TV discussion

Smallville 1×05 – ‘Cool’ – TV Rewind

One of the fun things about rewatching an older television series is seeing big names get their start and knowing there was a time when someone who is relatively well known now was in fact unknown. Last week we had Lizzy Caplan before she hit big with Mean Girls, Cloverfield and Masters of Sex, and Smallville was on the ball when it came to casting future big names, including its casting of a future Lois Lane in a few weeks.

Behind the scenes was no different. Next week we’ll be getting a script from future West Wing and House writer Doris Egan, while ‘Cool’ sees the first script of the series from future American Gods showrunner Michael Green, who in later years would also contribute to the somewhat flawed Green Lantern, but also – on the other end of success – co-write Blade Runner 2049 and Logan.

Green’s first contribution to Smallville is far from the series at its best, and although also far from the worst outing, it is very much the series at its most unimaginative when it comes to utilising its freak-of-the-week format.

As enjoyable as this day and age of increased serialisation is, one does miss when shows like Smallville and The X-Files would utilise imaginative villains each week for its protagonists to go up against. But if Smallville‘s freak-of-the-week element has a weakness at this point, it’s that outside of their abilities and the need for Clark to fight said antagonist at the end of each episode, the series is doing very little to develop those villains outside of their need to survive or grab hold of what it is that they want.

Sean Kelvin (Michael Coristine) is a case in point. Like Tina Greer from last week, we get very little emotional heft outside of his need to stay warm. Tina killed her mother last week, but it was simply to double down on that character’s psychosis, although Caplan was hugely enjoyable in the role. Sean is very much a one-dimensional creation who simply goes through the entire episode using other girls at the school, who are developed very little outside of being victims for him to kill, and who are a means for him to stay warm after a meteor-inflicted accident at a lakeside party at the start.

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There is something, once again, very X-Files-like about the villain of the week having a science fiction/horror inflicted superpower that means he has to kill to survive, and there is one very effective set piece involving the school swimming pool and Chloe, but it’s the storylines outside of the freak-of-the-week that sees the episode doing much better.

As a teen drama, one shouldn’t be as interested in the plight of the parents of the lead character this much, but watching Jonathan and Martha navigate through Lex’s attempts to buy into their farm makes for strangely enthralling viewing. Lex is still very much of the side of the angels,  but we know he’s taken a vested interest in Clark and is having the crash from the ‘Pilot‘ investigated and yet, with the casting of Rosenbaum, you really want to love the guy and trust him implicitly.

As always, what should have been Smallville’s biggest weakness – our knowledge of future events as dictated to us by decades of comic book mythology and hundreds upon hundreds of issues and stories, not to mention other movies and television shows – is actually its most suspenseful strength. It’s Rosenbaum’s eyes that are the key; they convey kindness and trust, and yet we know where the story goes. The episode and the series have us rooting for him to stay good; at this stage, he’s like a strange guardian angel for the characters, especially to Clark and his family and inner circle, what with trying to support Martha and Jonathan financially on the farm or helping out Clark in trying to date Lana.

He’s the biggest bad guy in all of pop culture, a byword for being a supervillain and even certain figures in today’s political climate are compared to him, and yet Smallville‘s biggest and most compulsive strength at this moment is not it’s freak-of-the-week or its well-staged set pieces – as good as the latter are, and it’s clear the series has a big budget to do them justice. No: it’s that we might be watching a tragedy unfold; the tragedy of Lex Luthor.

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