Tuesday, May 10, 2011

It's Smallville Week on The CKT!


Whether or not you've been following along with our "Sayonara, Smallville" feature of late on the blog, you've probably heard that this Friday will see the series finale of "Smallville" – the CW television series that's improbably lasted a full decade to become not just the longest running Superman show on TV but the longest-running superhero show ever.

Since Ben and I can scarcely talk about anything else with each other these days, we've decided to blow out a special week-long tribute to this completely bizarre weekly occurrence which started its life as "teenage Superman" and ended up as something completely different – the model for how the big corporations that own DC and Marvel exploit the breadth of their catalogues in outside media. Well, maybe that's a bit far of a stretch (and maybe it's not). But either way, we've watched WAY more of this show than any normal person should, and the weight of that experience is going to take the blog over from top to bottom. Rickey and Kevin may even chip in!

Before the rest of the week's festivities get underway, you may want to check out some of our past writing on the show. I'd start with Ben's recent and brilliant post on which DC characters could have and should have made it on the series but didn't (itself a sequel to an earlier post where he picked six characters for the final season, including one who made it). Beyond that, Ben also dug into the character of Tess Mercer and did a role call for big name and small time stars who got their start on the show. For a more personal touch, my boy also offered up the stories behind his interviews with the cast for Wizard back in the day including James "Braniac" Marsters and both Dean Cain and Tom Welling.

And of course, how could I not link to our previous "Sayonara, Smallville" review chats covering every episode of the tenth and final season so far. Check out Ben and I on: Lazarus, Shield, Supergirl, Homecoming, Isis, Harvest, Ambush, Abandoned, Patriot, Luthor, Icarus, Collateral, Beacon, Masquerade, Fortune, Scion, Kent and Booster. (The final three chats will run this week!)

Finally, before the rest of our looks back get underway, I thought the best starting place for the discussion would be to give a little context for "Smallville." Like I said above, at ten seasons the show is arguably the most successful version of Superman on television to date, which is really saying something. The Man of Steel has made it to network TV three times (I'm ignoring the syndicated "Superboy" show because...well, because it was the syndicated "Superboy" show), and each of those efforts have had their own effects on the public's perception of Superman and superheroes in general.

Below, I dig in to each TV version of Superman and lay out their influence on the public perception of the comics, their impact on the comics themselves and most importantly, how their lead actor carried the iconic and challenging role over their years on the small screen.


George Reeves

I think it's pretty obvious from my photo at right that I was not actually alive when the original "Adventures of Superman" TV series debuted in 1952. In fact, I'm so far past this particular comics-related cultural milestone that I don't remember it even being on in reruns when I was a kid (though Wikipedia assures me it was on Nick At Nite back then). Still, it's a pretty powerful argument for the power of this show that I knew so much about its six-year run in syndication and on ABC as a young person. And that was even before I was trying to learn all sorts of shit about comic books wherever I could get at it.

"Superman" came along when television was absolutely beating the snot out of all other mass media. I know we comic fans like to go on about how our medium was once one that captured the hearts and minds of millions of young readers, but that pretty much ended the day the boob tube showed up in every house in America. Luckily for comics, Superman was there to make the transition. I get the feeling that thanks to this show (and its all-time most tragic superhero acting figure George Reeves) the Superman character lasted a lot longer than it maybe would've considering the lean years superheroes had in the '50s.

Along with other kiddie TV touchstones of the decade – The Lone Ranger, Howdy Doody, etc – Reeves' Superman performance was a kind of universal shared experience for middle class American boys (and a lot of girls too, no doubt). When you hear those stories of how someone once tied a towel around their neck and tried to jump off of their garage, it's because of this show. And because of this show, the very core attributes of Superman – everything from "Faster Than A Speeding Bullet" to a wink at the end – got burned into the American consciousness. (And before someone points out in the comments how a lot of that started in the radio show/serial/cartoon...I KNOW. But honestly, how many people today are still capable of receiting something from "The Shadow" the way anyone on the street can finish "Look! Up in the sky..."? I think that makes my point.)

The funny thing is that despite this huge influence on all of us, this show is still pretty terrible, yeah? I mean, pretty much anything made for children in TV's Golden Age was rotten, but from what I've seen of "Adventures of Superman" it's a particularly poor example of filmed entertainment. On top of that, I've never seen much of anything in Reeves' performance that makes it seem like anything about this show was special beyond the fact that the millions of kids who tuned in had never dreamt they'd see something so crazy as a man who flew through the air, had bullets bounce off him and could stip a giant buzz saw with his bare hands. The escapism was so strong that its ability to typecast the man in the cape potentially drove Reeves to suicide. TV is powerful and weird stuff.

Like I said above, I think the biggest impact "Adventures of Superman" had on the comic was that there was something around to keep readers engaged with superheroes after the post-War bust in the comics market. Even though I recently learned (thanks to the always indispensable Douglas Wolk) that DC adapted episodes of the TV series on the comics page, I still think that most of what we identify with the comics of that era came from within the halls of the publisher itself.

However, the core mark the show left on its young viewers was such a deep one that for years, comic representations of Superman either embraced or pushed back against the conception of the hero put forth by Reeves and company. Hell, Alan Moore got "It ends with a wink" from this show in 1986, yeah? That's a hell of a reach one dopey program had on all Man of Steel media, including the work of...


Dean Cain

OK, so the '90s ABC primetime series whose official title was "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman" spent the majority of its run as a pretty rotten example of shamelessly dumb network TV. What started out trying to be "Superman as Hepburn & Tracy" quickly turned into "Superman as Third Rate Tom Hanks & Meg Ryan." And that's a generous assessment. But as a kid who grew up watching the Christopher Reeve films on TV, the fanboy middle schooler me watched "Lois & Clark's" original run to the bitter end for things like Bruce Campbell as head of Intergang.

"Lois & Clark" was no kind of cultural landmark or even a cultural indicator of much. For as serious as media took itself in the '90s, there was a lot of harmless lighthearted junkfood bullshit that this show fits pretty comfortably in. But as a Superman thing in the shadow of the Reeve(S) stuff, I think it had its little weird mass media status. Remember when Teri Hatcher was the first celeb-like person to be posting all sorts of photos of herself on the internet? Like people thought pictures on the internet were some crazy ass taboo back then.

But the one thing that show did have going for it was a pretty solid romantic triangle pulled off by the well-cast Hatcher and John "Sexy Non-Bald Edition Lex Luthor" Shea. And you know, Dean Cain wasn't bad either. The writing for his Superman was heavily indebted to the "Clark Kent is the real personality" conception of the character popularized by John Byrne in the comics. In the script, that meant Superman was the kind of single man who tucked his mom and dad in to bed each night via cordless phone. But Cain's performance made that come off less pathetic than it sounds. He had a kind of "aw shucksy" quality that wasn't Southern. However, that did make his Clark and Superman virtually indistinguishable – maybe the best evidence ever for the "He's JUST wearing some fucking GLASSES, Lois" argument.

But the one factor where "Lois & Clark" does hold relevancy for comic readers is its status as the last big example of a comics/media connection where the tail wagged the dog. The work of Byrne and Co. may have inspired the overall take of the show – hell, they even released a special trade paperback to cement the connection – but when time came that the comic creators wanted to marry the intrepid reporting pair, Warner Bros. reportedly asked that they hold off on their story until the same events took place in the TV show. Left with no other story ideas, the DC creators decided to kill a motherfucker.

It seems strange to me, though, that I could never imagine DC (or Marvel either) holding off on a story these days because of what was planned to happen with a TV adaptation. Today, the precedent has been set that comics are the idea place and other media makes changes in their approach to match the funnybooks. It's still a new and kind of mind-blowing concept to me, and I think you can easily trace its development to the Superman stylings of...


Tom Welling

Say what you will about the short-lived WB network and its progeny in The CW in terms of quality, non-Buffy related programming, but one thing that has to be said for the upstart channels is that they figured out a niche and stuck with it to hold on as a TV channel for quite a while now. From "Buffy," "Dawson's Creek," "Felicity" and "Charmed" on through to the modern lineup of "Vampire Diaries" and "Gossip Girl," The WB/CW has found a surprising amount of variety in what would seem like a pretty limited teen melodrama formula. Like "Lois & Clark" before it, "Smallville" stands as a testament to the times far more so than it does as an influence on them, but as the longest-running show of its ilk, there's something to be said for how well the show nailed the format from the get go.

Starting with that surprisingly sturdy first promo image of Tom Welling tied up in a cornfield, "Smallville" pretty much nailed the "This is not your father's [Insert pop culture franchise]" brand of Hollywood "reimagination." The show was thick with metafictional nods to its high concept of story-behind-the-story. Kristin Kreuk's Lana Lang read Nietzsche. Michael Rosenbaum's Lex Luthor made overt references to the legendary friendship he and Clark were going to have. Almost everything about the show paid its dues to the faux importance of what becoming Superman meant. Everything except Welling himself.

Ben has noted many times in our "Sayonara" column how as someone who never watched the early seasons of the show, he found it a real stretch that anyone would ever take "buff underwear model Tom Welling" as nerdy Clark Kent for a second. But I tells ya, the kid pulled it off. While his performance as young Clark Kent hasn't always set the world on fire with the big, believable heroic conviction that marked what made Chris Reeve a legend for fans, he did bring a likable, relatable quality to Superman. Whether he was moping about being lonely or dumbfounded by the outgoing qualities of his significantly more interesting pal Chloe, Welling's early turn in the part was almost a vessel that the viewer could pour their support into – which is actually a cornerstone of most Young Adult fiction. Most importantly, Welling and the home life drama written for him kept the show from getting too up its own ass with the "fated to be the greatest hero ever" nods thrown out every 20 minutes.

Of course, after ten years so much of that idea has changed that it's hard to think of "Smallvile" as the same show I watched with my girlfriend on a lark during our Sophomore year of college. The biggest change outside of a swapping out of almost the enntire original cast for newer supporting players was that this became the first big media project where following the letter of the comics in a more literal sense became a main drive not just of how the show was created but also marketed, sold and positioned by the publisher's corporate parent. Sure, things like "Blade" and "X-Men" had been respectful of the source material, but "Smallville" was the first comics adaptation to embrace things like a shared universe concept and Wikipedia-like Easter Eggs for fanboys. The comics really dictated what made it to the screen and how, not just to earn acclaim from the right segment of audience but also to use the show as a platform for breaking out other characters and ideas from the loss-leading idea factory that comics publishing is supposed to function as these days.

In a world where there are fewer and fewer cross-cultural experiences in fiction and media, "Smallville's" biggest legacy may be that it found a way to do niche really well at a time when corporations are looking to hit niches more than ever. The show may never have that "sitting in front of the TV in awe" quality that countless kids got from "Adventures of Superman"...but what CAN have that kind of an impact these days? That it serves as a feeder for the DC Universe of characters and (by a few steps up the chain) the entire medium of comics is a really great tool to have in the days where everything is pulling the public's attention in a million directions. It's something worth celebrating in the nerdiest, silliest way possible...which is exactly what we plan on doing all week.

Stick around.

2 comments:

Tom Spurgeon said...

That Tom De Haven book on Superman (the non-fiction one) has some interesting stuff on the television show, including changes in how episodes were written in terms of social issues during its run.

The thing I remember most about Dean Cain's performance, which I've never seen a lot of, is that he has a really odd voice, kind of like Tom Cruise's voice when he's panicking, but like that all the time. So he may be the first Superman where even *hearing* him would have clued you in in like a fifth of a second.

Considering the most important televised Superman performance of my generation was probably the voice of Danny Dark, it's a bigger signifier than you might think.

KP said...

Thanks for the rec, Tom! I'll have to look for that De Haven book. It's probably no surprise, but I find the history of that show pretty fascinating.