UPDATE: 2/24/09---SMALLVILLE RENEWED FOR SEASON 9!
Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird--it's a plane--it's...Well, it's not Superman, at least not in this television version of the mythic hero. The cool thing about Smallville is that it gives us Clark Kent trying to figure out who he is and what he is supposed to do. Nobody's ever done that with the Man of Steel before. This article is for those who are tired of elections, bad economies, need a little escape and for those who have never seen the show or who watched it once a long time ago. It's hard to believe, but it premiered the week after 9/11 and has gone on strong for 8 seasons. Check it out on the CW network, Thursdays at 7 PM.
For the first four and a half seasons, Smallville (hereafter SV) was about a high school kid growing up, trying to find his destiny. Wrapped in the well-known story of the Superman myth, the episodes struck a chord with a lot of people. Family, friends, small town values all played a part in making SV feel like every viewer grew up in that town. Sure Clark has these powers, but the writers turned the wierd into wisdom as an important truth about humanity was constantly stressed: everybody can change the world, the question is whether you will change it for the better or worse.
Always enjoyable, marked with deeper meaning, SV has managed to keep a loyal fan base and continue telling stories that matter. Here's a few secrets to the show's strength:
- CHRISTOCENTRIC. The Superman myth has always borrowed heavily from the story of Jesus Christ. Don't believe me? How about the secret identity? How about the foster father doing basic blue collar work, i.e., farmer/carpenter? How about powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men? How about being sent by his real father to be a savior to the world? And on and on. The first two Superman movies, in the 1970's, had clear Christocentric references, so says the original director Richard Donner. The last movie, Superman Returns, has even bolder nods to the Jesus story, so says director Bryan Singer. SV draws on the same comparisons, even having Jor-El, Clark's real father, tell him he walks the earth as a god. By the way, Clark's real name is Kal-El. Schuster and Siegel, the original creators of the character, were Jewish. El is the Jewish word for God.
- GOOD VS. EVIL. All good stories have to deal with the clash of light over darkness. In Clark's developing horror over his once-friend Lex Luthor's descent into evil takes hold, we are faced with a myriad of great morality tales. SV doesn't take refuge in a Kantian "I get to determine what is good or bad" attitude. Clark's got rock solid morals based on absolute truths.
- FAMILY VALUES. Watch SV for a few episodes and you'll be able to smell the apple pie in Martha Kent's kitchen. The Kent Farm, always brightly colored and warmly lit, represents America at its best and values that truly matter. Clark's earth parents, Jonathan and Martha are believable characters who mentor their adopted son. Most enjoyable is the relationship between Clark and Jonathan Kent. Sounds real, looks real, conveys a feeling of truth. In a world where families are constantly being shattered, this is a vision that seems worth recovering.
- FRIENDSHIP and LOVE. There is a huge stress on friendship and what it means. Healthy relationships are probed for why they succeed and true friendship is valued. Unlike much of entertainment today, friendship is valued above romance, which while beautiful, is unreliable. An underlying subtext is that true love doesn't just happen. It is born out of friendship first and much respect. Why does Clark and Lex's friendship fail and Clark and Chloe's succeed? What is the nature of true love and why does it seem to go so wrong between Clark and Lana? SV does great in probing these issues. \
- DEATH. The best episode in the entire series is #100, the one that deals with the death of Jonathan Kent. SV does not shy away from the power of death and its ability to rob people of their loved ones. But always in the deaths of major characters in the show, SV has the hope of afterlife. Clark discovers that he will not die--at least, so it seems. So he has to wrestle with the question of losing all those who care for him. Though not handled perfectly, this theme is treated with more respect and intellience than in much of modern media.
DESTINY. Lastly, SV focuses on destiny. Though we look at Clark and his powers, all the supporting characters have destinies too and the show continually focuses on the importance of human beings finding their purpose in life. (ironically, Clark, an alien, most fulfills his destiny when he acts like a human). People are important and have the power to change the world.
This last point is also why SV succeeds where HEROES fails. The convoluted plot line of this other program rests on chaos theory without much moral direction or hope. One thing about SV, you are never confused about what a human's true destiny is; namely, to be on the side of good, to right wrongs, bring justice, and fight evil. Here's a great article that compares these two shows which you might find interesting: 5 Reasons Why Smallville is better than Heroes.
Smallville is not your highschool kid's show anymore. In it's eighth season, it has morphed into an adult drama with new themes and concerns. It's title should be changed to METROPOLIS, but whether or not that happens, congratulations are due to writers, directors, actors and producers for a quality show that matters.
Season One: Introduction to the characters and mythos. Frequent critique of this season is that writers relied too much on the meteor freak of the weak story line. But it wasn't a strong criticism. Audiences and critics responded strongly to the show, particularly to the budding friendship between Lex Luthor and Clark Kent.
Season Two: An even stronger year in which Clark continues to develop his powers and discover whether he is to save or destroy humanity. Best friend Pete Ross discovers Clark's secret, and the romance between Clark and Lana Lang grows stronger.
Season Three: Tripping on the dark side, the skyline of Smallville grows darker as Jor-El's plans for Clark become clearer. This is a big change to the mythos--Jor-El is an enigma and we wonder whether or not he is truly a friend of earth. He doesn't seem to be much of a father and the role of Joanathan Kent comes to the fore.
Season Four: The weakest of the eight seasons because of an unconvincing plot involving medieval witches, magic stones, etc. However, Lois Lane is introduced and Clark's in the state football championship for senior year.
Season Five: The best of all the seasons with the possible exception of season eight. Clark goes to college, meets an alien BRANIAC, struggles with Lex's descent into evil and supposed love of Lana, and---in the best episode of the series--says farewell to Jonathan Kent.
Season Six: The break is permanent between Lex and Clark as Lex marries Lana. Introduction of Green Arrow and other members of the Justice League. Lana flees the manipulations and Machievallian plots of Lex.
Season Seven: Martha Kent is gone to Washington; Clark manages the farm and tries to re-form a friendship with Lana dead set on revenge against Lex. Introduction of Kara, aka Supergirl, who comes to live in Smallville. Climactic battle between Lex and Clark at the Fortress of Solitude caps off the season.
Season Eight: So far it deserves the best rating possible but this is the year the series changes radically in looks and characters. Much more brooding, almost film noir, and set in Metropolis, fans have especially enjoyed the Lois and Clark interaction at the Daily Planet and the familiar look of all the Superman stuff we've come to know and love.