Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Watching Smallville

As with most of the young adult-oriented WB fantasy dramas of the late 1990s and early 2000s (Charmed, Angel, Supernatural) I missed the series the first time around, and only caught it in reruns.

I suppose my impressions watching it are about what most viewers had, to go with what I've seen about in online. The gradualness with which Clark Kent develops into Superman (it is, after all, ten seasons and two hundred episodes to that point), and the emphasis of the episodes on other things - monster of the week plots, soap opera about the love lives, family baggage, jealously guarded secrets and personal enmities and obsessions of the characters, and the associated intriguing (lent the requisite touch of glamour by the involvement of several vast fortunes in the story, starting with that of the Luthors, who contribute more than their share to the episodes' interest, and often are the central actors). The astonishing number of times Lex Luthor gets knocked out or loses his memory so as to miss or forget incontestable evidence of Clark's superhuman abilities. The limited FX resources, which constrained the depiction of the superhero action (with Kent's battle with Doomsday famously a disappointment to fans).

One thing that seems to have got surprisingly little attention, however, is the reconception of the titular town. While having relatively little acquaintance with the source comics, I suppose I had always thought of Smallville as the anti-Metropolis, an embodiment of the mythology of the rural Midwest as a repository of virtue, where the morally almost perfect Superman might be raised safe from the corrupting influences of the east coast and the big city - and so necessarily as unlike such a city as it can possibly be.

On this show, however, Smallville is anything but. With a population of forty-five thousand, Smallville gives the impression of being a small city itself, and certainly has its share of the kinds of amenities one normally associates with major urban areas, like the Talon coffee shop. It also happens to be within driving distance of the super-city of Metropolis, close enough for a daily commute to be a practical option (as would not be the case, for instance, were Metropolis in the northeast U.S., which would make the distance over a thousand miles), which gives the characters plenty of opportunities for big-city adventure from the start.

And of course, the Kents are very different from how I had previously pictured them. Far from being a stereotyped old farm couple, Martha Kent is the daughter of an affluent Coast City attorney who met John when they were both in college (and later goes on to become, successively, a self-described "corporate animal," a U.S. Senator, and then Red Queen of Checkmate). The two of them are in their late twenties', or not far out of them, when they first encounter Clark, and only middle-aged during the series - and a generation gap quite evident between John Kent and his father Hiram in the glimpses we get of him.

The rationale behind such a take seems fairly obvious - to widen the writers' latitude to come up with characters and stories, and to make the setting more attractive to a youthful, urbanized audience far less likely to take an interest in a story situated in something more like the original town. Not being a purist, I have no problem with that, but that the newer conception of Smallville seems to have been taken so completely for granted by viewers is an interesting indicator of how the world has changed since 1938, not only in its demographic character, but perhaps also in its ideals. Perhaps the tendency to romanticize the small town, while certainly not vanished, is on its way out.

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