There are some spoilers ahead for the entirety of Smallville’s first season.
What’s this show about?
Smallville is an American superhero television series developed by writer-producers Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, based on the DC Comics character Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. The series was produced by Millar Gough Ink, Tollin/Robbins Productions, DC Comics and Warner Bros. Television. Initially broadcast by The WB, the series premiered on October 16, 2001. After its fifth season, The WB and UPN merged to form The CW, the series’ later United States broadcaster until its tenth and final season ended on May 13, 2011.
Smallville follows the coming-of-age adventures of teenage Clark Kent (Tom Welling) in his fictional hometown of Smallville, Kansas, before he formally becomes the Man of Steel. The first season focuses on the high school life of Clark and his friends, his complicated romance with neighbor girl Lana Lang (Kristin Kreuk), and his friendship with future nemesis Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum).
The story of Smallville takes some liberties with the comic canon to create something unique and its own. In the series, Clark’s space ship does not merely crash land near the Kent’s farm. His ship arrives in the midst of a hellish meteor shower that kills some locals (including main character Lana’s parents), permanently injures others, and otherwise contaminates the community with dangerous alien rocks. A conceit of the show, concerning the green meteor rocks, is that the vast majority of the local residents blame the rocks’ effects – which include granting unnatural abilities to those exposed to them – on pollution from the local LuthorCorp fertilizer plant.
The LuthorCorp plant is how we are introduced to Lex Luthor. In the series, he is not much beyond school himself and not much older than high school freshman Clark. His father occupies the role of megalomaniacs billionaire business man and Lex is his abused son and heir, engaged in a battle with himself to either become his father, to best him, or to overcome him and be more like his newfound friend Clark.
Lex meets his eventual nemesis after accidentally hitting a pedestrian Clark with his car while driving too fast. Lex, Clark, and the car fly off a bridge, whereupon Clark rips the top of Lex’s Porsche off to pull him free and save his life. Lex is grateful for this, becoming so impressed with Clark that he pursues a friendship with him, but Lex also becomes obsessed with how it occurred. He spends a fortune having the wreck analyzed and concludes that Clark’s explanation for what happened – that he largely missed being hit by the car and then jumped into the river to pull Lex out – is not truthful. However, as he cannot prove to his satisfaction what happened, Lex decides to stop the investigation so that it does not endanger his newfound friendship.
Clark is a high school freshman and has been romantically interested in Lana Lang, his neighbor, for most of his life. He cannot get near her, though, because she wears a green meteor rock necklace in remembrance of her deceased parents who died in the meteor shower. Clark discovers during the pilot episode that green meteor rocks make him sick, and he begins to suspect that they give unnatural abilities to other residents of his town. In addition to Lana’s meteor rock necklace, Clark is also inhibited in his pursuit of her due to the fact that she is the girlfriend of the high school football team’s quarterback, Whitney Fordham. Whitney has a troubled relationship with Clark due to his suspicion that Clark is romantically interested in his girlfriend. In the pilot episode, this suspicion leads Whitney to choose Clark to be the target of a local tradition, wherein a freshman is tied to a stake, in the middle of a cornfield, and is left there all night as if he is a scarecrow. From this rough start, though, Clark slowly grows closer to Whitney and also to Lana throughout the course of Season 1.
Clark’s friend Chloe, a high school journalist, gives Clark the idea that the meteors, and not the fertilizer plant, are what cause the “weird” things in their town. Clark becomes convinced that she is right and sees evidence of this throughout the season. The green meteor rocks set up Smallville’s primary procedural story-telling device – namely that Clark and his friends meet local meteor infected people (i.e. “meteor freaks”) every week and Clark surreptitiously uses his abilities to stop the infected people from doing harm to others. Chloe also becomes a romantic interest for Clark after Clark realizes – to his surprise – that she likes him.
Pete Ross is Clark’s best friend – or at least he was prior to the start of high school. To the extent the character is featured at all, it is primarily comedic one-liners or to express jealously over Clark’s friendship with Lex.
Lex is in Smallville because his father Lionel sent him to the plant to both get him out of Metropolis and to force a change in behavior from his son. While in the small Kansas town, Lex surprises everyone by excelling as the plant manager – so much so that Lionel tries to force him to return to Metropolis so as to better keep an eye on him. Lex declines an outright job promotion that would send him back, which causes Lionel to announce that the Smallville plant is closing due to poor management from his son. Lex responds to this, as the season ends, by leading an employee buyout of the plant – and act for which his father promises vengeance.
During the first season, independently of Clark and Chloe, Lex begins to suspect that the meteor rocks are responsible for abnormalities around the town and he hires a scientist to research this topic. This connection between the meteors and abnormalities becomes an obsession for Lex, due in large part to the fact that Lex was in Smallville, at the local plant, with his father on the day of the meteor shower. It is the meteor shower which was responsible for Lex losing all of his hair. The obsession with the meteors leads Lex to growing increasingly suspicious of the Kents, though he hides it. He also surveys a field – on a tip from a local – and discovers a small piece of debris from Clark’s space ship. He analyzes the debris (an octagonal disk) and learns that the allow from which it was made does not exist on earth. Unfortunately for Lex, his disk is stolen and as of the end of the season, he does not know who took it, or to where.
What Does Smallville Do Well?
- The casting of the show is its strength.
Tom Welling embodies the ethos of Superman – he exudes a wholesome, strong, self-possessed, and confident energy on screen. Even when interacting with older actors and older characters, everyone seems to innately lean on Clark in the way that people eventually lean on Superman. Much credit should go to the casting director – and to Tom Welling – for how effective this is for the show. This show works because Tom Welling was born for this role.
As much as I love Tom Welling’s Clark, Michael Rosenbaum’s Lex might even be better. I would be hard-pressed to name a better live action interpretation of Lex Luthor by any other actor. Rosenbaum delivers a Lex who feels brilliant, conflicted, manipulative, manipulated, desirous of being heroic, but also haunted by inner demons he cannot best. In one scene you can cheer for him, believing that he means what he says in a “big brother” type of interaction with Clark. After the scene is over, you can also read into his big brother actions a darker and less trustworthy motivation which may have also been at work. Rosenbaum’s Lex is so effective because, more often than not, he actions are directed by both good and bad motives simultaneously. When he has to pick one side of these opposing inner forces, rather than both together, Rosenbaum gives just enough hints about that struggle to make his scenes doubly compelling.
Beyond these two main characters, I also thought the show did a great job casting Lionel Luthor, Jonathan Kent, and Martha Kent to play their parents. Jonathan Glover plays a megalomaniac monster so very well. He steals every scene he is in. You get a sense that his actions – which are often cruel – are motivated by a genuine desire to father Lex to greatness. His actions are also motivated by a malignant and self-justified cruelty he cannot control. John Schneider’s Jonathan Kent is the type of wholesome father most people would want – except that the stress of his life, both harboring an alien as his son and a financially strapped family farm, seem to put such believable stress on him that his anger and temper get the better of him all too often. Annette O’Toole (who also portrayed Lana Lang in Superman III) is the warm caring wife and mother anyone might want – and she lacks the obvious character flaw that we see in her husband. She’s the emotional rock of the Kent family.
Among the other cast, Kristin Kreuk gives a solid performance as the beautiful but haunted Lana. Allison Mack’s Chloe is another solid performance, one which arguably inspired the Kristen Bell series, Veronica Mars.
Smallville’s first season also featured several notable guest stars, including Amy Adams, Lizzy Caplan, Adam Brody, Evangeline Lilly (for about 2 seconds), and Shawn Ashmore. As the guest roles were often meaty and important, the show really benefitted from these star performances.
- The large plot arcs worked.
The show’s father-son relationships are its heart. Clark’s relationship with Jonathan is relatable and sincere, even when the circumstances are not in any way relatable. Tom Welling and John Schneider have tremendous on-screen chemistry. Schneider’s character is the *only* character on the show that does not instinctively lean on Clark. Everyone else does. This uniqueness really informs who their family is and who Clark is in particular.
Lex’s season-long business feud with his father was consistently compelling, even when it was relegated to an episode’s B plot. The show manages to stretch this battle out over the entire season very effectively, giving us plenty of ups and downs before setting us up with a satisfactory conclusion (Lex leading the buyout) and the gripping cliffhanger question of whether Lex will save his father’s life, which was presented in the finale. Rosenbaum and Glover, like the Kents, have unbelievably good on-screen chemistry – just of a completely different variety than what we see with the Kent boys.
The Kent Family’s season-long effort to hide themselves not just from Lex, but from the people in his orbit, was also consistently entertaining. The writers manage to give us a Clark who bends the truth, without muddying his moral high ground in the process. They also give us a Lex who pushes the boundaries of what might be acceptable probing of a friend’s secrets, but without pushing those boundaries too far just yet. However, the cliffhanger leaves us with a man on Lex’s payroll threatening to expose Clark to the world and to get rich in the process. This balancing act will not last forever.
For the most part, I also enjoyed the “meteor freak of the week” formula because, even if sometimes the stories were a bit campy, the acting was good enough to make it fun (Amy Adams’ Jodi and Adam Brody’s Justin were particular standouts on this front.) Clark’s motivation for getting involved in these capers usually made sense, too. Throughout the season, we see in Clark a growing sense of responsibility for the safety of the community, and a desire to use his abilities to that end, which is very much in keeping with the direction of where he will land.
What does Smallville do poorly?
- How old are these characters again?
While casting older actors to play high school characters makes a lot of industry sense, the show frequently forgets that they are supposed to be younger. It is not unusual to hear a 9th grader on Smallville reminisce about 7th or 8th grade, as though that was ancient history. Sometimes a character is old enough to drive through town in one scene, but in another, is too young to drive and so must ride a school bus to school. And sometimes the show just wanted to sexualize a character that is supposed to be 14 or 15, so the writers just lean into the fact that the actor or actress is an adult. On a rewatch, that is occasionally pretty creepy.
- Some of the characters were not well-constructed or thought out.
Pete Ross and Whitney Fordham are poorly utilized. Sam Jones III’s Pete Ross had very little to work with all year, despite being a regular and allegedly Clark’s best friend. Eric Johnson’s Whitney Fordham was written so inconsistently that it’s hard to have much of a feel for the character at all. When we meet him he’s borderline psychotic. At other points in the season, he’s vulnerable and sympathetic. Still at other times he’s aloof.
- The romance angles on the show are poorly executed.
Clark and Lana are both knowingly more than just friends. They kiss and nearly kiss on a couple of occasions. In the finale, they discuss the news that their significant others are about to be (finally) gone for good while looking at each other in a manner full of meaning. And yet Clark also pursues – with conviction – a romance with Chloe. Lana is still *with* Whitney. I think the audience is supposed to believe that Clark is deceiving himself in his efforts with Chloe, however, that’s not completely clear just yet. Lana for her part, despite liking Clark, and knowing that he likes her, bizarrely forgives Whitney for repeated wrong-doing and most egregiously for what amounted to a near murder attempt of Clark in the pilot. She then spends most of the season held prisoner to her relationship with Whitney due to Mr. Fordham’s illness.
The bottom line on all of this relationship drama though is that when the story focused on these types of relationships, rather than be invested or interested, I found myself annoyed and wanting to skip ahead. The good news is that the first season did not make this mistake too often. I suspect that this will not always be the case.
While it was not perfect by any stretch, particularly in the realm of high school relationship drama, Season 1 of Smallville was good. The long range plot arcs were interesting and well executed. The casting choices, and performances, for the main characters and most of the guest roles were outstanding. I am happy I did the rewatch and I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoyed the show during its initial run.