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Josh Bids Farewell to Smallville!

It’s pretty hard to believe that Smallville has been on the air for ten years, and I am even a little bit more astonished that I’ve been watching the show for pretty much all of those ten years!  From the very beginning, I have found watching Smallville to be a somewhat frustrating endeavor.  I’d be hard pressed to name a show that’s been so wildly inconsistent in quality.  A spectacular, exciting, complex episode will be followed by an agonizingly painful, awkward, juvenile installment.  But the good episodes have been good enough to somehow keep me watching even through the bad ones (and there have been plenty of bad ones).

Smallville is probably the best argument for the strength of the British TV model (and the increasingly common HBO/cable model) of shorter (8-12 episode) seasons rather than the standard American network TV seasons of 20-24 episodes.  Over the years I’ve read fans writing off this season or that season of Smallville as garbage, while praising other years.  Personally, I think pretty much every season of the show has had merit, and has had some great episodes.  But boy oh boy have I felt (right from season one) that the story-lines were padded and stretched FAAAAR beyond what made any logical narrative sense.  The years and years of yes-they’re-a-couple, no-they’re-not-a-couple Clark Kent/Lana Lang soap opera antics is the most annoying example of this, but even in the later, more focused seasons this has been a problem.  The show actually found interesting ways to incorporate Doomsday and General Zod as villains (in seasons 8 and 9, respectively), but by making us wait through the WHOLE long season for Clark and his Big Bad villains to finally come to loggerheads stretched my patience well past the breaking point.  Out of the ten seasons of Smallville, I’d say there’s probably a terrific four year-run of a great super-hero show.

That is not a very good record!  But Smallville did have a number of moments of real greatness, and those moments kept me from ever giving up entirely on the series.  There have been some episodes that have been among the very best live-action depictions of super-heroics that I’ve ever seen, in movies or on TV.  (The season two episode, “Rosetta,” guest-starring Christopher Reeve comes to mind, and the show consistently did season-finales like nobody’s business.)  The visual effects are not great, but they’ve been good enough to be decently entertaining week in and week out.  But when the show was great, it wasn’t because of visual effects, it was because they found a sweet spot between incorporating aspects of the Superman mythology while keeping the over-all narrative fun, engaging, and accessible.

When Smallville was first announced, I was dubious as to whether a teen-angsty story of a not-yet-Superman would be of any interest, but the show has been able to mine a surprisingly rich amount of material from this telling of Clark Kent’s journey to become Superman.  Despite the “Superman in Dawson’s Creek” vibe that I feared when the show launched, I’ve loved the way that, right from the very beginning, Smallville has not shied away from connecting with the larger mythology of Superman.  They have brought in characters from the comics both well-known (Perry White, General Zod, Doomsday, Darkseid, Green Arrow, etc.) and more obscure (Zatanna, Booster Gold, Blue Beetle, The Legion, Conner Kent).  They have utilized guest actors who have appeared in other versions of Superman.  (Both Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder, who played Clark and Lois in the Richard Donner Superman movies, have appeared on Smallville, as have Dean Cain and Terry Hatcher, who were Clark and Lois in the Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman TV show from the ’90s.  Even Helen Hunter, who starred as Supergirl in the Supergirl movie from the ’80s, has popped up on Smallville.  And of course we can’t forget that series regular Annette O’Toole played Lana Lang in Superman III.)   The show has also liberally used iconography from the Richard Donner Superman films (particularly the crystalline look of the Fortress of Solitude and Kryptonian technology, as well as the weird Kryptonian swirling-hula-hoops devices).  Those sorts of connections have given Smallville a depth that I did not expect — and as a big-time comics fan, that’s been cool.

I’ve also really enjoyed how the show worked to incorporate other super-heroes in its latter seasons.  Even though the idea of a proto-version of the Justice League never really came together on the show (oh, the show refers to the idea of Clark’s League plenty, but not once have we ever really seen the League working together in action, which has been really annoying to me), it’s been fun to see The Martian Manhunter, The Flash, Aquaman, Cyborg, Black Canary, Speedy, and many other DC heroes involved in the series.  And I would argue that the best thing about the second-half of Smallville’s run has been their interpretation of Green Arrow.  This character has become probably the most-interesting character on the show in the later years.  Justin Hartley’s performance has been great.  I’ve never been as interested in any version of Green Arrow as I have been with this one!

Justin Hartley isn’t alone.  I’d argue that most of the actors on the show have been pretty strong.  The material has often failed them, but I don’t, for example, blame Kristen Kreuk for the fact that the writers clearly had no idea what to do with Lana Lang after the first season.  Tom Welling has been a fun, charismatic lead for the show.  He was a little stiff in the early years, but really grew into the role.  On the other hand, Michael Rosenbaum was terrific as Lex Luthor right from the beginning — his Lex ranks among my favorite depictions of the character.  Again, Rosenbaum was always great, even when given dumb things to do.  I loved Allison Mack’s work as Chloe Sullivan, who might have been my favorite character on the show.  (More on Chloe later.)  I grew quite fond of John Schneider and Annette O’Toole’s depictions of a fairly young, vibrant Ma and Pa Kent.  Speaking of parents, one of the show’s big surprises for me was how much I enjoyed John Glover’s delightfully evil performance as Lex’s dad, Lionel Luthor.  In season one I was surprised that Lex’s dad was getting so much screen-time, but he quickly became one of the best characters on the show.

But, despite all that was great about Smallville, BOY could the show be just AWFUL at times.  The show’s problems over the years have been myriad.  The over-all story-lines moved at a glacially slow pace.  There was a ridiculous over-reliance on alternate realities, time-travel, memory wipes, coincidences, and other stupid resent-button tricks that would enable the writers to frustratingly re-set the show to “status quo” at the end of most episodes.  Deaths and the revelations of secret identities would be continually teased, then taken back.  (The point at which I most seriously decided to drop the show was after the terrible 100th episode.  The show was hyped as the moment when Clark would FINALLY reveal his super-powers to Lana Lang, and, indeed, for most of the episode that’s what happened, and it was lovely and quite dramatic.  Then, of course, it was all undone in the final ten minutes and history was erased and everything returned to pretty much status quo.  So disappointing.)  The show would continually interrupt dramatic and exciting story-arcs with terribly unfunny “comedic” episodes that were often blatant apes of other popular TV shows or movies.  (The shows’s embarrassingly terrible version of The Hangover, just a few weeks ago in season 10, comes immediately to mind.)

The over-all attention to series continuity was also painfully poor.  Let’s forget the fact that no one in Smallville seemed to notice that Clark was CONSTANTLY on the scene of crimes, was CONSTANTLY (and I mean, literally almost every episode) visiting close friends in the Smallville hospital (who had gotten injured during that week’s super-heroics) or things like that.  Let’s forget, also, the whole ludicrous idea that none of the COUNTLESS people who Clark befriended and saved during the course of ten seasons of Smallville would take one look at Superman and say “Hey!  I know that guy!  That’s Clark Kent!”  But even putting those issues aside (the latter one, in particular, being an inherently problematic aspect of the Superman character), the show would constantly build up plots and story-lines and then forget about them. What the heck happened to the weird Kryptonian caves in Smallville??  (I am really disappointed that the show never gave us a definitive back-story to those caves.)  Were we supposed to forget that the show gave us multiple versions of Zod, and of Supergirl?  And then there’s the unintentionally hilarious way that Clark’s early-season rival (and Lana Lang’s boyfriend) Whitney was written out of the show and immediately forgotten.  Boy, I could go on and on. Even in the series finale this was a problem!  Just a few weeks ago, Lois was panicked that the military people at her & Clark’s wedding might see Clark and then see Superman and of course recognize him, so she convinces Clark to start wearing glasses and bumbling around as Clark Kent, so that no one would ever look at Clark and think “Superman.”  So, in the finale, was Clark wearing glasses at the wedding?  Take a guess.

So that brings me, at last, to the show’s finale.  Despite the wobbly nature of the series, I found myself excited by the prospect of seeing the finale.  I was eager to see how things would wrap up, and to see Clark FINALLY, after ten long years of teases, step into the role of Superman.

Sadly, the two-hour finale was a disappointment on pretty much every level.

The first hour was really Smallville at its worst.  Basically the whole first hour of the show was wasted time, spent walking back Lois’ silly decision, in the finale scene of the previous week’s episode, to call off her wedding to Clark.  Obviously this isn’t a show that was going to have a sad ending, so we knew Clark and Lois would eventually meet at the altar (and goodness knows we all have been seeing those scenes of their wedding for weeks now in previews for the finale).  So having to waste fully half of the finale with will-they or won’t-they get married stupidity was really frustrating.  Not only was it a waste of precious series-finale air-time, but I found all of those wedding preparation scenes to be extraordinarily painful, filled with all of my least-favorite aspects of Smallville: soap opera antics, characters speechifying to one another about things like what it means to be a hero (rather than actually talking or acting like real human beings), and schmaltzy montages set to pop music.  Just awful.

Finally, at about the halfway point, the writers remembered that they had a season-long Darkseid arc to resolve.  Things certainly got better in this second half, as the show did build up some nice apocalyptic (pun definitely intended) tension.  But the ultimate resolution to the Darkseid story was disastrously bad.  First of all, we only got one brief glimpse of Darkseid in his true form, and he and Clark/Superman never got to face off.  (Their one encounter was with Darkseid in the form of one of the show’s regular characters — very lame.)  But I could live with that obvious bow to the limitations of the show’s special effects budget if the story of Darkseid’s season-long attempt to corrupt the people of Earth paid off in any way.  All year long, the writers have been building up to the idea that it would take Clark’s assumption of the mantle of Superman, and the beacon of hope he’d represent to mankind, to defeat Darkseid’s corruptive force.  Did that happen?  Not at all.

The finale features the ludicrous idea that somehow the evil that Darkseid has sown in the hearts of mankind acts as a gravitational force that pulls Darkeid’s fiery hell-hole home planet, Apokolips, into Earth orbit, threatening to smash into our planet.  OK, that’s a really silly idea, made even worse by all the shots, as the episode progresses, of this huge alien planet actually getting so close to Earth that it enters our atmosphere and knocks airplanes around.  I’m no scientist, but I think if that actually happened the gravitational forces would have completely decimated our planet!  We wouldn’t have to wait for the two planets to actually collide for everyone on Earth to be killed!  But, OK, whatever, I’ll go with that.  The idea is clearly that Clark needs to inspire the people with hope.  That is the only thing that can break Darkseid’s hold over mankind, and sever the gravitational forces pulling Apokalips into Earth, presumably sending Darkseid’s planet hurtling back out into the void.

But the exact OPPOSITE happens.  Instead of getting a big moment of Superman’s revelation to the world, or any scene in which Superman does something to show mankind that we can each choose to be GOOD rather than EVIL, which would cause the gravitational forces to be released and Apokolips to go back to wherever it came from, we see Superman fly into the sky and push Apokalips out of the sky and back into space.  Then everyone cheers in the street.  The end, Darkseid defeated.  Huh???  The whole idea, I thought, was that trying to physically use super-powers to push a planet would be futile unless Clark did something to address the issue of the darkness Darkseid had planted in people’s souls.  But Clark never does that!  He never reveals himself to mankind in any way!  He never gives anyone a speech about hope and personal choices like the one he gives Green Arrow that frees him from Darkseid’s control.  Nothing!!  By choosing to resolve the whole season-long story with nothing more than a quick effects shot of Clark pushing Darkseid’s planet away (something which, it strikes me, seems to be WAY above Superman’s established power levels, but that’s neither here nor there) is such an overly-simplistic and childish end to this story-line as to be totally laughable.

But in the end, the success/failure of this finale lies in how they handled the ultimate revelation of Superman.  They do so many things so right, but they get two things wrong that, for me, are so problematic that they totally undercut the ending and really make me feel like this series ended with a whimper, not the bang I was hoping for.  What’s good?  The scene of Clark flying out of the Fortress, and with super-speed donning his red and blue costume for the first time.  The way the scenes that followed began to slowly tease the appearance of Superman.  (The CGI on the little tiny Superman flying around and doing stuff was weak, but it didn’t matter — those scenes worked, and really started to get me excited.)  I really loved the time-frame of the show’s final few scenes, and I LOVED that we got to hear a full-throated rendition of John William’s Superman theme.  (I’ve been waiting for that since season two.  In the episode in which Christopher Reeve appeared, the show’s composer very cleverly wove in some themes from John Williams’ score to the Superman films.  It was awesome, and I thought it was really cool how the remaining season two episodes also found ways to incorporate that John Williams music.  But then, for some reason, the show stopped using the John Williams themes!  I was bummed, but have for years held out hope that we’d hear that great music again at the very end of the series.  I’m so glad we did.)  I loved Clark’s last line of dialogue.

BUT.

BUT.

I am stunned — STUNNED — that not only did we never actually get to see the revelation of Superman to the world (not a scene of people watching a teeny tiny red figure up in the sky doing something, I mean a real scene of Superman doing something heroic right in the middle of Metropolis and everyone getting a good look at him) — but we never got one single full-screen shot of Tom Welling in the Superman costume!!  We saw close ups of his face, we saw shots looking at him from the back, we saw shots of him from afar.  But we never got the moment that I (and I suspect many fans) have been waiting for since that pilot episode ten years ago: that one, triumphant shot of Tom Welling’s Clark Kent as Superman.

What an unbelievable disappointment!

I could go on and on about other things that bugged me about the finale.  Where was the Justice League?  Why was Lionel Luthor so totally out of character (this self-absorbed man suddenly was more concerned about his son Lex than his own life??)?  Why did no main character care what happened to Tess?  Why was Chloe written out halfway through the episode?  (I know it was because of behind-the-scenes goings-on that the actress was only available for a short time and so couldn’t have too prominent role in the episode, and I know I should be thankful she was in it at all, since originally it was announced that she wouldn’t be.)  But Chloe was, for many years, my favorite character on the show.  I always thought she was the best match for Clark Kent, and I thought she would somehow become Lois Lane (her name was chLOe Sullivan), maybe as a pen-name.  Even though it was clear that wouldn’t happen (once the real Lois was introduced), I’m still sort of bummed that our final shot of Chloe in the series wasn’t writing for a newspaper, or pursuing other weird/supernatural goings-on, or up in space running the Justice League’s Watchtower.

I’m disappointed we never got to see the moment where someone coined the name Superman.  I don’t understand why Clark and Lois waited seven years after the events of this episode to get married.  (I guess it’s to allow for the idea that the Superman movies — in which Clark and Lois weren’t married — took place in the same universe/time-line of this show, just after the events of the series.  But since we saw Lois meet Clark for the first time in the first Superman movie, and she clearly didn’t know his secret identity, that doesn’t work at all.)  Can I say again how I can’t believe that we never saw a single member of the Justice League in the whole episode — they weren’t even MENTIONED — despite this potentially world-ending threat being exactly the sort of thing the League was created to combat??

I was THRILLED that the show-runners were able to bring back Michael Rosenbaum to reprise his role of Lex Luthor.  His scene with Clark was great.  The way he was brought back to life was stupid, but I’m willing to forgive that because it’s hard to imagine any way of bringing this character back that wouldn’t be sort of silly.  But the device the writers used to explain why the Lex of the future wouldn’t remember that his old Smallville buddy was actually Kal-El of Krypton (something the writers foolishly allowed Lex to learn in the season seven finale, thus painting themselves into a corner) was so X-Men origins: Wolverine amnesia bullets stupid as to be really painful and annoying.  Why not just go with the idea that, in the universe of Smallville, Lex Luthor knows Superman’s secret identity?  Just throw in one line about how Lex wants to destroy Superman himself so would never real Clark’s identity to any other villain, and I’d be satisfied!  What they decided to do instead was weak in the extreme, in my opinion.

Sigh.

Smallville was not a great show.  It was a very mediocre show.  But despite it’s many flaws, it’s a show that I enjoyed watching for ten years.  I wish it could have exited on a stronger note.  The great John Williams music and the terrific final shot (as well as the clever way they did the closing credits) were almost enough to make me forgive everything, but not quite.

It’ll be interesting to see whether Smallville holds up in future years.  Though I enjoyed watching the series unfold, I don’t think this is a show that I see myself re-watching.  At least not anytime soon.  Still, the show was a fun, creative twist on the Superman mythos (if anything, Smallville demonstrates the power of those mythos, since we could see that the basic tenets of the story remained so strong even when reinterpreted so dramatically), and I’m sorry to see it go.

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