TV discussion

Smallville 1×01 – ‘Pilot’ – TV Rewind

For a character with such cinematic potential, and who was the basis for arguably the most iconic big-screen iteration of a superhero ever, via the wonderful performance of Christopher Reeve, it’s hard to shake the feeling – given how many potential Superman movies have languished in development hell or failed to spawn the franchise expected of them – that the Man of Steel has often found an easier home on the small screen.

George Reeves’ performance was the domain of television in the 1950s, there has been a plethora of animated TV series, there was Alexander and Ilya Salkind’s Superboy television series of the late 80s, and Lois and Clark in the ’90s. And whilst Tim Burton and Nicholas Cage struggled to bring Superman Lives to the silver screen, the smaller screen opted to bring the teen years of Clark Kent to live action.

The teen years of Clark Kent had been touched upon briefly in Richard Donner’s iconic Superman: The Movie, with Jeff East playing a teenage Clark, while 1983’s more muddled Superman III spent time with Clark at his high school reunion being reacquainted with Lana Lang, portrayed by Annette O’ Toole who would go on to play Martha Kent here.

For such a powerful character with abilities that seem tailor-made for a big budget superhero movie, and with one of the most iconic associations of actors and characters in the 70s and 80s, it’s a surprise that the likes of Superman Returns and Man of Steel have often left Warner Bros. struggling with what to do after the fact, with the former – a sequel to the original movies – failing to relaunch the franchise expected of it, and the latter struggling to cement itself not only into its own franchise but also into the shared universe of DC Comics characters as well.

While productions from the likes of Tim Burton, McG, Brett Ratner and JJ Abrams failed to get off the ground, Smallville debuted on The WB network in October of 2001 to high ratings and great reviews and would spawn a ten season run – the longest consecutive run for a US genre series and a superhero series in one swoop.

While most Superman tales have relegated the teen years of Clark to a small part of the origin tale, Alfred Gough and Miles Millar would focus primarily on Clark’s teenage life. After a spectacular teaser depicting the meteor shower that brought Clark to Earth and the destruction that came with it, the series flashes forward not to Clark working at the Daily Planet and his relationship with Lois, but instead on him coming to terms with his powers, his crush on Lana Lang (Kristen Kreuk) and his earlier, much friendlier relationship with Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum).

READ MORE: A History of Superman on Television

The WB was a network that always aimed at a younger audience, similarly to its replacement The CW, with series that focused on teenage characters in dramatic, comedic or fantasy environments, becoming the broadcast home to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dawson’s Creek (although it had recently lost Buffy, alongside Roswell, after failed negotiations with 20th Century Fox to continue broadcasting the series, and which had seen it defect to rival UPN: ironically the network that The WB would combine with to create The CW).

Even more ironically, The CW, which would carry Smallville for the second half of its run, would take the success of the series as a means to further its broadcast roster with series inspired by DC Comics, and would subsequently become the home of Arrow and its various spin-offs and off-shoots, such as The Flash, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow, Black Lightning and Batwoman.

While the Arrow-verse would be produced under the watchful eye of Greg Berlanti, it shares a lot of the DNA that would come from Smallville, not least of which the fact that the shows were all produced in Vancouver, have featured actors from Smallville in some roles, and even had many of the same directors; Arrow had its ‘Pilot’ directed by David Nutter, who helped shepherd Smallville in much the same way he has done with a plethora of television pilots over the years.

As pilot episodes go, Smallville‘s is hugely enjoyable and does a great job of setting the tone and style of the series. It would go on to further enhance and develop storylines taken from the comics, especially in its last two seasons, and  whilst other comic book series in the future would very much take their cue from the source material, Smallville, very much like Lois and Clark, takes the Superman story, or a strong element of it, and uses it to create its own style of series.

While Lois and Clark was very much a romantic fantasy comedy set in a newspaper office – but one that featured the core cast of Superman characters – Smallville can be best described as Dawson’s Creek meets The X-Files starring a teenage Clark Kent and an early twenty-something Lex Luthor.

The freak-of-the-week element, much like the monster-of-the-week element from The X-Files, feels like it’s been set up to allow Clark to encounter a roster of villains, both from the comics and made up the by the writers’ room, while dealing with the emotional angst of being a teenager in a small town.

READ MORE: A History of Superman at the Movies

It’s incredibly well made, with great production values and superb use of its small-town location in Vancouver. Being directed by David Nutter, who cut his teeth on The X-Files, means it looks incredibly cinematic, with effective use of CGI that might look a little dated now but by television standards of its time really looks the part.

Opening with a meteor shower descending upon Smallville after its high school football team has achieved a victory, it’s shocking to note that the premiere of this episode occurred in October 2001, a month after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. A depiction of pure-Americana being attacked, albeit from a more fantastic threat, complete with a plethora of explosions and civilians running away in terror was a powerful image to broadcast a mere month after the terrible events of that day.

The casting is spot on, particularly with Clark and Lex. Tom Welling brings a charming naive quality to his performance and there is also fun to be had that the series will be depicting one of the most famous hero/arch nemesis dynamics from the comic book world as a friendly one, which means the series has a brilliant built-in time bomb counting down to when Lex will turn. It’s a shame because Rosenbaum is actually likeable in the role here and makes an instant impression.

While the pilot does rely on a freak-of-the-week storyline to kickstart its ten season run, it does so entertainingly, and ratchets up tension with the use of its now-famous depiction of Clark as the victim of Whitney (Eric Johnson) and the rest of the Smallville High bullies making him their latest scarecrow, which involves tying him up in the middle of a field, shirtless, with a large S painted on to his chest, an image that dominated the promotional campaign for the series and which is still used for the season one DVD cover.

It’s very much a piece of television of its time and yet it hasn’t lost any ability to be entertaining and a lot of fun. Action-packed, charming, humorous, complete with an appropriate soundtrack for its era, it marks the beginning of an incredible ten year run of television.

The only thing missing is Remy Zero’s anthemic, cathartic and brilliant theme song, which we’ll have to wait another week for.

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