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Somebody Saaaaaaaaaave Me!

May 12th, 2011

Back when Smallville premiered on the WB network in October 2001, if you would’ve told me that it would still be on the air ten full seasons later, I would have chortled. Guffawed, even. The notion that a TV series that transplanted the Silver Age adventures of Superboy into a blatant photocopy of Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s Sunnydale would one day become the longest-running science-fiction/fantasy series in U.S. television history was ridiculous.

And I don’t think anyone would’ve been more surprised by its longevity than Smallville‘s creators, Alfred Gough and Miles Millar. They certainly didn’t appear to have planned for that contingency, adopting a strict “no flights, no tights” rule that kept Clark Kent literally grounded, pointedly not becoming Superman even as the actor who portrayed him, Tom Welling, aged into his thirties. Welling, now 34, is nearly ten years older than was Christopher Reeve when he first played Superman for the feature films.

Yet, with only one episode left–the series finale airs tomorrow–Clark has never flown* and the familiar Superman costume is still in Kryptonian mothballs. The unintended effect has been to show the Man of Steel as a weak and indecisive super-waffle.

Smallville has rarely been good, but it almost always has been watchable. In the early years, that was due mostly to actor Michael Rosenbaum as perennial foe Lex Luthor, here a tragic anti-hero pushed slowly into evil by his manipulative father and the lies told by his best friend Clark as the latter attempted to protect the secret of his powers. In an early episode, Lex told Clark, “Our friendship is going to be the stuff of legends.” It was a heartbreaking moment.

Also holding my interest was Allison Mack as intrepid school newspaper reporter and loyal friend Chloe Sullivan. The show clearly wanted me to be into Kristin Kreuk as Clark’s longtime crush Lana Lang, but–true to my preference for Mary Ann over Ginger–it was Mack for whom I carried the torch.

To say that characterization was inconsistent on Smallville was a mockery of  the concept of  inconsistency. The computerized ghost of Clark’s Kryptonian father Jor-El (voiced by Terence Stamp, who was the venomous General Zod in Superman II) bounced between being a strict dad shaping his son’s heroic destiny to a sinister presence intent on turning him into a God among men. (Though he was always a dick.)

Similarly, Lex’s dad Lionel Luthor started out as a thoroughly corrupting influence who became Clark’s good-hearted mentor even though he was still a murderer but then he was protecting Clark’s secrets from Lex and romancing Mrs. Kent even while he was revealed to be at the heart of a decades-old conspiracy that prophesied the arrival of a superbeing. My head is spinning even typing that last sentence.

I nearly gave up on Smallville during its fourth season, around the time of a protracted storyline that saw Lana possessed by the spirit of a kung-fu witch. (A kung. Fu. Witch.) But then a couple of things happened.

One was the arrival of the delectable Erica Durance as Lois Lane. Durance was eye candy to be sure, but she also played an appropriately gutsy, feisty character true to the legacy of the Loises that preceded her.

The other was that Smallville began to embrace the larger DC Comics mythology. Other superheroes began to crop up, and while the “no tights” rule largely kept them in hoodies, it was still fun to see Smallville-ized versions of the Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg.

Season six saw the introduction of Justin Hartley as Green Arrow. The hero proved so popular that he became a series regular through the end of the show’s run, despite the relative insignificance of Green Arrow in Superman’s comic-book backstory.

Watching Smallville has been like looking at Superman through a fun-house mirror. This is a show that brought us longtime supporting character Jimmy Olsen, married him to Chloe Sullivan, killed him off, then revealed that he was never the “real” Jimmy to begin with. It had evil Kryptonian supercomputer Brainiac pretend to be Clark’s college professor, and murderous monster Doomsday moonlight as a paramedic.

In its final years, the show has become a live-action DC Universe, with superheroes such as Zatanna, Stargirl, Hawkman, Dr. Fate, Booster Gold and Blue Beetle appearing in more-or-less accurate versions of their comic-book outfits. (Though, for some reason, Green Arrow still has that damned hoodie.)

Tomorrow night will see the end of a long, strange road. There are many burning questions to be answered. Will Lex Luthor return?** Will he still remember that Clark has superpowers? Will Clark remember that he has superpowers? And will he ever put on that fucking cape?

Keep watching. You will believe that a man can walk.

*Except when he’s turned evil. Evil Clark always flies.

**Spoiler: yes.

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