Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Smallville - Season 1

The first season of Smallville focuses tightly on three main characters of the Superman universe, how they interact with each other, their personal victories and their failures. Those characters are Clark Kent, Lex Luthor, and Lana Lang. And their stories and personalities help make a show about a superhuman relatable and appealing.

The Man in Superman

Possibly one of the most enthralling parts of Smallville is Clark Kent and his story. Unlike any comics I have read of Superman, the Clark Kent featured in this TV series is endlessly relatable. Essentially, he is a good person given extraordinary powers and, thanks to excellent parenting, has turned into a young man who is responsible, humble, and benevolent. In this season we see his high school years, how his relationships with his friends flourish, and how he approaches difficult moral decisions that we encounter in everyday life.

What is perhaps this series' greatest accomplishments is the fact that Clark, an inherently good person, is actually interesting to watch and easy to empathize with and aspire to. A common effect of fiction is that the villains often end up being more interesting than the heroes and, in this show, they have managed to do the impossible. I see in Clark aspects of myself, a true empathy. I also see aspects of myself and of life in Lex Luthor and Lana Lang as well, but to see it in Clark Kent, the man who will be Superman, I find that to be amazing. In the comics, Superman is often dull, two-dimensional, and a good but wooden character. To connect with his character in this way in this show is an unusual deviation from the norm, and I want to make sure to emphasize that and point this out.

Part of what makes this possible is the fact that, despite his goodness, he still has his failures. He may have powers beyond comprehension, but this doesn't mean he doesn't make mistakes. As one often sees in Smallville: Season 1, Clark has to overcome the same hurdles that we did when we were young; uncertainty of self, how to accomodate the feelings of others, the pain of unrequited love. Clark epitomizes the ideal of teenage innocence and benevolence, and yet does so in a way that gives him surprising depth.

Ambiguity and Shadow

Lex Luthor is another complex character who helps make the show immensely engrossing to watch. In the comics, Lex Luthor is Superman's arch nemesis, a rich man with no powers of his own who opposes Superman because he believes that Superman holds back humanity's own potential for growth and adaptation. In Smallville, we see a Lex Luthor that hasn't been seen before, as Lex Luthor who meets and befriends a young Clark Kent despite differences of wealth and upbringing. It is an unlikely friendship that is as true as it is odd, and despite the fact that it never happened in the comics, in Smallville it seems to make all the sense in the world.

The foreknowledge that Lex Luthor will eventually become a villain actually serves to make Lex Luthor an incredibly interesting character. He is, in fact, my favorite part of the show, and a great deal of that has to be attributed to the fantastic acting by Michael Rosenbaum. Lex has a magnetic personality; he is clearly Machiavellian in thought and purpose. He is a leader. Yet, at this age (young like Clark), he is also dedicated to doing the right thing, even though this can often be at odds with his own business sense and the wishes of his Hobbesian father, Lionel Luthor. This makes for a conflict that is wholly intriguing to watch. Lex Luthor presents himself as confident, self-interested, suave, and powerful, but his actions give you the sense that he wants to do good for Clark and the town of Smallville, despite the fact that everyone regards him as a dangerous, power-hungry mirror of his father.

It is hard to convey how interesting it is to watch Lex Luthor. You get the sense that he is trying to do good, but that sense wars with the sinister feeling that he is doing it for some unseen insidious purpose. Or is he? It is one of the most intricate and engrossing characters I've ever seen in any story format.

The Heart of Smallville

Lana Lang is an unexpected addition to Smallville's strengths. In the comics, Lana Lang is merely the first love interest of Superman, a love interest that is swiftly passed in favor of the similarly named Lois Lane in the city of Metropolis. In Smallville, I was impressed with how Lana was made into a fully fleshed out character; a young woman seeking her purpose in life. Even more so than Clark, Lana is the moral compass of the show. While, as with everything else, there are exceptions to this rule, Lana consistently seems to lead the way with regard to personal growth and maturity.

A number of themes surround her that often end up affecting the other characters as well. Through Lana we see the effects of popularity in high school, how that negatively affects those around her, and how being regarded as the most beautiful and most accomplished girl can, in fact, be not felt at all by the recepient of such judgments. Lana is these things, popular, accomplished, beautiful. But it is clear that not everything she touches turns to gold, and that she is not certain of herself. While at times the universe of Smallville can seem to revolve around her, oftentimes this is merely a slow illustration of her own doubts. It feels as if Lana's story is one that will spearhead the show into new territories. Her search for what to do with her life is one that is interesting to watch, and something that will undoubtedly have ramifications for the show as a whole.


As mentioned in earlier posts, Smallville's strengths lie with its intricate character development and interactions. In this post I hoped to highlight some of those characters and how they make the show interesting.

As for the powers and the show's presentation, it is a bit more mixed. The developers' go-to way to keep Superman in check is often to just give every villain some powers related to kryptonite, Superman's weakness. So far, this is tolerable, but we'll see how long it will keep up. As for the show's presentation, it can occasionally feel quite 'emo' and very much like a teen drama. The show's theme song makes me want to projectile vomit at the walls, but I endure it as well as I can. But, for those skeptical, I would point out that it is an intelligent show with a lot of moral complexity, hidden references to the comics, and excellent dialogue among mature characters.

The question is whether you can overcome the occasional teeny feel and omnipresent nineties songs. If you can, then you should definitely check out this show (or at least Season 1) because it is amazing. If you can't, then grow a pair and get over yourself... but I will understand.


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