Saturday, June 5, 2010


Review by Antony Ellis

It was a bit of a strange experience; going back to a show that I used to love, and watching it again for the first time in years – and only, if memory serves, for the second time ever. But I wanted to rediscover what captivated my imagination so much in the autumn of 2001 when I was a young lad of eighteen slowly beginning to make my first steps in the adult world. I also wanted to, as the mature and sophisticated (well – mostly!) man of twenty-seven years, look back at ‘Smallville: Superman The Early Years’ (as the show was subtitled here in the UK) and see if it held up almost a decade later as the action-packed ‘Dawson’s Creek’ with superpowers that I remember it being.

There is one thing you should know about me going into my reviews of this show - I am a sucker for teen dramas. I know I should be old enough to know better, but shows like ‘The O.C.’, ‘Veronica Mars’ and the aforementioned ‘Dawson’s Creek’ just resonate something with me. I think it might be something to do with living vicariously through the excitement and drama of teenage years, where the tiniest romantic entanglement becomes the most important thing in the world for our heroes and heroines. My teenage years, in comparison, were probably the norm in being a bit uneventful but I always found pleasure in looking into the lives of Veronica, Dawson, Seth and in ‘Smallville’ – Clark Kent.

Okay, okay – another confession. I am a comic book and superhero nerd. So ‘Smallville’ interested me in a completely different way too – and I think that’s what Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, the creators of the show, were planning. And in a way – it’s perfect, and so, so simple, I can’t believe it wasn’t thought of before. Everyone grows up feeling a bit different, everyone wants to be the most popular kid in school, everyone wants to hide from the world sometimes – but what if you were also discovering you were different from other kids. It’s the perfect coming of age story.

The pilot of ‘Smallville’ was an impressive second viewing. Whilst the opening credits with the truly awesome Remy Zero track “Save Me”, is not yet present, the show gets off to a bang with the small Kansas town’s rebirth from a place famous for creamed corn to a haven for superpowered goons – all due to a freak meteor shower. We are introduced to the heart of the show in Martha and Jonathan Kent (with some inspired casting from former Superman III Lana Lang, Annette O’Toole and Bo Duke himself, Jonathan Schneider) as they make a rare visit into town to buy flowers. The ride back to the Kent homestead changes the lives of everyone in town forever, but particularly the Kents, who find a small boy in meteor crater.

The visual effects of this opening sequence were actually still kind of brilliant. Especially for a TV show, and one that aired on a smaller television network. We are treated to spectacular visuals of Smallville circa 1989 being destroyed by rocks from the sky, and with all the glass shattering and explosions you’d expect. The stunt work is great too with cars bursting into flames and, later in the episode, flying through walls and bridges.

Whilst the show is an ensemble, it’s very clear that there are two layers within this cast, with Tom Welling (Clark Kent), Kristen Kreuk (Lana Lang) and Michael Rosenbaum (Lex Luthor) being the three stars of the episode, and the show for many years. The supporting layer features Jonathan and Martha Kent (as the wise mentor to our young hero, and the only people who know his secret), but the youthfulness of the cast is rounded off by Allison Mac (Chloe Sullivan) and Sam Jones III (Pete Ross). Every hero needs a lame villain in his rogue’s gallery and the teenage Clark Kent has to make do with Whitney Fordman (played by Eric Johnson) who completes the main cast members.

Tom Welling was a former Abercrombie & Fitch and Calvin Klein model before making the switch to acting in 2001 where his profile was given a boost by a number of guest roles. He is a gloriously handsome man, and despite being twenty-four years old when he first played sixteen year old Clark Kent, he manages to pull off the boy next door role quite well. The pilot episode doesn’t really give the opportunity to show off a lot of emotions, apart from sycophantic lust for Lana Lang, and I think this works well for Welling who was an inexperienced actor at this point with his best acting “move” being a quick clench of his jaw muscles when he appears slightly tense.

Whilst even in this early point in history of ‘Smallville’ Tom Welling shows some promise as an actor, the same cannot be said for Kristen Kreuk as Lana Lang. To me she is just a pretty smile, and her slow, breathy and delicate delivery of every line of dialogue is annoying even in the pilot episode. It is clear that the WB wanted Katie Holmes 2.0 as the poster-child of their network and modelled the heroine of ‘Smallville’ on Joey Potter; sweet, innocent and someone you could take home to Ma Kent. From this first episode though, there is nothing but sweetness – and even in a scene where Lana sits at her parents’ graveside she is wearing her trademark (Joker-esque) grin. Katie Holmes, she ain’t!

Michael Rosenbaum however shines, even in this early pilot as we can see already the struggle of a man trying his best to walk the right path and of someone whose life will be forever changed by his move to the small Kansas town and the fateful meeting of Clark Kent. He has the screen presence that the character needs, and the arrogance and swagger that you’d expect from Lex Luthor.

In future reviews on the first season I will endeavour to investigate the other characters more, but the pilot episode really didn’t do much more than introduce Whitney as the romantic rival to Clark, Pete as the (diverse) best friend, and Chloe as the spunky side-kick.

The first episode sets up the narrative structure of the show, and it is interesting to see ‘Smallville’ go where ‘The X-Files’ and ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ did before it in beginning a series with the tried and tested method of “(Meteor) Freak of the Week”.

In the pilot we see the sins of students of Smallville High come back to haunt the current class when a victim of a prank becomes superpowered with electricity following the meteor storm. It’s nothing special as a plot – but the takedown with the villain at the end of the episode does showcase the excellent stunt work on the show and the simple fun of writing a show about teen superheroes and villains.

The fun of ‘Smallville’, in my opinion, is even from episode one, we all know where it’s going to go as almost everyone knows the story of Superman. We know Clark is not destined to be with Lana Lang, we know he is destined to become the Man of Steel, and we know that Lex is going to fall to the dark side and become his greatest enemy. I imagine this is tough for the writers as they have to ensure that a gripping story is created when most people know what the end game is, and whilst they’ll throw curveballs every now and again, the end of the series is in sight from the very first moment you set eyes on Clark Kent.

Another key element of the show that stood out to me on this second viewing was just how cool the music was. It was very reminiscent of ‘Dawson’s Creek’ with its mix of easy listening, folk, and soft rock, and whilst watching I find myself using the Shazam! app on my iPhone to identify tracks and make notes of songs used in the show to add to iTunes. Quite an added bonus!

I was surprised how well ‘Smallville’ looked after nine years, and quite how intrigued I am to continue with my examination of the show. On a personal note one of my interests in continuing to watch the show, will be to begin to watch it from a “queer” perspective, having recently “coming-out” to my family and friends. Tom Welling’s portrayal of Clark, with his hiding his truth self, has already struck a chord and I’m seeing a whole new layer of depth to the show. I’m intrigued and excited to chronicle my thoughts with this new insight.

1 comment:

  1. *sad sigh*
    Yet another show on the Cultural Wormhole list that I have never seen.

    Here's what I DO know:
    Tom Welling is the 2nd hottest guy on the planet (after James Marsden, of course).

    That is all.