Tuesday, February 15, 2011

“Somebody Save Me” A Smallville Retrospective

In June 1938, the world was introduced to Superman. Powerful and patriotic, he was the ultimate hero; so much so that he created a new concept for popular culture: the super-hero. Superman found success in comic books, on the radio, television and even the silver screen. However, most of these incarnations focused squarely on The Man of Steel in his square-jawed prime. Some sixty-odd years into his life, someone had the idea that it might be interesting to delve deeper into the origin story of the character, highlighting his days as a boy growing up with a farm, dealing with the problems of homework, girls and red kryptonite. This is the story of Smallville.

It's almost staggering to think that the show has soldiered on for ten years of fluctuating quality. Certainly when it began, it was powerful, epic television with excellent characterisation. Clark Kent was truly three-dimensional with problems and character flaws to go with his heat vision. Lex Luthor was elevated from a cackling cartoon to a tragic anti-hero with father issues. And Jonathan Kent was surely the coolest Dad in the history of television.

It's fair to say that the series lost its way quite a bit around the fourth season. At that point, viewers were growing tired of the “teen drama” approach the show had modelled itself on (with good reason) and demanded more action and more relevance to the mythos of Superman. Suddenly, all kinds of characters began showing up with the introduction of Lois Lane into the show spear-heading this unneccessary revamp. It began to become apparent that the series no longer had any intention of chronicling the transformation of farmboy to Superman, but that it would instead continue on with protagonist frozen in mid-development dealing with whatever obstacles the writers could think of in order to stall his destiny, while finding ways to shoe-horn notable elements of the comics into the show. By the end of the eighth season, Lois Lane and the Green Arrow (think Robin Hood mixed with Batman with Tony Stark's personality) were main characters and major appearances had been made by Jor-El (Superman's biological father), Supergirl, Perry White, General Zod (whose youthful clone would go on to become the antagonist of the ninth season), Doomsday and even Superman's pal Jimmy Olsen. Probably the greatest, most unneccessary folly the series ever made was when Jimmy was killed off in the close of the eighth season with the subsequent revelation that it wasn't even Jimmy at all, but his older brother “Henry-James”! That's almost as cringeworthy as the infamous “It was all a dream” shower scene from Dallas.

All was not lost, however. In the opening of the ninth season the producers took the series in yet another direction. Recognising that the end was nigh, realising that the damage was done and that the show was never again going to be the traditional origin story it set out to be, they instead decided to open up the floodgates. This saw a complete abandoning of the visual subtlety the show had always favoured (the tagline had originally been “No Flights, No Tights”) and embracing the wild and wonderful world of the DC Universe. This farewell to arms saw appearances from characters who had never before seen the light of day outside of the comics. The likes of Doctor Fate, Hawkman, Stargirl and even the Wonder Twins (no need to bother asking who they are) were given affectionate, silly-but-fun treatment. Clark was now a costumed superhero on the show anyway, although instead of the traditional red-and-blue tights, he wore a more subdued and stealthy black trenchcoat. Initially, people saw this as being a sad attempt at trying to ride The Dark Knight's shadowy success and aesthetically that could well be the inspiration behind the wardrobe makeover. The writing however saved the concept, showing Clark as an active superhero afraid to step into the light for fear of persecution. His development over the final two seasons has seen him shun this approach in favour of being a charismatic leader of all the other superheroes that are popping up all over the world. 

Lois Lane has also redeemed herself and the show has given the character a new purpose. Whereas usually, her sole motivation is in trying to figure out Superman's true identity and then living happily ever after with him; the focus here is how Lois is an anchor for Clark. She loves him dearly and will do anything she can to help him be the best person he can be. The ultimate girlfriend!

The success of this new approach allowed the show a swansong tenth season which has promised to conclude with Clark Kent becoming Superman. The emphasis of the series is now centred around forgetting about the mistakes of the past and not obsessing over the dangers of the future. Clark Kent is now coming to realise that if he is to become the greatest hero the world has ever known, he must free himself of self-doubts and focus on the present, creating his own destiny rather than following one that has been written out for him. What kind of college student can't relate to that?

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