Sunday, May 17, 2009

I apologize now for talking about "Smallville"

Smallville is a bad, bad show.

On any other network, "Smallville" would have been canceled long ago. It ranks in the lowest rungs of TV watcherdom*, but because it shows on The CW (the bastard love child of failed networks "The WB" and "The Paramount Network"), and has more viewers than "Everybody Hates Chris", its the darling of the CW network.

When I am at the Pearly Gates, St. Peter will be watching my life with me on some super-high-def Pearly Gates TV, and he's going to hit pause and ask me "why? Why did you spend so many hours wasting your life watching this show?"

And I won't know. I won't feel good about it. I don't feel good about it now. I barely admit that I watch the show. And, truthfully, I did stop watching it for a year or more. But then I saw an article on how they were bringing in Smallville's version of the Justice League, and I tuned in, and, well...

The truth is, I don't think I'm just making it up that the first three or four seasons of Smallville were frequently dippy as they tried to mix "Dawson's Creek" style teen-romance with superheroics. But it was a completely different and better show than what we're seeing now.

For those of you who don't know... Smallville was supposed to tell the stories of a teen-aged Clark Kent (the pilot was his first day at high school) coming to terms with his powers and his identity as something other than human. The show cast John "The Dukes of Hazzard" Schneider as Jonathan Kent, and Annette "Superman III" O'Toole as Martha Kent, the two playing his wise and loving parents, guiding him toward his role as Superman.

Anyway, the show was pretty straightforward. Teen-aged kid fights crime, lies to a 20-something Lex Luthor about having an alien origin, and has romantic trouble with the worst character on TV, ever (Lana Lang as portrayed -poorly - by Kristin Kreuk).

For a while there, the show featured name actors, from Rutger Hauer to Christopher Reeve. Terence Stamp was the voice of Jor-El, and a concerted effort seemed to be made to tie the show to the Reeve-starring movie continuity.

The series completed its 8th season this last week. Gone are the days when the show had a budget that could support keeping high dollar actors like John Glover, John Schneider and Annette O'Toole around for every episode. These days, those actors are all gone, the supporting cast of 20-somethings, just happy to be working, mostly appears in half the episodes, and the FX budget appears to be roughly 1/3rd of what it was in the earliest episodes. We're lucky if we see Clark run at superspeed anymore.

More than that, however, is that the scope and scale of the show seems to have diminished, and what writing does occur has been, for several seasons (and through a complete changing of the guard this year in creative leadership) pretty much a trainwreck.

And yet... I keep watching.

In many ways, I really do not understand how supposedly professional writers could be so very, very bad. Just simple, dumb choices have led to an ever escalating parade of dopeyness.

To list or innumerate the failings of the show is probably an exercise in frustration and/ or self-loathing for myself as a viewer. However, as a Superman fan, its fascinating to watch unfold as the show seems unable or unwilling to just go ahead and try to build toward the point at which Clark Kent makes the decision to put on his tights and save the world. It's become less about the young Kal-El's path to iconic status as The Man o Steel and more about the most extended case of "get to the point" in televised history. I say this as someone who watches "Lost".

There were improvements this season. I do not exaggerate when I say that Smallville fell into a weird pattern in seasons 6 and 7 where it wrapped its main plot of the episode and utilized the last 10 minutes of every broadcast to have Clark berated by his "love interest", effectively celebrating something that slid from wicked co-dependency to an emotionally abusive relationship. I wouldn't make too much note of that other than that, based on the Neutrogena and make-up ads, Smallville is geared towards teen-aged girls. Which... is squarely not in the usual superhero demographic. But given how the show insisted that Clark and Lana's deeply dysfunctional relationship was held up as "true love"... it just got creepy by the time Kreuk left the show.

What sort of bizarre superhero show spends 1/4 of its broadcast time each week dedicated to the superhero apologizing and being told he is a bad person? And what kind of weirdo fantasy was that for the audience of teen-aged girls? What do I not know and what am I missing here?

Add in what occurred with a different supporting character this season, and we've moved into coded messages about the nobility of aiding and abetting a known murderer, with a heavy dose of Stockholm Syndrome, sexual predation as romance, infidelity and physical abuse.

Hoooray, Smallville writers!

And still, I watch. Mostly at this point for the same reasons one would watch Melrose Place back in the day. By driving all character decisions from a plot standpoint rather than bothering to try to have anyone behave rationally or explain their actions in anything that makes sense (and doesn't require heaping guilt upon our Superman), everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, on the show seems as dumb as a bunch of cattle. But unlike Melrose place, eventually the writers seem to sober up at the end of the season, realize they've written their supposedly heroic characters like a herd of morons without a minder, and try to backpeddle out of the other 20-odd episodes of mistakes with a lot of speechifying and self-serving rationalization.

But I cannot look away.

There's a fundamental difference, I think, between how writers typically handle superheroic comics and how Joe or Jane TV writer handles a TV show, or even where those writers are coming from. My guess is that the writers of Smallville are work-for-hire writers with little in the way of a comics background. If their reference point for superheroics are within the loop of madness that Smallville has become, then the reference points just aren't going to be there for the writers to know that, hey... Superman isn't going to be much of a Superman if every cross word from a pal is going to send him into a tizzy of inaction or ineffectiveness.

Superman didn't become Superman because he was unwilling to take action or let grouchy "friends" dictate his actions.

At any rate, I now have a few months to consider whether I'll watch the show next year, but even in that, I know I'm caught in a loop. Smallville always starts out with the best of intentions for a season, and the first two or three episodes don't usually hint much at the madness which is to come. Its when they start setting up the plot for the next 20 episodes that things get out of control.

Lost is really onto something with this whole shortened season with an end point business.

*Week May 4-10, 2009, Smallville was the CW's #2 show, pulling in 3,392,000 viewers. "Dancing with the Stars" pulled in over 20 million. The real news is that, for some reason, America's Funniest Home Videos pulled in almost 7 million viewers. That's a lot of people watching other people get hit in the nards, Leaguers.


J.S. said...

An even more interesting statistic might be exactly how many Americans get themselves hit in the nards in a given week. Please report back with data.

The League said...

I looked. I couldn't find any stats. Sad face :(

Michael Corley said...

I have watched every espisode of smallville seasons 1-7. I wish it were better... but really, I don't want to watch anything else. It has superheros, and that still beats Dancing with the stars in my book.

The League said...

The show could be significantly better written.

I know (as Smallville hardcore fans often say on the Superman Homepage) that we should somehow be grateful for Smallville just existing. I'd prefer it if the producers took a little more pride in what they're doing. I don't think the showrunners fundamentally understand Superman at this point, but I'm not sure that's the point anymore.

What's pretty clear is that at this point there's a generation of folks who have a totally different idea of who and what Clark Kent is and what the Superman story is about, and that's going to be an interesting ride going forward.

NTT said...

I checked out of Smallville after Season 3 when I realized that there will never ever be an intelligent satisfactory conclusion to this mutant child of the Superman mythos.

The huge problem is that the producers and execs have repeatedly said once the cape comes on, the show ends. Since Smallville is, relatvely, a success on the CW, it continues to be a going concern so the writers are stuck with continually trying to postpone the real ending to a show while desperately attempting to sustain dramatic tension. I don't even Michael Chabon can work well in that framework. It's a sad state of affairs and I can't believe you can muster the energy to watch such a soul sucking aneurysm inducing TV show.

Plus their version of Lois Lane is even worse then the version of Lana Lang.

I think you should just switch to watching Chuck instead. At least that show actually tries to change and has real character arcs. Plus it's just been renewed for a 3rd season.

The League said...

I can't argue with you on much of that NTT. Maybe a small quibble over who is worse, their Lana or Lois, but that's an argument that, were I to pursue it, we'd all come up losing.

I had never believed the show would last this long, and so thought they had a chance to wrap it up with a bit of class. About 3 years ago.

I should also mention, that when Jamie doesn't watch the show with me, I generally watch the episodes in fast forward whenever I sense a discussion about "secrets and lies" approaching.

You can whip through an episode in about 20-25 minutes that way.

I am going to give it a shot by NOT watching next season. See where that takes me. I did it for most of seasons 6 and 7.

mcsteans said...

America's Funniest Home Videos is still on? Are you kidding me?


Anyway, yeah I hadn't watched the show regularly since around season 4 but caught most of the episodes Ryan watched this year. I couldn't even muster up the energy to get angry at the finale, which believe me, deserved plenty of wrath.

While I am no Erica Durance as Lois fan, Lana Lang is the most annoying, most Mary Sue character I've ever seen on TV. She was marginally improved when they had her learn Clark's origin, thus ending years of maddening "Thecrets and Lies" B.S., but this season's "let's give Lana super powers!" crap was beyond infuriating.

Long live Stompy the horse!

J.S. said...

I'm glad Ryan still watches Smallville. I'm glad that he still watches it so I have ammunition to fling back at him when I he gives me sh#t for watching some particularly bad episode of 24 or some other crap (and I have a tendency to get sucked into some really bad movies, in particular).
The real problem with Smallville is that it will probably make producers hesitate to put any other kind of Superman show on the air for years to come, even if someone else has a much better idea. Anyway, Smallville is a bad, bad show at this point, but it's kind of reached a point where it's a bit fascinating to watch in all of its awfulness.