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Grounded in 'Smallville': No flight plan for teen Superman in new WB series

Tuesday, October 16, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, Calif. -- he latest incarnation of the Superman saga, about a teen-age Clark Kent, is named after the town he grew up in, "Smallville." Don't suggest to producers that "Superboy" would be a better title for The WB series.

"The show is about [Superman] finding out who he is and what he is here for," says Tom Welling, who will play Clark Kent in "Smallville." Pictured, (l-r) Kristin Kreuk as Lana Lang, Tom Welling as Clark Kent, Michael Rosenbaum as Lex Luthor (David Gray, The WB)

"He is not Superboy," said executive producer Alfred Gough. "Superboy wears a suit. Clark doesn't wear a suit."

That fits the philosophy of the new series: "No flights, no tights."

At a July press conference, Gough and executive producer Miles Millar explained their desire to create a super show without Superman's most distinct super power -- flying.

"Honestly, I think that the stigma of Superman is putting on that suit," Gough said. "We went back and researched the history of Superman. It was interesting just to see the different sort of evolutions of it throughout the decades. It is fun to hint at that."

Tonight's premiere (9 p.m., WCWB) plays with classic Superman images, showing Clark with a red blanket draped over his back. In another scene, bullies paint an "S" on his chest.

The episode begins in 1989 with a meteor shower that rains down on Smallville, Kan., killing the parents of Lana Lang, making Lex Luthor bald and depositing a toddler from space on Earth. He's adopted by Jonathan Kent (John Schneider, "The Dukes of Hazzard") and his wife Martha (Annette O'Toole, who played Lana Lang in the movie "Superman III") and named Clark. Fast forward to the present when Clark (Tom Welling) is beginning high school.

For producers, "Smallville" is all about the journey that takes Clark Kent from Smallville to Metropolis, from Clark Kent to Superman.

"The interesting thing about the series is you know how it's going to end," Millar said. "You know Lex and Clark are going to end up in Metropolis and be bitter enemies. For us it's about how interesting and unexpected is the journey. ... We are always going to play with people's expectations and what they think Lex is about and what they think Clark is about."


When: 9 tonight on WCWB.

Starring: Tom Welling, John Schneider.


In the premiere, Clark saves the life of Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum) and the two form a friendship.

"They won't be enemies for a very long time," Gough said. "For us, this show was sort of the trials of Clark Kent and the making of a hero. For Lex, it's the making of an anti-hero."

Whatever Clark's romance with teen-age Lana Lang (Kristin Kreuk) turns out to be in "Smallville," it will come with a twinge of the bittersweet, Millar said, because ultimately, "Clark does not end up with Lana Lang; you know that going in. The journey to get there will be fascinating."

Last season, viewers rejected the familiar "journey" of CBS's revival of "The Fugitive," but Millar dismissed any comparisons between the two shows.

"The problem with doing that show is it was done 30 years ago. We've seen Richard Kimble in a movie three years ago. There was no attempt at reinvention," he said. "This is a Clark Kent you've never seen before. We're offering a fresh look at the mythology you're familiar with."

Much of that new take on the Superman saga is the audience getting to watch as Clark's superpowers develop. The onset of Clark's powers are related to puberty; along with facial hair, he'll develop X-ray vision. His abilities make him unusual, something a teen-ager concerned about the perception of his peers does not want to be.

"The show is about him finding out who he is and what he is here for," explained Welling, who stars as Clark. "He's got these abilities he doesn't necessarily understand, and it alienates him in a lot of ways from just wanting to be a normal high school kid."

Clark doesn't have complete control over his powers. Even the opportunity to see through the clothing of the high school cheerleaders with X-ray vision isn't as much fun in the "Smallville" universe as it would be in, say, "American Pie."

"You don't always want to be able to see through things," Millar said.

"What does that do to a person? It brings about a sense of loneliness as well," said Welling, 24. "Here you are able to do these things, but no one else can do them."

And no one else can know about them. Unlike "Roswell," another series about teen aliens that airs at the same time ON upn, in "Smallville" Clark can't confide in his friends.

"The only people Clark can talk to [about his powers] are his parents," Millar said. "The parents are the guardians of the secrets, unlike most shows where the kids have the secret in the clubhouse and the parents are in the dark. Clark actually will talk about his problems with his parents. This makes a unique show in terms of a cross-generational discussion about events and problems."

One of the touchy subjects of a future chat between Clark and his parents will be about the birds and the bees.

"Can he have sex? Can he impregnate somebody? We'll deal with all the things modern audiences think about that 30 or 40 years ago you'd be watching 'Superman' and not thinking about," Gough said. "It's all the parental concerns you'd have for any kid."

Those concerns will include worries about a son who slowly comes to accept his destiny is to save lives and protect the innocent. "Smallville" stories will come from three distinct fields: true crime, natural disasters and strange phenomenon relating to the meteor shower that brought Clark to Earth.

"The Kryptonite in the soil makes weird things happen," Millar said. "People will get affected, they get superhuman strength or some kind of weird power."

Clark is assisted, to some degree, by two friends who work on the school paper, Chloe Sullivan (Allison Mack) and Pete Ross (Sam Jones III). They know nothing of Clark's powers, but they help direct him toward strange happenings.

"When he sees these weird things happening in Smallville ... he takes on the mantle and protects his friends and family," Gough said. "This is another part of learning how to be Superman."

Prior to work on "Smallville," the producers of the series were considering a similarly themed show about young Bruce Wayne. That project was put on hold when the Warner Bros. movie division decided to revive the flagging "Batman" film franchise, but they still dream of bringing the character to TV.

"I'd love to see Bruce Wayne," Gough said. "Maybe he went to boarding school with Lex. It would be fun to have him come to Smallville."

They're also considering introducing Lois Lane, and Gough said he'd like to have the most recent big screen Superman, actor Christopher Reeve, appear on "Smallville" as a guest star.

Just don't hold your breath waiting to see teen-age Clark Kent don a Superman suit and take to the skies, not even in a "very special" sweeps month episode. Millar said he can only imagine one scene of the new Superman in flight.

"We always see that as the last minute of the last show: Him flying."

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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