Talking Movies

December 3, 2011

Last Exit to Smallville: Part II

If you’ve read the previous piece then you’ll be aware that I was quite often watching the adventures of the young(ish) Clark Kent for laughs.

So, why did I stick with Smallville? Season 1 was fun. It wasn’t a great TV show, but it was consistently entertaining, promised great future developments (not least when Lex’s future was glimpsed and it showed a white-suited black-gloved President causing a nuclear apocalypse), and the central conceit of a good Lex and a young Superman being friends was irresistible. You also had a nice thwarted but plausible relationship with Lana, complemented by Chloe’s loveable cub-reporter in the making digging around for meteor freaks for her Wall of Weird oblivious to the fact that her best friend was the freakiest. Season 2 was where the wheels fell off the wagon. I stopped watching for a while, as the removal of the obstacle didn’t lead to Clark and Lana becoming a couple, but instead to Millar & Gough ratcheting up the badly-written teen angst to unbearable levels. It also began a trend of dotting poorly explained ‘important arc plot points’ randomly at the end of episodes, and then forgetting about them for weeks, something which over the years eventually made the show both incomprehensible and unintentionally hilarious. Still the idea that Lex was prophesied to go bad by Indian Caves intrigued… Season 3 was loudly rumoured to have Ian Somerhalder starring as Batman, and Drew Z Greenberg writing episodes inspired by The Dead Zone. Only one of those happened though. Somerhalder was terrific as a haunted bad boy who disappointingly turned out to be Lionel’s stooge, but there was a nice exit for him in a Frequency inspired episode, and Chloe became more complex as she dallied with Lionel’s patronage. The best moments of this season though couldn’t rescue the overall sense of portentous drift, exemplified by the awful finale which killed off half the cast to the strains of opera.

I dragged myself back for season 4 because Jensen Ackles had joined the cast, and was surprised by a belter of an opener which kick-started an excellent fourth season that I regard as the highpoint of the series. A badly needed sense of fun was restored along with a completely new skill at touching moments. Millar and Gough finally lightened up, letting Clark fly in the season premiere with accompanying dialogue of “What is that? Is that a bird?” “Maybe it’s a plane”, while that episode for the first time in years actually felt like this show was derived from Superman comics, rather than The Flash; which is what the stubbornly non-flying Clark had made it veer towards. Ackles’ villain enlivened an actually well-developed arc chasing crystals that would create the Fortress of Solitude. Erica Durance unexpectedly arrived as Chloe’s cousin Lois Lane (and made Kristin Kreuk’s Lana Lang look wish-washy) and developed a wonderful spiky relationship with Clark. Chloe finally got to know Clark’s secret and, in a beautiful touch, had to teach an amnesiac Clark how to use his powers – in the knowledge that she’d have to go back to pretending she didn’t know about them soon enough.

Season 5 started off with the construction of the Fortress of Solitude and Clark and Chloe becoming a super-team: she detects crime, he fights it. The T-1000 reinterpretation of the Kryptonian artificial intelligence Braniac was rather great, and the Buffy overtones of James Marsters appearing for the writing of his colleague Steven S DeKnight were complemented by the ‘Clark goes to College and has a hard time of it’ feel that echoed season 4 of Buffy. There was a priceless conversation in which Clark and Chloe attempted to discuss the ‘Man of Steel, Woman of Tissue’ problem, but the quickly reversed proposal to Lana which led to Jonathan Kent’s death was a disastrous mis-step for the show that brought proceedings down to the level of season 2’s angst in its insistence on burdening Clark with farcical levels of guilt; because apparently that’s what real drama is all about. The decision to move Lana towards Lex romantically was nicely done, but the feeling that Clark should be further down the road towards being Superman was starting to nag. The finale which saw Lex taken over by Zod’s spirit and Clark trapped in the Phantom Zone burned down the house in style.

Season 6 saw Clark roar back from the Phantom Zone but in doing so unleash a horde of loose phantoms, the rounding up of which became his season arc mission. It was a step down from the previous two arcs but this season was characterised by let-downs as Lex possessed by Zod was dealt with far too easily, Green Arrow’s arrival promised a Batman like level of conflict that never really arrived, and Lana and Lex’s marriage bafflingly retreated from emotionally destroying Clark. However a finale in which Bizarro arrived and all the female leads died was a stunning episode. Season 7 saw the arrival of Supergirl, who was never really given a compelling reason to be on the show, while Bizzarro was dispatched too easily only to gleefully reappear undetected, but still arguably underused. The revelation that Chloe had become a meteor freak thru continued exposure was brilliant, not least her struggle to keep the secret from her boyfriend Jimmy. Lex finally killed Lionel, and also bafflingly his brother the Daily Planet editor, to become a supervillain rather than previous season’s St Lex being lied to by Clark. However Clark still not being Superman rather undermined their apocalyptic clash. Season 8 saw Lex replaced by his ret-conned protégé Tess Mercer while Sam Witwer starred as Clark’s ret-conned Kryptonian stowaway Doomsday. Chloe’s descent into darkness as she was taken over by Braniac was delicious, but her half-romance with Witwer’s heroic EMT was always unintentionally funny as she and Clark defended him against Jimmy’s charge that this man was obviously a serial killer, despite continual evidence supporting Jimmy. This left an extremely bitter aftertaste when Jimmy was unnecessarily killed in the finale to guilt-trip Chloe for trying to separate man and beast to save the man. Oh, then Clark abandoned her.

Season 9 saw General Zod, as a Kandorian clone, pop up in Tess’ mansion (it was never really satisfactorily explained how) thus beginning endless half-written political machinations between Clark and Zod over leadership of the Kandorians. Tess was revealed as a member of the shadowy organisation Checkmate run by Pam Grier, and hilariously Senator Martha Kent reappeared as their nemesis the Red Queen, who’d been acting sinisterly to keep Clark’s secret safe. Brian Austin Green as Metallo was absolutely thrown away, and it became all too noticeable for budget reasons that Metropolis only had one street – shot from different angles. Season 10 introduced Jack Kirby’s villain Darkseid as the final season nemesis but he never really showed up properly, but manipulated his minions in a number of poorly explained sub-plots, while The Suicide Squad were almost entirely squandered. Ultimately not just Lionel but then Lex returned for the finale where Clark finally just became Superman – after previous inane episodes had set a new record for ‘well that was easy’ moments, not least one of the minions of Darkseid destroying the Bow of Orion with contemptuous ease, having proclaimed loudly that it was the only weapon that Darkseid feared. The End…

Smallville ran for 10 seasons. Along the way there were heartbreaking episodes, such as Chloe’s reunion with her stricken mother who for a brief while was lucid again, adorable episodes, such as the first appearance of Krypto the Superdog, and brilliantly fun episodes, like the formation of the Justice League. But all too often episodes were entirely dependent on having a cute high concept or a good writer simply amusing themselves. So we got Steven S DeKnight writing Saw with Lionel Luthor, while someone else Fassbendered in rewriting The Game with Oliver Queen as Michael Douglas and Chloe as Sean Penn. What could be great on a micro level could never really break out of the shackles that kept the show from being great on a macro level. Hence the crippling levels of angst, endless body-swap episodes, Clark affected by shade of Kryptonite episodes, and parallel universe episodes. Watching the finale you realised that Erica Durance and Kristin Kreuk each starred in 7 seasons of Smallville but that Durance made Kreuk’s performance look anaemic from the moment she arrived, and the crushing weight of the mythology made you impatient for Lois and Clark from that point on. The show left Smallville itself in the rear-view mirror in season 5 but persisted in refusing to let Clark fly or don the cape for so long that it became increasingly infuriating/embarrasing. The handling of the major villains always disappointed – a synecdoche for the whole show. The implicit hook of the souring of Clark and Lex’s friendship was never paid off satisfactorily. Lex was in 7 seasons of Smallville, but at no point did you feel there was a clear endpoint planned where he and Clark would rise to their respective destinies. Its own continuously imperilled success condemned Smallville to continually deferred gratification.

Smallville never quite achieved its promise, but it handsomely saw off the challenge of Superman Returns, and kept live-action Superman viable despite all the nay-saying about the redundancy of the character in a Dark Knight world, and that’s not to be sneezed at. I just hope that Allison Mack and Erica Durance manage to walk into better written TV roles.

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November 25, 2011

Last Exit to Smallville: Part I

“And that was the day the boy from Smallville became Superman…” 10 years is a long time for any TV show to run. When that show is the eternally misfiring Smallville, it’s an even longer time for a show to be part of your life…

Put it this way. Smallville has been running for so long that not only have season 1 meteor freaks like Adam Brody and Lizzy Caplan gone on to be the leads in their own TV shows, but Amy Adams has made the spectacular leap from meteor freak of the week to Lois Lane in Zack Synder’s forthcoming Superman: The Man of Steel. By the bitter end the only actor who’d stayed the course of the regulars was Tom Welling as Clark Kent, presumably the cursed role was only finally pried away from his cold dead hands, as even Allison Mack decided to eschew most of the final season and only belatedly arrived as a Chloe Ex Machina, just when John Glover showed up as Lionel Luthor to give some sense of an ending that synched with the 2001 pilot. The parallel careers of the runners-up for the role of Clark demonstrate exactly what Welling gave up by remaining always faithful.

Jensen Ackles didn’t get the role, and instead jumped straight back into Dark Angel, as his previous one-shot appearance became a regular role. When that ended he hopped onboard the final season of Dawson’s Creek. He was later terrific as the season 4 villain in Smallville, initially Lana’s charming boyfriend before his sinister machinations were unmasked, and then nabbed his signature role as Dean Winchester in Supernatural where his bad boy swagger was complemented by gory horror and sly humour. Ian Somerhalder didn’t get the role, and instead instantly shot a leading role in Roger Avary’s sublime The Rules of Attraction. He was terrific in Smallville season 3 as Adam Knight, loudly rumoured to be Batman. He wasn’t, of course, Smallville never delivered on awesomeness, and limped off to lick his wounds in O’ahu for the first season of LOST. Thankfully Somerhalder’s dark charisma finally found a role to popularly showcase it – the sociopathic vampire Damon in The Vampire Diaries.

Good actors weren’t the only people on the Smallville merry-go-round. Skilled writers came, tried to inject awesomeness, mostly failed, and quickly moved on. Jeph Loeb wrote for Smallville before moving on to LOST and then Heroes, but his contributions were rarely as distinctive as on those later shows. Drew Z Greenberg jumped from Buffy to Smallville where he penned some of season 3’s best episodes (the psychic who sees people’s deaths) before leaving. Steven S DeKnight jumped from Angel and made a pivotal contribution, forming the Justice League and penning damn near ¼ of season 5 to entice his associate James Marsters to star as season villain Braniac. The departure of creators Millar & Gough saw their lieutenants embark on an unintentionally funny Doomsday arc, before using a Kandorian clone of General Zod then a half-baked Darkseid as season villains, even as Geoff Johns simultaneously contributed a stunning two-part Watchmen homage and some terrific comics-based episodes of wit and depth.

The problem was that great writers were always struggling against a mediocre format. Miles Millar and Alfred Gough set up Smallville in such a way as to promote endless angst, and heavy handed hints of Superman adventures to come, while occasionally promising awesome adventures around the next arc, except those adventures never came – for 10 years. Season 2 of Smallville was a prime example. Indeed, it was almost unbearable in its angst quotient, which it mistook for deep drama. Spider-Man 2, which Millar & Gough co-wrote demonstrates to perfection their Smallville agenda for achieving emotional weight. Simply replace characters with their equivalents; Norman Osborn is Lionel Luthor, Harry Osborn is Lex Luthor, MJ Watson is Lana Lang, Aunt May is Martha Kent, Ben Parker is Jonathan Kent, Peter Parker is Clark Kent; and transfer their reluctance to give Superman a cape with Spider-Man’s baffling refusal to wear his mask, and you can see their one-size fits-all approach to writing superheroes.

It became clear as time went on that Millar & Gough didn’t really have a plan for resolving the central dilemma of their own concept – if Lex gradually became a supervillain wouldn’t he then, having earlier befriended Clark, know exactly who Superman was? The decision to kill Lex seemed to resolve that, while also making stark nonsense of the show’s own continuity as Lex’s dark future had been glimpsed by psychics, and foretold by prophecy. But then a cloned/resurrected Lex, possessing all his memories, triumphantly returned for the final ever episode. Only for Tess Mercer aka Luthessa Luthor to mind-wipe Lex, with a super-chemical compound, as her dying act. Lex remembered nothing of his friendship with Clark. And it turned out that all Clark needed to fly was an inexplicable voiceover appearance by Jor-El, after Darkseid had just socked Clark, introducing a montage of 10 seasons of Smallville as being the trials that he needed to embrace his Kryptonian heritage.

Clark just flying like it was second nature immediately after that was far too reminiscent of the ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz – he had the power all along, he just had to believe it. The fact that he flew in season 4 also made it seem especially ridiculous. As for Lex’s mind-wiping, it was an ingenious save – and, like the equally neat LOST finale twist, entirely unrelated to everything that went before. It may well have been an ‘emergency finale device’ that’s been lying around for years in case the show got abruptly cancelled. But I won’t deny that Lex’s return was a joy. His first lines with Clark were the best written dialogue in Smallville for seasons: “Lex….” “You still say it the same way. Astonishment, with a hint of dread, but a hopeful finish.” The two montages that accompanied these turning points for Clark and Lex demonstrated something that I’ve always argued is TV’s greatest strength.

Its ability to develop character and accumulate experiences over a sustained period of time is unique. I stuck with Smallville despite its shortcomings because it wormed its way into my memories, and not just because for a while episodes were sound-tracked by chart-topping singles. I have vivid memories of discussing different seasons of the show with different people, as few people but me stuck with it for the whole run, and even our viewing motives changed. By season 8 I was chuckling at the stupidity of the show’s writing almost more than I was watching it for comic-book fun, and discussing it with others in that vein. But the montages reminded me why I’d loved the show in the first place – the heartbreak of the young Lex crying at the birthday party no one attended, the thrill of seeing Clark discover various powers for the first time. Smallville ran far too long but its Top 20 episodes would be superb.

It was great being reminded of the sublime moments the show had produced, many from a dynamic almost forgotten because those characters had long since left, but it was even better being told we had at long last reached the destination. In the closing minutes of the show we finally got to see Clark stop whining to Jor-El, put on the damn cape and fly, and rescue Lois by saving Air Force One. We heard Perry White as editor of the Daily Planet bark at Lois while she hassled an Olsen photographer (a dubious touch), as a white-suited (but with one hand black-gloved) Lex become President in 2018, before Clark ran out of the Daily Planet revealing the S under his shirt to the strains of John William’s score as the credits appeared in the 1978 font. Chloe’s statement to her son, “There’ll always be more adventures for another day”, summed up the enduring appeal of this iconic stable of characters.

So Smallville ended its decade long run as the longest running Superman TV series ever. It wasn’t always the best Superman TV series, but that’s something for Part II…

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