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Superman revisited in 'Smallville'

Sunday, October 14, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

When was the last time you watched a TV show and marveled at its imagery, at the sly layers of meaning woven into the episode?

It happens occasionally on TV's smarter shows ("The West Wing," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"), but I can't recall a show making as great an effort as what's seen in The WB's new Superman series, "Smallville."

TV Review
When: 9 p.m. Tuesday on The WB.
Starring: Tom Welling, John Schneider, Annette O'Toole.

It's the story of teen-age Clark Kent (Tom Welling), who is just learning about his past from his adoptive parents, Jonathan (John Schneider) and Martha (Annette O'Toole). Viewers get to see Clark's origins for themselves as meteors rain down upon Smallville, Kan., in 1989. The meteor shower cloaks the arrival of an alien spaceship that carries toddler Clark, who was found by Ma and Pa Kent.

The meteor shower scenes have a visceral intensity, like something out of "Independence Day" (not necessarily a good thing following the terrorist attacks of last month). The meteor incident also sets the stage for what's to come. Viewers learn how Lana Lang (Kristin Kreuk), Clark's high school crush, became an orphan. They see how Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum), who once had red hair that rivaled Bozo the clown, became bald.

The introduction of alien matter also explains some of the freakier goings-on in Smallville that will provide story fodder for teen-age Clark and his sleuthing pals, Chloe Sullivan (Allison Mack) and Pete Ross (Sam Jones III).

It's an impressive hour of television, and the imagery is the show's most striking attribute. Written by executive producers Alfred Gough and Miles Millar (writers of the feature film "Shanghai Noon") and directed by David Nutter ("The X-Files," "Disturbing Behavior"), Tuesday's "Smallville" pilot is chock-full of allusions.

There's the Smallville High football team's cruel homecoming tradition of tying a nerdy student to a scarecrow stand in a corn field and painting a red "S" on his chest. It brings to mind both the Superman costume and Christ-like imagery. Is it any wonder Clark gets tied up there since Superman, too, was "sent to save us"?

And that's just the tip of the symbolism iceberg. Watch for the scene of Clark with a red blanket hanging on his back, making it look like the traditional Superman cape. Listen for Lex Luthor's question, "Do you believe a man can fly?" - the tag line from posters for 1978's "Superman" movie. Even the casting references past Superman mythology: O'Toole played Lana Lang in "Superman III."

Those are just a few of the gems scattered throughout this premiere episode that's a dandy setup to a series that appears infinitely more sophisticated than the sugary "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman" a few years back.

Producers say Clark will gradually discover his powers, but he'll never wear a suit or fly. That's fine, as long as producers can come up with compelling stories. I do worry about the future course of the show. Aside from super-hero elements, at its root, "Smallville" is "Roswell" redux - the story of an alienated teen-age alien.

For "Smallville" to succeed in the long run, future stories must travel a more original path, concentrating on the relationships among the characters, particularly the budding friendship between Clark and Lex.

As Clark, Welling is not believable as the nerd the series posits. He also looks too old to be a high school freshman, especially next to the younger-looking actors who play his classmates. Viewers may recognize Welling as last season's young love interest to the title character on "Judging Amy." (He also had a one-scene part in the series premiere of Fox's "Undeclared" a few weeks ago.)

Perhaps the nicest aspect of the series is its true heartland feel. "Smallville," at least in the pilot, is easy to believe as a real town. If the production values that created that image continue to be emphasized, if the stories are able to draw on elements from the Superman mythology, "Smallville" could turn out to be a super series.

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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