Sunday, May 15, 2011

Somebody Save Me From the SMALLVILLE Series Finale - A Look Back at 10 Years of Smallville!




SMALLVILLE Series Finale Review:

- Smallville was, for ten years, the ultimate origin story of sorts. You have to give the show credit - it pioneered the idea of "before they were a hero" as a viable premise for a TV show, and the the strength of Smallville's concept led to all manner of copycats and imitators. It's pretty incredible, Smallville predated, and outlasted, the likes of Lost, Heroes, and 24. In the time since Smallville first went on the air, the Superman movie franchise was rebooted, scrapped, and rebooted again. Smallville outlasted The WB and helped to launch The CW. The show has seen cast members come and go. Series regulars like John Schneider (Jonathan Kent), Kristin Kreuk (Lana Lang), Jonathan Glover (Lionel Luthor), and Michael Rosenbaum (Lex Luthor) all left the show's regular cast years ago (though most have returned in some form or another). Really, the only constant for the show's entire run has been Tom Welling. And the funny thing is, in all this time, in TEN years, Tom Welling has remained the same wide-eyed, head-tilting, grimacing, mopey, emo-rific version of Clark Kent. The show has never really allowed him to grow or change. It's always been two steps forward, three steps back. And hasn't that, in the end, been the story of SMALLVILLE? This is a show that was, ultimately, one of the most frustrating pop-culture experiences I've ever partaken in. The show had virtually limitless potential. Its canvas for storytelling was infinite. Its writers could draw on 75 years of DC Comics lore for inspiration. And the characters they had to play with were classics. Icons. Some of the greatest and most legendary heroes and villains ever imagined. Superman. Lois Lane. Lex Luthor. These are like the modern day versions of the Greek Pantheon. And as symbols, as modern myth, the power in these characters, in these stories, is unmatched. It's why people the world over wears T-shirts with the Superman S-shield. It's why everyone knows the origin. Everyone knows the costume. Everyone knows the meaning of "Truth, Justice, and the American Way." THIS was the sandbox that Smallville got to play in. Its writers and producers were nothing less than the gatekeepers of the premiere modern mythology of our time.

And that is why I couldn't help but stick with Smallville through the good times and the bad. I love Superman. To me, the concept is up there as one of the most powerful and impactful that I have ever been exposed to. The concept of being a hero. The concept of using one's abilities and skills to do right, to do good, to fight evil and make the world a better place. Some think that that simple moral purpose makes Superman boring as a character. But to me, that makes him the ultimate epic hero. You can put Superman in a bustling Metropolis, a quiet Kansas cornfield, a remote alien planet - you can put him in any setting, give him any sort of adventure - because he himself remains a constant. And you can have fun subverting that iconography. The characters are so well known that even the slightest tweak to the mythology presents interesting food for thought. And at first, Smallville got that. Its genius lay in the fact that it centered the show on the friendship (yes, friendship) between Clark and Lex Luthor. By presenting the famous enemies as two sides of the same coin - as childhood friends who were destined to become enemies - it gave Smallville the perfect spin by which to adapt the Superman mythos for the modern TV era.

On one level, sure, the early days of Smallville were a calculated attempt to fit the Superman characters into the trappings of a coming-of-age teen soap opera. But like I said, there was a certain brilliance to the way that the new dynamic played off of the established mythology. Michael Rosenbaum and Lex, Jonathan Glover as Luthor - their awesomely villainous turns helped distract from the fact that many of those early Smallville episodes felt like cheap X-Files rip-offs, with cheesy "freak of the week" stories involving some random Smallville teen causing trouble, having been granted mutant powers thanks to radiation from the "meteor rock" that accompanied baby Kal-El's rocket ride from Krypton to earth. As time went on though, Smallville started to raise the stakes. The mythology of the show got bigger, the production value got better, and the show infused more comic book action into the storylines, helping to balance out all the soapy stuff. Again, Smallville would time and again appease its loyal fans by pulling out something surprisingly awesome just when the show seemed to be on a downward spiral. Smallville earned a well-deserved reputation for pulling out all the stops for its movie-like season finales and season premieres, upping the action and delivering breathtaking cliffhangers and big reveals. It was like two different shows - sometimes, Smallville felt inspired and full of momentum. Sometimes it would get on a legitimate roll. Indeed, Smallville was on a notable hot streak right around the time that SUPERMAN RETURNS hit theaters, delivering the sci-fi action and epic plotting that the movie lacked. Othertimes though, Smallville was just plain awful. There were mind-numbing plotlines that stretched over the course of seasons (Lana as a witch, anyone?). There were stories that built and built for an eternity but delivered zero payoff (Doomsday -- ugh!). And there were the endless series of Smallville cliches - the stupid, contrived, lazy writing shortcuts that plagued the show over and over and over again. People hitting their head and being knocked unconcious *just* before Clark needed to use his powers. Clark barging into the Luthor mansion to talk, in person, to Lex - long after the two had become mortal enemies. Tom Welling's three facial expressions that he uses to react to *everything*. An endless, endless array of body-swapping storylines in which some mind-altered character had to explain that they "weren't themselves." Endless storylines in which Lana Lang (who eventually devolved from cute girl next door to MOST annoying character of all time) accused Clark of keeping secrets from her. Endless scenes of emo-Clark staring wistfully out into the sky from the Kent farm. And the montages. Oh, the montages. How many times were we subjected to oh-so-emo montages of our characters brooding to the tune of some lame, lame, lame wuss-rock song?

God, when Smallville was bad, it was bad. And oftentimes, and maybe even worse, it was frustratingly mediocre or at best only-okay, with decent concepts or stories brought down by the above-mentioned cliches, or by the show's knack for horrendous, talky dialogue, or by bad acting, or by the everpresent budget-constraints of being a TV show on the cash-strapped CW.

And yet ... and YET - and this is something I've talked about many times before here on the blog ... Smallville would always find a way to surprise you. There've been many times where I've skeptically sat down to watch Smallville, only to be somewhat amazed that - holy crap! - I had just watched a damn good episode of TV. Despite all of the cheesiness, the flat dialogue, the crazy continuity - despite all of that - there was an inherent good-naturedness to the show that always, in the end, won me over. Sometimes, Smallville would just find a way to tap into that fundamental power of the Superman legend. And I do mean power. Because a great Superman story is a rare thing. But when it happens, nothing is better or more inspiring. I think back to moments of Smallville throughout the years that somehow got it right. I remember Christopher Reeve appearing as Dr. Swan, in a memorable "passing of the torch" moment. I remember that classic episode where Michael McKean first appeared as Perry White - it was full of heart and written to perfection. I remember some of the great Lois and Clark moments, with Erica Durance bringing a great spirit and spunk to Lois, that just felt right and good and true to the characters. I remember some of the moments between Clark and his adoptive father - where Jonathan Kent's salt-of-the-earth wisdom felt spot-on. I remember the episodes of Smallville written by Geoff Johns, one of the premiere comic book writers of today who has guest-written for the show. Johns made "Absolute Justice" into a showcase for what Smallville could be - an epic superhero series fileld with imagination and wonder and infused with the history and magic of DC Comics. Just recently, his Booster Gold-centric episode brought a beloved comics character to the show with style, wit, humor, and heart. When Johns wrote for Smallville, we saw all of that potential inherent in the show realized, and man, it was fun to see. It was moments like these that made Smallville an easy show to root for despite its many faults. Its heart seemed to be in the right place mroe often than not. And that's what kept me, and I'd guess many others, watching all these years, through the good times and the bad.

Now, the strange thing is that, as a whole, the tenth season of Smallville was surprisingly strong. The season was pretty heavily-serialized, with a number of ongoing threads that gave the show a consistent level of intrigue week-to-week. Unlike past seasons, which spent so much time on a single, overarching plot so as to completely kill all momentum (Doomsday, Zod), this season mixed things up a bit. We had Clark and Lois' engagement and impending wedding. We had the return of Lionel Luthor (and in turn the great Jonathan Glover) via some interdimensional shenanigans. We had continued hints about the return of Lex, which stemmed from a mostly well-done storyline involving a kid-clone of Lex that was adopted by Luthor sibling Tess Mercer. And, most intriguing, we had a rather ambitious arc that built towards the coming of Darkseid - one of the all-time classic comic-book villains, and a true force of evil to be reckoned with. Just seeing the outlandish Fourth World stable of comic book characters brought to life on TV was a lot of fun, and I give Smallville credit for daring to introduce writer-artist Jack Kirby's out-there creations - like Granny Goodness and the Female Furies - into the show to build-up to the appearance of their Apokoliptian lord Darkseid.

So yes, this season of Smallville was overall pretty strong, especially coming off of a couple of seasons of underwhelming mediocrity. In fact, despite some clunkers here and there (the return of Zod a few weeks back, for example, was just brutal) Season 10 was probably the strongest the show had been in a long while. At the same time, as we got closer and closer to the big series finale, something was clearly amiss. With all of these ongoing plotlines, we headed into the SERIES FINALE with a TON of loose ends. Going into this episode, all of this season's major plotlines were still wide open. And you had to wonder - with the show building towards a full-scale war between earth and Apokolips (something surely deserving of two hours of time in the finale), how could the show possibly also fit in the inevitable return of Lex, the dangling Lionel / Tess subplot, AND the marriage of Clark and Lois? And beyond all that, on a more macro level, there was the lingering question of whether, after ten freaking years of build-up, we'd FINALLY see Clark Kent as SUPERMAN? Would we get the finale we all wanted to see, with Clark donning the familiar suit and officially debuting as Superman to the world, in an epic battle to stave off the forces of the alien-god Darkseid and his Apokoliptian army?!

Despite the tricky narrative corner that the show had painted itself into, there were still a number of ways that the writers could have delivered the great finale full of action and emotion that we all wanted. The key, I think, would be to ramp up the pace. At this point, after ten years of brooding and inner conflict and talking about feelings, now was the time for ACTION. Perhaps you open with Clark and Lois' wedding - give them that long-earned moment of happiness - and then drop the other shoe and have Lois kidnapped and held hostage by Darkseid. Do something huge, epic, jaw-dropping!

But somehow, that's exactly what DIDN'T happen. Somehow, for some unfathomabel reason, we needed one more entire hour of Clark and Lois brooding and babbling about their deep existential crises of the soul. ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!?! How many times have we ALREADY seen Clark and Lois go through ups and downs exactly like this? How many times? And all of this manufactured, dragged-out conflict was brought to us via the most nonsensical, rambling dialogue imaginable. Economy of storytelling, people. For some reason, every emo thought that Clark's ever had was brought back to the surface for this finale. Should he, could he marry Lois? Was he human or alien? Should he dwell on the past, or move forward? What the hell do some of these questions even mean? I mean, as if yet another roadblock between Clark and Lois getting married wasn't bad enough, we now had to endure Clark talking to the ghost (the ghost!) of a dead Jonathan Kent. Sure, it's always nice to see Jon Schneider return, but we just saw him a few weeks back, in an ep that delivered some nice closure for Clark and his feelings of guilt over his adoptive father's death (which by the way, happened YEARS AGO on the show).

So yeah, in the middle of the should-be-epic finale of Smallville, ten years in the making, we got scene after scene of Clark hearing worn-out advice from the ghost of his adoptive father, without any explanation or rationalization or particular plot justification for why we needed this now. Oh, and we didn't just get fatherly advice from Pa Kent. Nope, we also had to endure one mo' visit to one of the show's all-time stupidest aspects - the Fortress of Solitude, which - speaking of ghosts - is inhabited by the all-knowing spirit of Clark's birth-father, Jor-El. Jor-El's presence has *never* made a lick of sense on the show, and the character's sole purpose has basically been to be a giant deux ex machina for whenever the show needs to hit a reset button or have some crazy cosmic thing happen (like last week's lame twist where Jor-El's ghost, as a "trial" for Clark, gave Lois all of Clark's powers for 24 hours). Everything about Jor-El sucked on Smallville, save that he was voiced by the awesome Terence Stamp. And the only redeeming thing about him in this finale was that he presented Clark with a pretty sweet montage of his greatest moments on Smallville.

And honestly, the finale's two big montage clip sequences may very well have been its biggest highlights. Each one - one spotlighting Clark and the other spotlighting the returning Lex - were nicely nostalgic and an effective reminder of Smallville's history and legacy. It's too bad that these well-made clip packages came in the context of such a weak-ass episode.

Because yeah, as I alluded to earlier, there were some big plotlines that needed resolution in this finale. But since over an HOUR of the finale's two hours were literally Clark and Lois brooding about whether or not to get married, things finally kicked into high gear as time was literally running out for the show. Lex's big return amounted to two short scenes. One, a decently-written confrontation with Clark, was probably better in theory than in practice. As performed by Rosenbaum and Welling, what should have been a highly-charged, emotional scene that is the clmax of a TEN YEAR rivalry felt flat and inconsequential and sort of out-of-nowhere. Where we the viewers have known Lex would return for a while, for Clark, this was a totally out-of-the-blue revelation, and it came right as he was in the middle of dealing with what might have been his biggest challenge yet - freaking Darkseid coming to destroy earth. I thought Lex's return might have been somehow cleverly interwoven INTO the Darkseid storyline -- wouldn't it have been cool if Lex and Clark had to work together as allies to take down the alien conqueror? But no, Lex just popped up, gave Clark one of his old standby lectures about heroes and villains and destinies, and that was that. Um ... okay? And then, Lex is later shown confronting his sister, Tess. Lex kills Tess (to "save" her from becoming like him), but before she dies, Tess infects Lex with some poisonous compound that wipes away ALL HIS MEMORIES.

What ... the ... F ...? What was the point of this? It may have made sense, at some point, to somehow have Lex's knowledge that Clark was an alien with superhuman abilities get wiped away. Because clearly, that knowledge would prevent the two from theoretically having the same sort of hero-villain relationship as in the comics or movies. But having Lex essentially become an amnesiac just felt so cheap and out-of-left-field. And it sort of undermines the flash-forward reveal that Lex eventually becomes President in the Smallville universe. How does a man with no memories become Prez? I guess my larger point is - after a year of build-up towards Lex Luthor's return on the show, it is weak to have the payoff be that he shows up, talke to Clark for a minute, and then gets mind-wiped, end of story, game over. I can only imagine Michael Rosenbaum - who to his credit has done a GREAT job as Lex over the years - thinking "man, I shaved my head bald again for *this* ...?".

Then, there's the other big storyline ... the invasion of Darkseid! As soon as we got past the hour mark and there'd been nary a sign of the dark one, my friends and I all knew that this was going to be Doomsday all over again - months and months of build-up to a giant smackdown with one of Superman's iconic villains, only to end up with a short, disappointing, letdown of a climax. I mean, seriously, what the hell? If you only knew Darkseid from watching Smallville, you'd think he was totally lame. On Smallville, he was just some smoke monster who possesses people, has a couple of minions, and is somehow able to make a planet hurtle towards earth to make the two planetary bodies go smashy-smash. WEAK. I sort of knew something like this was coming, but I didn't want to believe it. I wanted to believe that Smallville would rise to the occasion, and pull off something that we've never seen in the Superman movies - a fully-realized battle between Superman and one of his most fearsome enemies, the mighty Darkseid. I know, there are budget constraints and other considerations ... but there had to be something better than this. There is no excuse to have a two hour season finale, and yet to relegate the Clark vs. Darkseid confrontation to a ten-second face-off between Clark and a Darkseid-possessed Lionel Luthor. That is unacceptable. I mean, that's the resolution to all this? Clark can finally fly, so he dive-bombs into zombie Lionel, and that's that? And then, to avert disaster, with the planet Apokolips hurtling towards earth, he dons the CGI'd Superman suit, flies into space, and ... pushes the alien planet away from earth?! What? And that resolves the situation? It also didn't help that in the midst of this we got a horribly-staged scene with Lois Lane on Air Force 1, trying to convince the President not to nuke Apokolips but to let the "heroes" of earth take care of the problem. Basically, a season's worth of buildup of the threat of Darkseid amounted to jack and squat. Zack Snyder, if you're reading this, please spend WB's money liberally to give us, finally, a huge and epic and cosmic Superman storyline worthy of the character. Because this, this was just pretty sad.

And speaking of Superman ... look, there would have been a huge emotional payoff for fans of Smallville to just see, finally, Tom Welling on screen decked out in the Super-suit. Seeing a simple, iconic shot of Welling as Superman would have been catharctic. It would have brought a sense of closure and finality to the show. And yet, inexplicably, we never really got that in this episode. We only saw quick flashes of Welling from the chest-up, or else blurry, CGI renderings of him moving at super-speed from afar. Very, very strange, and definitely suspicious. I don't know if the suits at WB gave the order to avoid any iconic shots of Welling as Superman or something, but if so, for shame. I mean, it's such a simple thing, but again, to see Welling as Superman was literally the single biggest piece of payoff that Smallville needed to deliver. On the show, Clark putting on the suit was something that had been artificially delayed over and over and over again. As the show's lifespan kept increasing, the writers kept having to give us more and more manufactured stopgaps between Clark and his destiny as Superman. He became The Blur - a proto-version of Superman. He wore a weird leather-jacket pseudo-costume. He worked with other heroes like Green Arrow, yet he himself was never seen in public. Again, it's amazing to me that, for one reason or another, Smallville was unable to just give us that one big moment where Clark was undisputibly, undeniably Superman. And honestly, I think the conspicuousness of that moment's absence is going to be a long-term black mark on the show's legacy. Because that is a major, major payoff that the show failed to deliver on. For years, fans had likely dreamed up their own fantasy ending to Smallville, where Clark, finally, dons the red, yellow, and blue and debuts as Superman. I don't think any fan could have come away satisfied with the half-hearted way that this long-awaited transition ultimately played out.

Almost as odd was the finale's flash-forward sequence which seemed absolutely determined to erase the show's continuity in favor of aligning things with the established cannon. In the glimpse of the future that we saw, Clark and Lois still hadn't gone through with their wedding, seven years later. Inexplicably, Clark calls Lois "Ms. Lane" at the Daily Planet, in an attempt to keep their relationship a secret. Don't their friends and coworkers remember that they were once engaged and moments away from being married? Lex is President - as mentioned, makes little sense given his mindwipe in this episode. And amusingly, Jimmy Olsen, wearing 1950's-style newsie garb, is at the planet, looking exactly like the *old* Jimmy Olsen who died a few years back on Smallville (in one of the show's most infamous retcons, it was revealed that Jimmy had a younger brother also named Jimmy, and *he* was actually the real Jimmy Olsen from the comics). Oh, and we clearly heard the voice of Michael McKean as Perry White, but never actually saw him. And the whole thing was bookended by scenes where a future version of Chloe is reading a "Smallville" comic book to her young son (presumably she and Oliver's?) - the story of how Clark Kent became Superman. Which makes no sense. So in this future Smallville timeline, DC Comics publishes a comic book called "Smallville" in which Superman's teen and young adult years are documented for all to read? Does the "Smallville" comic refer to Clark Kent by name? If so, does that mean everyone in the future timeline knows that Clark Kent is Superman? Can't be - or else why would Clark have to pretend like he and Lois are just-coworkers? Look, I get it - the Smallville comic book bookend was probably meant to be cute and nothing more - not something to be overanalyzed. But what was the point then? Again, with so many huge storylines and characters getting the short shrift, you have to wonder who the hell outlined this episode and decided "hey, we'll wrap up the Darkseid stuff in five minuted and give Lex two scenes, but hey let's do bookends where the whole series turns out to be a comic book - that'll be cute!"

At the end of the day, I give Smallville a lot of credit for persisting, for telling some good and even great stories, for putting an interesting spin on the Superman legend. But if anything, the disappointment of the series finale shows how, for much of its run, the Smallville writers and producers just didn't know how best to utilize that sandbox that they had to play with. So much time was spent just, well, filling time ... that the big moments, the memorable, iconic moments, the payoffs ... they were few and far between. Smallville, until the bitter end, stubbornly remained in a perpetual holding pattern - intent on preventing Clark from truly going to that next level, intent on keeping that pattern of push and pull, push and pull. Even up until the last, the show couldn't seem to just let Clark and Lois get married and be together. Up until the end, there had to be brooding and turmoil and uncertainty. Smallville was always at its best when it got away from figuring out how best to bide time until the series ultimately ended, and just said "to hell with it, let's tell a great Superman story." That's what Geoff Johns did every time he came in to write an episode. That's what the show did whenever it had one of those great little moments that made you sit up and say "hey, Smallville really can be great when it brings its A-game." Sadly, I think this finale is going to help shape Smallville's legacy as a show that came out of the gate with a fresh take on old characters, but one that never managed to tell consistently good stories with them over the long haul. Oftentimes, when you hear about the premise for a new show, a criticism that's repeated is "sounds interesting, but is it sustainable?" Smallville had a great premise, but one that was by its very nature unsustainable for a long period, because it was, essentially an origin story. At some point, for the story to work, Clark has to become Superman. So how did Smallville last for ten years, given that fact? By repeating itself, by dragging out plotlines, by going back to the same well over and over again. By the time the finale came around, I think the writers had become so accustomed to being in that holding pattern that they simply didn't know how to proceed any differently.

For ten years, I've watched Smallville - complained about the bad moments, and been pleasantly surprised when those great moments did come. From the likable actors in the cast, to the fun nods to the comics, to that uber-catchy theme-song that made the start of every episode feel rife with possibility, Smallville was hard to love but even harder to give up on. If anything, it's a testament to these characters - to the power of Superman and his iconic legend - to Truth, Justice, and The American Way -that we kept watching for all these years, and that we'll keep watching for generations to come.

My Series Finale Grade: D

3 comments:

  1. First of all, have you ever heard of spellcheck?? Second, Lex didn't shave his head "again", it was a bald cap!!!! Third, Jor-El was awesome!!! Ever stop and think that Kryptonian tech is very far beyond ours? It enabled him to have a "real" relationship with Clark, remember the Brain Interactive Construct? Same sort of tech used to create him was used to create Jor-El!!! Pay attention man!!!!

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  2. Hey there, Anonymous. I don't know if Michael Rosenbaum actually shaved his head or not to reprise his role as Lex, but either way, I was using hyperbole to get the point across that it felt like an underwhelming return for one of the show's greatest characters. After all the build-up to the return of Lex, I expected more. And as for Jor-El, I always thought the idea that his conciousness was floating out there in the fortress was lame. They had him do things and perform feats simply to serve the whims of the plotlines - there was no consistency to his character or his abilities. He never added anything to the show, except lame plot twist after lame plot twist. And yes, I remember Braniac! But Braniac was a supersmart computer, not an omnipotent disembodied voice who lives forever after death. As for you Sir, I think you need to go and read comics like All-Star Superman, The Man of Steel (by John Byrne), the Death and Return of Superman, and Kingdom Come - to get a feel for what truly awesome Superman stories are all about!

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  3. Nice one, there is actually some great facts on this post

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