Smallville is a show everyone loves to hate. It’s easy to criticize the shoddy story telling, inconsistent character motivations, muddled moral code, and, oh god, why doesn’t Lana Lang just die already!?
What’s harder to admit, is that maybe Smallville deserves our respect.
Now, before you snicker and hit that back button, hear me out. Smallville had its flaws (so, so many flaws) but it actually did a lot for live action superheros. If it weren’t for Smallville paving the way, we wouldn’t have the recent bounty of shows like Arrow, The Flash or Constantine.
What most people don’t remember is that when Smallville first aired, way back in 2001, television superheroes were in a depressing slump. While the genre had been wildly popular in the past, like the 1950’s Adventures of Superman or the Wonder Woman of the 1970’s, there was nothing in recent memory to approach that same level of recognition. The only thing that had even come close to breaking the seal was 1993’s The New Adventures of Lois and Clark, which focused more on the romance than the action, and petered out somewhere around the fourth season.
Then Smallville hit our television screens, depicting the pre-Superman troubles of a teenaged Clark Kent with a mix of teen angst and comic book action. It was an overnight sensation, the pilot’s ratings smashing WB viewership records, and continued to perform consistently for ten years until wearily tapping out in 2011. Pretty good for a show about a town so moronic they didn’t notice the super-strong alien battling meteor mutants at the local high school every week.
TV networks had known there was a niche for superhero shows, but Smallville was where they started to have an idea of just how big that potential audience was. As early as 2008, plans were underway to further tap this lucrative market. After a few false starts – go look up the Wonder Woman and Aquaman pilots on YouTube, I dare you, I double dare you – they finally hit on a winning formula with the gritty re-imagining of Green Arrow and from there a second wave of television superheroes was born.
Yes, Smallville was riddled with problems that only got more apparent as time went on, but isn’t every pioneer? As a show breaking new ground, it did exactly what was required; it opened up possibilities and introduced elements that would be put to better use by its successors. Its episodic structure would later be recycled on The Flash, with a new villain to fight every week. Its focus on pre-superhero era characters would be picked up by Gotham and to some extent, Agents of Shield.
From a purely DC perspective, Smallville was a blessing. It introduced characters – some of them for the very first time in live action – that would later go on to star in their own shows. You can bet Arrow would never have existed if Oliver Queen hadn’t been running around on Smallville first, rocking the green leather and sending the fan girls a flutter (no, thank you, Justin Hartley). Similarly, if Smallville hadn’t laid the groundwork making Supergirl and the Flash fresh and exciting again, we wouldn’t be enjoying Barry Allen now and waiting with bated breath for Kara Zor-El to grace our screens once again.
Finally, Smallville’s most valuable – and yet unappreciated – gift is its mistakes. Every misstep was a cautionary tale to the shows that came after it. Little gems of wisdom like the importance of consistent character development and coherent narrative structure. Following through on your plot-threads was not something to only do when you felt like it, and just because something happened in the comic books didn’t mean it had to happen in the show. For example, while I loathe to say that the painfully dragged out Lana/Clark relationship didn’t do anyone any favours (those were eight very long years), I’m willing to concede that this might have been a factor behind the hasty abandonment of Arrow’s tepid Laurel/Oliver romance.
Ultimately, does Smallville really deserve every scrap of criticism itreceives?
Yes. Yes, it does. For every reason listed above, and so very many others. (I’m still not ready to talk about what they did to Jimmy Olsen.)
But the show also deserves recognition and acknowledgement for all the hard work it did in preparing the ground for the next generation of live action superhero shows. For all its faults and missed opportunities, it lit a bright light and passed on a shining torch that is still burning today.