We watch... so you don't have to.

Fall '01: "Smallville"

Smallville, the WB's contribution to a sprawling Superman legacy, is a surprisingly good show. Centering on the awkward years when the Man of Steel is merely an Adolescent of Aluminum, the series follows Clark Kent through high school, a humbling experience even for invincible über-aliens.

The show breaks with Superman tradition by presenting Kent as a modern teenager, one yet to don the blue and red Underoos. Accompanied by a meteor shower that nearly leveled Smallville, Kansas, toddler Clark plummeted to Earth in 1989, where he was found by loving parents Johnathan and Martha Kent. Twelve years later, he's struggling with freshman year and wondering if all the other kids are dealing with voice changes, new body hair and total invulnerability.

Come to think of it, just how does Superman trudge through the gloomy moors of adolescence? If he gets a zit, does he need Sulfuric Acid Stridex? A normal teenage boy is already a dangerously clumsy oaf... so what happens when that teenager is running Mach 2 or bench-pressing a Chevy Suburban? And just how does Superman shave? Industrial sander? Diamonds? Chain saw?

Hopefully, these questions will be answered as the show moves along. For now, Clark Kent is still learning the ins and outs of being a superhero. His father refuses to allow the budding gridiron superstar a chance at the football team because the kid would decimate opposing teams. It isn't until late in the show's pilot episode that Clark learns his birth certificate reads "Krypton General Hospital," and he doesn't realize what kryptonite does to him until the show's second episode. While plenty of high schoolers say they wish they were never born, Superteen actually has a good reason: the meteor shower that birthed him is also responsible for turning a large part of Smallville into hideous freaks.

These freaks are the assorted not-so-supervillains that Clark must defeat each week, but through the first couple of episodes these guys are merely secondary to the teenage angst plots. And there's more than enough angst to go around. If there were a drinking game that required a shot for each time Kent whines "Why can't I be normal," you'd be three sheets to the wind by 9:30.

In addition to growing up as a demi-god, Clark's got other serious problems. First of all, he's in love with homecoming queen Lana Lang, girlfriend of the star quarterback. In typical shy loner fashion, Clark turns into Jell-o whenever Lana's around, but at least he's got an excuse: she wears a kryptonite necklace. Our hero even manages to get beaten up by Lana's boyfriend, thanks to that very same necklace.

Obviously, Superman isn't Superman if he's getting pummeled by pretty boys. Hell, he needs a telescope just to spy on Lana's house, only a mile up the road. At this stage of his life, Clark is faster than a speeding bullet, but not quite as powerful as a locomotive. A Buick perhaps, but not a locomotive. There is probably a spirited debate over Buffy vs. Smallville Superman already burning through this country's most pocket-protected chat rooms. In addition, Executive Producers Alfred Gough and Miles Millar have decreed "No flights and no tights." However, the schoolboy hero does wake up one morning to find himself floating a few feet over his bed and there was a clever blink-and-you'll-miss-it homage to his future cape in the pilot.

The Buffy vs. Clark debate isn't all that far-fetched because at this point, Smallville is shaping up to be a testosterone-flavored Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Hey, if you're going to ape a show, you might as well ape the best. Still, anyone who's seen more than a couple Buffys will have a palpable sense of deja vu. There's a teenaged superhero who longs to be normal, living in a town that's a favorite with monsters and assorted hangers-on. Smallville even has its own Scooby Gang. The WB didn't really lose Buffy last year -- it just gave the show a sex change.

But Smallville also manage to copy some of Buffy's behind-the-scenes machinery along with it's plot and characters. The result is a show that is sharply paced, well-written and a pleasure to look at with an artistry in everything from lighting to shot composition. The special effects aren't bad either. The pilot opened with the meteor shower that brings Clark to Earth, and while it won't make anyone forget the space rocks leveling New York and Paris in the movie "Armageddon," the scene was a stunner by TV standards. The dialogue has yet to crackle like a certain Slayer's, but it's never boring and ends up earnest without being overly sappy. Most importantly, the Smallville writers have so far managed to do what other teen show scribes never could: make beautiful people complaining about their lives interesting rather than annoying.

The lead beautiful person is Tom Welling. Apparently Superman ages faster than normal humans, because Welling looks like the oldest freshman Kansas has ever seen, so ancient he makes the 90210 crowd like the cast of Romper Room. Nonetheless, Welling is nearly perfect for the role and pulls off a blend of intensity and sincerity that seems about right for a up and coming hero. He's even physically adept enough to make it through the action scenes without embarrassing himself. And of course Welling has that one ingredient the WB requires of all male leads: it's easy to see him fronting a boy band.

One of the most interesting angles to Smallville is the presence of Lex Luthor, played by a bald Michael Rosenbaum. Luthor, the son of a billionaire industrialist, has moved back to the town and befriends Clark after the Boy of Steel rescues him from a car wreck. Luthor's journey from super friend to mortal enemy should almost be reason enough to keep tuning in.

Almost enough reason. The problem with Smallville is that, despite a decent number of bug-boy squishings, it is still a chick show on a chick network. As well-written as it has been so far, there is no doubt the show aspires to be Superman's Creek rather than Superman, Texas Ranger. But there's only so much super-navel gazing some of us can take before we grab the remote in search of even more bug-boy squishings. Once November 6 rolls around, we'll find them in the same time slot on Fox's 24.

So should you watch Smallville? Here's a little test. At the end of the second episode Clark returns Lana's necklace to her even though he knows it makes him as weak and pathetic as a Berkeley city council member. If you think the gesture was a beautiful, caring expression of unrequited love, than by all means, watch Smallville. But if you roll your eyes and shake your head at the overwhelming tactical stupidity of it all, then it may actually be Kiefer Sutherland who is your one true superhero this fall.


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