Thursday, July 01, 2010

The Kent Conundrum

Some welcome news for those who follow (or who, like me, at one time followed) the CW's "young Clark Kent" series Smallville, with word that actor John Schneider is returning for a multi-episode stint reprising his role as the proto-Superman's human father Jonathan Kent, last seen succumbing to an ill-timed heart attack (as if there were any other kind) in the series' 100th episode.  With the show now entering its tenth and final year, and with star Tom Welling the only actor to stay with the ship from beginning to end, Schneider's return (however brief) will be a welcome one, hopefully hearkening back to its terrific early seasons.

Smallville's hitting the decade mark is an impressive feat, making it not only the longest running comic-based TV series by a very wide margin, but also outpacing Stargate SG-1 in episodes produced as the longest running sci-fi show in US history.  Still, for as big a Superman fan as I am, you'd think the show would have garnered more discussion on this site over the years, but looking back at the archives, I see that the last time I wrote about it was here, which was, coincidentally enough, to mark the occasion of Schneider being written out.

And really, in hindsight, I think that's the point where I parted ways with Smallville as anything other than an occasional viewer.  Once Jonathan was no longer a part of the series' continuing tapestry, it lost the moral grounding necessary to make us believe that Clark would one day become the World's Greatest Hero.  More damningly, it stopped even trying to be about that.  Instead, as the producers moved further and further away from the agrarian setting that gave the show its title (and especially once they lost Michael Rosenbaum's Lex Luthor as a regular), Smallville became about Clark Kent, reporter for Metropolis' Daily Planet who fights a neverending battle for truth and justice as...the Blur?

And that pretty much sums up Smallville's problem.  It's been around so long and left its original marching orders so far behind that for for several seasons now they've had to contrive new ways of keeping the iconic tights-and-cape juuuust out of arm's reach for poor Clark, because otherwise it's the ballgame.  And that's how we end up with things like "The Blur," the Neo-Neo act Clark is using before (presumably) learning to appreciate the benefits of complimentary colors.  In essence, Smallville is a "quest" show, with "Clark becomes Superman" the payoff in the same way that "Richard Kimble finds the One-Armed Man" was the payoff for The Fugitive.

So, extending the Fugitive metaphor a little further, while on an intellectual level we knew that Dr. Kimble could never actually find Fred Johnson (no matter how close he thought he was) because otherwise the show would be over, on an emotional level we bought into it because the producers made his adventures so engrossing.  Smallville's problem is that the "quest" is a passive one, because while Kimble had his goal in mind and was actively striving towards it every episode, we in the audience know Clark's end goal, but he doesn't. This in turn makes him essentially a bystander in his own story (even though enough characters have alluded to his future that it should really be crystal clear to him by now).

As a result, the Smallville team has thrown in more and more of the iconic Superman elements, whether Lois Lane in year four, Supergirl in year seven, Doomsday in year eight, or General Zod in year nine, but are staunchly restricted from doing the one thing they need for the show to have a raison d'ĂȘtre.   One presumes that the impending final season will -- at long last -- rectify that, but a part of me wonders if the damage is already done.  I don't see how, based on the status quo as it exists going into the last year, Clark believably becomes Superman without everyone in both Smallville and Metropolis saying "Hey, why is Clark wearing those funny tights?  And whatever happened to the Blur?"

Anyway, Schneider's return visit to Smallville kicks off with the 10th season premiere, and I guess we'll see from there how they manage to close things out.

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