Thursday, February 25, 2021

So, that "Superman and Lois" pilot on the CW

So, yeah.  After 2 serials, 6 seasons of Adventures of Superman, 4 Christopher Reeve films, 1 Helen Slater film, 4 seasons of Superboy, 4 seasons of Lois & Clark, 10 years of Smallville, 1 Superman Returns, a handful of Henry Cavill movies (3?), and 6 seasons of Supergirl, it's time for one more go at live-action Superman.  

Tuesday February 23rd saw the debut of Superman and Lois, a show about Superman/ Clark Kent and Lois Lane, now well into their lives, married and with two 14 year-old teenage sons (fraternal twins).  

If they don't give us this scene exactly, I'll be furious

It's unknown Super-territory for TV or film, and while Superman has been married for nearly 30 years in the comics (I know, I'm shocked, too), he's only been a father in the comics for a few years, and only to one son, Jonathan Kent.  

That isn't to say the comics haven't told many-a-story of Superman-as-father over the years in "imaginary stories", or on "Earth 2".  Or tried on two prior occasions in fairly recent continuity to make Superman a father of some sort (Cir-El and Chris Kent), and there's likely many more I'm forgetting.  But this latest incarnation in the comics, which has it's own crazy publishing history  was brought to the table by the Rebirth-era creative teams and helmed by Dan Jurgens, Patch Zircher & Tyler Kirkham (in Action Comics) and Peter Tomasi & Patrick Gleason (Superman).

And, of course, in live-action land, Superman Returns made Superman a deadbeat dad (Jason Lane), gone out to get cigarettes and never came back sort of guy - a weird coda to the Donner-version of Superman.

Tyler Hoechlin was introduced as Superman in Season 2 of CW's Supergirl, which was good and bad.  If their universe had Superman in it (and they very much set it up so he was around), that meant Superman, Lois, the Daily Planet, etc.. co-existed.  *Never* showing the classic Super-squad was going to feel ridiculous at some point.  And, of course, when Hoechlin did show up, and was, frankly, pretty great, folks started saying, inevitably, "well, why can't we have a Superman show with this guy?  Why just Supergirl?"  

In days of yore, a TV network would have decreed all of that too complicated, and likely just never shown Superman, but CW saw what it had with Hoechlin and brought him back, just as they've taken some remarkable chances over the past few years with their "Arrowverse" of shows.  And I'll argue that those risks very, very often pay off.  

They finally showed Lois Lane in 2018 in one of the CW crossover events, cast with Elizabeth "Bitsie" Tulloch, a TV veteran, in the role.  And, you know, she certainly *looks* like a Lois Lane, but she was clearly barely written in to the episodes in which she appeared.  Still... you could tell CW was laying the ground work with a real professional if they decided to go for it.

The premise when Superman and Lois was announced didn't sit terribly well with me.  It's been since Superman II circa 1980 that we've really had a fully functional Daily Planet and traditional Lois Lane and Clark Kent reporting to Perry White and in the traditional Superman/ Lois/ Clark triangle.  Moving the Kents to Smallville to raise two sons sounded so... TV soap opera.  

But I've also learned not to assume too much.  Superheroes in media aren't what they were when Smallville half-assed its way through the Superman rogues' gallery, finding it's own predictable ways to wiff opportunity after opportunity.   In the intervening years, I've been proven wrong again and again in TV and at the movies.  Yes, I would *much* prefer Superman arriving at the Daily Planet, meeting Perry, Lois and Jimmy, see the romance and classic Clark/ Lois/ Superman triangle - and I hope we get a movie or TV show that does that at some point.  But... no one is asking me.

Frankly, with Disney+ bringing Marvel to episodic streaming, the game is raised through the roof, so it's a curious time to bring such a show to the air - especially on a network where freedom isn't really free and much more beholden to advertisers, censors and demographics.  I'd argue all bets are off in 2021, and if DC doesn't want to look like Marvel's low-budget poor relation on a traditional media platform (we can argue about the DC Universe legacy shows some other time, but Doom Patrol is good, others are not), someone was going to have to up their game.

I think, honestly DC did so.

First, the pilot for Superman and Lois simply *looks* like a million bucks.  As the line between movies and TV dissolves in how things are shot (thanks, super hi-res DV!), the possibilities certainly opened up for what we can expect.  And while TV is often a victim of a grueling 22 episodes-per-year schedule (which everyone would do well to reconsider as it's turning out 8-13 episodes is plenty), TV producers simply can't do enough set-ups in a week to maintain the cinematic feel.  It's going to be familiar and safe set-ups.  

I can't say what will come after, but at least the pilot came off looking more or less like a movie, from lighting to blocking, to ambiance and warmth of the images - and old and dark when it was needed, rather than the crisp telefilm look I'm used to from CW shows.  

The heart of the show feels more grounded than other CW fare.  It isn't starting with a foot in soap opera, will-they-or-won't-they TV tropes, or wacky set-ups.    Further, it's just dealing literally with what the show is about.  The crisis at hand is that being Clark Kent as reporter and father is pulling hard against Clark's role as Superman.  He can't be everywhere - and sometimes a melting nuclear reactor gets attention, even when his son has therapy scheduled.  Moreover, as the press continues to take a hit, Clark loses his job at the Daily Planet.

I read online some griping that Lois was underwritten in the pilot, and I'll acknowledge - she wasn't the focus.  There was just too much going on, and it left her playing second fiddle in the pilot, but with the considerable role of getting through to her husband, who is - at least in the pilot  - the one dealing with his issues.  Unsurprisingly, Lois is ahead of him and knows what he may need - as well as what their children need.

As mentioned, Lois and Clark have given birth to a pair of fraternal twins - Jonathan, who excels in athletics and has a jockish confidence, versus Jordan, his awkward brother suffering social anxiety and who has retreated into himself.  Any hints of super-powers are pointed at Jonathan, who has made QB1 as a freshman on the varsity football team, but he's not exactly breaking the sound barrier or leaping tall buildings.  Meanwhile Jordan taken anxiety meds and lays low.  It's a pretty standard 2021 sort of presentation of youth, in an era when being the quiet kid is cause for therapy (and the show stays just this side of the line on Jonathan being either toxic or bullying).  

Lois' father, General Sam Lane (played here by Dylan Walsh, who reminded me exactly how old I really am just by appearing as the *father* of Lois Lane), is both Superman's liaison with official channels, and in this version - aware of Clark's double identity.  

The sudden death of Martha Kent draws the family to Smallville, here a slowly dying mid-western small town (versus the Smallville take, which made it seem like the world's most active small town), and a frank discussion about people abandoning rural America both sets the table for culture wars, and for the sly insertion of Lois' ever-busy reporter's instinct to kick in and learn more about who has been buying out all the local farmers.  So - yeah, even if Lois didn't overtake the episode, it's not hard to see how this dynamic can work as the show picks up steam.  She's still the world's best reporter, and I'm not worried about her winding up baking muffins for the men in every episode.

And, because this is still Superman, we have a mysterious armored figure attacking nuclear plants (no, it is not the guy from Halo), who seems to echo Superman's powers and abilities, but be one step ahead of him.  It both acts as a magnet to draw Superman away from his family and to keep this a superhero show - more importantly, a Superman show.

So - while it never FELT like Superman and Lois was building in a mythology or mystery, it certainly planted enough seeds to get us going.  But - yeah, it's a weirdly grounded version of events to get us started.  And it didn't hurt that the dialog only occasionally felt like "TV dialog", requiring people to download packets of information on the audience.  

It's very, very early to tell how the show will be, or what I'll think in a few weeks.  Pilots are difficult, and there was a *ton* of world-building to do.  Where Lois & Clark leaned heavily into 90's rom-com/ sit-com flavor in Season 1 (pivoting hard in Season 2 under new show runners), it avoided dealing much with Superman's larger world we could have gotten to know, his origins, etc... And, of course, Smallville dripped everything out at a pace that would have annoyed a coma patient.  This show wants to acknowledge the movies, the history and everything we kind of know about Superman as longtime fans, AND it wants to show you something new - and that new is "what happens next?"

I'm glad it's all front-loaded, and we can see the scope and scale of this Superman's life.  And he gets the built in actual family instead of the "let's surround the character with more superheroes" stuff the CW has done the past decade.  There's enough drama in an immediate family, plus Brainiac causing trouble, for any show for a few seasons.  

Only, really, Tyler Hoechlin was given a ton to show as an actor in this episode.  I have hopes for the two teen actors, who are both... fine?  Good?  But the events of the pilot will surely color how the characters are and evolve.  And I can hope Lois, too, gets far more room to show what she is and can do.

I'll be honest, I can be a real jerk about series television.  I don't think much of it is very good, and don't get the appeal of a lot of shows people talk about in near religious terms (for example, I wasn't ever into Buffy  - and I tried).  I'm not particularly good about protecting fans' sense of adoration (Smallville was mostly very bad after Season 2).  And there's been many a pilot that started strong and then the show went to hell (anyone remember Sleepy Hollow?).   

But what I can say is that I felt like the producers were *trying* here.  That the writers were asked to up their game and not fall into familiar tropes and patterns that plague other CW shows - which I can understand at 22 episodes per year and enthusiastic fan bases cheering some of that stuff on.  There's a ton of "oh, they'll do this" or "they'll do that" with the kids, but... maybe they won't?

I hesitate to speculate too much about what the show will be - but I appreciate that they took the time and budget to make the pilot something special.  

Jamie didn't watch the first season of Schitt's Creek with me, and she's watching it now as she binged the rest of the show with me in recent weeks and it's a reminder that a show that absolutely found it's voice and footing, and had incredible characters wasn't the same feeling and writing in the pilot that would become the hallmark of the rest of the show.  And so I expect the same with any show.  We'll have to see what they do, but they at least earned the right of asking for eyes and ears back for a second episode with the first.  

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