Friday, January 27, 2006

Friday in Smallville

So earlier today, I'm getting into one of those dumb internet wrangles with a couple of other fans on a message board about comics, and I was warming up to this really eloquent argument, and then -- this is what a big lazy whore I really am -- I thought, "why the hell should I waste this on a stupid message-board post when I could get a nice Friday column out of it?"

So now you all get to hear it instead, because I'm not typing it up twice.

What we were wrangling about was the TV show Smallville. Now, in the course of this I'm going to completely spoil the Big! 100th! Episode! and then I'm going to say some rude things about it to boot, so fair warning.

Almost good, but not quite.

I have been in kind of a Superman place lately anyway, what with getting the new All-Star book and the Showcase Presents collection, and then watching this big dumb episode of Smallville reminded me that I always liked Superboy -- the original one, the Superman's Adventures When He Was A Boy version -- a lot better than I liked Superman. Still do, really. I think it's because how Clark gets to BE Superman is a more interesting story to tell than anything that happens to Clark after he already IS Superman. And even though there was an actual Superboy TV series that ran four years, it wasn't really Superboy in the sense that he has to learn anything. It was the Salkinds trying to wring the last drop out of their movie rights. They should have called it Young Superman Without Christopher Reeve.

Show was pretty bad but Stacy Haiduk sure looked good

I remember first encountering Superboy in the Filmation cartoons in the mid-sixties, and that show was where I first learned the basic mythology of Superman: Krypton, the Kents, the Daily Planet, Smallville, Lois and Lana, and so on. Even Krypto the Superdog. It was all there. And when I went looking for the comics on the rack, I never cared all that much for the new Superman books, but I was always a sucker for the Superboy comics from Frank Robbins and Bob Brown. Part of it was probably that so many of them had really bad-assed Neal Adams covers... but the stories were often very clever and fun, and they featured a Clark that didn't have it all together, that was occasionally as bumbling while being Superboy as he was being Clark. That always tickled me, being a lifelong bumbler myself.

Don't even TRY to bitch about today's cartoons to me.

To me that is the chief charm about Smallville; it's basically my Superboy that I remember from those days, just without the tights. When the show remembers that it's supposed to be about an alien teenager learning how to be a man and a hero, it is really quite good and sometimes even great, especially when there's a Clark-learning story parallelled by a Lex-Luthor-fails-to-learn arc as well. Unfortunately, that rarely happens any more. Now it's mostly Dawson's Creek, with super powers. Yawn.

Now, all that was preamble. That's just to let you know where I'm coming from, the real wrangle was this -- on the Big! 100th! Episode! of Smallville, they killed off Jonathan Kent, and I said it was a crappy episode. Several agreed, and others disagreed, but the one argument I saw that just didn't make any sense was that those of us that hated what Smallville was doing to the Superman story were "too locked into continuity."

Oops. Guess I'm just a big ol' super-bumbler.

Please. I couldn't even tell you what Superman continuity IS at this point. Which one? Pre-Crisis or post? Which Crisis? Are we talking Man of Steel or Birthright? Which one are the Smallville TV guys using? Does it match the one from the animated series? (The Paul Dini/Bruce Timm one, I know better than to bring up Ruby-Spears or Filmation.) And so on.

So I thought, you know, let's lay this to rest once and for all. Those of us who want some basic consistency are NOT the same guys as the ones who want a perfect, pristine, mistake-free continuity.

I don't CARE about acknowledging every single comic ever published. I think it's perfectly okay to change details and ignore old stuff if it gets in the way of a good story. I'm totally fine with fudging here and there. In fact, I think my favorite Superboy of all time has pretty much fallen off the map: it's the Bates/Schaffenberger version from the early 80's. This was a great, underrated run that hit all the riffs you want in a Superboy story -- I especially loved the issue where Pa Kent taught young Clark to box (because, being super, he'd never needed to know before. But now there's a supervillain in Smallville just beating the crap out of him, and Pa explains that, well, being strong's all very well, but you should learn some moves, son.)

Somebody needs boxing lessons, for sure.

So it's not about "continuity." What annoys me is when you mess with the basic structure of what it is you say you're doing, to the point where you're not really doing it any more.

Which is what Smallville did. It's actually been doing it for a while, to be honest, that train got derailed a couple of seasons ago. To recap, this is supposed to be the prequel to Superman. Those people -- some of whom, I'm sad to say, actually produce this show -- who are squalling about how this series has "got its own continuity, it's NOT Superman" are being deliberately obtuse. Superman is being foreshadowed everywhere on that show. There are constant winks to the audience about it, we've had cameos from Perry White and Maggie Sawyer, not to mention all the stunt casting with Terence Stamp and Margot Kidder and the late Christopher Reeve. There's a bit in the opening credits showing Clark with a burning S-shield on his chest. This kid's growing up to be Superman and Lex Luthor's growing up into his blood enemy. That's what gives the show its dramatic weight in the first place. So if you are going to milk the Superman connection that hard, you don't get to say that you're not really "locked into" the Superman story. Okay? That dawg won't hunt. The Superman story is what you are selling and teasing people with and it's what got all of us to watch your damn show in the first place. Own it.

So we're back where we were when I started. The show is basically the original Superboy, without the tights.

Except if you kill off Jonathan Kent. Then it's not Superboy any more, it's young Superman.

This is where people started to yell at me about being too into continuity, and here's why it's not. It's a story-structure thing, a character issue. Whether it's Superboy or teenage Clark, the structure's the same: this is a character who's learning. He's a kid. He's not ready to be Superman, he needs to grow up some yet, and one of the best ways to dramatize that is to have Jonathan Kent around for Clark to confide in. With Clark's dad gone there's no other adult male character on that show not named Luthor. Bad call for a Superboy series, in comics or on TV. That point, the death of Jonathan, is where you END Superboy and start with Superman.

But Smallville's not doing that. They've got another half-season to go and another year beyond if they get renewed, and they probably will. Can't do Superman because the Bryan Singer movie's coming and they've got Superman locked up. So you get... what?

Something a lot less interesting than what they had. It's a pity, because there were a lot of times Smallville caught that same basic Superboy vibe, it was a fun show. But they got so knotted up in trying to be different they forgot that you have to keep SOME things the same. Or it stops being what you say it is. That's not geekery. That's just the way it works.

See you next week.

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10 Comments:

Anonymous Dan Coyle said...

Nice Column. Made some really good points there.

It also didn't help that John Schneider was actually telling people last summer they were going to kill Jonathan Kent off in an attempt to get the fans to revolt or something. At least that's how I heard about it.

1/28/2006 12:40:00 AM  
Anonymous carla said...

Good call. I actually stopped watching Smallville awhile back for an undesribed feeling of 'Well, Clark Kent just ain't doing it for me anymore'. So, I get to thank you (again) for putting some great weight in what was just a vague feeling of 'I dunno'.

1/28/2006 01:30:00 AM  
Anonymous Jer said...

Okay, I have to admit up front that I'm not watching Smallville - Columbus Ohio has a UPN channel that also shows WB stuff, but at weird times, so I mostly miss it.

However, I take issue with the idea that just because Jon Kent is dead, Clark is no longer a boy. That's kind of silly. Lots of boys grow up without their fathers, and lots of boys have to struggle through losing their fathers at a young age. Some great drama COULD be pulled out of the events of his father's death, Clark coming to terms with it, and that being one of the factors leading him to "grow up" more than he has. But its a growth thing, not an instant reaction to the death of his father.

Sure, he's lacking in male role-models, but he's still got the "ghost" of Jon Kent hanging around. Its like Bendis's Spider-man stuff - just because Peter doesn't have a male role model in the house doesn't mean he's all grown up - far from it. He's still a kid, making stupid kid mistakes and learning from them. And while he has the ghost of his dead father figure hanging around in the back of his mind, he also has a very much alive mother figure who has an impact on his growth.

Like I said, I'm not watching the show, so I don't know if they'll be doing anything like this - I kind of doubt it from what I've read about the last couple of seasons. But I just can't agree that just because Clark's father is gone he's suddenly grown-up.

1/28/2006 10:44:00 AM  
Blogger --Greg Hatcher said...

Like I said, I'm not watching the show, so I don't know if they'll be doing anything like this - I kind of doubt it from what I've read about the last couple of seasons. But I just can't agree that just because Clark's father is gone he's suddenly grown-up.


Well, bless you for making a real argument and not just crabbing at me about continuity. I can at least buy the argument you're making here.

I don't agree with it; my feeling is that it really does change the nature of what they set out to do, or at least puts a time limit on it that wasn't there before. But, you know, mileage varies.

And to be honest, they mostly lost me a couple of years ago with all the Kryptonian cave crap anyway. I would have snarled about that too but Peter David was so eloquent about that when it was going on, over in HIS blog, that there just didn't seem to be any need to cover it again. The point I'm getting at here, though, that you can layer too many things on to a premise, to the point where you LOSE THE PREMISE.

Now, if the show is in its final year, I could go with the argument jer is making. Because there IS an interlude there, he's right to point out that the transition to adulthood would still have some time left. But really, that's an arc that's eight or ten episodes, at the most. Add a season, the way they're talking about, and you're talking another 22 on top of that. That's too many.

...in MY OPINION! he added hastily.

1/28/2006 11:01:00 AM  
Anonymous thekamisama said...

That show turned me off on the first season when it was just S-Files of Kryptonite Kolchack, with monsters of the week popping up all the time. Then there was the whole "Archie" factor of him having 2 or 3 potential gorgeous love interests, and him not being human enough to at least commit to one of them.

When the hell is he going to college, Clark looks like he is about 25 or so... You cannot become a big time reporter type slacking around the farm kid!

1/28/2006 02:34:00 PM  
Anonymous Mark Simmons said...

Really, at this point the Smallville creators have two options. They can go twelve more episodes, end season five with Clark putting on the cape and tights, wrap up the show for good and pat themselves on the back for a job well done. Or they can try and stretch this thing out another year and wind up outliving their welcome like, well, pretty much every other once-promising genre TV show.

With Clark and Lana splitsville, Pa Kent gone, and Lex almost completely estranged from our hero, there's almost nothing left for the show to do in order to complete Superman's origin story. For Pete Ross's sake, he can even fly now. I just hope they do the honorable thing and bring it home this season.

Incidentally, since this is my first comment on this site, I'll add a general "hi" to the Comics Should Be Good crew and thankyew kindly for an entertaining site.

1/28/2006 09:30:00 PM  
Blogger David C said...

Personally, I really thought this season needed to be moved and retitled Metropolis. The Smallville setting, IMO, was getting too tired and implausible at the same time (i.e., implausible both that all the characters would still be hanging around there and that so much Weird Shit would wind up there.)

Now, that wouldn't necessarily mean you're doing [i]Superman[/i] instead of [i]Superboy[/i]. But it'd be a step in that direction - "Clark Kent, the College Years."

1/30/2006 10:14:00 AM  
Blogger Scott M. said...

I must be missing something, I was under the impression that this was the last season of SMALLVILLE. Was that not announced back in the fall?

Personally, I have enjoyed this show for what it is. Like every incarnation of Superman continuity, it has had a healthy ratio of cheese to meat.

I've read comics and watched TV all my life. I don't expect them to be the same. They both have their strengths. I think it's foolish for comics fans to demand that SMALLVILLE adhere to their idea of What Superman Is, just as I think it is foolish for SMALLVILLE fans to whine about how Clark and Chloe should be together. The show follows Superman continuity in the broadest of strokes: green kryptonite, Lana is the high school girlfriend, Lois is the life partner, Johnathan dies. I have been willing to put up with the many truly dumb aspects of the show to enjoy the exploration of Lex as a character, the glimpse of the cape in one episode, the first time Clark flew, and other moments that looked as good as anything has so far.

1/30/2006 10:58:00 AM  
Blogger tomthedog said...

It seems unlikely to me that Smallville won't be back next season, especially now that the WB and UPN are merging, and they need an established hit to promote the new network (and Smallville is one of their very, very few established hits). And if it comes back, it seems very unlikely to me that Jonathan will stay dead. I haven't read any press releases, I haven't followed any fan leaks, I'm just saying: for a superhero show, I just don't buy that they're going to kill a major character and actually let him STAY DEAD.

My point is, I think you're getting worked up about something that will be undone in the near future. But maybe that's just me.

2/01/2006 06:09:00 PM  
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