Sunday, September 15, 2013

Nostalgia Theater: Lois & Clark Turns 20!

Teri Hatcher (L) and Dean Cain (R) as the Lois Lane and Clark Kent for the '90s
This past Wednesday marked exactly twenty years since Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman debuted as part of ABC's Sunday night lineup. With Dean Cain representing the "Clark" portion of the title, and Teri Hatcher the "Lois," it was a show that perfectly suited the early '90s milieu in which it emerged, with the focus on the main characters' working (and eventually romantic) relationship, and the "Adventures" alluded to in the title playing a very distant second fiddle. For awhile, this was the most prominent, most popular take on the Superman myth in the zeitgeist, and while it flamed out relatively quickly, it still occupies a special place in the hearts of many a Super-fan -- including me.

Originally developed in the early '90s under the title "Lois Lane's Daily Planet," the idea put forth by then-DC Comics publisher Jenette Kahn was for a hip, contemporary take on the woman at the center of the Man of Steel legend, with the hero himself not even present or only alluded to (bear in mind, this was during the period when the syndicated Superboy -- remember that one? -- was still in the middle of its four-year flight, and most of the Superman screen rights were locked down). However, the various legal maneuverings behind-the-scenes of that show, which ended its run in spring of '92, saw Superman land back into Warners' hands for the re-titled Lois & Clark.

This was at the peak of my Superman comic fandom. I'd been reading the character pretty regularly since his big comic book reboot in 1987, which saw his entire status quo realigned to focus was on Clark Kent as a person and not a facade. Bear in mind also that this was the pre-Internet wilderness of the early '90s, when you couldn't track the development of any given project from minute-to-minute. Thus, I had to content myself with dribs and drabs of info trickling out -- a blurb here, a pic there. I don't think I even saw Cain fully suited up in the red-and-blue until the show itself premiered (after months of anticipation by me) in fall of '93. Here's what things looked like opening night:

As I said above, this was (mostly) the rebooted Superman of '87. Clark was the real guy, and Superman was the suit he wore (take that, Quentin Tarentino!). In addition, Clark's foster parents were still alive and a regular presence in his life, and Superman's arch-enemy Lex Luthor had been re-imagined as an evil corporate raider instead of the criminal scientist he'd been since his inception in the '30s. Probably the biggest change in the comics, which had maintained a kind of enforced stasis for the previous five decades, was that Lois Lane and Clark Kent's relationship was actually allowed to progress. They grew close, fell in love, got engaged, and even shared the secret of his identity.

This was the way of things in the comics at the time, and it sure seemed like full steam ahead toward a splashy wedding by fall of '92. Of course, this was a little bit soon for the TV people, who wanted to hold the carrot of Superman finally marrying Lois Lane out there a little longer for fear of their (still hypothetical, at this point) series losing some of its momentum. Thus was born the year-long "Death of Superman" comic book stunt (which garnered a fair amount of media buzz, and which I discussed at length here). In September of '93, Superman was brought back to life in the comics just in time for Lois & Clark to bring Superman back to life on TV.

Of course, at the time, there wasn't much hope that the show would succeed, given that it was part of a time slot logjam that included reigning ratings champ Murder, She Wrote (which had the oldster demo pretty well sewn up) on CBS, and NBC's highly-hyped newcomer SeaQuest DSV (produced by Steven Spielberg) targeting the nerds. Nonetheless, it was Superman who had critical acclaim on his side, with the pilot episode bringing just the right mix of adventure, romance, and whimsy to cement this new take on an old story (in the eyes of the public anyway, not new to us comic nerds). Cain & Hatcher had the kind of chemistry that made you want to see their relationship grow, and it was perfectly summed up in this terrific scene:

In addition to the titular twosome, Lois & Clark also benefitted from a great supporting cast surrounding them, with the late, great Lane Smith as Daily Planet editor Perry White, and Michael Landes as a hipper Jimmy Olsen than folks were probably used to at the time (though Landes was dropped after the first year, replaced by Justin Whalin). Another big selling point for the show was the Superman-Luthor relationship, which was given a renewed dimension thanks to John Shea's portrayal of the charming (non-bald) billionaire, now a romantic rival for Clark Kent in addition to being an ongoing foil for Superman. Shea was present for every episode that first year, and his arc is typified by this clip, also from the pilot:

I was camped in front of my TV for the first episode. We didn't own a VCR, so I couldn't even record or re-watch it (this is before DVRs, remember), so I didn't want to miss even a minute. As it turns out, I was one of the few people who did watch that first night. Ratings weren't spectacular, with most of the tune-in going to the SeaQuest premiere that same evening. But as the weeks wore on, something funny happened. Word of mouth picked up. People started tuning in to Lois & Clark. And not just the comic fans (many of whom, let's face it, were probably turned off by the fact that Superman basically showed up for five minutes in any given episode).

No, Lois & Clark was winning over mainstream auds (across all demos, but especially women), to the extent that, by the end of its first year, it was regularly beating both of its timeslot rivals. By the time the second season premiered, the show was a bona fide hit, one of the feathers in a resurgent ABC's cap. But the show lost a bit of a step following season one, with the departure of creator/showrunner Deborah Joy LeVine, and the network demand for more action. The resultant infusion of superhero-ing on a TV budget destroyed the delicate tightrope act of that first year, with increasingly campy villains-of-the-week (Bronson Pinchot! Emma Samms!) distracting us from our heroes' relationship travails. Here's a clip of Superman fighting Nick from Family Ties:

So...that's not, y'know, great. And as season two turned into season three, what was supposed to be the long-promised wedding for the couple devolved into some business with clones and frogs and....yeah. Although Lois & Clark was still doing well enough in the ratings heading into year four to warrant an early fifth season pickup by ABC, the audience had clearly had enough. The subsequent ratings collapse, with even the wedding itself not garnering much interest, led ABC to pull the plug in spring of '97. With the show's creatives all under the assumption that the fifth year was a go, the show was left dangling over a cliff story-wise (not that anyone particularly cared -- by then the show had dropped from a Top 20 fixture to a sub-100).

Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman's 87 episodes lasted for the exact duration of my high school career, and so I'll always accord it special significance in my life. It was the first (and really only) time that "my" Superman was brought to the screen, and that was gratifying (especially considering that, in the decades since, most of the effects of the reboot have been re-rebooted away several times over anyway). While the show ended somewhat ignominiously, that was hardly the end for Superman on the small screen. An animated Superman from the folks who did Batman: The Animated Series premiered in '96, during its final season, and four later, a little show called Smallville came along (my understanding is that one did okay).

Today, reruns of Lois & Clark are shown semi-regularly on the Hub, and the entire series is out on DVD. If you're coming in completely cold, I'd recommend checking out the (cheap!) first season, which is the strongest, and probably stopping there. The show is very much an artifact of its time (just look at Tracy Scoggins as Cat Grant during year one if you doubt me). While I don't think it's remained as timeless as, say, 1978's Superman: The Movie. Nonetheless, it's still a part of the overall legend of the World's Greatest Hero, and thus it's worthy of remembering the time when the most pressing question in Metropolis wasn't about which diabolical villain Superman was battling, but whether or not Lois & Clark would end up together.

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