Waiting for Superman, week three: What’s the legacy of Smallville?

With only five more weeks of Smallville, there are mixed emotions in the TVS headquarters. To work out those conflicting feelings, I’ll be writing a pre-episode piece every week from here on out until the final episode on May 13. You can the first two pieces here and here if you missed them.

As we get closer to the end of the series (only three more Fridays!), one big question has been filling my mind. And as you might have guessed, the question is the headline of this piece. I know the series isn’t over yet and we put a lot of stock in endings these days so it’s still a bit early to ask these sorts of questions, but I’m really curious as to where Smallville fits into the televisual landscape. I’m definitely someone who is slowly becoming more familiar with television’s past as I continue to interact with its present, I find Smallville to be something of a unique case within the industry. This is a series that survived a messy transition to a new network, never averaged more than 7 million viewers for a season and was mostly derided and/or ignored by critics for its 10-year run on the air. And yet, if the number of stories and comments online over at places such as TVGuide.com, EW.com or wherever else are to be believed, Smallville has one of the most rabid and active fanbases around. I’ve already praised the fanbase once this season, but there’s definitely something to be said for the fact that this thing has stayed on the air for so long. But a rabid fanbase does not a good series make.

And that’s sort of the issue right, how “good” has Smallville really been? Smallville was the first television series that I watched on a consistently regular basis, and at one point, I probably would have argued with people about its quality. As I’ve gotten more entrenched into the worlds of television and television criticism, I’ve clearly been able to recognize that using the most objective of evaluating criteria, Smallville is unfortunately not a high-quality television series. If I were to come up with my list of best television series of the last decade, Smallville would not crack the top 75 and would maybe only make the top 100 because I have such a soft spot for it that there is no way I would flat-out diss it like that. So sure, it might not be on the pantheon of all-time great television of its era, but I guess my problem with how Smallville is treated is that it’s often so easily derided. Yeah, it’s not The Wire or Deadwood, but there have been so many series that have been given more respect and coverage that are legitimately, in my most objective of amateur critical opinion, not as good as Smallville. I’m looking at you, Heroes.

I understand the criticisms of this series. The characterization of its main character has been tremendously spotty, especially in the middle years when Smallville really had nowhere to go, and the budget has been slashed so much that the production can rarely afford a good-looking action set-piece or moment. These days, when Clark does something other than super-speed, it’s a shock. In some ways, I’d like to blame those big issues on circumstances not related to the actual production of the series. Perhaps the writing for Clark could have been better had the series lasted only six or seven years and not been dragged out for 10.* The same logic could be applied to the budgetary issues. Fewer seasons means less production cost, you get it. Unfortunately, we cannot really do that. I’d like to sit here and tell you that seasons six and seven should be glossed over because Al Gough and Miles Millar were clearly bored and the transition to the CW created some obstacles, but those episodes still exist and most of them are generally mediocre or terrible.

*Or it would have just ended abruptly, without the higher quality the series has provided in seasons eight through ten. 

Moreover, when trying to figure out where Smallville fits into television history, it’s difficult to determine the context. Should we judge Smallville primarily as a super-hero series? As a teen/young adult drama? As a serial actioneer? As an adaptation? There are a number of different elements and levels of identification involved with this series that add another layer of confusion as to where we should place it.

As the failure of Heroes, No Ordinary Family and other series have shown us, producing weekly episodic television about superheroes is really tough. The audiences for that sort of programming is truly fickle and most of the time, those things that knocked Smallville down — budget, poor characterization — happen to all the series in the genre. Do these genre-wide issues make Smallville more redeemable in the process? I’d like to think so. Clearly the difference in networks has played a role, but there is something valuable to be acknowledged in the fact that Heroes couldn’t keep its mythology together for more than a season-and-a-half, whereas Smallville has mostly handled that element of the series well, despite the drawing out of some obviously major moments. It is, without question, the most successful superhero series in the history of television. But it’s not in good company.

As a young adult sort of drama, Smallville is in much better, deeper territory to which it doesn’t stand up as well. It was most certainly developed in the late ’90s WB teen drama mold, but those elements of the series aren’t particularly strong when they’re compared with the likes of Dawson’s Creek, Felicity, Buffy or even something like Roswell (at least I would argue). The melodrama between Clark and Lana in the early years was so overwrought and because of the fatalistic knowledge we all had about the relationship’s ultimate destination, it was hard to get invested in their 17th attempt to make it work in season seven. There were certainly good, emotional moments between the two of them, but nothing like the great moments on any of the series I mentioned above from that time period.

I could go on and on with these sorts of generic comparisons and still not be too close to an answer. Smallville‘s biggest problem was that the moments that mattered most to general viewers and critics — the very beginning of the series and when it moved over to a new network — were most certainly the weakest it had to offer. Season one is definitely charming in its own right, but it’s more of a thematic outlier than anything else. The move over to the CW happened to coincide with the aforementioned suck-fests that were seasons six and seven. Clearly, individual moments and episodes, from Christopher Reeve’s appearance in season two to the 100th episode in season five, were both great and well-covered by mainstream media. But when you’re on for so long and sort of middling in a number of those seasons, it’s hard to shake those criticisms and definitions, which is exactly what the series has been dealing with over the past three seasons — arguably the series’ most consistent run.

Because of its connection to Superman and the comic book genre, people will most certainly never forget Smallville. It won’t be lost to time and I actually don’t think it will be laughed at as much when we look back on it in 15 or 20 years. There are literally hundreds of series that probably deserved to last longer than this one, but Smallville has, for the most part, made the best of its time on the air. It will always have die-hard fans. The series will never rise up into the upper-echelons of the televisual canon, but it won’t sink to the bottom either. It’s never going to be as well-respected as something like Buffy or even Supernatural, but it has value. 10 years is a long time to be on the air and you don’t get to that point for nothing. Ultimately, I think Smallville should be and will be remembered as a series with a number of truly great moments, even if those moments didn’t come as consistently or as often as they should have. And I think I’m okay with that.

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3 thoughts on “Waiting for Superman, week three: What’s the legacy of Smallville?

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