Saturday, July 16, 2022

Return to Smallville: Season 10 - Fumbling at the One Yard Line

Well, we watched a collection of episodes from the final season - and more episodes than in prior seasons.  It was really pretty solid until it wasn't.

Lazarus - Oliver is Lethal Weapon-tortured by Ted Whittall (as Rick Flagg)!  I love Ted Whittall.  He should be in everything.  This is the episode where Clark does not much, Tess realizes she's got a bank of Lex clones, and one of said Clones forces Lois to look smashing as she's almost burned to death in a corn field.  Chloe also swaps spots with Ollie and is quasi written off the show so Allison Mack can go join a cult.  And Clark is an absolute dope about Lois throwing herself at him.
Shield - Lois wastes time in "Egypt" hanging out with Carter Hall and admits she knows Clark is The Blur.  We get Cat Grant - whose whole job is to suck as a person.  And, we get an hilarious take on Deadshot as a cowboy who Oliver informs us no one can ever find, despite the fact he looks like he's in a rodeo everywhere he goes.  But, yeah, the whole "Suicide Squad" stuff starts here.  
Supergirl - Laura Vandervoort returns as Kara and is trying to distract the public from Clark by being the superhero everyone wants.  This plot makes almost no sense.  But the real story is that Lois decides to take down Glorious Godfrey by taking photos of him cavorting in a sex club, which is... not great and irrelevant, Lois. And, anyway, if you wanted to see this show react like an awkward 11 year old to non-romantic sex, this is the episode for you.  But Lois plays dress up again, and it's fun.  Oh, Glorious Godfrey is maybe possessed by Darkseid?  I can't tell.  He also gets a book written and published in 3 weeks, so Darkseid is efficient as hell.
Homecoming - Lois drags Clark to their high school reunion where Clark gets Christmas Carol'd by Brainiac 5.  We see that Lois looks... amazing with her hair up and all serious reporter-style.  Really, that's my takeaway, but Clark's realization is that he can rest assured that it will not just work out with Lois, but make them both better.
Isis - Lois dresses up as in Spirit Superstore Egyptian costume and gets possessed by the literal goddess Isis, which raises innumerable questions, but she's treated like a Freak o' the Week.
Ambush - Lois' much-discussed dad shows up with Lucy Lane in the form of Mad Men actor Peyton List.  I'd say this take on Major Lane is cartoonish and dumb, but I've seen and heard things in this life, and some people are truly psychotic when it comes to how they address their children's significant other.  It's... fine.  Michael Ironside gets a paycheck.  And Ted Whittall is America's hero by blowing up the Talon so we need never see it again.
Abandoned - A mixed bad of an episode.  Good:  Features the only live action appearance of The Female Furies I'm aware of, and has a curious take on Granny Goodness.  Bad:  it has no resolution.  Tess and Clark just leave, leaving the Female Furies, Kryptonite, Granny and a herd of orphans.  But lots of Tess.
Luthor - The Kryptonian Thermos makes Clark of Earth-1 swap places with Ultra-Man of Earth-2, and it's a surprisingly good episode.  Lionel returns, and Tess's heritage is outed.  
Icarus - the feds do what they should have done and try to shut down vigilantes in Metropolis.  It's a good episode, and shows the maturity the show is now capable of with adult characters and storylines that don't feel like someone's first, unconsidered draft.
Collateral - Chloe is Morpheus in the Matrix.  Somewhere along the way Chloe learned kung-fu and how to handle guns.  Pretty good paranoia and allegorical trust stuff.
Beacon - Martha shows up for a rally and is shot by Clone-Boy-Lex.  It's got a good chiller of an ending.
Masquerade - Chloe and Oliver get wrapped up in Desaad's murderous shenanigans.  Clark realizes he needs to wear glasses and be a nerd.
Fortune - yup. The Hangover rip off episode that is none the poorer for lifting so obviously while employing super-feats.  Maybe the one where everyone making it clearly had some fun.  
Booster - Booster Gold shows up and Blue Beetle is a bit of a wiener. 
Finale - An incomprehensible mess of a finale that feels like it was written by a drunk mongoose and shows Welling was going to just be an absolute dick about wearing the suit.  Mostly I'm confused and angered about the murder of Tess.  It is truly, truly some terrible television that the prior two years would lead to believe was going to be handled well and was an absolute disaster.

Surveillance is fine... if I'm the one doing it

One of the big go-to's of superhero cinema and TV is "the guy in the chair".  And I'd argue Smallville certainly took from spy-fiction and whatnot to make Chloe Sullivan, and then Tess, that person.  It's an easy narrative device.  If you need to see what happened in the past, you just have your computer whiz "hack into their video surveillance system" - a term which was hilariously meaningless in 2009 or so when the show suggested every camera everywhere was (a) actually working (b) not recording to tape and (c) web-enabled.  They call it closed-circuit TV for a reason.

Also - these shows conveniently have satellites on hand which can track whatever they need at the time from "energy signatures" to spy photos.  

So, fine.  That's the show's prerogative.  They can say all of that's true in their made-up universe.

What's super interesting in Season 9 (a little) and in Season 10 (a lot) the "heroes" are shocked and horrified that anyone is watching them or would try to track them.  We'll get into the complications of the role the characters are playing in the next section, but let's just say, it's a horrible look to have your characters just absolutely gobsmacked and declare it immoral that someone would watch them with satellites or using security cameras when that is what they do to other people every single episode.    

Where Smallville, even in this stage where it genuinely *was* trying, seems to flop is a refusal to interrogate their characters motives or activities.  And surveillance, something that was absolutely in the minds of every American during this historical period in the ramp up post 9/11, should and could have been thoughtfully discussed.  That's what separates the big boys from the shows saying "it doesn't matter, it's comics".

The Show Struggles With the Words "Hero" and "Vigilante"

Since about year 7 of this era of CW superhero programming through to today, the DC superhero shows on the CW shows go out of their way to have our leads refer to themselves as "heroes".  I get that they need a label for what the characters like Clark and Oliver and Chloe think they're doing, but - to be blunt - IRL the only people who call themselves heroes are insufferable narcissist.  

Just imagine if you were at work and unironically referring to each other as heroes.  You'd sound insane.

A "hero", in the modern sense, is a label applied to you by someone else.  You can aspire to hero-dom, but someone else has to deem your behavior heroic.  And, yes, I think the show explicitly and implicitly shows our protagonists to be heroic-ish, but 

And, seemingly with no sense of self-awareness, the characters take umbrage at being referred to as "vigilantes".  Which - by all definitions of the word - they absolutely are.  No one deputized them, and they're accountable to no one.  Marvel made this the main thrust of like 2 movies and the reason the Avengers fell apart, but Smallville assumes that the world MUST know that masked, mysterious figures blowing up facilities and beating people in the streets must be okay dudes.   I mean, Gordon Godfrey has a legitimate point - everything he says about them is 100% true as unaccountable weirdos.

No One Understands What Journalism Is

Looking for a role for Lois in the final season, and to give her a path to world's greatest journalist - somewhere along the line, the writer's really threw their weight into the idea that the job of a journalist is to produce propaganda for your personal bugaboo.

I mean, in 2022, they aren't wrong.  (Meteor, take us now)  But the idea behind Lois is not that she spends her days writing pro-vigilante puff pieces, it's that she's an investigative journalist when she isn't basically Metropolis' super war correspondent.  She's worried about who, what, where, when and why of a story, not "how do I spin my boyfriend's antics to make the public adore him?".  

Of course the flipside of all this is Cat Grant, who shows up with axe to grind against superheroes (only for the writing room to remember she had to be swayed by end of the season, which they almost forgot to do and it's an utter afterthought).  

Anyway, I kind of hate it?  Lois compromising her integrity like some hack on cable news to out-market other voices when it comes to The Blur and Pals is... weird at best.  Much like the "we're heroes!" position taken by the leads, it doesn't so much speak to a destiny as a cult working to ensure it's place against all common sense.

Love is in the Air and In Disguise

This season is the final season and pretty clearly they realized they'd forgotten to do two things:
  • Make sure we all knew Clark and Lois were in love/ destined for each other despite 7 years of pining after Lana
  • Somehow reconcile 6'4" of Tom Welling looking like the Brawny guy with no glasses and somehow convince the audience that no one would remember what Clark Kent looked like before he put on glasses and the next week Superman appeared
I don't know anything about the behind-the-scenes of Smallville, but they sure as hell got distracted doing everything but connecting the dots between the actual stuff people think of when they think of Superman and what the show was doing which they could have easily spent 22 episodes on minus CGI Darkseid.  

And I think they were trying to anchor Clark to humanity via Lois, but the writing just wasn't there, and what was there was completely knee-capped by a two-part finale that seemed written not for people who watched the show, but people who had never seen the show.  It was so weird to see Clark and Lois re-enact two seasons of will they/ won't they for 30 minutes of this dumb finale.  It made literally no narrative sense, and culminated in what would be the absolute f-you that was everything from a failed wedding to Welling refusing to be seen in a cape.  

And all of that felt tied up in their forgetfulness to start Clark at the beginning of the season with Lois helping him establish a secret identity as Clark.  Like - why are they doing this NOW when there's so much going on on the show and in their lives?  (BTW:  Their wedding photos would absolutely be of Lois marrying Superman, so... well done, you dimbulbs).  

I would argue this show did what it set out to do.  I mean, they had 220+ episodes of hour-long TV to do it, so, that's a lot of room to fuck up and still get there.  And I guess by "set out to do" that's show Clark Kent en route to becoming Superman.  But... I kinda wonder if this wasn't the weirdest, most indirect way to do it.  I mean, Action Comics #1 is like "rocket lands with baby from space, dude shows up at a newspaper and spies a dishy reporter, Superman saves the day like 4 times."  It's not that hard.  

And yet...  through a series of rules they made up for themselves and never quite being sure what the show was (coming of age story, teen sci-fi drama, soap opera, superhero show) it felt for 10 years like it was more in need of an identity than our strange visitor from another world.  I'm not sure why the show leaned so hard into the same questions over and over and why they couldn't ever seem to wrap their heads around the fact that being Superman is not just putting on a cape one day but a mindset it would have been nice to have seen some path that character (Superman is funny.  Did you know that?  Superman is a straight joker, and our guy just stared into middle-distance). By the time they settled on "oh, this IS a superhero show" for the last two seasons or so, despite cast departures and shenanigans, the writing was some of the best.  Until the absolute god-awful two-part finale.  

But people seem to love it.  

Look, Superman has a long history across literally any media you can think of.  The story of how Superman became that guy has never had just one answer.  There's parts of Smallville I liked quite a bit.  And I think most of the cast found their roles and made the show very watchable even when the scripts were bad.  But I also think it's telling that the usual two-way conversation between the non-comics media and the comics didn't ever really take - as in, the comics didn't adapt any of the stuff from show into the comics, and it didn't drive any attempts to do more than publish a couple of Smallville self-contained comics.  

On a revisit, I mostly enjoyed seeing how the show pivoted and changed, added and lost characters and tried to deal seriously with the frankly wacky ongoing world of Superman comics.  They had a love for the legacy of the character and the many talents who have been a part of that journey, from casting Annette O'Toole as Martha to using the Superman Theme by John Williams at only the most critical junctures.  

And, of course, I very much enjoyed Erica Durance as Lois.  Sure, she's an absolute knockout and that's a plus!, but her shift as Lois from wild child to recklessly driven ace reporter worked, not because it was well written but because she sold it (it literally made no sense that someone with no high school degree I was aware of would wind up in the bullpen of the NYT equivalent).  And I believed those flash forward sequences where we saw her fully realizing her potential and at the top of her game.*

If I were to bring one thing into the comics at this point, it would be a Tess Mercer.  We've seen a similar path for Lena Luthor on Supergirl, and I think a relative of Lex working on the side of the good guys is a fascinating idea.  

Anyway - I have no idea if I'll ever watch the show or episodes again (I'm more likely to watch episodic TV on repeat, like Adventures of Superman).   But it was an interesting trip down memory lane.  But, woof, that finale.

*do not underestimate the appeal of smart glasses and your hair up to look the most fabulous you're gonna look across 7 seasons of TV.  It is what we call "turning it up to 11".

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