Yesterday, we began to examine the nature and causes of the success of the CW program, Smallville. Today, we continue our in-depth look at the elements of the show that have helped maintain its success in the dog-eat-dog (then air the fight in prime-time) world of television. Today's symposium will deal with the Characters in Smallville.
As noted earlier, lack of actor turnover allows for character development, and advantage few series utilize (right, Friends and Seinfeld?). In order to stay real enough to be believable, characters have to change over time. In Smallville, we see Clark’s sense of social responsibility evolve over time, and, even more compelling, Lex Luthor fighting a losing battle with the evil within himself and his family. (This culminates in what may be the coolest scene EVAR when Lex chucks a cute little redheaded moppet [the manifestation of his “good” side] into the [lit] fireplace.) Lex’s long decline into evil (he begins the series as Clark’s best friend!) is compelling enough by itself to keep even non-geek viewers engaged.
The main characters also do High School in real time. This is a killer for shows that are predicated on the high school experience, but, although the “Superman in High School” thing was cool for a while, it was pretty well played out after four seasons. Rather than trying to artificially extend it (even tougher when you consider that the actors were already in their mid-twenties when the series STARTED) they had the gang graduate and move on to other things. And, no, we don’t see Lex getting wedgies and swirlies (very hard to pull off on a bald kid…) in public schools…he’s about five years older than the other characters.
A built-in problem in the Superman mythos is the major continuity points. Fair-minded viewers are okay with minor deviations (like the introduction of characters at different parts of the timeline than in the movies/comics, etc.) But the characters in Smallville are stuck with a few basic facts: Clark Kent can’t (permanently) die or change physical or mental attributes, Lex and Lois can NEVER know Clark’s secret identity, and you know Both Clark and Lois end up working together at the Daily Planet. Other than the unfortunate overuse of memory loss, the writers have turned these weaknesses into strengths. Viewers are left in the suspense of “how are they going to write their way out of this one” while keeping consistent with the overweening plot lines.
The writers also do a reasonable job on the "origins" questions. I'm not talking about the major ones, but little things, like "Where did the name 'Superman' come from?" (hint: 1st episode- Lana asks Clark, referring to a philosopher's work "are you man, or superman") and the origin of the symbol on his costume (it's not an "S")
The development of Lois Lane is also done very well. She shows up as Chloe's cousin, a slacker army brat with little ambition. She develops a love for journalism, and over 3 seasons ends up at the Daily Planet (with Choloe)
This brings us to the concept of plot and story arcs...to be covered tomorrow.