Monday, September 27, 2010

Sayonara, Smallville: "Lazarus"

Incredible but true: This year, The CW's "Smallville" embarks on its tenth and final season, making it not just the longest-running Superman TV show ever but the longest-running comic book TV show ever produced. Bananas, right?

To celebrate its final year, we're teaming up our collective powers of dumb DCU trivia, long experience watching and writing about the show and general obsession with serial TV to bring you "Sayonara, Smallville" – a semi-regular feature where we'll review the most notable episodes of the season whenever we can. Everyone is invited to play along. Let's get started with Friday's season premier "Lazarus."

Kiel: All right, man..."Smallville."

Ben: "Smallville" it is.

Kiel: I thought it might be good to start this exercise in too tightly focused fanboy analysis if we broke down a little bit of our own history with the show. Did you watch it from the beginning?

Ben: I did not, actually. What year did it start in again? 2001?

Kiel: Yeah, must've been. I remember watching the premier in my basement dorm, which was my Sophomore year.

Ben: Right, I remember it started when I was in college.

Kiel: It was weird. You heard about this show that's supposed to be "Superman as a teenager" and your first thought is "That sounds like the dumbest thing ever," but holy shit did that pilot really work. It was a great series hook.

Ben: Y'know, it's interesting. I was just getting back into comics after a hiatus of a few years when the show started, so it wasn't really on my radar. But then in college I started reading comics again and saw so many ads for the show and that image of Tom Welling on the cross with the "S" on his chest was very striking. I didn't watch the premiere, and to this day don't think I've seen it, but I became more of a periodic viewer in the first couple seasons.

Kiel: I remember there being a HUGE ad with that image in Times Square a year later still!

Ben: It was definitely a great image that really got you interested.

Kiel: You should go back and watch the pilot, but either way it set up all these rules for the first few seasons: "meteor rock monsters" each week, no real exploration of the powers at first (especially flight) and extra super doses of teenage angst.

Ben: Yeah, I know the whole "freak of the week" concept never really hooked me, so I'd be in and out those first few seasons. I think I was still watching "Angel" on The WB though, so basically if an ad for "Smallville" aired and it seemed like a cool episode, I'd check it out. I believe I became a more regular viewer around the third or fourth season with my buddy Tim. I definitely remember I was watching pretty much weekly during the season with the kid who went on to "Supernatural" and Doctor Quinn was his mom and they were building this crazy mythology. Looking back, there really is kind of a clear divide between eras of the show, between the "Freak of the Week" early years, the middle stuff where it's all new mythology, and the last few seasons have been much more DCU-centric. Does that make sense?

Kiel: That's exactly what I wanted to get into in this discussion of the new season, because it's crazy how long a shelf life "Smallville" has had. And I think a big part of the show's success has been that unlike almost any other teen drama on TV, this has been able to grow into something out because of the source material. Like, if you were a fan of 90210 or whatever, and you heard "in the next few seasons, the plan is for every character to slowly graduate high school and wander around the state doing odd jobs for a while until only two original cast members are left and all the other people are wildly different from the expectations you had in the early seasons"...hell man, any show that does that would tank in the ratings in like three episodes. But because the entire show has become about playing off the expectations of what it's like when Clark becomes "the real Superman," people have stuck through all these complete changes to what the show is and how it works.

Ben: That's a really good point. And certainly the "Smallville" of 2010 bears very little resemblance to the "Smallville" of 2001. As somebody who has been through the whole journey, your take on why it has stuck around is very interesting, though I'd also really want to hear from a non-comics fan who started in 2001. Did they stick around for another reason? Did they ditch out once cast members left?

Although as an aside, not to be too disrespectful, but I do think it helped that some of the cast members brought in as "replacements" were probably stronger than the originals who left, which had to help. I think Justin Hartley and Erica Durance are probably two of the best if not the best actors on the show, so I wonder how many people really miss Kristen Kreuk (who I have a rant to get to about her) or the kid who played Pete Ross. But the show has also endured losing really strong cast members like John Glover, the Kents and especially Michael Rosenbaum. And let's not undersell it: To be on the air for 10 freakin' seasons is a huge deal. That's not a benchmark a lot of shows achieve.

But yeah, to get back to your point, I think the producers and writers were savvy to adapt somewhat on the fly, knowing they may lose the high school kids who initially tuned in for a typical WB teen drama and gradually replacing them with nerds. "Smallville" really did a 180 from a "One Tree Hill"-type deal to a total genre show over the decade.

Kiel: Yeah, the closest I have to a non-comics watcher on the show is [my girlfriend] Jami, and she stuck with it for a long time as more and more superhero stuff came into it. And I think that the whole potential audience was kind of continually primed for more actual superhero stuff over the decade. I mean, when Smallville premiered, "X-Men" was the only big superhero movie out there where they were making fun of yellow spandex. Now we've got three Spider-Mans and two Iron Mans, you know?

Ben: Very true. The audience of today is far more likely to accept a super hero show than what "Smallville" was when it started.

As an aside, I'm looking over some Wikipedia synopses for the first season and it's kinda nuts how many future big or semi-big names played meteor freaks. Lizzy Caplan, Eric Christian Olsen, Amy Adams and Adam Brody were all in that first season.

Kiel: HA!

Ben: It's also funny to think how once upon a time you'd get a character who was even kinda similar to Mr. Mxyzptlk was a huge deal and now they just throw in Suicide Squad cameos for fun. I remember The Flash showing up for the first time was a massive marketing blitz, and now unless you get the whole Justice Society, it's just another episode. Because Green Arrow is on a show about Superman growing up EVERY WEEK.

Kiel: I agree with all of that! But what I was going to say to get to the actual episode was that I'll admit to having fallen off watching regularly over the past few seasons. Part of it was the fact that the show moved to Fridays where sci-fi tends to do better than other kinds of series because nerds don't go to the club, part of it was the fact that Kreuk's "I'm going to art school in Europe where I'm going to get a mystical tattoo" shit was HORRIBLE (probably the low point for story on the show), and part of it was the fact that we had to do writeups with Brent from InQuest at Wizard that were tedious because it made something that was fun feel so much like work...

So end result is that I've been kind of in and out over the past three seasons...only watching those ones where big name characters would show up or trying to catch a stray episode to see where the mythology was going. I'm kind of bummed I missed most of the Doomsday stuff last season. Did you watch it all?

Ben: That was actually two seasons ago.

Kiel: Oh man, was last season all Zod?

Ben: And yeah, I definitely watched that season. Interestingly enough, what got me watching regularly was part of what made you quit, in that I got kind of hooked because we had to do those Wizard write-ups. Last season was Zod, and I was in and out on that one. DVR definitely gives me an advantage over you. :)

Anyways, one point I wanted to touch on quickly before we got to the episode itself was that we should probably note we both have some actual connection to "Smallville" beyond just being viewers in the sense that we were each on that "beat" for a period while at Wizard. I definitely know that doing interviews with cast and crew members made me feel a sort of weird loyalty to at least give the show a shot every so often, which I'm not sure if you felt or not.

Kiel: It definitely made me think more about what people were putting into the show from the writers on down where with most shows all I would think about is the final product. So as we go about this column, I'll probably have a lot more to say about my perception of what the show is trying to accomplish than I would with "Justified" or whatever.

Ben: Right. I think the tipping point for me was actually when Al Gough and Miles Millar left the show and Kelly Souders and Brian Peterson took over as the primary producers (I think) because I interviewed them about the switch and they were so earnest and a little nervous that I was like "Well fuck, I gotta watch the show now because these people are so nice and surely every little ratings point helps..." And that was season eight, after Kreuk and Rosenbaum had just left too, so it really felt like even more of an underdog show.

Kiel: It's a tough thing about covering a show. Luckily, even when I'd watch only because I talked to these nice people on the phone, I'd still be able to show up the next day at Wizard and be like, "Well, THAT episode was shit" but overall, I do think the quality survived in a different way.

Ben: So interestingly enough, though I did watch the show a fair amount during those first seven seasons, the post-Lex/Lana era has really been the one I was most invested in.

Kiel: Good! I think you'll be filling me in on stuff from time to time!

Ben: Ha! We'll fill each other in for sure. I had no illusions that the show was pretty bad a lot, but it was never not fun to watch, so that certainly helped. I never got from talking to the producers or Tom Welling or anybody else that they had any real pretenses that they were making high art or anything, they were pretty humble about just wanting to provide viewers with a good time, and I think they more or less did that.

Ben: So with that...should we get to the premiere? I've got one more rant for sure, but I think it will come up organically.

Kiel: Sure...the thing that first caught my attention with this premier was that I actually DID watch the finally last season, and that cliffhanger felt so awkward and strange. The whole "someone's in the air vents with Ollie" thing felt like a scene was dropped from last year's finale on accident, and the Zod stuff didn't make a whole lot of sense (where were they getting zapped to, and why did Clark survive?). But I thought the opening of this episode grounded things really better and I was back into it immediately.

Ben: Yeah, I did not watch last season's finale, so it was even more confusing for me.

Kiel: Oh man...literally at one point Chloe is looking at this monitor and a bunch of red dots surround where Ollie is supposed to be, and then that's it. No more Green Arrow. But anyway, the episode overall got right into new plotlines rather than holding over a lot from last season. Shall we take them one at a time?

Ben: For sure!

Kiel: Let's start with Clark and Lois...after skirting around it since like Season 3, they finally have put everything on the table with the pair of them, and now Lois has figured out his identity. It's a definite break from the comics, but at this point I kind of love that they don't care about matching it up anymore.

Ben: Oh if they were slavishly devoted to making it match up to the comics I'd get annoyed, I think. The show definitely needs to be it's own thing. I am wondering how long they'll keep up the whole "She knows but he doesn't know she knows" deal though? I wouldn't put it past them to ride it out all season and maybe beyond, but it definitely makes Clark look like a bit of a dunce during scenes like the one where Lois fake drops her pen so he can super speed scan the files at the Daily Planet. It's a fine line between funny and ridiculous, so hopefully they land on the right side.

Kiel: For sure. In a way, this is an example of how the final season kind of has to be about them taking the audience to a version of the Superman legend. Like, so much of what I'm wondering this year is going to be "How will they establish the secret identity?" etc etc. And a big part of that is the fact that the costume has showed up in episode 1. That's kind of a crazy move, I think.

Ben: Did you know that was actually Brandon Routh's Superman Returns costume?

Kiel: I'd heard that beforehand, yeah. I also saw Welling talking somewhere about how he hasn't actually seen the costume in person yet. That scene is all trick photography when you look at it.

Ben: They had the choice between that and Reeves' costume and went with that, which makes more sense. And yeah, that makes a lot of sense with the trick photography. Getting back to Clark/Lois, I can't help but wonder how the show would have been differently had Kristen Kreuk never left. Do you think this would have been the endgame regardless?

Kiel: It would have to be. People want to see Lois and Clark in general, plus I think the "they hate each other because they love each other" is a more fun romantic hook than "the girl next door he's been pining for." Both have been done on screen in comic adaptations, but Lois keeps Superman from being too lame. Also: Durance is just so good in that part. Maybe the best on-screen Lois ever.

Ben: I agree on that first point. I do wonder if the plot would have shifted from "Lana leaves, Lois/Clark fully develop" to "Love triangle, Lana ultimately lets Clark go in the finale" more like it did in the comics, but I think the first route is better in that it gives Lois/Clark more room to grow without a third wheel around. It is another interesting representation about how much the show has changed in 10 years though, and also your point about source material informing it, given how it was all about Clark and Lana to begin with.

Ben: And now, my rant...

Kiel: Oh boy!

Ben: Simply put, I've reading all the reports about how they're getting this guest star and that guest star for the final season, and yet they're having trouble nailing down Kristen Kreuk and Michael Rosenbaum, and that just blows my fucking mind.

Kiel: What else are those two doing?!?!?!?

Ben: I've always given Rosenbaum a bit more of a pass both because I liked him more as Lex (I do think he's the best on-screen Lex ever) and because I know he exited the show less because he thought he had some glorious film career ahead of him and more because he just got kinda tired of playing the part. So whatever, I'm probably unfairly harping on Kristen Kreuk here...but seriously: what the fuck? She has done zilch since leaving Smallville aside from that "Chun Li" movie which tanked hard.

Kiel: SO HARD.

Ben: And this show MADE her.

Kiel: Hey man, she was on some Canadian teen soap operas.

Ben: That she is not racing back for as many episodes baffles me. Does she think it's going to kill her momentum or something? Dude, she's gonna end up playing the teacher on "Degrassi 2012" or something for the rest of her career. Anyways, I never really like her on this show and wasn't broken up when she left, but I do feel like Lana was a huge part of the mythology, and definitely that she owes it to "Smallville" to make herself as available as need be to wrap things up. I wouldn't want too much Lana in the final season, because I don't want it overshadowing Lois/Clark, but I feel strangely betrayed and annoyed, way more than I do by Michael Rosenbaum.

I mean, fucking Teri Hatcher, who is on a MAJOR NETWORK SHOW, is going to do a guest shot and Kristen Kreuk can't find the time? Megan did point out to me that she may just not be able to get the shifts off from Olive Garden.

Kiel: Hahahahahahahaha! "I'm sorry guys, but I have to work doubles during Old Tuscany Days." But I'll really miss Rosenbaum if he doesn't come back, though I thought evil clone Lex was pretty good.

Ben: I'll be very bummed if Rosenbaum doesn't come back. With Lana, I actually won't be disappointed so much as annoyed that Kristen Kreuk could clearly make time, but with Lex, I feel like the show really needs him. Ultimately the show was always supposed to be about Clark and Lex, yeah?

Kiel: Totally. I wonder how we'll see the season develop on that front. With the Cadmus stuff, it feels like Lex will be hanging over the proceedings, and I think his dad is coming back too. How can they not write him back in?

Ben: Again, it was a nice touch for Lex to be the adversary in the first episode of the final season even if it wasn't directly him. In many ways, not having the "real" Lex there but having his legacy still be able to attack Clark in such a creepy and seemingly unstoppable way really only made the character and the dynamic between the two seem even more weighty. And the Welling-Rosenbaum confrontations were always my favorite scenes, so even a facsimile was neat.

Kiel: For sure. I also dug the going back to that S-cross in the cornfield well worked in a big way. It kind of brought things full circle really quickly without having to rely too much on the early seasons from here on out.

Ben: Hey, question from the early season-ignorant: Why did he get an "S" painted on his chest? Was it for "Smallville"?

Kiel: Yeah, like the high schoolers would pick the nerdiest kid every year and make him the official "Smallville scarecrow" and hang him in the field the night of homecoming. Your basic jock hazing bit, but they were able to pull it on Clark because they slung Lana's Kryptonite necklace on him.

Ben: That's hilarious that underwear model Tom Welling was the nerdiest kid at Smallville High. But anyways, I do hope they find a way to keep Lex (and hopefully Michael Rosenbaum) in the mix this season, especially towards the end, even with the other cool big bad.

Kiel: Ok, but before we get to that, two questions:

Kiel: 1 - What's up with Tess Mercer? I have no conception of who she is as a character. I know she somehow runs LexCorp now. Was she Lex's former lover or something? And is that character any good? I've never gotten a read on her from any of the episodes I've seen with her.

Ben: I actually had to explain this to Megan when we were watching (and by "watching," I mean I was and she was on her computer tossing out occasionally snarky comments) so I had a bit of a warm-up. Here's what I know:

She showed up in season eight as Lex's handpicked successor to run LuthorCorp (or is it LexCorp on the show too?). We didn't know much about her other than that Lex had saved her from some situation at some point and she was super loyal to him, but I don't believe they ever banged. She did however have a romantic past with Green Arrow, as she was a captive on the island where Ollie became GA, they beat some drug dealers together, then had a relationship but he ditched her at some point.

Kiel: Rich dudes.

Ben: Right? Anyways...she also used to be a pure heart environmentalist or something at some point. She found out Clark's secret ID and all about Krypton because she's apparently smarter than Lex. However, she also found out that Lex had implanted spy cameras in her eyes (yep) at some point and that pissed her off, so she cut him off and became a kind of wild card, but more or less an ally to Clark the last couple seasons. So she's kinda conniving and you can't really trust her, but she's not really a bad guy. Oh, and she was also an inactive agent of Checkmate. Her past is really confusing and pretty eventful for somebody who looks to be in their mid-20's tops.

Kiel: Jesus...that is a LOT of backstory for two seasons of show

Ben: The actress who plays her, Cassidy Freeman, is pretty decent, so she's a solid character despite a ridiculously convoluted history. I like her more than Chloe (which isn't saying much).

Kiel: Ah ah! Well, that was question #2 - What do you think of this whole "Chloe's surrendering herself to creepy evil guys" plotline? Are we ready for another shadowy conspiracy plot on this show, or do you think this is an extension of the Checkmate stuff (which I never saw)?

Ben: Yeah, I immediately assumed this is more Checkmate stuff, because, like you said, having a second shadowy organization introduced in the final season when we've already got one (and we know there's Suicide Squad stuff coming up) seems pointless. And I believe Alison Mack didn't renew her contract for the full season, only recurring, which is why she was written out for a bit, which is a whole other Kristen Kreuk rant, but I'll hold off on that one.

Ben: I've got the sense that dude torturing Ollie will turn out to be a DCU character, but I'm not sure who.

Kiel: Who's that one guy I always want to call Col. Flagg? The guy who played a big part in New Frontier...Faraday?

Ben: Ah yes, King Faraday. I do think they announced that Rick Flag will be on the show though, so I bet that was him. I could easily confirm or deny by checking KryptonSite, but where's the fun in that. I love all things old school Suicide Squad, so of course I'm all good with Rick Flag being on the show.

Kiel: No yeah, I purposefully didn't read anything about the premier once we decided to do this thing.

Ben: Haha, I fucked up then.

Kiel: And I know nothing about the Suicide Squad, so we'll see how well they can educate me this year.

Ben: I gotta lend you my run. Great book. I don't want "Smallville" to be your only exposure to Suicide Squad.

Kiel: I also saw that Cooke-written episode of "JLU."

Ben: Ok, not bad then. Still, you should read the comics.

Kiel: For sure. So last thing then...DARKSEID!!!!

Kiel: What'd you think?

Ben: Man, it was pretty damn cool. I wasn't sure how they were gonna do it, if they'd just allude to him all season, so seeing that CGI was just awesome. I'm so interested to see how he fits in the Smallville universe, and so far, so good. That build with the creepy smoke building was perfect.

Kiel: I was kind of worried because the idea of having a guy dressed up in stone-face and purple cloak sounds really bad, but so far so good. I'm still worried about whenever they put the character into a real actor (which they'll have to do) but maybe they'll do a think like in Final Crisis where it slowly overtakes a normal person.

Ben: Yeah, that's exactly what I'd do, and with Geoff Johns consulting on the show, I'm hoping he goes with that tack.

Kiel: Rickey's gonna flip either way when he sees it

Ben: What did you think of this thing with Clark having to overcome his "inner darkness" of ego and pride? Did that feel organic or like it came out of nowhere just because Darkseid is the big bad?

Kiel: I think they needed a twist on the whole "it's my fate to become a great hero that I don't understand" bit because that angle has gotten kind of played. This works as well as anything just in terms of variety. I don't know. I hate fatalistic storytelling because it sucks all the drama out of stuff, but I didn't hate this so much.

Kiel: I also like the Pa Kent scene. This show has always kind of been about Krypton Vs. Smallville for Clark, and that highlighted it well

Ben: Yeah, that was one of two final things I wanted to talk about. After that first scene with Clark in the sorta-afterlife, I immediately thought of Adventures of Superman #500, with Superman and Pa Kent in the afterlife, so I felt a little gypped when Jon Schneider didn't show up there, but that last scene really made up for it. Schneider is never going to win any awards, but he really owns that part. He's just such a man's man but simultaneously makes you feel so reassured and that everything is gonna be A-OK.

Kiel: Oh man...Adventures #500! Formative book for Kiel.

Ben: Yeah, I was sure you'd be thinking the same thing re: #500. I wonder if the writers did that deliberately or not

Kiel: Well, I think getting into the comics connection is a good thing for a later column because I have LOTS of thoughts on it but we're going long here already.

Ben: Sure sure. One thing that didn't work as well for me was Lois all of a sudden going to Africa. WHAT? Where did that come from? Like, she'd been kidnapped a billion times. Did she flee the country just so she wouldn't have to keep making up lame excuses not to tell Clark she knows his secret?

Kiel: That's always something they feel the need to do in superhero TV and movies...last minute decisions that the world of heroes is too crazy for them to make themselves a target and hurt the hero or whatever. It's a total cliché but one I hope they don't stick with over the season. I think you're right that her knowing the identity needs to be dealt with sooner rather than later

Ben: I get the whole "this world is too crazy" bit, but I don't get it here, since again, being kidnapped by lunatics is part of her daily routine and just that she now knows Clark's secret didn't put her in any more danger than she was already regularly in. I hope there's more to it and it does get handled quickly, because it didn't work for me. That aside, I think this was a decent start to a season which feels like it's going to be a good combo of greatest hits revisited and an epic ongoing storyline hopefully building up to a conclusion that lives up to a decade of build, which is no small task.

Kiel: I've got my theories on what I'd like to see in the finale, but let's save that for next time.

Ben: Indeed. Closing thoughts?

Kiel: Just that I'm not 100% in my ability to watch every episode all season, so they've really got to nail some cool shit to keep me engaged.

Ben: The gauntlet has been thrown down, Smallville: Please Kiel...or else. Did you see what's up for next week? My taping cut off.

Kiel: If I did I have no recollection. Maybe Lois in Africa?

Ben: Oh! I would also be remiss in not expressing my disappointment that in a Cadmus lab full of Lex Luthor clones, there wasn't one with a fade cut and pierced ear.

Kiel: Dare to dream, Ben!


Dave said...

You know I initially thought Checkmate was the organization that captured Ollie but the Darkseid reveal at the end made me think it was Desaad in a human host. Figuring Smallville might take a cue from Final Crisis in their depiction of the New Gods.

Bryon said...

I was wondering when Clark would finally learn to fly, and they implied this when he put the tower back in place. I don’t understand how his mother came up with that suit though. I feel so sorry for Clark that he is unable to become the person he was meant to be. I think that is a common story for every human being. Honestly I wouldn’t even have time to watch TV if I didn’t get a free DISH Network Sling adapter that gives me live or recorded TV from my employee DVR anywhere I go. Now with my iPhone and Galaxy Tab I watch when I have spare time and still spend quality time with my family when I get home.

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