It’s a problem that plagues almost every drama series on broadcast television that is not a procedural crime drama: How to keep the narrative’s ongoing mythology interesting as the show’s characters age through the seasons without jumping any sharks.
You don’t hear much about it, especially in the mainstream media, but Smallville, which on Thursday will begin its eighth season (its third on The CW, following five on The WB), has throughout its run emerged as a textbook study on how to roll with the realities of television production and remain vital while staying true to its core story. The first seven seasons of this series should be required viewing for every show-runner who is fortunate enough to face these challenges.
The Season 8 premiere makes clear that this isn’t the Smallville that captivated viewers and advertisers alike when it debuted in 2001. (I remember the excitement in the ballroom at New York City’s Sheraton Hotel in May of that year when The WB presented clips from the thrilling Smallville pilot to hundreds of advertisers and dozens of journalists.) The series, like its characters, is grown up now. When it began, it was about teenagers -- including Clark Kent (Tom Welling), the most famous super powered humanoid alien in the history of American popular culture – coping with the pressures high school, family and first romance, plus the lingering after effects of a devastating, long-ago meteor shower, the remnants of which continued to turn local citizens into Kryptonite-fueled madmen, if not genuine monsters. The Smallville canvas has expanded dramatically over the years to include interplanetary intrigue, cross-dimensional conflicts, the introduction of additional aliens (Supergirl, Brainiac, the Martian Manhunter) and other super-powered individuals (The Green Arrow, the Black Canary, Impulse, Aquaman, Cyborg), star-crossed romances (Clark Kent and Lana Lang, Lois Lane and Oliver Queen), a marriage made in hell (Lana Lang and Lex Luthor), three significant deaths (Whitney Fordman, Jonathan Kent, Lionel Luthor), and the departures of the two women Clark has loved most, his mother (for a political career in Washington, D.C.) and Lana (to begin a new life and allow Clark to fulfill his true destiny unencumbered by their relationship), as well as his best friend, Pete.
Smallville these days bears little resemblance to its younger self, yet it still feels remarkably fresh. Only two characters remain from its first season: Clark Kent, now finally pursuing a career in journalism at the Daily Planet and newly determined to move into adulthood (with ongoing guidance from his mentor, Oliver Queen), and his new best friend Chloe Sullivan, an intrepid young reporter who recently developed healing powers as a result of exposure to Kryptonite fragments from that long ago disaster. (She is now a “meteor freak,” as people who are dramatically altered by Kryptonite are known.) With Lana out of the picture (though she will briefly return in the months to come), Clark is free to pursue a new romance with his new colleague, Lois Lane, while Chloe finally declares her love for cub photographer Jimmy Olsen. And with Lex out of the way (mysteriously missing after the Fortress of Solitude collapsed on top of him at the end of Season 7), Clark has a new adversary in corporate cut-throat Tess Mercer, Lex’s designated successor as CEO of LuthorCorp.
Wisely, the season premiere includes appearances by three heroes from the still young Justice League: Green Arrow, Black Canary and Aquaman, all looking for Clark, who has also gone missing after the collapse of the Fortress. Martian Manhunter also returns at a critical time. Green Arrow (Justin Hartley) will remain on the canvas indefinitely, and the others will likely return. The growing awareness of other super-powered humans from well beyond the Smallville borders has been the most tantalizing subplot in the show’s ever-expanding mythology. For millions of comic book fans past and present it is as if the D.C. Comics universe is taking shape right before their eyes. The potential spin-offs and movie franchises are dazzling.
And yet, that isn’t what Smallville is about. It remains the story of Clark Kent, a young man who, upon reaching adolescence, began to realize that he was different from other kids. Young Clark’s adventures were stories of family, friendship, community, responsibility and tolerance. Clark has been somewhat slower to mature than most young men, despite prodding from Lana and Oliver, but he has experienced enough loss and seen enough change to realize that it is time to step up and be the person he was meant to be. That doesn’t simply mean taking on the challenges of manhood. It means respecting the responsibilities that come with great power and accepting the challenges that come with being Superman.
There. I said it. Superman. When Smallville premiered, its creators freely used the expression “no flights, no tights.” This series would be a reimagining of the Superman saga, not a simple retelling. Those producers and writers (and those who have since assumed control) have remained true to their original pledge. But Clark has flown quite a bit in recent seasons. It may be time for him to finally don that classic costume, especially if this proves to be the final season for this unexpectedly durable show.