SMALLVILLE: A TV Review
by JONATHAN HARVEY
Superman has always to me been a very odd character, a strange mix of the fallible and the supernaturally powerful. Throughout the decades, the main choice Superman writers have had is whether to focus on Superman's humanity or his invincibility. Here guest reviewer Jonathan Harvey presents some interesting insights into Smallville's take on this strange being from another world.
Sagas and myths begin as simple folktales, then gain momentum, evolving into art. One example is Warner Brother Network's weekly series "Smallville", an unusually mature take on the Superman story. Critic Neal Gabler observed that without Clark Kent, Superman would be boring. A comedy sketch once had Lois Lane married to Superman and she, without knowing his secret identity, told Clark Kent that Superman was sort of boring. Both the 1990s series "Lois and Clark" and now "Smallville" are more focused on Kent than on Superman. Evidently, others agree.
Over time, portraits of Clark Kent have varied widely, while Superman remained the same crime-fighting Boy Scout. In the 1950s, George Reeve's Kent was a cerebral professorial detective, a Midwestern Sherlock Holmes. In four movies in the 80s, Christopher Reeve played Clark Kent as a WASP-ish bumbling schlemiel, a conservative Midwestern strait-laced Woody Allen. TV's "Adventures of Superboy" (88-92) was worthless. Superman bounced back with "Lois and Clark" (1993-1997) where Dean Cain played Kent as an idealistic smart kid from a small town who can make good in the big city, while retaining Midwest values. "Lois and Clark" was meant as a screwball romantic comedy modeled on the films of Gable and Lombard, with little crime-fighting. It never realized its promising potential. With "Smallville", the Superman saga breaks the comic book mold and becomes emotionally genuine and reflective.
As in the earliest versions, there is no Superboy. A stated rule is "No tights, no flights". But there are two key departures from tradition. Firstly, Smallville is no longer a squeaky-clean Mayberry-like town, but is slightly creepy echoing David Lynch's "Twin Peaks". Secondly, Clark Kent has a real but uneasy friendship with a young man, Lex Luthor, who will become his nemesis. Both changes allow the show's focus on its main theme, an adolescent trying to figure out the nature of good and evil, decide when to trust people, and discern who is telling the truth. These themes appeared in Episode 3, in which an abusive football coach engaged in murder. The series' crux is the back story of Lex Luthor. He is the son of a local business magnate far richer than others in Smallville. His father, Lionel, is a scheming manipulative entrepreneur whose only relationship to his son is based on ambition. Lex wants to be a better person, admires Clark Kent, and is jealous of Kent's wholesome, loving relationship with his family. However, Lex is rich and has a ruthless streak he cannot wholly overcome. Others note he often tries to be nice, but perceive a dark side. His father is universally reviled, although LuthorCorp supplies most of the employment in Smallville. We know Lex will become evil, but we do not know how. Clark Kent's father, Jonathan, disapproves of his son's friendship with Lex, while Clark hopes that in spite of all, Lex will become a decent guy.
Clark's high-school crush, Lana Lang, is normally portrayed as a freckled redhead but is here played by Kristen Kreuk a dark-haired half-Chinese actress whose Lana is good-looking, sincere, warm, passionate for old movies, and very intelligent. A newly-invented character is Chloe, editor of the high-school newspaper, with investigative journalism in her blood. She digs up strange mysteries in Smallville, and often aids Clark in solving the weird goings-on in town. We know Kent will eventually become a newspaper reporter, but now Chloe has that role, and we assume she will be Clark's inspiration to take up that profession. Matters are complicated since Chloe has an unrequited crush on Clark, who himself has a crush on Lana, who in turn is dating a football jock named Whitney who used to bully Clark.
There are in-jokes for viewers who know the future. In one episode, Lana asks Clark "What do you want to do when you grow up?" He replies, "Anything that doesn't involve wearing a suit and a lot of flying". Lex Luthor tells Clark Kent "Our friendship is going to be the stuff of legend".
There are also in-jokes for highbrow Superman fans. The show abounds in cultured literary references. Episode 2 had an unpleasant school nerd who played with bugs. He became a cockroach after exposure to Kryptonite. In the opening, the class was reading Kafka's "Metamorphosis" in which a boring office clerk also turns into a cockroach. Luthor's father's favorite book is Machiavelli's "The Prince", the political classic advocating manipulation and deception to gain power. Nietzsche's concept of the Superman naturally gets mentioned.
Lana Lang (Kristin Kreuk); Clark Kent (Tom Welling); Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum)
The cast excels. Tom Welling conveys the puzzled idealism of a teenage Kent terrifically. John Schneider plays his father with the right mix of humanitarian idealism and skepticism. Michael Rosenbaum is a multi-layered Luthor torn between ambition and a desire to be a better man than his cold and driven father played by veteran villain-player John Glover. Kristen Kreuk is glamorous and sweet-natured as Lana Lang. Annette O'Toole as Clark's mother projects a nice maternal strength. Allison Mack's Chloe is both goofy and full of curiosity. Sam Rose III's Pete has not developed enough yet.
TV has partly focused on teens since "Beverly Hills 90210". A newer trend is teenagers in situations with supernatural menace. The groundbreaker was "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" which also deals with trying to figure out the nature of good and evil and of deciding who to trust. "Roswell" combined teen romance and UFOs. "Smallville" is both a great version of the Superman story, and a worthy entry into this new genre of television.
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