It seems bizarre to me that Smallville season 1 premiered in 2001, thirteen years ago right when America needed a hero the most. Why is that strange? Because only now, in these past two years or so, we’re seeing a million other Smallville’s spring up everywhere, and become some of the best shows on TV. Well, not a million, perhaps, but Arrow and The Flash certainly draw their DNA from Smallville, and I’m not sure shows like Gotham and Agents of SHIELD would exist without it either. And yet, Smallville was one of the ONLY superhero shows on TV for the decade it was on, other than a few exceptions like Heroes. It’s really interesting to see how the show laid the groundwork for today’s flurry of superhero shows, and how little Arrow and The Flash have really deviated from a formula that worked over ten years ago, and apparently still works today.
To me, the show worked on a basic level because of the cast, and the chemistry between the larger group. And honestly, for as good as shows like Arrow and The Flash are, that’s something I still haven’t seen fully repeated to this point. Clark is actually a gentler hero than most we see on TV, and he remained that way throughout most of the show, other than his rare brushes with red Kryptonite. Tom Welling, though he hasn’t done much since, was expertly cast as the hulking farmboy, and maintained a necessary innocence about him for the majority of the show. And his two main relationships were what made the show work, with two other cast members that were pitch-perfect. That would be Lana and Lex.
Lana served the purpose of being Clark’s grounding and motivation to be better. It certainly helped the show that she was played by the absolutely stunning Kristen Kreuk, one of my deepest TV crushes from back in the day, and it was easy to fall in love with her just as Clark did.
But the larger, more important relationship that made the show work was the one between Clark and Lex, who were fast friends in the early seasons of the show, but were slowly torn apart and turned into mortal enemies by the end. Smallville would not have worked without their longrunning plotlines that cut through the generally procedural nature of the show, and it’s something that I’m still not sure if current superhero shows have a handle on. But it may be too early to tell.
The only other comic book hero/villain relationship as iconic as Clark and Lex as Batman and the Joker. Heroes like Arrow don’t really have “archvillains,” though Arrow’s best season so far was one that mirrored the Clark and Lex relationship pretty closely. We spent all of season two seeing how Oliver’s relationship with Slade Wilson developed, and how Wilson thought he was betrayed, and that in combination with a dangerous drug, turned him against Oliver and had his decimate his life in every way.
The Flash is just getting started, but it may spawn that kind of relationship between Barry Allen and his mentor, who will eventually become Reverse Flash, his mortal enemy.
Even Gotham is setting this up in a way with Jim Gordon and Penguin. The two don’t have any particularly dramatic history in the comics, but the show is starting to find its legs between the push and pull of Gordon and Penguin as frenemies. It goes without saying that without Penguin, Gotham would be dead in the water.
All of this is Smallville’s influence in action, and I find it fascinating that all of these shows can trace some strand of DNA back to it. People often underestimate Smallville, or wrote it off ahead of its tenth season finale, but in my mind, it was worth sticking with until the end. Granted, it suffered greatly when Lana was replaced with Lois, and Lex left the show entirely, but it was still something of a master class in how to infuse your show with tons of comic book lore effectively. It’s still a working model for all these shows today, and they can learn from both its successes, and failures.
[Photos via WB]