Superman on Television

Smallville: Episode Reviews

Retrospective Series Review

Reviewed by: Marc Pritchard

I came late to Smallville - really late, in fact. I'd been aware of it, of course, but only the way you're aware of, say, hunger when you first wake up in the morning, before that fast of sleep finally demands to be broken. For the better part of its decade-long run, I just wasn't paying attention to television. I'd begun my graduate work in English literature right around the time the show debuted and - when I wasn't working, writing, playing in a band or planning a life with the woman I was with at the time - had my head buried almost constantly in books. Even the comics I'd set aside some time earlier, trying finally to come of age.

Through all of that, though, I'd never lost sight of Superman. Although he'd moved to the periphery of my day-to-day, the way things do when you're the one who's changed, what I'd always taken to be essential about him remained very much front and center - neither the colors or the cape he wore nor the specific and fantastic things he could do, but the universal values for which he stood: truth, honor, determination, compassion for those weaker than us. Those were values I could stand for, too - perhaps not perfectly or against all odds, but with, I hoped, the kind of integrity that could lead to my life having a meaning apart from myself, someday.

The jury might still be out on how well I've lived up to the ideal, not least because, well, I'm far from done living. Certainly, my lack of perfection is unmistakable. And perhaps that's the point. Not to indulge in too many clichés before my time is up, but, absolutely, nothing is perfect. Not I, not life, not even Superman.

And certainly, alas, not Smallville.

Up, up and away

I discovered the show in earnest just last summer, as its ninth season was winding down and I'd come to the end of a full year of re-immersion in the world of comic books. My first nephew had been born the summer before to my younger (and way beyond dear) sister, finally taking the pressure off me to produce a grand-child and, much more importantly, infusing our whole family with the always-exhilarating thrill that is the arrival of new life. I delight in him and, in a world where I myself would prefer not to be a parent, he is all the reason I need to stay true to Superman's impossible example.

The comic book collection had by this time grown by an order of magnitude beyond what it had been "back in the day," but I'd been keeping Superman's place in it relatively modest and on reserve for when the nephew reaches a point where he can not only read but also appreciate both the medium's artistry (which, I am pleased to note, has generally progressed in leaps and bounds from its comparatively unpolished beginnings, not to mention through the gimmicky "lost decade" of the 1990s) and, hopefully, the pleasures of collecting. Superman was the first and best of the super-hero kind, and I envision a future in which my nephew and I collect and read the books together and watch not only the Christopher Reeve films on which I was reared but also the later incarnations - Lois & Clark, the animated adventures, Superman Returns... even Superboy, if he wants.

(Not to mention whatever comes between now and then and between then and the far off days of which we have only begun to dream.)

So it was with all this in mind that I finally came around to watching Smallville. I cannot recall the exact date, time, or catalyst of this development... but I do recall the absorption. For no less than two solid months, my heart beat to the rhythm of Remy Zero's "Save Me" and exulted at the continual rediscovery of a character that had, indeed, saved me more than a few times in years past - not from speeding bullets, burning buildings or nefarious villains but simply from myself.

Long may he do so.

I lost a lot of sleep those two months, watching. I simply couldn't get enough and, with the final season set to begin, I was anxious to catch up. The premise was fresh and worked - the meteor shower; the spaceship hidden in it; not so much the green-K turning kids into freaks, but that was mostly because motivations just weren't handled all that well or consistently. Having Lex and Clark become friends was provocative, if no doubt distressing to the purists. Martha and Jonathan Kent and this new Lionel Luthor were exquisitely cast, the production values were unlike anything we'd seen in Superman live action before, and the soundtrack almost always struck the appropriate emotional chords.

Maybe, in some ways, I wasn't late at all; maybe the timing was just right. At bottom, I'd lived in shoes similar to Clark's - belonging at once to several worlds and none. Not literally, of course, but in just the kinds of symbolic ways that lodge in the heart and stay fresh on the mind.

I could accept the narrative actuality of pre-destiny because - extra-narratively, at least - Clark's destiny was pre-determined. Likewise, the lack of flight I glossed over as a pseudo-metafictional comment on the fact that the original Superman couldn't fly, either (at least, not until Action Comics #60, where he doesn't so much fly as flight is first attributed to him).

Even the relationship drama between Clark and Lana had me at hello, as it were.

I was - in part (I know) because I wanted to be - utterly swept away.

Until I started watching it again.

Don't look down

It was Henry James (not Henry James Olsen, but how felicitous is that?) who said "What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?" In other words, strong story-telling results from the inter-relation - indeed, the oneness - of the characters and the situations in which they find themselves. Smallville never quite understood this. Instead, it trotted out a series of largely discontinuous and essentially inconsequential escapades that, taken together, work as a path to Superman not only because Superman's eventual emergence was the only way this thing was ever going to end but also because we all knew this and could therefore bypass the incongruencies, fill in the blanks and just go with it.

But really good writing doesn't require this of its audience. It may make you work for the pay-off, but the tools needed to do that work are always given within the writing itself.

Not so here, for the most part.

What I'm saying is that Smallville is a show that, by and large, simply does not hold up well to repeat viewings. While a minority of the episodes count as "must-see-TV" (e.g. the pilot, "Hourglass," "Rosetta," "Crusade," "Absolute Justice," "Homecoming"), the vast majority are, unto themselves, entirely forgettable. Sometimes this is because character motivations are so random that the characters themselves are basically unrecognizable from one moment to the next (Tess comes quickest to mind); other times, it's because gaping plot holes seem to swallow whole the events that precede them (e.g. most confoundingly the recurrent discovery and use of supremely powerful and ancient Kryptonian technology - cf. the portal in the Kawatchi caves, the orb in season eight - only and at almost no other time than is absolutely critical to further the story [i.e. what on earth is this stuff doing on Earth when it could have been back on Krypton saving Krypton?]).

These things grate when seen with the hindsight of already being familiar with the basic plot and how the characters interact, when we no longer need to pay attention to the foreground and can turn our attention to what else is going on.

Suspension of disbelief in the "Veritas" storyline, for instance (compelling though that narrative was), required that we fail to notice that the Luthor coat of arms seen in the mansion's stained glass had always been, prior to this, just a big "L," not an L and a V. We get three whole seasons with "Jimmy" Olsen only to have him killed and explained away as the older brother of the "real" Jimmy Olsen not because this makes sense but because Chloe, in order to be redeemed for her accessory to Davis's criminality, has to be shown that Davis was a bad guy all along... but of course you can't kill Jimmy so we were turned on a dime with the mother of all wretched and retch-worthy retcons. We get confrontation scenes with Toyman in "Prophecy" and with Lex in the finale, both of which seem to suggest that the matter of Superman's secret identity is a bit of a moot point to the villains, only to have this reversed with a preposterous and (we have to imagine) selective mind wipe because we all know Lex never knew Clark Kent prior to the arrival of Superman.

The instances of this are too numerous to get fully into here; besides, you can just check out the encyclopedic KO Count on this site. The point is, you can get lost on Smallville's stretched-thin surface, but as often as not it takes little more than a downward glance to see the bottom, at depths so shallow it seems the surface is all there really is.

Truth, justice... all that stuff

In the few reviews of Smallville that have been my privilege to write for Steve Younis, the Superman Homepage, its members and whoever else should find them, I have been seriously critical because the Superman I hold dear would do the same. Not for the mere sake of criticism but as a simple check and balance, however much in vain the effort might be, and because standards matter. My principal quarrel is not that established continuity was often disregarded, nor that the latter seasons especially depend more on fan service than they do on internal consistency of either character or plot, nor even with the carrot-and-stick setting of expectations and all-too-common failure to deliver on them.

(Q.v., even right up to the very end, ten years of Clark alternately fighting and embracing his destiny culminate in a light-switch reversal of everything he'd supposedly learned by the end of "Prophecy" and a final understanding that takes him a mere single episode's length to internalize: he must embrace both his Kryptonian nature and his Smallville nurturing. Did we even need those ten years?)

No, it's that the emotional pulse of the show came to be pretty much completely regulated by feelings we already had, so that the real work of getting the audience to care about the characters and believe in their struggles was already done, long ago and by other people - most specifically, by the end, Richard Donner, John Williams and Christopher Reeve (who remains, to this day [in my estimation], the single best actor ever to have worn both the cape and the glasses).

I suspect, in fact, that this is why Smallville developed the increasing tendency to exploit the Donner films - they are emblematic, iconic, not perfect but as close as just about anything in this genre has come (notwithstanding the technical limitations of the time). Mostly because of Williams' score and Reeve's performance.

Yes, the Smallville cast was largely exemplary, which is all the more remarkable given the material they sometimes had to work with. Michael Rosenbaum and Erica Durance stand out not only for me but also scores of other fans as the quintessential Lex Luthor and Lois Lane, as does John Schneider's Jonathan Kent and Annette O'Toole's Martha Kent. John Glover simply stole the show too many times to count (personal favorite: the scene in "Transference" where Clark in Lionel's body has to convince Martha of the truth of the situation he's in). We can overlook the absence of Chloe Sullivan from the standard continuity simply because Allison Mack's performances are consistent and dependable, except perhaps (and/or most noticeably) in the season four witchcraft/possession sequences (during which actually none of Kristin Kreuk, Erica Durance or Mack convinced me). Speaking of Kreuk, her Lana Lang was initially as captivating as the actress herself appears to be... until the writers/producers made clear they were altogether captivated by her, as well, and couldn't write her fairly to save their lives. Cassidy Freeman made pretty rich lemonade from the desiccated lemons she was given, in seasons eight and nine especially. Justin Hartley has great timing and a commendably-built upper body but - not only because Green Arrow was never really the best choice for Clark's super-heroic hetero soul mate (given whatever legal measures prevented Batman/Bruce Wayne's inclusion) - not as much presence as one might expect from an actor given as much screen time as he was. Finally, poor Tom Welling turned in a lot of strong moments but it turns out to have been a very good thing this show was only ever "about Clark Kent, not Superman" because it strikes me as decidedly unlikely he could ever really have delivered a reliable dual-identity: in fits and starts toward the end, he gave us "mild-manners," but it seemed fairly obvious he wanted Clark Kent to be Superman as much as his version of Clark did. All things considered, he seems only ever to have always been himself, neither really Clark nor Superman.

All of them, meanwhile, have the gift of being able to appear unselfconscious and unwatched, but none of them (save, possibly, Glover and Rosenbaum) have the talent or the range of Reeve, who moved so gracefully between the Clark and Superman personae you can't help but believe him. And believe in him - even when you're blindsided by that illusory cellophane S-shield in Superman II or the visibility of those wires on the moon in Quest for Peace.

This is what I mean when I say Smallville has a tendency to exploit - not merely the source material (ahem, "Mikhail Mxyzptlk") but the pre-existing fan base without which, I'm sure, the show would never have gotten off the ground (pun intended). Tapping into the heartfelt meanings we build in our lives is one thing (that's what art does), but recycling the ones we associate with other art is something else altogether. The "technical term" for it is pastiche, and on Smallville the approach is at once respectful of the primary referent (again, Donner) but somewhat disrespectful of the audience because it assumes that we will slavishly eat it up. It's manipulative, it's lazy, and, in many respects, it seems to have succeeded.

The level of passion exhibited by all "sides" of the critical reception to this show - those who love it, those who hate it, those who couldn't care less, those who want to but can't overlook the flaws and those who can - is a tribute to the enduring relevance not of Smallville as such but of Jerry Siegel's and Joe Shuster's paradigmatic creation. A lot of it is unbecoming of us, and unbecoming of Superman.

But what am I supposed to do about it?

Ought to be in numbers

Because I haven't had the opportunity to do so before now and because it's clearly a bit of a tradition around here, what follows are my scores for each of Smallville's ten seasons, including brief remarks accounting for my general reasoning in each case. Meet you in the Comments.

Season One: Mostly awesome but the freak of the week stuff mires us down a bit in the basic frivolousness of high school angst. 4.5 out of 5.

Season Two: Not actually perfect but the intensity really starts to rise, as does the pulse. Show hits its stride. 5 out of 5.

Season Three: Tons of goodness to overshadow the creeping bad, but anyway Michael McKean as Perry White... some folks might need more justification/explanation than that but not this folk! 5 out of 5.

Season Four: Started out brilliantly but horridly acted witches and plot holes aplenty just about tore the life out me on this one. And I know I'm not alone. 3.5 out of 5.

Season Five: Deviation from the source material notwithstanding, James Marsters as Brainiac totally works for me. However, SECRETS, LIES, "Face it, Lana, you're amazing" and the ridiculous ramp-up of AI Jor-El's transcendent and far-too-far-reaching powers (in e.g. "Reckoning") is just soul-withering. Too many hyphens in that sentence? Oh well, we're deep in decline at this point. 3 out of 5.

Season Six: The escaped Phantom Zone phantoms is a cool concept but unfortunately its purpose seems mostly to serve to delay Clark's joining the inchoate JLA, to do which would logically mean he'd have to become Superman and we just can't have that yet. Mini-fail. 3 out of 5.

Season Seven: Neat take on Bizarro's nature but utterly wasted opportunity with all the Lana relationship drama. The Veritas stuff was intriguing, but see above - I can do without the retcons. Also, "Arctic" was no way to send off the best live action Lex Luthor we've ever seen and "Fierce" just might be the worst episode in the entire run (extra half-point off just for that). 2.5 out of 5.

Season Eight: As much as I dig the character, it's hard to think back fondly on the arrival of the villain who "kills" Superman in the comics (i.e. Doomsday) but who is dispatched with nary a whimper here before our boy even becomes our boy. Also, "I don't know how I survived" was possibly the biggest off-camera let down to date on this show and the total cop-out that was Henry James Olsen makes me spit blood to this day, just thinking about it. Worst season, easily. 2 out of 5.

Season Nine: By this point, I'm wondering a few things: why producers of live action Superman are so completely obsessed with Zod; just what in the Sam Hill is up with Tess's character; whether anyone is ever even going to try and explain what's keeping Clark down on the ground (beyond some nebulous determination to stick to the "no flights" part of the "no flights, no tights" rule). Among other things. Also, Pam Grier just can't act. (And yes, I'll fight you on that.) But "Metallo" was gobs of good and "Absolute Justice" is near the top of the all-time-best episodes list. Not a total loss. 3 out of 5.

Season Ten: Lots and lots of spectacular scenes/moments don't quite make up for possibly the least well-developed (and therefore most underwhelming) season-long arc in the show's run (i.e. the coming threat of Darkseid). But I watched the future scene in "Homecoming" more times than probably any other sequence in the entire series and maybe even than any other show ever. That has to count for something. 4 out of 5.

All told and being as fair as I can be (without the benefit of sufficient time to rewatch the entire series between the broadcast of "Finale" and writing this retrospective), Smallville scores 3.5 out of 5. Just above average. Even darkness has a bit of light in it. "Face it, Marc, you might not be amazing, exactly, but you can put up with a lot under the right circumstances." If this was Heroes (which I've never seen), none of you fine people would ever have heard of me.

All good things...

They say it's not the destination that matters, it's the journey. If that's true, then Smallville has probably earned its accolades, as arrive at Superman they most certainly did. (More or less. I'd just as soon take future-Clark's advice to his younger self in "Homecoming" and quibble no longer about the "how, where and why" of this one.) But without a destination, there is no journey. And Smallville had its destination set in stone from the very beginning. This has, at too many times, been a regrettable crutch that has allowed the show to veer off into territory from which logical return was simply never available.

But it's also been a blessing.

Even now, I can hardly bear to re-watch some of the earlier episodes and thereby relive some of young Clark's pain at having always to subsist emotionally on glances and in the shadows. Even now, "Save Me" recalls the intoxication of those first two months - not as powerfully as the old John Williams score recalls my youthful awe and belief that a man can fly, but enough to send a slight shiver down my spine. Even now, my archive of the show cries out to me whenever I am looking for a televisual diversion, though I heed that call less and less as time wears on.

My comic book collection, as it happens, now includes near-complete runs of Superman since the beginning of the Adventures days and Action Comics from shortly after that (issue #643 to be exact, when our boy returns from Warworld with The Eradicator). I could no longer wait for him, so the nephew will just have to get caught up when he's ready, and with a little luck he'll have me to guide him.

As for Smallville, despite its flaws and my inability to ignore them, I can say this much: I will watch it all again. Besides, I heard from my sister that today (the day I submitted this article to the Superman Homepage, I seriously kid you not) the nephew learned a new word...


Thanks for reading.


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