Monday, 31 October 2011

Smallville - Providing guilty pleasure since 2001

Remember when Smallville first started? The outcry over Lex Luthor being Clark's teenhood best friend? The cringing at the over-egged dialogue and tiresome freak-of-the-week guest stars? Well, somewhere along the way Smallville became the longest running continuous sci-fi series of all time. I've spent ten years of my life laughing out loud at ridiculous plot developments and Tom Welling's uncanny resemblance to a red setter and declaring that it really is an awful programme. But somehow, despite (or possibly because of) all of that it became one of my favourite shows. And tomorrow its final ever episode airs in the UK. So just how did the show that gave us the frankly insane Lana-as-evil-reincarnated-witch arc become such an institution?

Well, it's Superman, isn't it? That guarantees an audience right off the bat. Hell, that's the only reason I watched it, so I could point at the screen and go "hey, it's Perry White/J'onn Jonz/Ma Hunkel!" But for the first few series you'd be forgiven for not even realising that it was a Superman show were it not for the regular shots of the Kent Farm sign and the lumps of green rock everywhere. The meteor freaks were a canny idea initially, but one that quickly made the show a little stale.

In fact, the show only really stepped up a gear once it found the confidence to embrace its comic book roots and start introducing recognisable heroes and villains like Aquaman, Green Arrow and Brainiac. But it seems a shame to disregard the weaker, repetitive high school series' for one very big reason:

Lex Luthor.

The character whose inclusion caused the most ire among the fans was probably the thing that saved the show from cancellation. Or more accurately, Michael Rosenbaum was. Despite a script that never once remembered that Lex is the smartest man on earth, and which had him pinballing between good and evil twice an episode, Rosenbaum somehow managed to turn in the best portrayal of Luthor yet seen on screen. His development from unloved, lonely but somehow hopeful young man into the supervillain of legend was far more interesting than Clark's development into Superman.

He was helped by John Glover's bonkers, over-annunciating performance as the gloriously-haired Lionel Luthor, and between them the two of them created the most compelling moments of the show, from Lionel realising just how badly he's damaged his son in the brilliant Memoria to Lex declaring "No one will even remember your name" before Lionel takes an unplanned dive off LuthorCorp.

Unfortunately, Rosenbaum was so good that he skewed the balance of the show. As far as I was concerned, Lex was a lovely bloke before Clark came along and made him evil. It's a shame the writers lacked the patience to show Lex on a slightly more believable descent into bitterness, jealousy and villainry. Instead, they just decided somewhere between series five and six 'okay, he's a baddie now'. It's no surprise really that Rosenbaum jumped ship after series seven.

But, in a strange way, his departure actually evened the show out. It forced the rest of the cast to step up. And while Tom Welling never became a great actor (he did become a pretty good director though...) the others all over time really upped their games. Rosenbaum's departure also coincided more or less with Lana's, which was the best thing that ever happened to Smallville.

With the high school chaff well and truly sorted (Sam Jones III's awful Pete Ross didn't even make it to graduation) Smallville was - after a brief and disasterous flirtation with college - able to finally grow up. Allison Mack's always brilliant Chloe shouldered the heavy emoting while Erica Durance's Lois evolved from an annoyance to the driven, spunky reporter of legend. With the addition of the excellent Justin Hartley's Oliver Queen (he of the flawless comic timing and rarely-clothed chest) the cast moved into something approaching, well, good.

In its last few years Smallville often ran with arcs that never quite worked (Doomsday) and special guests that spectacularly failed to be special (Black Canary was awful - no wonder they did away with her relationship with Ollie), but it finally rose above the tackiness that mired it in earlier series'. It pulled off a stone-cold classic with the should-have-been-terrible Justice Society two-parter. It even made Hawkman cooler than he's even been in comics.

In the latter half of the Smallville's run, I found myself wishing the show would become more of an ensemble piece and give more screen time to excellent bit-part players like Phil Morris as the criminally under-used John Jones, Kyle Gallner as Bart Allen, Pam Grier's Amanda Waller, Eric Martsolf as Booster Gold and Alessandro Juliani's Emil Hamilton. But the show always stuck a little too closely to its main character - Clark. Which didn't stop Justin Hartley from gleefully stealing the show on more than one occassion.

Smallville always punched above its weight visually, with gorgeous cinematography and excellent special effects. It took a while for the production team to put as much effort into the scripts and actors, but eventually they did and after ten years I have developed a respect for a show that I used to laugh at and now laugh with. It's even given me some geek-out moments to treasure, loving nods to the hardcore fans like Lex's nightmare vision of himself as a white-suited President and the line "Perhaps Brainiac 5 will be an improvement."

I can't believe that Warner Bros haven't already rushed to fill the Smallville-shaped hole with a Justice League spin-off. It's a shame that DC, for now, have lost an ideal gateway to bring new fans into their universe. I never thought I would one day lament the loss of Tom Welling from my TV schedule. But I'm really going to miss Smallville.

1 comment:

  1. I found myself wondering, "Lana-as-reincarnated-evil-witch ARC? I thought it was just one episode!" until I realized I was thinking of the time a sorority turned her into a vampire.

    Oh Smallville.