Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Smallville - The Complete Series: Myth, Metaphor, and the Man of Steel

I thought I'd said everything I needed to say about Smallville in May when discussing the series' long-in-coming finale, but after spending most of the last week digging into the complete series set containing all ten seasons of the proto-Superman skein I'm struck by how, despite the many, many concerns I've voiced with the series' sloppy storytelling techniques and narrative cul-de-sacs throughout its run, none of that particularly mattered to me. Instead, we're left with the towering achievement of the series itself: 218 episodes of a series that stayed aloft for an entire decade when its whole raison d'ĂȘtre was pointedly about not being aloft, and which can now be viewed not as piecemeal distillates of a tale that may or may not reach its fruition, but instead one long story with a specific beginning, middle, and end, demonstrating the power of this character to reinvent himself for every generation.

In a sense, it's a bit like looking back at one's high school years. Yes, in the moment there's plenty of angst and anguish, but with the distance of time and the perspective that comes from knowing we wouldn't be where we are today if not for every experience we had before, it becomes easier to look back on the good times. And so it is with Smallville. Knowing that, despite the many fits and starts on the road there, Tom Welling's Boy of Steel "graduated" at series' end just as he was meant to, we can overlook season four's go-nowhere "Lana Lang is a witch" thread, or the inanity of "Jimmy Olsen, and his younger brother Jimmy Olsen" in season eight, and instead focus on the positives, like the brilliant pilot episode that neatly set the stage for everything to come, or season two's "Rosetta," with the late Christopher Reeve passing the Super-torch to Welling.

A few weeks ago I spent quite a bit of space dissecting whether it's Clark Kent or his costumed alter-ego who constitutes the "real" identity of the iconic hero, with no firm answer emerging, but Smallville spent perhaps more time than any other take on the Superman legend by really digging into that dichotomy. Even more than that, however, the key to its longevity may well lie in how it plied the metaphorical underpinnings of that question to maximum effect, with Clark's journey from farmboy to journalist to superhero -- and all the false starts encompassed therein -- playing in parallel to the same struggles all of us go through as we make that uneasy transition from adolescence to adulthood.

It's this thematic through-line of identity-in-transition that's woven into the very design of Warner Bros.' beautiful box set for the show -- a true love letter to longtime fans -- which has the set's 62 discs housed in two yearbook-style cases, one for the first five years (the "Smallville" era) and one for the latter five (when it became essentially the "Metropolis" years). The assortment of brand new special features includes in-depth looks at each season's individual arcs ("Supergirl" in year 7, "Zod" in year 9, etc.) and how they played out against the broader arc of the entire show. I may have had some grumbles with choices the creatives made over the years, but after making my way through the featurettes, I couldn't help but gain a deeper appreciation for the many ways they stepped right.

Indeed, it's been especially interesting for me to re-watch the early episodes chronicling Clark's high school trials and tribulations for the first time since they originally aired in fall of '01, when I was just four years out of high school myself. Now here I am ten years older, and where I used to relate to the awkwardness of teenaged Clark, today, with three little ones of my own, I look at John Schneider's portrayal of Clark's adopted father Jonathan Kent, and wonder how he makes this whole parenting thing look so easy. To me, that's the true test of a work of art: how well it transcends its moment, and whether we can find new points of entry depending on which stage of our life we happen to be in when experiencing it.

Another aspect one can appreciate far more given the benefit of a decade's hindsight is the remarkable work actor Michael Rosenbaum's did in his extended run as Lex Luthor, whose descent into the criminal mastermind/arch-nemesis role that he's long since been damned to was given a deeply tragic undercurrent unlike any he has been portrayed with previously. Though the relationship between the two eternal rivals has varied greatly depending on which telling one chooses to embrace, by keeping its focus on "Lex & Clark" instead of "Luthor & Superman," Smallville's approach will prove perhaps the most resonant and memorable of all in the long-run.

While it was at times impossibly flawed, those flaws don't amount to much when weighed against what the show succeeded at doing. Its conceptualization of Clark Kent, Lex Luthor, Lois Lane, et al, will likely remain touchstones for everyone who came of age with the show, and that's something that can never be taken away from it. In that sense, just as Lois & Clark did for audiences in the '90s, and the Christopher Reeve and George Reeves iterations did during their respective eras, Smallville has been a crucial a part of the ongoing cultural evolution of the Superman story, with the elasticity of the myth showing why the character continues to play such an integral role in the cultural firmament.

1 comment:

Abu Ibrahim said...


I've never been a real Superman fan. He was too powerful, and the writers went to great lengths to find suitable villains. Hence, I never got into Smallville.

However, since I am a BIG Batman fan, I tend to read a lot about Superman anyway since they work together so often.

While the recent Batman movies have been a stupendous upgrade, it's unlikely that success will translate to the small screen, though I'd love to it given a shot (not the campy Batman in tights thing from the 60's; a reinterpretation of the recent Chris Nolan movies).

I must admit however, the longevity of the Smallville series is testament to the popularity of the Man of Steel. The fact that Warner Bros. owns DC Comics doesn't hurt either.