Smallville is a show of beguiling contradictions. It's about Clark Kent, but no one refers to him as "Superman." It's steeped in DC comics arcana, but began its existence as a WB teen drama. It's been on the air longer than Seinfeld, but almost no one owns up to watching it. Let's delve into those wacky idiosyncrasies of this once unkillable superhero drama, whose series finale air date was announced today.
Last October, I was at the New York Comic Con watching Geoff Johns —DC Comics' Chief Creative Officer, Green Lantern franchise reinvigorator, and one of DC's best-selling authors — address an eager crowd of several hundred Green Lantern loyalists. In informing fans about the publisher's plans for the Flash series and Green Lantern cartoon, Johns told fans that he would be penning an episode of Smallville about Booster Gold, DC's lovable (albeit perennial loser) superhero.
This news was greeted with an enthusiastic applause and scattered whoop, but what happened next was remarkable. In an off-the cuff comment, Johns said something like, "You really ought to check out Smallville — they're doing some cool stuff for its tenth and final season."
I'm paraphrasing Johns, but let's unpackage that notion. Johns was attempting to convince 300 or so ardent members of DC Nation to watch a show about Superman. We live in an era in which TV and film studios are strip-mining the lores of all sorts of wackadoo and obscure comic characters (just look at the roster for Matthew Vaughan's $120 million X-Men First Class). The idea that this well-regarded creator was modestly suggesting to devoted DC fans to watch a show about the Man of Steel (in its milestone-packed final season, no less) was unthinkable. It was like I was attending a convention on Bizarro Planet.
Of course, Smallville is not simply a show about Superman. It was spawned from the same primordial bouillabaisse that birthed such genre-inflected soaps as Charmed, Roswell, and (to a more entertainingly self-aware extent) Buffy. Unlike these shows, Smallville has soldiered on, coelacanth-style, outliving most science fiction shows (it's surpassed every Star Trek series). And as Smallville trundled forth, its cast and themes changed. Original inamorata Kristin Kreuk (Lana Lang) and villain Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum) were replaced with newcomers Lois Lane (Erica Durance) and Tess Mercer (Cassidy Freeman).
As the cast aged, they evolved from 20-somethings in high school to 30-somethings experiencing quarter-life angst. Smallville's traffic peaked long ago, this prime-time Methuselah pulls in baffling numbers for a decade-old show — a little less than the population of New Mexico (an estimated 2.4 million viewers) watched last Friday's mid-season premiere. To contrast, the best-selling Super-centric title sold at Diamond comic retailers in December was Superman #706 (which moved 43,027 copies).
The show's long run has led to a thematic dissonance as well — Smallville often gets a critical pass for being escapism, but the show strives for politically salient scifi drama. Clark's concerns about keeping a secret identity from the show's early years have given way to the final season's storyline about the Vigilante Registration Act (VRA), a crusade by a mind-controlling space god to quash superheroes using America's military industrial complex. The show wants oh-so-dreadfully to be taken seriously, but in doing so, opens itself to camp that makes the Nuclear Man look like Spalding Grey. Let's take a look at a scene from last week's episode, "Collateral." In this episode, Clark and his superhero crimebusters have been abducted by the VRA and are forced to live in a Matrix-like reality so the VRA can divine Clark's powers.*
[*Side Note: The once-an-episode depowering of Clark is an always entertaining aspect of the program. Almost every week, Clark is subdued by Kryptonite in some form, whether it be a Kryptonite cage or dagger or Kryptonite-laced drinking water that makes him helpless to evil crypto-Mennonites (not making this up). It's not unlike Night Boat from The Simpsons — "Every week there's a canal. Or an inlet. Or a fjord." Unsurprisingly, the show is no stranger to BDSM themes.]
In this sequence, Chloe Sullivan (one-time series regular Allison Mack) rescues her boyfriend the Green Arrow (Justin Hartley) from the computer using a little Gun Kata. By imbuing a Superman show (arguably the least neurotic of popular superheroes) with grimy Wachowski-lite gunplay, Smallville stumbles in its attempt at cultural relevancy. Yes, Smallville walks a strange line between homespun hokum and pomo superhero grittiness. Clark may fight evil trenchcoat-clad Kryptonians or government assassins, but there must be one requisite scene in every episode that takes place at the Kent barn.
The once-an-episode mandated appearance of the Kent barn is a metaphor for the show's WB past — as much as the plot veers into high-espionage antics or the highfalutin world of Metropolis, the show can't escape its adolescence. A common complaint levied against Smallville is that it's Season 10, and Clark's only now learning to fly. My biggest problem has always been that there's a guy who can jog at the speed of sound, but we perpetually see him hanging around in the hay.
Smallville's occasional attempts at high drama aside, perhaps the strangest facet of the show is its mostly nonexistent relationship with comics culture. Here is a show that has achieved TV ubiquity and regularly mines DC footnotes for inspiration (guest appearances by Stargirl, Deadshot, and Silver Banshee!), but it receives but a passing nod from the comic-reading community — heck, the most recurring comment in Smallville recaps around io9 has been the snarky (and occasionally sincerely befuddled), "This is still on the air?"
Smallville wasn't the most profound show out there, but it was one of the most resilient. Let us not dance on its grave, but remember its quirks. Someday we too will be forced to go the great Kent barn in the sky, and shit, it's no small feat to stay on the air as long as JAG. Its two-hour finale airs Friday, May 13 at 8:00 PM. Smallville will be 10.