15 February 2007

The Trouble with Smallville

Matthew Shepard by way of Pierre et Gilles? What will they think up next?

I am not a Smallville enthusiast, I am a Smallville stalker. It’s a shitty show, so I hang back in the sidelines, TiVO episodes, close my eyes or fastforward through the dull scenes (of which there are many), and try to catch a glimpse of what really gets me off.

It’s a shitty show, as I said. I was never offended by the Matthew Shepard ad campaign when the series first went on the air because those ads were erotic and squared neatly with the (possibility, anyway) of a queer take on the oppressed outsider. Let me explain (while I abhor the personal, this is relevant): when I was a kid, I always thought the hottest part of any Superman story was when he was rendered helpless by Kryptonite. The idea of this nigh omnipotent god rendered weak and defenseless held a clear sexual thrill for me (does this make me kinky? I sure hope so). Part of the story is that Superman always eventually triumphed—while he may momentarily be the plaything of whatever sadist of the moment had chained him, he always escaped and won in the end. Compare this with the original Superman movie when Luthor puts the Kryptonite soap-on-a-metal-rope on Superman, yet Miss Teschmacher kisses him and frees him. Hot. “Why is it I can never get it on with the good guys”? Honey, you just did.

Anyway, Smallville. The problem I have with this show is that when it’s good, it’s really good, and when it’s bad, it’s just plain, stultifyingly awful. I mean, a viewer suffers, and I mean that very literally, through many, many episodes of crap before hitting one that has decent writing and actually offers a payoff.

The most recent episode (tonight) explains what I mean: In the past couple years, the show has slowly—very slowly—become (slowly) populated by other known DC Comics characters: Kid Flash (Beaver on the far superior Veronica Mars), Aquaman (or should I say “boy”—a lovely specimen who couldn’t act his way out of a goldfish-containing-ziplock), a young Green Arrow (more or less [what does that mean?] the opposite number to Lex Luthor’s rich-boy-using-his-money-for-kicks act), and Cyborg (? again a question mark?) of the Teen Titans. When all these heroes team up, it’s a mini-Justice League, and a lesson to Clark that he doesn’t have to work alone (shades of “Buffy”). My friend, Josh, who is the only person ever to have his real name revealed on this blog, called this episode “Superhero Porn.” And so it was, Gentle Reader. But even this is not what this post is about.

No. This post is about a crappy show that occasionally rises above its sub-par status quo to really say something, or to finally show off its actors as being more than automatons. In this case we have both.

Kristin Kreuk may or may not be a capable actress—I will fault the material in her favor. For now. But she so often goes to the same three, or four (to be generous), places that she has become my most hated performer on the show. Finishing just behind her is Michael Rosenbaum as Lex Luthor. I can’t tell if it’s an actorly choice or not, but every word that comes out of this motherfucker is a lie. You watch him lie on every episode—and it's totally unconvincing. This is either brilliant technique or stupid blundering, and the only—and I mean only—example of how Rosenbaum (who has clearly been shaving his head since 2001, which is similar to but not identical with James Marsters’ commitment to Spike on "Buffy") is making choices is last year’s Christmas episode a la It’s A Wonderful Life wherein the actor exhibited humor, charm, warmth, confusion, and irony. These are things he should exhibit, but never does, on a regular episode.

You see this is why I blame the show, and by that I mean the creators and writers, for making it so dreadfully dull. In someone like Rosenbaum, we occasionally, and by that I mean rarely (and by that I mean almost never), see the actual talent of the actor. And on this note I have to say that the greatest casualty, or rather the greatest success, is Annette O’Toole as Martha Kent, who spins dramatic shit into gold every week. Somehow, this woman finds a way to make sense out of every idiotic narratival maneuver and she does this effortlessly. I always wait to see Martha Kent on Smallville, because when it is bad, she’s the only good thing coming—and she’s really good. This is the test of an actor. She can turn what would be a “Your father’s right” on the Brady Bunch moment into a real dramatic event. Annette O’Toole rooles. Alas, though she was absent tonight, the episode stood on its own.

But let us return to the Trouble with Smallville. This is the problem: the writers write the same shit for nineteen episodes a year, but they reserve the right to write three episodes where something really happens. Tonight was one of those episodes. And Kristin Kreuk (Lana Lang) perked up and became more than a little interesting. The writers have been pushing her character a bit recently, and tonight she was fairly real as she tried to reconcile her suspicions about Clark and his strange ability to be always at the right place at the right time with Lex’s (her fiancé and father of her unborn child) ability to always be at the wrong place at the wrong time. As I said, I hate Kreuk as Lana. It may not be her fault and we can look to the writing for that, but Lana Lang became an interesting, truly conflicted character for me for the first time tonight. And now a brief excursion about lying.

Smallville is based entirely upon the question of lying and being an ethical person. What this means as a viewer is that this theme is present endlessly throughout the show, but in three episodes a season it receives a fair appraisal. Clark is, and has always been in love with Lana, and their relationship has constantly (and quite consistently, which is to say boringly) foundered upon his mysterious absences during miraculously averted crises. When they were together, the narrative thrust depended on him saving the day without her finding out and also her knowledge that something was “up.” This became (occasionally) an interesting meditation on the merits of the Lie and why good people might tell them. Clark dreamed of marrying Lana, but through all the (many, many) permutations of him trying to keep her safe by protecting his secret, he ruined the relationship and she turned to Lex Luthor for comfort, love, certainty, and became pregnant by him.

Now, we all watch as she discovers that Clark isn’t who he seems to be and that Lex isn’t either. The closer she gets to understanding that Clark Kent is “different,” the more she wants to protect him. This is good television! You have to understand this in the context of season after season of Lana knowing "something" and Clark denying it. We’re at an interesting juncture in this show where Lana, logically, should learn Clark’s secret, but where the writers will let us down by keeping it from her. Part of this is the continuity of the DC comics universe where Lana must be kept in the dark so that Lois can move into the frame, but it is strikingly unsatisfying. For this reason the series will always get it wrong when it is closet to getting it right. The love affair must always never actualize; Clark will never tell Lana the truth; and as interesting as she becomes, and as hard as Kreuk works, Lana will always end up on the trash heap of comics history, because this story was written before it ever aired.

This is too bad, by the way, because the best episode of last year was about Lana finding out how super Clark is, and forgetting (shades of Superman II) and Pa Kent (the delicious John Schneider, oh daddy!) dying--but the viewer needs some sort of satisfaction. Endless denial is not really the coin to barter. After six years, it just becomes a big-ass drag. Even when it’s really good.