I’ve said it before when talking about Alias: the way to watch good TV shows is to rent them on DVD. You have to wait a couple years, but in that time you can usually get a sense, through your friends or through the grapevine, of which shows start good and stay good. The latest proof positive of this technique is Smallville, which we’re renting through Netflix interspersed with Alias and The Sopranos. (It’s been a while since we’ve rented an actual movie—with Ella around, we’re far more likely to have forty-five minutes to spare than a couple of hours.)
Those of you who are already Smallville fans will have to pardon the enthusiasm of somebody who’s only four episodes in. But for those who have no clue: the show airs on the WB, and traces the life of Clark Kent as a high school student, as he’s gradually discovering his powers and before he’s decided upon life as superhero. Practically speaking, of course, he is the hero of the show, but has to wrestle with fitting that role into the rest of his life in a way that fits very well with Jim’s idea that “the superhero story is the literature of ethics.”
The show is obviously and, at times, derivatively post-Buffy. It runs the same “supernatural metaphors mapped onto adolescent experience” schtick, replacing the Hellmouth with kryptonite meteors as an explanation for the strange goings-on. But what really puts the show on a rung below Buffy is the fact that neither its characters nor its actors are anywhere in the league of folks like Willow, Xander, and Giles.
Except Lex. Lex Luthor in Smallville is a striking, sad, and intricate character, brilliantly played by Michael Rosenbaum. We know the villain he’ll become, but it’s clear that that path will be a tragic arc—right now he’s the spoiled rich kid just trying, like Clark, to find his own sense of self, in his case out from under the thumb of his father, the Bad Businessman. He alone makes the show worthwhile at some points, rather like how scenes with Londo Mollari would redeem an otherwise mediocre Babylon 5 episode.
Smallville doesn’t have dialogue that’s as clever as Buffy (though it’s very good), or that show’s wonderful fantasy setting, but its plots are tighter and (comparing season 1 to season 1 so far) more elegant. The pilot is masterful, and the following three episodes are solid fun. Having Clark only gradually discover his powers is a great narrative device, because the audience knows all the things he’ll eventually be able to do and can’t wait to see exactly how it all plays out. I can already see the stuff that threatens to get old about the show, though. Having kryptonite scattered everywhere thanks to the meteor shower is both a brilliant idea for balancing out Clark’s powers as well as a plot crutch waiting to be overused. But the thing that will make the show hardest to stick with is not even a weakness: I’m not the target audience. Buffy was a high school show written for adults thinking back on their rotten high school experiences; if actual adolescents loved it was a happy accident, they were unusually sophisticated, or they were just swooning over David Boreanaz and/or Sarah Michelle Gellar. Smallville, by contrast, is very much geared toward the teenybopper set. There are plenty of emotional moments that don’t click at all now, but that I know would have just killed me when I was fifteen. And I’m a little old at this point to get excited about a wall-sized poster of young Lana Lang. Still, such is the fate of those who favor the groundbreaking, imaginative, quirky sorts of shows that network TV would never touch. (Babylon 5, Buffy, Firefly, Smallville—insert your own favorites.) Loving them is always a little bit of a labor of love, but always worth it.
Ah! So this is the plan, then. I’ll unveil Smallville for Ella when she’s fourteen, and save Buffy for when she’s eighteen. It goes without saying that whatever’s airing on TV at that time will be unwatchable crap . . .