DeFlip Side #58: A Fifth of Smallville

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Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

Well, our resident Kal-El-o-phile Howard Margolin must certainly be juiced about the coming release of Superman Returns, because tonight kicks off a full month of Superman-centric programming on Destinies. But instead of looking forward, I will take this opportunity to look back on another Super franchise, the just completed fifth season of Smallville.

The good news, as any Smallville fan can tell you, is that the show is stronger than ever. We’re finally seeing some of the dramatic and lasting character changes that hint at the Superman universe we know so well. But despite these changes, Smallville made it to the end of the season with many of its signature aspects in tact, both good and bad.

Season five hinged on Smallville’s milestone 100th episode, titled “Reckoning.” And if by some outside chance you haven’t yet seen it, I’d advise that you tune out for the next few minutes, because big-time spoilers are on the way.

When show producers announced that a major character would die, I put my writer’s hat on and, as unreasonable as it sounded at the time, I concluded it would be Lana who bites it, and that Lex would be somehow responsible. It was the only thing that made sense for a couple of reasons.

First and foremost, Clark and Lex are destined to become enemies—an inconvenient fact for Smallville’s writers, who sometimes seem intent on making the Luthor/Kent team-up the most durable relationship in television history. There needed to be a major rift that would serve as a believable catalyst for a lifetime of future animosity. Having Lex kill Lana, either directly or indirectly, would do that nicely. Lana’s death would also force Clark to look beyond Smallville and put him more firmly on the road to Metropolis.

But then my television producer side piped up and said preposterous—again for a couple of very good reasons. First, Lana’s the babe, and you don’t kill the babe. Too many guys tune in mainly to drool over Kristin Kreuk, and killing her off would be folly. Also, the romantic tension between Clark and Lana is one of the biggest elements of the show’s success, and you don’t eliminate that either—especially not when Smallville is starting to break out after five long seasons and is finding a larger audience.

So I went into “Reckoning” unsure which master would ultimately be served. As it turned out, the writer and producer in me were both right. The powers that be at Smallville found a way to have their cake and eat it too.

Longtime fans got what they had been waiting for: Clark finally revealing his secret to Lana in spectacular fashion, and she agreeing to marry him;

The Superman mythology got what it demanded: Lana dying at the hands of Lex, casting a permanent pall over his relationship with Clark;

And the television suits got what they needed: a plot device that would facilitate Lana’s resurrection in order to keep the horny fanboy contingent firmly glued to the tube.

And just when you thought they were going to sell out with a flimsy time travel reset button resolution, the writers unveil their coup de grace, killing off Jonathan Kent. It drove a knife directly into the show’s heart, and gave Clark the pain necessary to grow out of his small town and into his big red “S.” I don’t think I’ve ever seen the needs of both art and commerce served so well and so fully as in “Reckoning.”

That’s not to say the episode didn’t have its problems. The plot wears fairly thin in some spots and it would have been easy for Clark to work it so that no one would have died. But that would have been bringing things back to square one. And that brings me back to some of the show’s weaker aspects, which, as I mentioned earlier, still linger.

Look, if Lex hasn’t figured out Clark’s secret by now, it makes him the dumbest criminal mastermind ever. For someone as obsessed with Clark as Lex has been, it should be blatantly obvious to him that Clark has superpowers, as it should be to just about anyone else who cares to give it more than a modicum of thought.

But since that flies in the face of established comic book mythos, you can rest assured that anyone who does happen to put two and two together will either die or have amnesia by the end of the episode. Maybe both. Amnesia and unexplainable memory lapses are so frequent among Smallville regulars that Clark could long ago have stopped worrying about concealing his secret origins, confident in the knowledge that they would soon be forgotten anyway. It’s amazing anyone in that town can even remember their own name.

Now couple this perpetual problem with many season five episodes that were thinly disguised ripoffs of movies like Saw, The Sixth Sense, Panic Room and Flatliners. You have to scratch your head and wonder why the writing quality can’t be more consistent.

But when Smallville is good, it’s really good. I think the show did an especially good job this year of weaving in comic book elements specific to the Superman series and from the DC Universe in general. Ushering in villains like Brainiac and Zod, giving us a glimpse of the Phantom Zone, and introducing younger incarnations of Aquaman and Cyborg—all very cool stuff for hardcore fans.

But the biggest standout this season was Allison Mack, who plays Chloe Sullivan. Chloe has always presented a unique challenge. She’s the one character on the show not bound by seven decades of comic book continuity, so she can go in any direction the writers see fit. But at the same time, her story arc has to meld seamlessly with futures that have already been established. Now, after some initial faltering steps, the character is not only walking that tightrope, but has found her stride.

It’s ironic praise coming from me, since I’ve always found Chloe annoying, mainly due to the stupid dialog they give her. But when she’s not forced to say dopey things, Allison Mack can really act. With just a look she’s able to convey more pathos and emotion than any bout of thespian hysterics spewed by Kristen Kreuk. Her relationship with Clark has been the bedrock of the season, especially in the wake of Jonathan’s death. I hope it continues to deepen.

More than likely it will, because if season five has proven anything, it’s that Smallville will go to great lengths to stick with what works. And that’s not likely to end anytime soon, what with the added pressure of having to anchor Thursday nights for the newly-formed CW Network.

Putting additional weight on the larger Superman franchise are the super expectations for Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns. The studio has moved the opening up two days to June 28th to give it an opportunity to gross more over the Fourth of July holiday weekend. Oddly enough, I will be one of many fans who will be judging the movie through the lens of not only the previous Superman movies, but Smallville as well.

These facts are not lost on Singer. The latest Superman Returns trailer features strains of John William’s iconic Superman score, as well this telling snippet between Superman and Lois:

Lois: “How could you leave us like that?”
Clark: “It’s not easy for me to live my life being who I am. Keeping secrets.”

Now if that’s not a page torn directly out of Smallville, I don’t know what is. Tom Welling should be getting residuals.

It’s heartening to see these varying influences so prominent in the new feature film. They indicate that Brian Singer wasn’t working in a bubble, and that he cares about fans. But even if the worst happens, and Superman Returns sucks big time, respite won’t be long in coming. Season six of Smallville is right around the corner.

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