Thursday, January 26, 2006

‘Smallville’ at 100: Still Going Strong

No serial drama aired on broadcast television hits the mark with each and every installment. Not “Alias,” not “24,” not “Lost,” and certainly not “Smallville.”
But when “Smallville”—yes, “Smallville”—is on, it’s as good an hour as you’ll ever find on TV.
I didn’t start watching this reimagining of the classic “Superboy” story until last summer. My (teenage) brother kept telling me I had to check it out, but his copy of the first season DVD set sat on my shelf for, oh, at least six months. I didn’t hesitate because it was about Superman. I read comics as a kid before they got way too expensive for my weekly allowance. In fact, I’ve been hauling a whole bin full of them all over the country and can’t seem to bring myself to either give or throw them away. “Spider-Man,” “Batman,” “Superman,” “X-Men,” and “Spawn” are my personal favorites, but I just like the genre. I like the art, the imagery, the escapism, and, most importantly, the stories they tell.
No, I resisted “Smallville” for one simple reason: It’s on The WB, and I figured I’m about a decade too old for anything broadcast alongside “Gilmore Girls” or “Dawson’s Creek” or whatever.
But one summer day with nothing else to do, I popped in Disc One, just so I could hand the set back to my brother after at least giving it a shot. For those unfamiliar with “Smallville,” the basic premise is an examination of nature vs. nurture. The main characters, Clark Kent (played by dead-ringer Tom Welling) and Lex Luthor (a brilliant Michael Rosenbaum) start out as friends, and each episode asks the same question in a different way: Are these two men simply traveling on a road to destiny, or is it their respective environments that lead one to a life of evil incarnate and the other to become champion of truth, justice and the American Way. It’s an ingenious concept, and inspired storytelling.
The first episode is actually quite good, especially considering most TV pilots tend to pale in comparison with the rest of a long-running series. But after that, I just plodded through the first couple discs. There were enough cool little tidbits into the Superman mythology to keep me interested (my particular favorite is Clark discovers his newfound heat vision is tied to sexual arousal—hilarity ensues), but in general the episodes were too “freak of the week” in an “X-Files” knockoff kinda way.
And then I hit No. 12, “Leech,” where Clark rescues a classmate during an electrical storm and the two are hit by lightning, transferring Clark’s powers to his friend and leaving Superboy just, well, Boy. There’s a scene early on, after the kid—a wimpy little guy who’s always getting picked on—realizes he’s now a Man of Steel, where he steps out onto the street, straps on a pair of sunglasses, and U2’s “Elevation” starts blaring on the soundtrack as he performs a few super-feats. It’s seriously cool, and not just because I love U2. It’s only about two minutes long, but that one scene sums up everything about “Smallville” that makes it great: the writers take the mythic and bring it down to a human level (and somehow manage to tie in a perfect soundtrack). Really, what would it be like to wake up and have Superman’s powers all of the sudden? I think I’d walk around to “Elevation,” too.
Suffice to say there are many, many more scenes—and entire episodes—like that over the course of four seasons. The writers particularly excel at season finales, but the best installments typically focus more on Lex than Clark (villains are always more interesting, you know, so it’s a tribute to “Smallville” that goody-goody Clark is such a compelling figure in this series). In fact, my favorite ep of the entire run remains “Memoria” from late in Season 3, which delves deep into Lex’s repressed memories to discover the roots of all his pain—or at least most of it. It’s one of the best single episodes of TV I’ve ever seen.
Add tonight to that list.
The “Smallville” staff pulled out all the stops for their 100th episode, the rare feat that actually lived up to all the hype. (If you don’t want SPOILERS, stop reading NOW!)
This show had it all, everything we’ve been waiting for lo’ these many seasons: Clark finally tells the love of his life, Lana Lang (the beautiful but increasingly useless Kristin Kreuk), his secret—and PROPOSES to her, no less! And she says yes! Sure, it sounds cheesy to the uninitiated, but you have to have been there through all of Clark’s ascetic discipline when it comes to what he thinks is his one and only. We all know this can’t last, though, right? He’s supposed to end up with Lois! (On a side note: Another fascinating aspect of “Smallville” is how the writers toy with us, giving us little winks because we all know what the characters don’t: How the story turns out. When Lois (the magnificent firebrand that is Erica Durance) wonders if she’ll ever find someone to love—and someone who can love her back—and Clark assures her there’s someone out there for her, it’s a special ironic moment. Actually, there was a moment like that in tonight’s show …)
No, the engagement lasts for, oh, about 20 minutes. And then Lana dies in a car crash. What? Lana DIES? I don’t remember that from the comics! A distraught Clark convinces the spirit of his dead father, Jor-El (that’s another long story), to go back in time and save Lana—by not disclosing his secret this time around, thereby ending the relationship. Clark cannot catch a break—it’s the price you pay for superpowers (yet another major theme this show handles with dexterity—being Superman is more than just running around playing hero).
And in the end, Clark does end up losing someone dear to him: His dad, Jonathan Kent, whose heart finally gives out in a confrontation with Lex’s father, Lionel (Mr. Insidious, John Glover), about—you guessed it—Clark’s secret (man, I will miss John Schneider’s steady presence—there’s a lot more to this guy than Bo Duke). Then, when we come back from commercial, there’s this fantastic, quiet, painfully articulate scene between Clark and his mom, Martha (probably Annette O’Toole’s best work in the entire series) that really is heartbreaking. I couldn’t help feeling it would have been something like that had I lost my father to cancer a couple years ago.
This single episode had it all: The joy of Clark finally opening up to Lana, the pain of Lana’s death, the relief that Jor-El was able to essentially bring her back to life, Clark’s resigned frustration at having to keep his secret, even some humor from his trusty friend Chloe (Allison Mack). And, finally, what “Smallville” may do better than anything else, the closing shot. This time we watch as everyone in Clark’s life slowly drifts away and he’s left, alienated once again, with nothing to comfort him but the dirt on his dead father’s grave.
If you haven’t been watching “Smallville,” I certainly can’t blame you. But there will never be a better time to start than now. The characters are out of high school, so you don’t have to worry about any more teenage foolishness. And I have a feeling we’re going to be seeing the old red-yellow-and-blues before too much longer (Clark doesn’t fly, by the way—he hasn’t “learned” that skill yet, and the producers don’t have the budget to pay for it). Is every episode great? No. There have been several plotlines over the seasons that I just roll my eyes at and try to forget. But give yourself over to “Smallville” and step outside these cynical times once a week. Remember, in the end, it’s a comic book—it’s supposed to be out of this world, and when this show is good, it’s great. Sit back and marvel at a series that has a guy create an engagement ring from a lump of coal and heat from his eyes and then, less than an hour later, uses that same guy to leave a lump in your throat and tears in your eyes.