After 10 years of making a dog's breakfast of the Superman mythos, Smallville is finally off the air, deservedly consigned to that unnamed underworld where bad television rots for eternity. But why do I have these pangs of unplaceable sadness?
NOTE: Given that last night's series finale (appropriately named "Finale") was a unique episode, this is not a traditional recap. If you've never seen Smallville before, don't worry about being lost. Smallville doesn't give a fig about narrative logic and neither should you. Those old Superman Peanut Butter ads had more rigorous plotting. Spoilers on, but who cares?
This recap is one final attempt for me — the reluctant Smallville recapper — to square the rather complex feelings I have for a television program that often felt less like a Superman melodrama and more akin to those tumor-inducing TV signals from Videodrome.
(If you're desperate to discover what happened in "Finale," scroll down to the picture of actor Tom "Clark Kent" Welling in bondage. Honestly, only five minutes of the two-hour finale were vaguely watchable, maybe three if you discount the ads for Hellcats.)
Several months ago, I was talking with io9 reporter Alasdair Wilkins about how the hell this perennially unhip, unheralded, and mostly forgotten show stayed on the air for ten years (this is a mystery that's intrigued me for a while).
Alasdair had a terrifically plausible theory. In real life, Tom Welling really is Superman, but instead of fighting for justice, he coerces Smallville's cast and crew to make the show under the threat of death, sort of like Superboy-Prime mixed with that psychic kid from The Twilight Zone who exiled his enemies to the cornfield.
Alasdair and I never figured out why Smallville would be cancelled if Superman was holding the staff hostage, but after watching "Finale," I think I understand. Smallville was no simple TV show. It was a decade-long case study in delayed gratification, a tenth-of-a-century long con.
And I presume that despotic, real-life SuperWelling did this to inculcate Stockholm Syndrome in viewers and to Pavlovianly condition the populace. Smallville was a means to soften us up before Welling's velvet revolution, Pax Supermana. This 10-year propaganda campaign has bred two vintages of Smallville viewer, the masochists and the apologists. I know this sounds outlandish, but consider the (anecdotal) evidence:
The Masochists: Very few commenters have fessed up to watching Smallville, and those who watch it do so out of perverse obligation. These viewers start what they finish. What bait strung along many of these masochists? Finally seeing Clark Kent hit two milestones: donning the classic Superman costume and flying — the end of "No tights, no flights" mandate that has been in effect for the last 10 seasons.
The Apologists: Other viewers give the show a pass "because it's Smallville." In other words, "this show is so ubiquitous and/or crappy we find it mean-spirited and/or tiring to keep hating on it and/or hold it up to any sane aesthetic standards." 10 years is a long time to keep the vitriol seething. Even the village idiot grows on you after a while.
I'm a Smallville apologist. Since early 2010, my job has required me to recap Smallville week in, week out. After a month or so, my thirst for invective diminished, never mind the fact that I've seen better Superman storytelling in anti-vandalism PSAs.
Every week I attempted to glean something likable about Smallville. Such as: "this episode had Pam Grier in it" or "this episode had enough bondage scenes to make Frederic Wertham's corpse spin/give William Moulton Marston's ghost an erection."
I believed Smallville was inoffensive camp...until I saw "Finale." I've noticed a sinister trend in the final block of episodes — the show was going out of its way to prevent anything of consequence from happening.
Instead of tying up loose ends and building towards Clark's final conflict with the evil space god Darkseid, Smallville delivered a ton of meandering, no-stakes episodes (not to mention that hilariously execrable Hangover tribute episode in which Superman gets drunk on magic champagne). In light of all this dreck, surely the finale would be an ejaculation of gooey denouement, complete with a cape and John Williams score!
What did we get? John Williams, but not much else. Here's a synopsis of the Smallville finale. The show never made a ton of sense, so bear with me:
- For the first 40 minutes, almost nothing happens. Seriously. Clark and Lois Lane bicker about whether or not they should get married, while the ghost of Pa Kent (John Schneider) gives Clark advice. If you had never seen Smallville prior to this, you'd think Superman was haunted by Bo Duke.
- Four or five pointless clip montages run over the course of 83 minutes, presumably to cut corners on the production budget.
- We learn that Darkseid wants to destroy our planet. How? He's using magical omega tattoos secretly emblazoned on people's foreheads to draw the burning planet Apokolips on a crash course with Earth.
- Oliver Queen (a.k.a. the superheroic Green Arrow and Clark's best man) becomes possessed by Darkseid and tries to permanently depower him with a Gold Kryptonite wedding ring. Clark exorcises Oliver by slamming him into a baptismal font full of Darkseid juice/Ovaltine.
- Darkseid brings Lex Luthor back from the dead (for no discernable reason) using Lex's alternate universe dad's heart to complete a Frankenstein clone of Lex. It's a long story.
- Clark and Lex (a bald cap-clad Michael Rosenbaum, who's been off the show since 2008) have a two-minute reunion in which Lex pledges his eternal enmity to Clark.
- But this scene is totally moot! After pointlessly killing his half-sister Tess Mercer (the only person to have any sort of character development this season), Lex is immediately exposed to memory-erasing neurotoxin. He's a whole new character now!
- After defeating Darkseid in the Kent barn, Clark learns to fly and prevents Apokolips from crashing into Earth. Note that we never see Tom Welling in the suit, just a pixelated blue-and-red blur.
- The final scenes jump forward to the year 2018. Lex is president-elect, Clark and Lois still aren't married, Green Arrow has a kid with Clark's friend/Lois' cousin Chloe Sullivan, and the Metropolis of the future resembles the set of a Superman porn parody.
After watching "Finale," I no longer see Smallville as harmless kitsch. No, there was something downright insidious about this final, as it waggled the bird at 217 episodes worth of build-up. All Smallville needed to do was put Tom Welling in a $25 lycra Party City Superman jumper and hoist him up with some Mary-Martin-Peter-Pan wirework, and fans would have been screaming their lungs out. Instead we got more corner-of-the-eye glimpses of Clark-as-Superman. To screw up the money shot like this was so criminally inept it had to be intentional.
So yes, this is why I believe that Tom Welling is secretly a world-conquering Superman. Smallville was a 10-year-long PSYOP initiative to acclimate humanity to a banal Kryptonian overlord. Last night's finale will have shattered the Masochists' psyche such that they will follow SuperWelling's edicts blindly just to see him put on the damn suit.
Apologists like me — who have been rationalizing the show's faults — have Stockholm Syndrome now that it's over. We just want to live in a world where people make treacly speeches about destiny, love, and duty seemingly cribbed from the Ingsoc Style Guide. Now that NBC's Wonder Woman isn't airing, there's a marked vacuum of garish superhero shows out there. I want someone to save me, and it may as well be Big Brother.