It’s hard to escape The X-Files feeling of some of the freak-of-the-week elements in Smallville, and with the third episode, we actually get an episode from a former X-Files writer just to seal the deal in that regards.
Greg Walker’s ‘Hothead’ could have fitted easily into The X-Files, but it probably would have had ‘Hothead’ translated into something obscure, possibly Latin, and with a villain with pyrokinetic abilities; it even has an X-Files progenitor in the shape of the season one episode ‘Fire’.
In fact, while the episode has Clark Kent and his friends – instead of a pair of FBI agents – running around trying to stop its central villain, the idea of a respected high school coach using supernatural means and threats as a way to achieve an unbroken record of victories, even has that feeling of an American institution being corrupted by supernatural means – a recurring theme in Mulder and Scully’s adventures, so it makes a kind of sense for a former X-Files writer to bring that theme to a similarly supernatural thriller, albeit with a famous comic book character in the lead role.
Given how much Clark was badly wanting to play football in the ‘Pilot’, it’s no surprise that this piece of conflict in the Jonathan and Clark relationship would become a key part of the drama in a future episode. There are levels of angst here, but it never comes off as too maudlin or overbearing. As always, the drama and touch of wit here is very entertaining, not least when Jonathan wonders where Clark gets his stubbornness from and Martha mocks the question with a one-liner and a raised eyebrow.
Even the inclusion of football itself is inescapable in a series that is dealing with such a key slice of Americana. From a plethora of teen movies such as All The Right Moves and the James Van Der Beek vehicle Varsity Blues to the superlative Friday Nights Lights, coming of age dramas, explorations of the American psyche and (American) football have an ability to go hand in hand wonderfully. Friday Nights Lights is a prime example of a series that uses football as a means to explore themes other than the sport and amazingly the same goes for ‘Hothead’, albeit in a more fantasy-laden way.
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Once again, the familial dynamics are at the heart of much of Smallville’s most enjoyable scenes. Not that it doesn’t do the superhero stuff well; in fact, it does it really well. It’s clear that the series has a budget and a lot of the fire effects from its antagonist this week, Coach Arnold (Dan Lauria, brilliantly subverting his nice guy fatherly role from The Wonder Years) are truly effective. Arnold’s faux-pas about how football is in Clark’s genes becomes the set up for a brilliant comic book style one-liner later on, but parental dynamics are a clear theme and while ‘Hothead’ continues its exploration of Clark and his family, we also get to spend time with the Luthors this week.
It goes without saying, Michael Rosenbaum is a wonderful Lex Luthor. This being an origin series means that there are true layers to work with here, as opposed to just villainous actions. In fact, when it comes to the surname and Luthor, the antagonism is coming from Lex’s father, Lionel, which brings us to one of Smallville’s most valued MVPs: John Glover.
For anyone who has or had only seen John Glover playing a multi-billionaire in Gremlins 2 and his wonderfully cheery and naive performance in that film as Daniel Clamp, to see the opposite here with his brilliant hairstyle, delivery of dark wisdom and ability to fence like a pro is wonderful.
Where we see the future Clark and his superhero destiny being fulfilled by what is a truly positive familial dynamic, albeit with some drama as evidenced by the football issue, there is something subtly tragic in that we’re seeing a Lex Luthor who has shown the ability to be a decent person, albeit one who clearly enjoys his privilege, and who clearly wants to do right by Smallville, but who is being pushed harshly by a parental figure.
It’s a lovely juxtaposition that the series has going on so far and which it’s holding on to brilliantly so early in its run, and which just adds to the fun in wondering how – or who – will cause Lex to turn in the way that pop-cultural history demands of him.
Three episodes in and already the in-built time bomb it has over one of its characters’ eventual destiny is already promising to be its best quality.