Somebody Saved Me: Smallville [20 Year Anniversary]

Everyone has one show that comforts them, frustrates them, makes them laugh and cry, and sticks with them, no matter how many other obsessions flow through their cinematic life. For me, that show has always been, and will always be, Smallville.

The small-town story of Clark Kent before he became Superman takes place in what should be a lazy farming community in Kansas… except the meteor shower that delivered the alien child also salted the earth with kryptonite, producing a litany of “meteor freaks” to wreak unholy havoc on the town. From bone marrow sucking vampires to a girl who can control bees, Clark has to defeat some weirdo or another each week who threatens his family, friends, or even the most-hated family in town, the Luthors.

Clark is a normal kid… except he can bench press tractors and plunge his arm into a wood chipper without harm. This fresh-faced, good-hearted teenage hottie longs to play football “like normal kids.” Fearful he might hurt someone, his stern father Jonathan forbids it. His life is otherwise pretty great. They’re poor farmers, but Clark attends school with the spunky, creative newspaper journalist Chloe (who has a cousin named Lois Lane), whom he fears may find out his secret. And he spends most of his time pining for “the girl next door,” Lana Lang. Then he saves billionaire playboy Lex Luthor from drowning after a near-fatal car accident (he plows into Clark on the bridge and sends them both through the rail), changing both their lives forever.

Though there are too many wonderful things about Smallville to list for a super fan like me, the most powerful theme that always stood out to me was “fatherhood.” The ongoing parallel is Lex and Clark’s relationships with their fathers. Jonathan is an overbearing and stern dad, determined to make his son into a moral, decent human being. For this reason, he won’t take handouts from anyone and has a strong moralistic streak. The show pits him against Lex’s father Lionel, a ruthless, unscrupulous and cruel man who hates his son for an incident in their past. Again and again, we see Jonathan protect his wife and son. Many times, we see Lionel exploit and beat down Lex. Often, the camera lingers on a heart-wrenching shot of Lex watching Clark interact with his loving parents, traces of longing and grief on his face. The show seems to whisper, “If only.” If Lex had been a Kent, who might he have been? What if he had been born poor? Might he have found redemption? What if Clark hadn’t given up on him? It’s pretty deep stuff for a series that features its fair share of silliness.

I stumbled into this show without a clue. Literally. I was a Jane Austen loving teenager with no interest in sci-fi. Who wants to watch meteor freaks when I can indulge my passion for costume dramas? The bigger the hoop skirts, the better. Comic books were for nerds! I had loftier interests, like classic literature. How little I knew my life was about to change!

Back in those days, I had pen pals all over the country. One day, a friend gushed on and on about a new show she had discovered, Smallville. Her favorite character was Lex. “The bald guy?” I scoffed.

I got the first season from the library, popped it in with zero expectations, and… I could not stop. I binge-watched the first season in four days. It ended on a cliffhanger. A tornado tearing through Smallville, leaving Lex and his father unconscious and Lana sucked up into the screaming void? The hold list for season two was a mile long. Oh, hell no. I not only bought the first two seasons the next day, but pre-ordered season three. I watched the first two seasons several times, while waiting impatiently for the next one, so I could binge-watch it and start watching the show live with the rest of the world.

It was, and is, my favorite television series. I have watched it so many times I know the episodes by heart. I named my car Chloe. Became a “nerd.” Bought my first Superman t-shirt. Got all my friends hooked on it. Subscribed to the fan magazine. When my grandma died in a car crash, it was Smallville I turned to for comfort after the funeral. It felt like coming home to a safe place.

I’m not sure why this show grabbed me, because I was never a comic book girl. Marvel movies hold no interest for me. I haven’t bothered to watch The Flash, Arrow, or any of the other CW superhero shows. Batman only caught my attention because of the cast. But the creative dynamics behind this made me love it. A show where Clark Kent and Lex Luthor are best friends? How cool is that? Where we get to see Clark discover each of his super powers? Awesome! I hadn’t seen the Superman movies. Knew nothing about any of the characters. But Lex, Clark, and their troubles hooked me and held me for ten seasons.

Are some years better than others? Yes. Does the torturous and ill-fated Clark/Lana relationship go on for too long? Yes. Do they ever explain how she wore a kryptonite necklace for years without turning into a freak? No. Do they let my beloved Lex down in the end? Yes. Is Lois Lane worth the wait? Hell yes.

Smallville was groundbreaking television and the first of its kind. It’s easy to see why people loved it. A freak of the week formula plays out against over-reaching angst, all centered on a moral main character who does the right thing, even when it’s hard. Clark was the hero we need after 9/11, which happened shortly before its 2001 October 16 premiere. Having had our innocence torn apart by terrorists, we wanted to believe in the goodness of people, in friendship, in family, in a hero that would come to earth to save… us. That may be one reason I love it so much, because I see shades of Jesus in the Superman story.

But that’s not my only reason for loving it. It also has one of the best “villain origins” stories in the history of television. Lex doesn’t come in as a villain. That honor belongs to his father. He’s a young man without moral guidance left to fend for himself against a manipulative parent. His story is tragic. He’s trying to go against his lesser instincts and do good, but inevitably, winds up going down the wrong path. His friendship with Clark strengthens them both. Clark urges him to do the right thing and be a good person, even when it’s easier to lie. Lex tells Clark not to be such a doormat, and to go after what he wants from life.

While the show is its strongest in the first three seasons (including a gut-wrenching subplot about why Lionel Luthor hates his son), things explode like a firecracker in season four when Lois Lane arrives. Unlike Lana, she isn’t sweet. She doesn’t take prisoners. And Clark hates her with the passion of a thousand burning planets. It’s the start of a slow burn love story worthy of Superman. The bickering and sexual tension build until, in the basement of the Daily Planet, Lois gives Clark the kiss of a lifetime.

Smallville isn’t perfect by any means. It has its trials—lame villains, pathetic love triangles, too much of an obsession with Lana—and occasionally breaks free of being family friendly to flirt with sleaze, but it remains close to my heart. And always on my shelf.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Charity Bishop devotes her free time to eating chocolate, debating theology with her friends, researching the Tudors and writing novels about them, caring for her beloved cats, running a MBTI typing blog, writing books, blogging, and searching for spiritual truth in all aspects of life.

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