TV discussion

Smallville 1×16 – ‘Stray’ – TV Rewind

One can easily be cynical when a superhero property decides to partner up their lead character with a child. It smacks of trying desperately to target a large part of the key demographic of child viewers. Sometimes it works well; after all, Robin is still a key part of Batman‘s legacy after his introduction in the forties, while in 2013 the third Iron Man film partnered up its lead character with an equally witty kid who ran verbal rings around Robert Downey, Jr.

‘Stray’ sees Clark partner up with Ryan (Ryan Kelley) and you can be as cynical as you want but this actually works really well. There’s a lot of fun to be had with a troubled comics-obsessed child partnering up with the future Superman for a week and it gives the series a chance to play with tropes and ideas that are embedded into comics lore and history.

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Ryan’s favourite comic book character, Warrior Angel, may have storylines that correspond with Clark and Lex’s future and it might be a touch on the nose at times, but it’s always fun when Smallville hints at stories and ideas that we know are on the horizon for these characters. And even if it leaves the audience wondering if the show itself will ever deal with them, it’s always a lovely blast seeing the series foreshadowing some of the most famous twists and turns in pop culture and comics history.

It might not be particularly subtle, but then again this episode ends with the Five for Fighting song ‘Superman’, so subtlety isn’t on the forefront of the episode’s mind. The episode makes good on having Ryan and Clark together for the bulk of the episode’s run time, and it cannot help but put you in mind a little of Batman partnering up with Dick Grayson, even if this is on a more teen drama footing than the darker, gothic world that comes from Gotham City’s most famous son.

Ryan having crooks for a step-father and wife feels a little live-action Disney 70s adventure, but it’s boosted well by some engaging writing from Phillip Levens, and Kelley’s performance which never veers too far into cutesy. In fact, there’s a touch of grit at times to his character and the only time things threaten to fall into cliche is when the character has to look in awe at Clark being superheroic, although even that works well when it’s backed by Mark Snow’s brilliantly bombastic score.

The scenes between the two play well on an emotional level; the brotherly connection in Welling’s and Kelley’s performances has a genuine spark, witty one moment, very emotional the next, and never plays in a cliched way that you would expect from a male connection as this. They hug, they cry, and aren’t afraid to show emotion in front of each other, which makes it a refreshing change of emotional pace for a brotherly relationship.

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Such openness even extends to Clark and his friendship with Lex; the latter is given the offer to move back to Metropolis by Lionel (and as always, it’s a joy to have John Glover in an episode), and it gives the two male characters at the heart of the show a chance to be open in a way that doesn’t revel in the secrets they keep. Of course, they’re still keeping secrets, but in the context of the conversations they have here, to see Lex talking about the brother he lost and Clark expressing how much he’ll miss Lex if he moves away, it makes one forget the eventual collision course they’ll inevitably end up on the longer the show continues.

Overall, this is actually a great episode. I don’t know, maybe it’s a touch manipulative for a Superman show to end with emotional goodbyes and Five for Fighting singing about being a Superman, but it works really well. It once again indicates that when Smallville doesn’t rely on its meteorite-driven freak of the week format, it’s capable of delivering truly wonderful stuff.

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