One of the great joys of Smallville‘s status as a prequel story, exploring the origins of Clark Kent and his eventual journey to Metropolis and life as Superman, is the opportunity to have famous characters from Superman lore show up for the first time.
If the series has proven anything at this stage in its run it’s that it isn’t above a little bit of subversion here and there. So far it has opted to portray Jor-El in a manner that is a world away from the Shakespearian warmth exuded by Marlon Brando in the Richard Donner film of 1978, and even Martha and Jonathan Kent have been shown to have not been more than willing to bend their ethical moral codes in order to adopt Clark in flashback scenes that were explored in season two to memorable effect. It means that the audience is somewhat primed to expect something potentially different whenever the series gets around to having a famous part of the Superman cast show up, and ‘Perry’ is thankfully a continuation in that direction.
The masterstroke here is without a doubt the inclusion of Michael McKean; a lovely bit of fun casting due to the fact that in real life the actor is married to Annette O’ Toole. But what really makes this work is that the episode simultaneously plays into McKean’s considerable comedic abilities, but also into the realms of a morally dubious but really sweet at heart nature that his stint on The X-Files had played into quite entertainingly a few years prior to this, in the two-part episode ‘Dreamland’. Just to reiterate The X-Files connection, a documentary series called X-Styles is referred to here as being where Perry works, which just adds to the dramatically fun nature of the episode.
Three seasons in, and Smallville is showing a clear willingness to go to town with the Superman lore even more than it has done before. The monster-of-the-week style of season one is still around, but has faded away a little to be replaced by episodes with more imagination and a clearer willingness to explore character and more original plots as the series has gone on, and this is another highlight in a series that is showing itself to becoming increasingly confident in its abilities at this stage.
Having Perry White portrayed in a more morally compromised manner, frequently drunk and with a more tabloid approach to his work, paves the way nicely for a character who opts to become a better person and aim higher by the end of the episode. Yes, Mark Verheidan’s script eventually has the character make the right decisions at the end and we know given the final scenes that he will eventually become the editor that we all know and love, but it’s a lovely forty-five minutes that gets to have fun with a performance from McKean that is simultaneously funny but with considerable heft and a great plot involving his attempts to reveal Clark’s powers that come to nought thanks to an ill-timed solar flare.
His more unethical and tabloid approach to his job jars nicely with the image that one has of previous Perry Whites, such as Jackie Cooper from the movies, Lane Smith as the wonderfully Elvis obsessed version of the character in Lois and Clark, and future versions of the character (at this point) such as Frank Langella and Laurence Fishburne. It gives the episode a playful quality amongst a sea of darker storylines this hour, such as Lex’s frequently intense therapy scenes that one can sense is going to build to something quite substantial and dramatic over the next few episodes.