Smallville: The Beginning of the End

PrintE-mail Written by Caroline Preece Sunday, 08 May 2011

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Endings are hard, we all know it. How many times has a show been loved right from the start, only for its final few moments to betray that blind loyalty? It's true that some of the most celebrated series in recent memory have lasted short of just one season, while others draw out their inevitable climax for years, sometimes losing viewers in the process. It's open to debate which one would be harder to create or what's eventually more satisfying for the fans but drawing a line in the sand after an entire decade seems particularly brutal. This is the monumental task currently facing the Smallville team in the coming weeks and it would be fair to say it's been a long time coming.

After ten years on the air, the little show that started with the much grander hope of following America's best loved superhero throughout his younger years now holds the crown for longest running superhero show on television. Back in 2001, audiences were introduced to a 15-year-old Clark Kent and, with a schedule filled with female heroes like Buffy and the Charmed sisters, Superman fans and newcomers alike seemed to welcome him with arms wide open. It was still early days but, taking their lead from Roswell, creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar managed to construct not only a credible hero, but an interpretation of the DC universe that effortlessly mixed high school soap opera, incredible special effects and classic science-fiction.

One can only assume that the networks were similarly infatuated. It's no secret that the fickle world of television production openly favours an episodic format over a complex serialised narrative; to which early Smallville fit the bill like a glove. Remember, these were the simpler days before the long-running mysteries of Lost had made their impact on the televisual landscape, meaning the 'freak-of-the-week' format of these first episodes were the ideal tactic for allowing viewers to pick up and leave off at their leisure. Plot lines and relationships were always neatly tied up within the 40-minute running time and it was rare for anything fundamental to change from week to week. Despite this apparent simplicity in inception however, audiences responded positively and as the show progressed, the quality rapidly started to rise.

Smallville has never and probably will never be the critical darling that Buffy the Vampire Slayer was. Although it received an optimistic acceptance from fans when it first appeared on the scene, early seasons were patchy at best; derivative and repetitive at worst. It was a case of too many meteor-freaks spoiling the broth at times, and the writers were slow in realising these not insignificant flaws. It has, however, achieved moments of true greatness over the years and has most often triumphed in fully realising those characters previously resigned to the archetypal hero/villain roles. Thus, icons like Lex Luthor and Lana Lang have been allowed to take on new life through the show's contemporary interpretation, while Smallville has been able to put its own stamp on the mythology.

Lex has of course been vastly re-imagined as the anti-hero of the piece, while resident sidekick Chloe has been introduced into the official DC universe due to her growing popularity. The show has also tapped into its rich heritage more and more as it has evolved, allowing for much loved characters and arcs like Zod or the Justice Society of America to appear more often. But now it's time for Clark to finally grow up, don those famous tights and take flight at last. Our big blue boy scout has gone from awkward teenage farm boy to the confident hero we all knew he'd become over the last ten years; we've physically moved from the Kent Farm to the Daily Planet and girl-next-door Lana Lang has been ousted in favour of more sassy and sexy Lois Lane. We've come a long way so, as the show nears its end, there seems no better time to take stock and reflect on what's been a thrilling journey from myth to man.

But before we delve any deeper, we need to meet the man himself. Former model Tom Welling is Superman, as he embodies everything Clark Kent should be with ease, along with the strength and morality of his alter-ego. However, from the get-go, Smallville rewrote the conventions, beginning with the devastating meteor shower that brought our hero to earth. This epic teaser re-establishes the rules for a whole new generation of fans, while emphasising the importance of our 'three orphans' to the casual viewer. Clark, Lex and Lana were our magic three from the start (if not by the end), so to revisit these moments is as rewarding for long-serving viewers as it was as a beginner.

 As Smallville took its first steps, it could be seen borrowing generously from more established successes, past and present, in order to appeal to its desired viewership. The teen drama had been around in some form since Beverly Hills 90210 in the 90s, but the mixture of high school and fantasy hadn't really come of age until Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 1997. By scattering pieces of Clark's home-planet across town, the show had a ready-made plot device that would explain away a weekly threat. Like Buffy's 'hellmouth', the meteor rocks would infect the students with powers tied to their personalities, manifesting themselves in deviant behaviour. Each week it was Clark's job to stop them and, aided by his friends: wannabe reporter Chloe Sullivan and best friend Pete Ross, stand up for "truth, justice and... other stuff".

 It was these sly references to its source material that made original fans take Smallville to their hearts so immediately. Alongside recognisable characters like Lex Luthor and Lana Lang, there were various sneaky shots of the red, blue and yellow colour scheme along with famous lines ironically uttered at regular intervals. Clark's barn was dubbed his 'fortress of solitude' by his dad; while an 'S' was painted on his chest as he hung from a cross in the very first episode. But while Clark had his own investigative team on call (Chloe and Pete serving as Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen in training), his not-quite-requited crush on Lana kept the show firmly placed in high school.

Once the show had established a fan-base and ironed out some of the kinks, the second season really had the freedom to delve a lot deeper into its mythos. While the writers had proved they could do Clark Kent, Superman was still nowhere to be seen. In order to free itself from some of the soapy trappings that had plagued its reputation, this sophomore effort introduced more powers, high-profile guest stars, and a no-holds-barred exploration of Clark's heritage. By the second episode, he had developed heat-vision; by the fourth, red-kryptonite had come into play. The moment the show really came alive, however, was in the Christopher Reeve-starring 'Rosetta', which included notions of Krypton, Kal-El and the true meaning behind legends of Smallville's Kawatche caves for the first time.

Nevertheless, for many, season three saw a decline in creative energy. What had always set it apart from more conventional interpretations was Clark's relationship with the enigmatic Lex Luthor and, to this day, Lex remains one of the shows most dynamic and well drawn creations. The third season was his chance to shine, with many of his and dad Lionel's storylines often proving more interesting than the A-plot; as well as providing welcome relief from the now tired Clark and Lana dynamic. Michael Rosenbaum's elusive billionaire was written out of the show way back in 2008 but fan demand and a certain amount of unfinished business mean he'll be returning with a vengeance for the upcoming series finale. But which side will he be on?

The show's other masterstroke was to make the emotionally charged alliance between Lex and Clark seem like it had always been there. It goes without saying that fans responded to their relationship as his reconstruction injected some much needed maturity and cynicism into what essentially began as a family action-adventure show. It's a testament to the conception that the scene in which the two literally collide on Loeb bridge has become as iconic as much more established images from past incarnations. When the time came for Lex to leave, he was much more recognisable as the arch-enemy of Superman we were already so familiar with; although this change worked better in some points more than others.

We all knew that the inter-dependent 'romance' between Lex and Clark would have to be lost at some point in order to complete the story, but this open knowledge of their shared destiny soon became less an ironic awareness than a suffocating set of chains for the writers. In season seven's 'Arctic', the episode in which Lex finally discovers the big secret, we become painfully aware that, should it have been allowed, Lex would have known about Clark for a while. It was clear that the writers needed Rosenbaum to stick around for the apocalyptic finale, but valuable character development and audience pay-off were largely lost in the process. When it worked, Lex could often be the more sympathetic of the two rivals, and his death at the hands of Oliver Queen in the eighth season was, like his marriage to Lana Lang, a huge betrayal of the character for fans.

Lex's father, the charismatic patriarch Lionel Luthor, had no such restrictions upon his characterisation. Billed originally as a special guest star, John Glover was upgraded to a regular for the show's second season and soon became its most vibrant and enduring figure. In contrast to Lex, Lionel's death was a triumphant moment, pushed from the Luthorcorp tower by his own son whilst protecting Clark's secret. This was the moment when Lex truly became the villain of the piece, and Lionel's absence has been sorely felt ever since. He too has returned for Smallville's final season, although as an earlier version of the character, so as the first character to appear on screen in the shows premiere, it will be interesting to see the part he plays in its end.

Lionel served as father figure to both Clark and Lex at various points and in a show so focused on notions of identity and family, he was one of the biggest influences on the outcome of the show. Prior to season five, however, Clark's over-arching father figure came in the form of humble farmer Jonathan Kent, whose reappearance in this year's premiere, 'Lazarus', brought some home truths for his now grown-up son. Clark's adoptive parents were always a feature of the Superman backstory, but Smallville had the unique opportunity to fully explore the dynamics between Clark, Martha and Jonathan, as well as the roles they could play in shaping his future. It became the scaffolding that held the show together, their scenes on the farm often beginning and ending each episode, and Jonathan's death in the 100th episode was a defining moment for the characters as much as it was a turning point for the show.

Despite the missteps of season three, the fourth and fifth season bravely dealt with what would happen to our teens after high school. Considering that for countless shows, what awaits outside the safety of those halls is the cruel hand of cancellation, it was clear that some big changes would have to be made if Smallville were to survive. While, for many, season four had been the most disappointing yet, it did effectively introduce Lois Lane, as well as wisely recruiting Chloe as Clark's secret-keeper after the earlier departure of spare-part Pete. These modifications were risky but, for a show as often tediously slow as Smallville, they were necessary in order for it grow up. The risks paid off, as the character of Chloe took on new life as Clark's tech-savvy confidant, while Lois moved the show to Metropolis; introducing the now familiar basement set of the Daily Planet in the process.

With all of this the show quickly became much bigger in scope. While teaser characters like Bart Allen and Perry White had been popping up for a while, we now had some fully-fledged superheroes in our midst. 'Aqua' introduced Arthur Curry as the H20-enhanced member of the Justice League and by the time Green Arrow entered onto the scene in season six, we had a ready-made team of crime fighters. Season five also saw James Masters' Braniac as Clark's undercover college professor and the big-bad of the season turned out to be none other than General Zod. Although the makers quickly abandoned the idea of dorm rooms and lecture halls as Chloe entered the seductive world of journalism and Clark got busy saving the world, these developments moved the story into the outside world, expanding the universe as the characters expanded their horizons.

 Season six was arguably the first run of episodes to introduce an over-arching villain, with creatures released by Clark from the Phantom Zone tying the story strands together for a big finish. Justin Hartley's Oliver Queen was a much needed breath of fresh air and Chloe's role grew swan-like from generic super-sleuth to tragic heroine almost overnight. As the cast were largely split two ways, with newly-wed Lana and Lex resigned to the mansion and Lois engaging in some extra-curricular activity with Green Arrow, Clark and Chloe's companionship became the heart and soul of the show. Like the Kent's before her, the long-suffering blonde served to anchor each episode (and Clark), in reality. Even after she developed a meteor power of her own(?). Lana, on the other hand, grew further and further away from Clark's life as she began to get closer to his secret.

When speaking to fans and haters of the show alike, their biggest problem with Smallville is usually the development of Lana. With a combination of viewer-pandering and writer’s loyalty, the character stuck around as the primary love interest right up until season eight, a whole four years after the introduction of Clark’s inevitable love, Lois Lane. Season six saw the character marry into the Luthor family after an ill-judged romance with an increasingly dark Lex but, one fake pregnancy and staged murder later, she was back in Clark's arms and living with him on the farm. Although the character has always seemed unpopular, hers is arguably one of the most interesting arcs of any of the characters. Going from doe-eyed fairy princess to kick-ass superhero over eight seasons gave her character some depth at last, but her final departure allowed things to finally move past the trappings of small town life.

Season seven was maybe the most hated of all because (unlike season four), we weren't in high school anymore. After seven years of waiting, most viewers felt that Clark should have been showing signs of becoming the 'man of steel' at some point. Perhaps to counteract these queries, the writers introduced Kara (Clark's cousin and future Supergirl) but, instead of injecting some much needed Superman lore into things, Kara's introduction felt camp and unnecessary next to the more realistic and believable members of the Justice League. She was quickly disposed of at the end of season seven along with the floundering Lana and Lex. With them gone, the move to the Daily Planet, Clark's suit and glasses combo and his romance with a certain Miss Lois Lane – there seemed to be a natural progression, and the show upped its game once again.

With a new production team and additional characters in the mix, there was a sense that season eight was going to be a very different beast. A show that was once so stuck in relationship drama and love triangles was now well and truly exploring the mythology surrounding the Superman comics, but this came along with its own problems. Although devout fans of the expanded DC universe started to respond to this new-found crossover, casual viewers started to get pushed aside. Characters and plot developments would be introduced with little explanation, but offered a gravitas not understood by those out of the loop. A notable exception to this rule was the introduction of Doomsday as season eight’s main villain who, barring a disappointing final showdown, was given time to fully develop as a character unique to Smallville.

Doomsday’s character also shone a spotlight on Chloe, who became a much darker character after the events of the season eight finale. Her husband, Jimmy Olsen, had been killed by Doomsday’s human alter-ego as a result of some bad decisions, so there was no going back to the cosy co-dependence they‘d once shared. Season nine acted in much the same way as Buffy’s post-death depression arc had, with characters isolated and much darker themes allowed to fester. The season finale ended with Clark sacrificing himself for humanity‘s survival and his struggle with his own identity was brought front and centre across the year. Tess Mercer’s replacement of Lex also brought back an ambiguity that had been lost long ago, and the introduction of Zod provided a slow-building nemesis past seasons had lacked.

Still, it is not until a show's final season that you can really begin to know what it thinks of itself. Lost's finale presented the proceeding six years as a relationship drama, with different souls brought together by extraordinary circumstances, while Supernatural's planned last episode cemented ideas of family in the midst of insurmountable odds. Judging by what Smallville has offered its viewers this year, it too has been about family. But which family? The past ten years have seen an epic rivalry between the Kents and the Luthors, which has gone much further than the opposition between Clark and Lex. Both characters have been taken in by the opposing father figure at some point in the series, and loyalties have shifted back and forth indiscriminately over that time. The show has brought Jonathan and the Luthors back for one final outing and the introduction of Connor Kent as Lex and Clark's 'genetic lovechild' is not just the stuff of fangirl's dreams, but an underlining of Smallville's central themes.

 It's interesting to wonder how Smallville will be remembered over time. Some shows get lucky and remain in the cultural zeitgeist despite weaker seasons and mistakes along the way; while others cannot be redeemed quite so easily. It remains true, however, that almost no show in history has been able to do what Gough and Miller started all those years ago; they accomplished what they set out to do and more. What started as a teen drama with musings on family and self has actually taken viewers all the way from Clark Kent to Superman in one fell swoop. It can't be denied that it lost its way many times along the way, 'jumping the shark' more times than you'd care to count, but the thought of it being cancelled before reaching its climax doesn't even bare thinking about. Will it be remembered for its many achievements or plagued by its failings? Only time will tell. But with a new Superman movie in production and a superhero-saturated media landscape, it would be a shame if it got lost in the shuffle.

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