TV Series and Hero
So, they say, Superman was once a teenager—and such a notion
generated one of the most important hit independent television series ever – TheWB’s
Smallville, with Tom Welling, who, at
24, played a precocious (supposedly 14 year old) high school freshman Clark
Kent, who starts the season off by rescuing Lex Luthor from drowning after a
car wreck in which Clark himself was struck and knocked off the bridge.
Well, not quite. The pilot starts with a bit of
foreshadowing with a child Lana and a loving couple Jonathan and Martha,
downtown in Smallville, KS,
which is made to look like Massachusetts street
in Lawrence. Soon the town is
bamboozled with the meteor shower. A ten year old Lex loses his hair (his evil
magnate papa Lionel finds him), but a two-year-old Clark finds Jonathan and
Martha and adopts them the way a cat adopts a family.
Clark is obviously articulate and
appealing, and soon shows his talents for outrunning schoolbusses. His main
goal is be normal and fit in and play football. And it is particularly because
he is not normal and because father-knows-best won’t take the risk of letting Clark
play football that he gets pilloried and crucified in effigy on a scarecrow. That
image will come back four years later when Clark is
really “killed” and resurrected as if he was to become the world’s Savior.
Much of the drama in the first four seasons has to do with Clark’s
secret – that he is an alien, sent here from Krypton, a planet some light years
away (he had to beat the speed of light barrier) that blew up when its
civilization self-destructed. Clark learns slowly that
he was sent to “conquer,” but except when he is on red kryptonite (the
equivalent of coke), he wants to be a great person. When on the red stuff he
does some pretty unacceptable things for a young person’s television program,
and I won’t bother to repeat them. He is allergic to green kryptonite, which
immobilizes him and could possibly kill him in a prolonged exposure. So the
show sets up its rules for plot development, a good paradigm for a series that
has enjoyed 111 episodes to date.
It is pretty transparent that the “secret” keeping parallels
one of today’s edgy political issues – “don’t ask don’t tell” with respect to
gays in the military. Here, the forbidden propensities come from being an alien
(so heterosexuality becomes dangerous), and the risk is that he could give in
to the temptation to conquer the world. He has, after all, the super strength
of urban legends and old wives tales. We don’t know what would happen if he
The series reaches Tchaikowskian drama at the end of season
2, when Jor-El starts to confront Clark with who he is. Martha gets pregnant
and would give only-child Clark a sibling, and that plot
line drops with her miscarriage. At the end of Season 2 Clark is on his
motorcycle headed toward “Metropolis” which is a code name for KCMO (Kansas
City), although most of the series is filmed in British
Columbia and Metropolis is usually Vancouver.
(KCMO has a number of curious buildings that would make a fascinating visual
backdrop, however; consider the transparent Kansas
City Star press on McGee street, as a symbol of LuthorCorp).
At this point, I have to mention the origin of this material
in DC Comics, however compelling some of the drama. The gee-whiz stuff has
taken over in the last three seasons, however, as it has in all of the films,
including Superman Returns.
The closest equivalent to Clark may
be Kyle XY, on ABC
Family, played by Matt Dallas. A gifted teenage boy with amnesia is found in
the woods and taken in by a couple of therapists. Kyle goes on a quest to find
out who he is, and ingratiates everyone with his integrity, his quick learning,
and he has strengths and powers somewhat like Clark’s, if less extreme. Is he
really a teenager, or a government experiment in creating a superman?
In the fall of 2003, UPN tried a similar theme with David
Greenwalt’s Jake 2.0. Here a young
technician Jake (played by Christopher Gorham) is “infected” by nanorobots in a
lab accident and has some super strength and powers. Jake is always way above
the line morally and he is very concerned about the proper use of power. In one
episode he rescues an irresponsible kid brother out of “loyalty to blood.” In
another he plays paintball to catch a bad guy. The series was cancelled
mysteriously in early 2004. When TheWB mergers with CBS to form CW, there could
be an opportunity to revive the show.
TheWB has other shows that invoke young likeable characters.
In Supernatural, Dean (Jensen Ackles, who also has appeared in Smallville) and
Sam (Jared Padalecki) search for their missing father and battle supernatural
forces. Dean is a hothead cop, but Sam, headed for law school, is the steady
young man, a lot like Clark at his best.
Like Kyle XY and Smallville, other sci-fi scenarios have
been set up to set up effective dramatic situations with appealing characters.
One of the most successful is USA/Viacom’s The 4400, about a collection of
people abducted into the future and brought back with various powers and gifts.
One teenage character, Shawn Farrell (Patrick Flueger), has the gift of healing
and soon finds himself running “The 4400 Center” while around them the
government mounts an undercover effort to destroy The 4400 as “enemies.” The
program has magical substances (promycin, analogous to kryptonite in Smallville) and raises the question of
what would happen to the offspring between The 4400 and “ordinary people” –
would they have powers?
These shows also hold up the geek as a hero. The O.C. on Fox has Seth (Adam Brody),
and Everwood (TheWB) has Ephram
(Gregory Smith), a piano prodigy who loses his opportunity to go to Julliard
when he feels pressured to prove himself “a man.”
Even Queer as Folk
(Showtime) has Justin Taylor (Randy Harrison), who, for the most part, plays
the role of the self-actualized young man, the perfect artist.