Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Thoughts on Smallville / Follow-up: When a TV series turns into a zombie of its old self

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Caught in construction noise again (cf. [1], [2]), I have spent some time watching “Smallville”—a series where I managed to buy a complete set of DVDs, but only managed one prior watching. After enjoying the first few seasons reasonably, I have found myself increasingly frustrated with developments (or lack thereof), begun to actively skip ahead more and more, and finally reached the point (early season 6) that I just terminated an episode halfway through, with no intent on watching the remainder of the series.*

*During my first watching, possibly some ten years ago, I powered through, but my impression was very similar: a few good seasons and then worse and worse, season by season.

Here I have found a supreme example of a TV series turning into a zombie of its old self, losing it, making mistake after mistake, keeping what does not work and throwing out what did work. General problems include a switch from X-of-the-week to too many arches, constantly missing the difference between drama and soap (see excursion), having a swing-and-a-miss approach to characters, repeated attempts at jumping the shark, and too long stretches of virtually every episode that feels like filler—indeed, some episodes feel like more filler than true story.*

*To this can be added the move away from high school, which in my observations seems to be an extremely strong environment for good stories, and where series who move away from high school tend to drop in quality. However, with a tempo of one season per (in universe) year, this move can be very hard to avoid—and the price for doing so might be even worse. As a counterpoint, the series is called “Smallville”, and it might have been prudent to terminate it after high school, with an optional new series (“Metropolis”?) to follow the characters as the focus switched from Smallville to Metropolis.

To look at a few more specific issues, including some that should-have-changed-but-did-not:

  1. The character Lana Lang and the pretty but less-than-stellar and constantly overacting Kristin Kreuk (portraying her).* If everything warrants a hyper-intense emotion, then emotions have no value. The “soap” portions of the series tended to be in connection with her disproportionately often, and her scenes per the next item were the first where I began to skip forward. As to her character development, it was disastrous, increasingly turning a sweet-seeming girl into a coldhearted manipulative bitch. (Which is quite contrary to the down-to-earth woman of my vague recollections from long-ago comics and the Christopher-Reeve movies.)

    *Generally, many of the younger actors seemed to have been cast more for looks than acting ability.

  2. Endless one-on-one discussions between various characters, in particular Clark and Lana, that I suspect were intended to be deep and meaningful—but which were almost always shallow, uninsightful, repetitive, poorly written, and often consisting of more cliches than true content. Most of the later episodes of my re-watching seems to have the actual story end somewhere between minutes 30 and 35—and then to be padded with several such discussions to reach 40 minutes. Of course, these discussions were by no means limited to the end of the episodes.

    There are only so many times that I can hear claims like “I am so lucky to have you as a friend!”, “I would never hurt you!”, and so on, before I become nauseated. (Lionel vs. Lex, and some other more hostile constellations, were rarely nauseating, but still highly repetitive, predictable, cliched, etc.)

  3. Partially as a special case, we have the odd relationship developments between Lex and Clark, who seem to oddly drift apart when they would be likely to move in a more friendly direction in real life, and towards each other when they should have drifted apart. Here, I have the impression that the writers could not make up their minds as to whether the two should be friends or enemies. (A similar point might apply to Lex and Lionel, and/or some other constellations, e.g. whether X loves Y.)
  4. Not long before I stopped watching, there was a chain of bad decisions around the Kents:

    Having Jonathan run for state senate—an unnecessary complication of the story with very little potential. (To boot, it is disputable whether he, or Martha, had anywhere near the right set of skills. I do not think highly of politicians, but to go from running a failing farm to be a successful senator is a stretch.)

    Having Jonathan win—ditto.

    Killing off Jonathan—one of the stronger and more sympathetic characters is gone for no obvious* reason, while his less-value-bringing wife (Martha) is kept.

    *Watching the following episodes, the hidden reason seems to be the abysmally bad idea, pure soap, to open the doors for a Lionel–Martha romance.

    Having Martha take over his seat—again, an unnecessary complication with very little potential.

    Ruining the already weak Martha character through a major transformation.

    (To this might be added the Lionel–Martha romance, should it actually manifest, which was not yet clear at the point where I stopped watching.)

  5. Many other character changes were disputable. On the positive side, we have the removal of Pete, who simply did not bring any value, and the addition of Lois Lane, who brought in a new dynamic and reduced the screen time available for Lana. On the negative, we have the entirely unnecessary and mostly annoying Oliver Queen/Green Arrow (who, I would argue, was an attempt to jump the shark; and whose appearance strongly contributed to my bowing out), several replacements of Lionel-of-one-personality with Lionel-of-another-personality, and the odd Teague family*.

    *Jensen Ackles did a good job as the son, but it did not feel like there was enough room for him, and his character development was odd. However, Jane Seymour as his mother was the caricature of a 1980s female soap-opera character—and note how there seems to be a drift towards this type of character with e.g. Lana and Martha too. Add in the Luthors and Oliver Queen, and the question arises whether this is a superhero show or a “Dynasty” spin-off.

    To this, I am tempted to add Brainiac, who appears to have recently been written out, with a lot of potential still to be explored; however, I have a vague recollection that he came back in the later seasons. His status as an example “depends”.

    (To go through all the characters of non-trivial importance would take far too long.)

  6. There are great continuity and compatibility problems with other portions of the franchise. This is, of course, not the least unexpected, but a better job could have been done without compromises to the story lines.
  7. The (non-score) music is unusually weak. The (pop/rock song) theme music, in particular, barely survived the first episode, and I almost consistently skipped ahead rather than listening to this earsore. (Mark Snow, who was with the show, could have written a better theme blindfolded.)

Straining my memory concerning the remaining seasons, it seemed to go further downhill, including a highly pre-mature and anti-canon death of Lex Luthor, much too much Green Arrow, and no saving graces. However, these memories might be faulty.

As an interesting aside, it appeared to me that the episodes featuring “traditional” DC heroes, even apart from Green Arrow, were usually sub-average, as with e.g. Aquaman and the Flash.

Excursion on soap vs. drama:
Apart from the typical difference in quality, what makes a drama into a soap? I am hard pressed to give a better answer than “I know it, when I see it”. However, some pointers for when it is soap include shallower characters, over-acting and/or overly emotional acting, weaker character-consistency, plausibility bending events*, large amounts of gratuitous sex (does not apply to “Smallville”), constant switches in romantic/sexual partners, and extreme changes in emotions. Lana staring into the eyes of Clark with a quivering lip for five minutes per episode, taken alone, might be enough to pollute the show. Then add in all the rest …

*Relative the baseline of the show’s alleged reality (and making some allowance for typical TV naivete and exaggeration): That Clark Kent can lift a truck is compatible with the reality of “Smallville”, through the premise that he has superpowers, and not indicative of a soap. If JR would have done the same through a sudden adrenaline rush as he tried to save whomever, it would not just be soap—it would be daily soap. The most famous incident is likely the whole “Bobby was dreaming an entire season” issue. (Someone in real-life might conceivably, maybe, dream a TV season, but it is bound to be extraordinarily rare, and it is obvious that this ploy was just an attempt to retcon at all costs and against all plausibility.)

To this, adding “disproportionately many rich and/or disproportionately rich characters”, “corporate intrigue”, whatnot, is tempting. However, this could depend strongly on the sub-genre of soap and they can have legitimate uses in non-soap dramas.

Excursion on franchises:
Another complaint of mine has been over-extended franchises. “Smallville” is arguably a good example of a series better not made, at least after the first few seasons. Then again, it is unlikely to be the worst example around Superman, let alone DC or superheroes in general.

Written by michaeleriksson

September 29, 2021 at 5:44 pm

2 Responses

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  1. […] “Smallville” proved bad enough to justify an earlier text, I have turned to (among other things) “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (BTVS) to survive the […]

  2. […] on my list of diversions from construction noise (cf. [1], [2]) is “How I Met Your Mother”. (Unfortunately, very incompletely and often in the wrong […]


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