Borders Line: I Am A Rational Adult Who Loves SMALLVILLE

On the eve of its finale, I defend SMALLVILLE in the face of astonishment and contempt.


Tomorrow, the two-hour series finale of Smallville will air, a culmination of ten years of triumphs and missteps in a show that I cannot help but love. Loving this show with my unceasing critical eye has not been an easy journey; Smallville has never made it easy. I could, without thinking, toss off a dozen cringe-worthy episodes that made me question why the hell I was still watching it. But the episodes that are good are so very good, inspiring and funny and spirited, that I could never really consider abandoning the show entirely. (Okay, except for the writers strike-addled seventh season. I seriously considered it then.) Smallville flounders almost as often as it succeeds, and that is a troubling ratio, but the show has far more merit than most people will ever know.

The mythology is inarguably compelling. Semantics aside, this is a show about Superman. The tights and flights are never what I loved about the Superman mythos. I love the idea of a father sending his infant son across the universe in the hopes of saving him and protecting the legacy of his planet. I love that the infant was discovered by a wholesome farmer and his wife, who raised him in a small Kansas town with an immutable sense of morality and compassion that serves him as well as he is served by his inconceivable strength and speed. Kal-El could have evolved into a tyrant, a villain oppressing an entire planet inhabited by those who are weaker than he. But through the values of integrity and benevolence imbued in him by his salt of the earth parents, he instead becomes a savior, a bastion of hope to the entire human race.

And while Superman’s ties to humanity make him vulnerable, his enemies often throwing his loved ones into peril in order to gain advantage over him, his humanity also gives him his greatest strength. Superman isn’t beloved because he can fly or stop trains with his chest. We cherish him because he is good when he could so easily be bad. He seems bumbling and mild-mannered when we know that in truth, he is powerful. The dichotomy of Superman’s humanity both challenging and enriching his Kryptonian heritage is what I find most engaging about this story, and it’s what Smallville does better than any of the films. Understandably so—a film that dwells on Superman’s origin at length would be tedious, because the point of the movies is Superman. The point of Smallville is Clark Kent, and I’ve always found Clark Kent fascinating.

But of course Smallville did not create Superman’s origin lore, and the show can therefore only be praised so much for fostering it. But there are plenty of other achievements that are solely of Smallville‘s creation. I can think of very few other shows that boast such refined and authentic character development over the course of a series. Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum) is the best example, although it’s true of every series regular on the show. When we meet Lex in the pilot, he’s only a villain in the sense that he’s a fratty rebel, bucking under the dark authority of his father, Lionel (the tremendous John Glover). He’s endearing and personable despite his poor little rich boy tendencies, earnestly devoted to Clark after Clark saves his life. Over the years we see Lex gradually grow more withdrawn and sinister, in large part due to his resentment of Clark. By necessity, Clark must lie to Lex in order to protect his burdensome secret, but Clark also repeatedly treats Lex with suspicion and distrust, contributing to Lex’s beautifully subtle descent into darkness. That coupled with Lionel’s constant chiseling of Lex’s spirit, and no long-time viewer of the show will be able to blame Lex when he finally returns for the series finale to step into the villainous role that has long been his destiny.

The performances on the show are generally great, particularly in the latter seasons. Tom Welling, while not a master thespian, is dignified and appealing as Clark Kent. He’s borne ten seasons on those broad shoulders, and he lives comfortably in the character now, effortlessly earning the title of the longest-tenured Superman. Erica Durance as Lois Lane also demonstrates the nuanced nature of Smallville‘s character arcs. She started out as a brash army brat and has grown into a graceful and resourceful partner to Clark, my favorite portrayal of Lois Lane to date. The previously mentioned Luthors, Rosenbaum and Glover, brought a provocative malevolence to the show that has been sorely missed in their absence. Allison Mack delivers such heart and savvy as Chloe Sullivan, a character created entirely for Smallville, that DC comics guru Geoff Johns actually decided to write her into the comics. Annette O’Toole has frankly always been too good for this show; her heartfelt performance as Martha Kent elevates Smallville to the profound whenever she is onscreen. And relative newbies Cassidy Freeman (Tess Mercer) and Justin Hartley (Oliver Queen/Green Arrow) have enriched the cast with engrossing and fully realized character journeys of their own.  

One of the things I love best about Smallville is its consistently positive representation of women. I shouldn’t have to applaud a show for having more than one strong, intelligent, complex female character on its roster, but it’s an unfortunate rarity in this business. Smallville has a plethora of them: Lois, Martha, Chloe, Tess—even the irritating Lana managed to defend herself and her loved ones on a regular basis. Those are of the series regulars; many actresses with shorter arcs on the show proved the same. These women have real concerns and real strength; they protect the people they love, they embrace their own success and fight for their own achievements, they support each other instead of tearing one another down. They kick ass literally and figuratively; none of them is a victim, and on a show about a male superhero who needs victims to save on a weekly basis, that is frankly astonishing. Every single episode of Smallville passes the Bechdel test, and friends, that is no small feat. When I first began watching a show about a teenaged Superman ten years ago, I never expected to be overwhelmed with pride at the feminist principles represented in every episode. And yet.

Lofty ideals aside, I’d be remiss if I didn’t count Smallville‘s geek cred as one of its greatest qualities. A lot of comics fans are driven crazy by the quirky Smallville twist administered to every single DC cameo, but there's a silver lining to the tweaks. They allow fans to still be surprised by what unfolds, rather than spoiled by the plot simply because that’s how it happened in the comics. And c’mon. This show had Geoff Johns write a thrilling two-hour crossover episode introducing the Justice Society to the Justice League (“Absolute Justice”). Johns also wrote the Legion of Super-Heroes ep (“Legion”) and the recent Booster Gold/Blue Beetle episode (“Booster”). That is legitimate cred, y’all. And Smallville reigns undisputed when it comes to stunt casting. We’ve had Christopher Reeve as a billionaire scientist who first introduces Clark to his Kryptonian legacy, with Margot Kidder as his assistant. We’ve seen Helen Slater as Lara-El, Lynda Carter as Chloe’s mom, and James Marsters as both Brainiac and Brainiac 5. Terence Stamp is the voice of Jor-El, for chrissake! There are so many sweet geek scores to be had on this show, and in spite of the fact that geeks hate on Smallville more than anyone, Smallville still plays to its constituents.  

Another thing Smallville absolutely nails are its season finales. That show can put on a bitchin’ season finale like no other. Tornadoes and plane crashes, courtroom dramas and meteor showers, the Fortress of Solitude, Zod, Bizarro and Doomsday are all introduced to us in intense, rousing finales that leave the audience breathless for resolution. Although the budget is decidedly limited, I really dig the art direction on the show. The effects don’t always (okay, almost never) look real, but they always look cool, and that counts for something.

Also counting for something? The fact that Smallville just keeps improving in the face of defeat. When show creators Al Gough and Miles Millar left Smallville after season seven, along with popular show regulars Michael Rosenbaum and Kristen Kreuk (Lana Lang), everyone thought it was the death knell. After the abysmal seventh season, I hoped it was. Executive Producers Todd Slavkin and Darren Swimmer went on to slam dunk season eight, arguably the best season of the series. Season nine brought the departure of Slavkin and Swimmer and the dangerous move from Thursday nights to the Friday night wasteland. Smallville‘s ratings improved under such dire circumstances, and remaining Executive Producers Kelly Souders and Brian Peterson (who have been writers on the show since the second season) have carried it to a strong finish.

But despite all that I love dearly about Smallville, objectively I understand that it’s a show whose parts are most likely greater than its sum. But those parts are fun, and the sum is pretty damned fun, too. I didn’t write this post to convince anyone who has dismissed Smallville for ten years that they’ve been wrong all this time. I fully expect to get hammered in the comments, and believe me, I’m ready for it. I wrote this to demonstrate that Smallville‘s fans aren’t all moony teenagers or unthinking morons. I think about this show. I take every part of it into full, thoughtful consideration. I don’t love it blindly; I love it for what it is, and sometimes in spite of what it is. For every wonderful pro, Smallville has an embarrassing con. It can be excessively silly and cheesy. It can dwell too long on banal subplots. In the earlier seasons, the tepid Lana is overused to the point of exhaustion. This final season has wasted a little too much time turning Clark into Superman, so that the finale will by necessity be jam-packed with big moments. That means the finale will be a blast, but not all of the episodes leading up to it have been. Worst of all, the writing is sometimes indefensibly bad, particularly in earlier seasons. I often felt that Smallville writers didn’t take the show as seriously as I do; they never saw in it the potential to become something great that I’ve seen from the beginning, so they reveled in being schlocky instead. Not always. Sometimes the writing is great, and even when it’s bad, it’s fun bad. Sometimes the show approaches its potential, but it’s never quite reached it. I hope and expect that at least in tomorrow night’s final episode, Smallville will become what I’ve always hoped it would be.

Because the writing and tone have both improved greatly over the past three years, and I take a great deal of pride in that fact. What show gets better as it nears its tenth season? What other show cultivates its seasons-old characters into more mature, realistic and refined versions of their earlier counterparts? Some of the best shows on television didn’t do that. Buffy, Xander and Willow turned on a dime into complete assholes in later seasons of Buffy, while Spike turned into a marshmallow. There are plot points that can justify those changes, sure, but the devolution was too abrupt to feel earned. Of course Smallville has had ten seasons, allowing plenty of room for the gradual growth of its characters, but the producers never knew that would be the case. Its ratings certainly never indicated that it would become the longest-running sci-fi television show in America. Maybe what’s made Smallville successful is that its writers have always acted under the assumption that it would last ten seasons. It’s been a slow burn—many would say too slow. But tomorrow night, when Clark finally reaches his destiny as Superman, donning that red cape and soaring into the Metropolis skyline, he’ll have earned that shit. We will have earned it. And it will have been worth the wait.