Starring: Tom Welling, Kristin Kreuk, Michael Rosenbaum, Allison Mack, Annette O’Toole, John Schneider, John Glover, Sam Jones III, Erica Durance, Laura Vandervoort, Justin Hartley & more.
Original channel: The WB (2001-2006); The CW (2007-2011).
Let’s be honest, Smallville isn’t even close to being the greatest TV show ever created. In fact, modern day superhero shows are in another league when compared to this early venture into the world of TV superheroics, with the likes of Arrow, Flash, Daredevil, and even Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D proving that a good superhero show is about much more than long, drawn out, teen drama.
The initial premise of Smallville seemed solid enough though. Clark Kent (Tom Welling), the civilian alter-ego of the world’s most recognisable superhero, grew up in the small Kansas farming community known as Smallville, undergoing all the same teenage dramas that you and I underwent (sort of), whilst trying to hide the fact that he could break your wrist with a simple bro-tastic high five. The show’s aim was to follow this young, shy and uneasy teenage Kryptonian as he transformed from a small-town farm boy into the big city protector, Superman.
Very early on Smallville seemed promising, exploring the emerging powers of Clark Kent and his struggle to hide his abilities from his peers. Unfortunately, during the shows second and third seasons, it became readily apparent that these ideas would be dragged out through dull love triangles, uninteresting villains who cropped up once and then disappeared, and convoluted plot lines. Themes and ideas from the comic books and beyond were thrown at the wall to see what would stick, but most were obscure facsimiles of the original source concepts. One thing was guaranteed though: if an idea did stick it would be thrown at the wall again, and again, and again.
It’s not totally Smallville’s fault though, especially when you consider the other TV shows that were around at the same time. Teenagers back in the 2000s were more interested in the complicated love lives and soap-style mysteries of The OC and One Tree Hill than they were the serial killers, throne-based games and crystal meth dealers of today’s TV shows. They were simpler times back then, it would seem.
Smallville’s main problem, however, was its consistent neglect of the thing that made it different from all those other teen dramas; super powers, and more specifically, Superman! Sure, Clark had quite a few powers (that he often seemed to forget about) and there were plenty of forgettable Krypto-baddies cropping up for Clark to fight, but overall Tom Welling’s Kal-El was too shy, too reserved, and too whiny about the whole thing. It never felt like this Clark Kent was destined to become the Superman shown in Richard Donner’s films, or the Superman from DC’s comics. And when the show delved into the mystic arts, alien conspiracies and more in Seasons 3-7 it all became a bit too silly, too fast.
That’s not to say that Smallville didn’t have its moments during these middle seasons, because it did. Lex’s descent into evil, Christopher Reeve guest starring, and an increase in the number of true-to-source nods towards the Superman comic books, such as the introduction of the Phantom Zone, Clark’s cousin Kara arriving on Earth, James Marster’s excellently manipulative Braniac, and more, all helped to make Smallville a better show. However, these moments were few and far between in a show that insisted on dragging out love stories and building overly-complicated plot twists to the point where even Doctor Who looks simple to follow by comparison.
The supporting cast were as much to blame for Smallville’s tiresome formula as the plot at times too. The coy and dull Martha Kent (Annette O’Toole) overshadowed the strong and inspiring Jonathan Kent (John Schneider), the doting Chloe (Allison Mack) stalled the true significance of Clark’s friendship with the one school friend who knew his secret, Pete (Sam Jones III), and the focus on the stereotypical evil of Lionel Luthor (John Glover) blocked the mad genius of Michael Rosenbaum’s brilliant Lex from shining through at times. As for Lana (Kristin Kreuk)? Her boring and bland personality left me constantly wondering when she was finally going to bite the dust (spoiler: she never did).
The first half of Smallville’s 10 season run was particularly difficult to get through. Those repetitive teen dramas, one-shot villains, and Lex’s painfully slow decline into evil meant that by the Season 5 I was almost ready to jack the whole show in. Yet, almost recognising this, the show writers began to change things for the better and from Season 5 onward things began to slowly improve. Making Lois Lane (Erica Durance) a permanent fixture in the show gave the female cast a much needed kick up the backside, whilst the introduction of Metropolis moved the drama away from the tired high school setting of Smallville and its surrounding coffee shops. Even Clark began to exhibit more heroic qualities, perhaps in order to meet the increased demand put on him by actual comic book villains like Braniac. There was still a lot to dislike in Seasons 5, 6 and 7, but at least Smallville began to feel a little less One Tree Hill and a little more Superman.
It wasn’t until Seasons 8, 9 and 10 that Smallville began to feel like it had remembered what it was really about though: a show about Superman. In fact the name of the show could have been changed to Metropolis to more accurately reflect the shows intentions from Season 8 onwards. The renewed focus on using other DC characters, such as Green Arrow (Justin Hartley), J’onn J’onzz (Phil Morris), Hawkman (Michael Shanks), Doomsday (Sam Witwer), Zod (Callum Blue), and even the Legion of Superheroes, all helped Smallville to create a bigger, more interesting universe, linked much more closely to the shows comic book roots. These comic book crossover characters also arguably started the trend seen in today’s modern TV shows, which are not afraid to introduce and capitalise on the use of some of the best known comic book heroes, villains, and supporting cast members, as well as lesser known ones too. Just look at how Arrow and Flash crossover with each other, or how Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D and Daredevil utilise the Marvel cinematic universe within their lore; Smallville opened the door for this kind of superhero TV by showing that adding known characters into a show can really boost its appeal and its story-telling potential.
It took until the last episode of Smallville for Clark to don the Superman suit and fly properly of his on free will, which was a shame as that was the moment regular viewers had waited 10 long years to see. Still, with Lois and Clark together, a team of superheroes rallying around the Man of Steel, and a city recognising its protector, Smallville finally delivered on its promise.
Was the destination worth the journey? Probably not. Even in Smallville’s latter years, tired old love stories kept rearing their ugly heads and Clark continued to fail to show the heroic flair people expected of the man destined to become Superman. Despite some great moments involving flights, tights and Justice Leagues, Smallville never quite lived up to its potential; a flaw that has fortunately been corrected in the tie-in comic book series that continues the show into Season 11. Smallville’s 10 years on TV weren’t a complete loss though. Some great moments happened, and Season 8, 9 and 10 in particular are definitely worth a watch for fans of a Superman that doesn’t like breaking necks. No matter how much of a whiny loser Tom Welling’s Clark Kent seemed at times, at least he always remembered Superman’s moral code.
If nothing else, Smallville deserves credit for being the only TV show I’ve seen the whole way through that isn’t Friends. And you know what? I can’t help but feel Smallville deserves some credit for laying the foundations that some of today’s much better superhero TV shows are built on.
And deep, deep down I have an undeserved soft spot for this show. This feeling doesn’t really make any sense, but then again, not a lot about Smallville ever really did.