Smallville has been around so long that it's twice as old as the network that broadcasts it. In 2001, the show premiered on The WB, which collided with its less successful rival UPN in 2006 and morphed into the neverending pimple cream commercial we call The CW. Whatever its network calls itself, Smallville has always been about rethinking the Superman mythology in a way designed to appeal to an audience so youthful that it might look at the '90s Superman series, Lois & Clark—a show that was described by critics as "Moonlighting for kids"—as if it were Murder, She Wrote. A year before Smallville began, Bryan Singer's first X-Men movie hit theaters and cleaned up at the box office by introducing Hollywood to an idea that had already taken over comics, the young superhero as weirdo, alienated and suffering because he's "different." Smallville did its best to graft that metaphor onto the most outwardly normal and most well-adjusted superhero of them all, riding in on a striking ad campaign that subliminally connected the Man of Steel to the murder of Matthew Shepard: the show's Clark Kent, Tom Welling, stripped to the waist, bound, crucifixion style, in a cornfield.
I wouldn't be surprised if there are people who know that the series finale of Smallville marks the end of the show's 10th season but who didn't know the show was still on the air during its ninth season, or its eighth, or earlier than that. The show's original creators, Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, left after season seven, along with most of the remaining members of the original supporting cast. And if one wanted to be a dick about it—and really, when have I not?—it could be argued that Smallville outlived its own reason for existence as the characters got older and Clark Kent and his friends got past high school and started to get on with their adult lives. As it happens, both Welling and Erica Durance (who plays Lois Lane) have managed to take their characters to Metropolis and the beginning of their grown-up careers, and even to the brink of marriage, without ever suggesting that they were getting any more adult, which is right for the concept that the series is about Superman's life before he became Superman, but also kind of dismaying.
Welling has managed to play the same character for a full decade of his life, acquiring a producer's credit on the show in the process, while still seeming as cluelessly innocent as he was at the start. Does The CW grow these 30-ish teen pin-up goobers in a lab, possibly one outsourced to LuthorCorp? (Justin Hartley, who plays Clark's buddy Oliver Queen, a.k.a. Green Arrow, is even more of a generic slice of beefcake than Welling, which is fairly funny, considering that the character he's playing has made his biggest splashes in comics when he was depicted as heading into the far reaches of middle age, as in Mike Grell's The Longbow Hunters, or, in Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, as being halfway to turning into Gabby Hayes.)
For comics fans, Smallville can be endearing, because it's clearly the work of people with a sincere interest in the material and the mythology, trying to make their own version of it that's untouched by camp or irony. That's been evident, during this final season, in all the mopping up of loose ends and return appearances by long-gone characters and the episodes built around characters from the comics who must be personal favorites of somebody on the staff: Omigod! We have SO got to do a Booster Gold episode before it's too late! (And the show has also had a cunning knack for bringing in actors who have established ties to the fan-geek community from other projects, not just previous Superman actors such as Christopher Reeve, Annette O'Toole, Terence Stamp, and Margot Kidder, but people like James Marsters, who did a stint as Brainiac, and Battlestar Galactica's Michael Hogan, who turned up this season as a pre-Deathstroke Slade Wilson.) Unfortunately, when the guest hambones aren't at center stage, things keep shifting back to Clark, Clark and Lois, Clark and Oliver, trying to get their bearings and figure out their place in the world by talking, incessantly talking, and when these people talk, you suddenly remember why camp and irony were once so urgently needed.
Smallville's much-ballyhooed double-length finale turns out to be a sodden mess that mostly points up how off-balance the show became. Way too much of it was devoted to the romantic difficulties of poor Clark and Lois, which in every way represented a major comedown for a mythic character of whom it was once said—by Jules Feiffer, if memory serves—that the major problem he had from story to story was figuring out whom he needed to punch this time. While the soundtrack drizzled sad music that must have been sitting moldering in a vault since Dawson's Creek went off the air, Clark and Oliver exchanged meaningful insights on how love's a bitch. "Why is it that the biggest events are always the most painful?" "What if heroes aren't meant to love?"
You'd think that knowing her super-powered farm boy had thoughts like that taking up space in his head would be all the reason Lois would need to cancel the wedding and forget to tell Clark that she'd changed addresses and phone numbers, but instead, she was… conflicted. She still loved him, but she wasn't sure she had the right to have him. What if domestic bliss took the edge off the savior the world needed and deserved? Finally, the voice of Harlequin Romance reason, Chloe, steps in to break it down for Lois: "He needs to rest. To love. To laugh. And who he finally does decide to take to the altar, she's going to ground him." Soon we were at the altar, someone in the sound department had put on a Best of Lilith Fair CD, and there was vaseline on the camera lens, which kept dissolving from one face to the next, even though all the faces were so close together they could have just caught them all in one shot and been done with it. The problem with people who take comic books seriously without a hint of camp or irony is that when it's time to get down to talking about the important things, it turns out that their idea of fine dramatic writing is pure soap opera.
This shit wouldn't be as annoying if it weren't taking time away from better things. Any show that can provide a juicily over-the-top but basically plausible live-action characterization of Granny Goodness is one you want to at least keep a tracking bracelet on. Smallville always did have a Gothic horror-fantasy side that I bet some of the people working on would have loved to have gotten to do more with. This became perfectly summed up in Lex Luthor's father, Lionel (my man John Glover), trying to use his daughter, Tess, as an involuntary donor for a heart transplant to save the lifeless Lex. (Actually, Lionel was killed off a few seasons back. This was an alternate-universe refugee version of Lionel, who was actually trying to get his dead son back onto the show by giving life to his clone. Comic book plot devices do make it possible for the same actors to depart a show with great finality, only to return as often as contract negotiations will provide.)
Tess freed herself from his clutches with some Jackie Chan moves that made you wonder about how seriously Lionel was taking his villainy in his advancing years: When he decided to treat her to that long lecture about his aims and motives instead of just conking her in the head when he had the chance, did he know she could kick like that? In the end, Lionel got his son resurrected by selling out completely to Darkseid, represented as a smoking, cracked-faced stone monster with a voice supplied by the Satanic version of Auto-Tune. Not the least fascinating thing about their scene together was that it seemed to owe a bit to the visual style of Michael Mann's 1983 Nazis-versus-what-the-fuck horror movie The Keep, even though I'm the only person I've ever known who will admit to having seen that film, let alone pilfering from it.
In the end, all that matters is that Lionel did manage to get Lex up and running again, and Michael Rosenbaum's agent managed to get his client's head shaved in time for him to report to the set for his extended cameo. Without Rosenbaum's participation, there would have been little point to the finale and less than no chance of getting most people interested in it. When Smallville was still new, a friend of mine who had been watching it for a while explained to me that it was this strange but compelling show about a likable, tormented, misunderstood rich boy and the suffering he was forced to endure because of his attempts to forge a friendship with a super-powered doughnut hole. That's not too bad a description of what the show was like when it was most interesting, during the years that Rosenbaum was on, and how the imbalance of talent between him and Welling all but turned the show's premise upside down. Sadly, what with Clark having to synthesize the life lessons he's inherited from his two parents, earthly Pa Kent (played by the ghost of Bo Duke, or maybe Luke Duke, whichever one was the blond) and the mystical alien Jor-El (i.e., the voice of General Zod) in time to save the world, the writers were unable to integrate Lex into the main action as a player. He's just revived so that, as he explains to Clark in their one scene together, he's there to take his rightful place in the real action that will begin, as soon as this series ends, in the pages of your Superman comic of choice.
Even with nothing but a teaser of a scene, Rosenbaum's Lex shakes the show awake, sending the needle hurtling rudely into the red zone. His first line, in response to hearing Clark say his name, is a beauty: "You still say it the same way: astonishment, mixed with a hint of dread, yet with a hopeful lilt." Setting up what's to come, he tells Clark, "Our story hasn't been written yet, and every villain is only as great as his hero." It was around that point that I went from wondering if Rosenbaum's lines would sound as bad as everybody else's if someone else were saying them to just wishing I could see him play Richard III, even if the only way to get it financed would be for him to do it while dressed as Magneto.
Rosenbaum is supposedly sick of hearing his performance compared to Gene Hackman's Luthor in the movies, and that's understandable, considering they're not exactly playing the same character. Hackman's Luthor was a swindler clown, in entertaining contrast to the genuinely scary fascist thugs who came tumbling out of the Phantom Zone. John Shea's Luthor on Lois & Clark was the best thing about that show, but it was, at its core, the same character, given a sleek, glossy upgrade for the era of the CEO as celebrity white-collar criminal. And Kevin Spacey's Luthor in Superman Returns was just a mean bastard. Rosenbaum is the only actor who's given flesh to this take on Lex: the rueful, heartbroken genius who, determined to define himself in relation to the most extraordinary person he knows and finally realizing that he can't be either Clark's friend or his equal, settles for declaring himself as his nemesis. Rosenbaum's Lex remains one of the great TV series performances of the past 10 years and proof once again that talent will blossom in the least expected places.