Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Why Smallville is such a big hit

And what it says about us

True to form, the developers of Smallville, Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, have kept the traditional story of Superman growing up in Smallville alive. Even the name suggests small beginnings. All the characters are there, from a young Lex Luthor, to Clark’s parents, Lana Lang, and later in the season Lois Lane, Jimmy Olson the Kents, who have a typical small town charm, and Kansas farm style hospitality.

Humble beginnings. The greatest among us – from Nelson Mandela to Lance Armstrong to Oprah Winfrey to Jesus – have come from the humblest backstreets of one horse towns. Smallville, depicting the goings on in and around a small Kansas town is now in its 6th season. Smallville is successful because it honors the traditional values that lie behind success, takes notice of change (even inter-contextual change) and of course, renders and adapts the myth of Superman so well.

The Superman character was conceived by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, but, being unable to do anything with it, they sold the rights to their idea for a miniscule fraction of what the Superman franchise is worth today. It was a costly error, for the pair grew old and died poor. Today the Superman logo is one of most famous brands: Superman is everywhere, from t-shirts to movies, comics, toys and television. Its creators did a credible job giving us a character that not only helps to save the world with all the good intentions of a young Santa Claus, but also helps us to understand ourselves. Superman helps us to make sense of our schizophrenia, our emotional complicatedness, and the basic good in ourselves that can become frustrated as we move towards our common destiny.

In the most basic sense, Superman is about being at our most powerful here on Earth, and so in a sense, puts God in a human form, walking among us. In this way, we have direct inspiration to be super ourselves, or else have the opportunity of being saved visibly and directly by a personal superhero. It’s an interesting and certainly an entertaining fantasy.

Smallville presents the dilemmas of Superman growing up, particularly during that most vital of transitions, from high school to university. Since this is a time almost everyone feels paralyzed by fears of the future, it’s also a time we entertain fantasies about our reaching our ultimate potential. Superman, as Clark Kent, helps us to navigate these impasses.

Tom Welling plays Clark Kent in Smallville. He is conflicted because he has the context of high school and a sweetheart in Lana Lang (played by the beautiful brunette Kristin Kreuk) on one hand, but the reality of car accidents, freaks of nature and meteor chaos to deal with on the other, along with Lex Luthor’s shenanigans. As a result Clark has plenty of unexplained absences, and often has to cancel a date or show up late. Being honest becomes difficult, because after all, who would accept Clark if he revealed his secret powers, and worse, wouldn’t doing so endanger those he loved the most? Welling,over the course of the various seasons, has certainly proved to have the range to do justice to the character of Clark Kent.

Huffy Lois Lane (played by sexy Erica Durance) is brilliantly portrayed as Clark’s lady in waiting so to speak (tradition has it that Superman finally chooses her as his greatest love of all, although Lana is a runner up). Erica Durance is just one of a host of spot on choices in an exceptional cast. Clark’s mother, Martha Kent, and Lex’s father, Lionel Luthor, played by Annette ‘o Toole and John Glover respectively, add surprising depth to their performances. One of the best performances, and one of my favorites is Chloe Sullivan, played to perfection by Allison Mack. The Chloe character was never part of the original Superman story, but her curiosity and skillful reportage are one of the central driving forces imbedded into many of the episodes. Kudos to the developers for adding a character that only serves to enhance the Superman story.

So what makes Smallville so watchable? Plenty. The special effects for one. In every episode Clark does something super, and these feats are rendered with digital attention to detail and plenty of style. There are also plenty of attractive new characters that make one or several appearances, including Carrie Fisher, Jane Seymour and Michael Ironside, to name a few. Then there is the context: football, high school, dates and dances, against a backdrop of both realistic and unrealistic angst that makes for a brilliant canvas for the young Superman to strut his stuff.

The use of color in Smallville is appealing. Clark – when he is himself – usually goes about his affairs wearing Superman’s classic colors – bright red or blue or both. When Clark has some or other identity crisis (brought on by the effects of black or red kryptonite) Clark tends to wear black or white. Green and purple is usually worn by characters who are Clark’s antithesis, his foes, even if temporarily. For example, occasionally Lois and Chloe appear wearing lime green in their apparel. In one episode, Erica Durance, playing Lois, emerges memorably out of a lake wearing a bright red bikini, while her rescuer (not Clark), wears bright red or orange and green. Smallville and the Superman theme demonstrates just how powerfully and effectively colors manipulate us.

The music in Smallville is modern, fresh and first rate. You can buy the soundtrack to Smallville just as you can buy a movie soundtrack, though of course, you’d need a double CD for the Ultimate Smallville soundtrack. The opening jingle ‘Save Me’ (Remy Zero) provides an awesome platform to stitch the credits and set the scene for each episode and each consecutive season. Other memorable tunes include Superman (Five For Fighting), Everything (Lifehouse) and Tomorrow (Avril Lavigne).

Smallville is exceptionally intelligent entertainment; it’s not as nerdy as The X Files and not has porno as Baywatch. It’s sensibly in-between. The developers use a slew of writers (who are rotated to keep material fresh) to generate the best possible content, and although each episode is essentially a small stand alone movie, each season has a definite movement, with irrevocable developments. We see for example how Lex starts off as Clark’s friend but degenerates into the fiend we expect. It doesn’t happen in sweeping strokes or straight lines, but in fits and starts, and here the authors are very astute, giving Lex an ambivalence that keeps the audience and the characters around him, guessing.

Smallville works because it presents our everyday hum drum as imaginative human drama. We have powers, powers of imagination, physical power and prowess; we have conscience and our sense of collective destiny, even of community. Smallville portrays our moral struggle, the yearnings of youth and life, in fresh and vivid colors. Yet when we share in Superman’s life as a young man growing up, there is something deep and melancholic alongside these hopes and triumphs. How do we get over the things we’ve lost, and the things we feel we need. Five For Fighting sing it best, in their song Superman:

‘I’m just out to find the better part of me… I’m more than a bird, I’m more than a plane, more than a pretty face beside a train… and it’s not easy to be me…well it’s all right, you can all sleep sound tonight.’

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