mental breakdown Charlie Sheen and snorting powdery substances off of the rear portions of ladies of the night.
I am, in short, a mess. And why? Sudden death in the family? Painful break-up? No, something much…much worse; Smallville, the television show, has ended. Forever.
I know, I know, you must be as devastated as I am, surely you must because you are no doubt also aware of the unmeasurable contribution of Smallville to television, comicbooks and the very platform of episodic storytelling. I feel like I could write a novel or at the very least a doctoral dissertation (B.S. in Hero Studies) of what Smallville did and here more than at any other time I feel an immense wanting for the skill of a true writer, that is how seriously and deeply I am trying to convey to you the passion I have had for this series.
I can remember my first encounter with the show as I walked past a city bus with the long billboard emblazoned on the side showing the name of the show in rough-edged lettering like a faded advertisement painted on the side of a barn you might see from the freeway. A dark cornfield stretched from end to end and a youngish man hung from a scarecrow’s perch, a large red “S” spray-painted across his chest. I’d like to lie to you and say that my 21 year old self experienced the sweet taste of fanboy rapture, but I can’t, that would be a lie. The first thing that went through my mind was, “Smallville? I wonder if these WB network twits know that name is from the Superman comics? Stupid network.”
A day and a Yahoo! websearch later (this was 2001 people, we used to use Yahoo) I was astounded to find that this was a brand new show about…Clark Kent of all people. Not Superman, Clark Kent.
The idea seemed kind of ludicrous to me. The thought never occurred to me that anyone would actually make a television show solely about Superman, one of my beloved DC heroes (where you think the title of my blog comes from?), not in this age of teeny nighttime romance shows and ceaseless procedural cop/medical dramas. The other reason it seemed like such an outlandish concept was the era of Superman’s life that was the focus. His awkward teenage years. Awkward teenage years? Superman didn’t have awkward teenage years, I thought to myself. He was like Jesus, very much like Jesus, but mostly like Jesus in that he was a baby, then a savior, that was it, there wasn’t anything in the middle. If there was than it certainly wasn’t interesting.
The comics dealt with a young Superman as pretty much a smaller version of the full grown model. He knew about his origins, he had all of his powers, he had an alter-ego, “Superboy”, and he even had a smaller version of the blue jumper and cape. To be young is to be unsure of your place in the world, your path, conflicted. How could Superman be conflicted?
Early on, Smallville showed me that not only could Superman have a past, but that it was Clark Kent who had the past, not Superman. The idea that the character we were delving into was Clark and not the Big Blue was pretty revolutionary for me. I was a huge fan of comicbooks as a visual medium and storytelling device, but I wanted to see some multi-colored ass-kicking at the end of the day. But Smallville showed me there was so much more.
For starters, they showed that the mythology could be modernized and added to which made it more relevant and human, gave it depth beyond the two-dimensional page. The Superman origin story is a primarily Caucasian one, but the show cast a young African-American actor as Pete Ross, Clark’s best hometown friend and a young woman of Chinese/Dutch descent as Lana Lang, Clark’s high school sweetheart. They placed Lex Luthor as a Smallville resident himself (future memory alteration no doubt on the horizon) and introduced a completely original character, Chloe Sullivan, a Smallville version of Lois Lane (later to be revealed through many teasings that they were cousins).
At the beginning, the idea of Chloe bothered me. She was a made-up character in a mythos that had 70 years of characters to choose from, she wasn’t Lois Lane, she wasn’t that impor…hey, that blonde girl is a pile of gorgeousness wrapped in a bow of quirky awesome, and that was the length of time it took me to get over Chloe. I’m fairly certain I spent most of 2002 madly in love with her. It was a slow year romantically, okay? Chloe proved so popular (and beautiful, did I mention that?) that she jumped the divide of television of comic and made her full-fledged DC appearance in issue 893 of the real deal, Action Comics.
From the beginning we saw Clark Kent as a young MAN whose biggest concerns were trying not to be the class dork, trying to get Lana Lang to notice him, trying not to lose control of his “abilities” (loved that coinage that survived through many seasons) and not really knowing anything about his origins other than he was adopted by the Kents who loved him more than any parents I’ve have ever seen on TV (or real life). He didn’t have all of his powers until the very end, but grew into them in haphazard and often disastrous ways, one at a time. It was fantastic, every time he stepped farther into the shoes of the Man of Steel was treat and I relished it with religious fervor.
The show in the early seasons was like a precocious youth who was also unsure of its boundaries and how far it dared to go, it stretched here and there and felt its way around. The “freak of the week” scenarios may have grown tiresome for some, but it was a great way to see the possibilities that might be come.
And oh, how so many amazing things did happen. The show’s writers and producers seemed to be the first inheritors of an entertainment franchise that had a sense of history that had come before them and the huge cultural impact of Superman, arguably one of the most important folk legends in all of American history. When the show was in the period were they still featured songs from popular music groups, if they found one with “Superman” in the title, they got it on the show. Five for Fighting’s hugely popular “Superman (It’s Not Easy) was one such perfect fit for the title itself and the message and every time they dropped one of these knowing winks to the future of our awkward, super-powered teen (about 150 different occurrences of large S’s placed on Clark’s chest for instance) I melted into a pile of nerd-glee and thanked the TV gods that someone had at last made a show just for me.
They also managed to get just about every single, living actor that has had anything to do with the Superman mythos (save the Superman Returns movie, bleah, good riddance) into the show. An incredible achievement given the dearth of Superman media over the past 40 years. I could list all of these people, but honestly, it’s easier to list who they didn’t get who were important: Gene Hackman (Lex in the movies)…hmmm…that’s the only one I can think of. Seriously, they got everyone into the show at some point. Even Christopher Reeve in his wheelchair. EVERYONE. Nobody else has done this yet. It’s starting to pop up as the way to show you are aware that reboots do not exist in a universe without predecessors (see: Hulk movie cameos for instance). Smallville is who we have to thank for that, I am CONVINCED.
They showed us tons of our favorite superheroes (though it took a few years to get into full swing), more than any movie series franchise will EVER COME CLOSE TO and showed them in a very interesting light, that of wayward, not-yet defenders. When they introduced the Flash, Green Arrow, Zatanna, Cyborb, Aquaman, etc, they were youths with strong mojo, their hearts in the right places, but all going about it the wrong way. It was Clark who showed them what Good was through example and through his friendship and it changed them all, made them into the heroes we knew. That was what really made him into the greatest superhero that ever there was, his capacity for Good, his empathy, not heat vision, his humanity.
I have to be honest and say that Smallville kind of ruined comicbooks for me a bit. Comicbooks are GREAT. Lets put that on the record, there’s more flavors than you could hope to discover in your life, but Smallville humanized superheros in a way that I really hadn’t seen and probably won’t again. Comicbook movies try, yes, and some get close, but you can only get so close in 2 hours. The show lasted ten years, an amazing feat for any television show, and ended on just the right note. It didn’t overstay its welcome, it grew mature gracefully and I right along with it, grew up.
Smallville had over 200 episodes, roughly over a straight week and a half of my life to show me that there are untold of depths to the characters who are as real and important in my life as the Greek gods were to ancient Athenians and that two dimensions...just aren’t enough.
For that, Smallville will forever be one of the most important stories I have ever had the good privilege of knowing.
“Always hold on to Smallville” – Jonathan Kent
Now I’m off to try and fill this S-shaped hole in my heart…
- Zaki Hasan: Smallville Finale Marks the End of the Beginning (huffingtonpost.com)
- Why We Will (Kinda) Miss Smallville. (brokenmann.wordpress.com)
- Saying Goodbye, Smallville! Is This The End Or Will There Be A Justice League Sequel? | Written For Technorati (paradoxparables.wordpress.com)