Big ifs for WB's
very cool 'Smallville'
A dark young Superman and a giant-killer timeslot
By Elizabeth White
Last Tuesday the new Superman drama "Smallville" had the biggest debut in the history of the WB. And unless those 8.4 million people weren’t paying attention, a lot of them should return this week as well.
Simply put, "Smallville" is a solid teen drama made more interesting and more widely appealing with a young Superman as its central character.
Tellingly the premiere also earned the WB its highest men 18-49 rating ever, with a 3.9, and its third-highest adult 18-49 rating, with a 3.8.
The series begins in Clark Kent’s (Tom Welling) freshman year of high school, after he’s discovered some of his powers, though not the ability to fly. Unlike later Superman stories, in which Clark pretends to be a geek to hide his true identity, Clark really is a geek in "Smallville," and he can't join the football team or anything else that would make him cool because it might reveal his powers.
Instead, he suffers through high school with two equally nerdy friends and an unrequited crush on Lana Lang (Kristin Kreuk), who happens to wear a kryptonite necklace.
The fact that the audience knows that Clark will one day be adored by millions as Superman makes his insecure and awkward teenage years all the more compelling.
The same holds true for Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum), at this stage of his life a lonely, spoiled rich kid who nonetheless shows shades of his future self as master criminal. His is a deftly drawn character, and his transformation into Superman’s archenemy would be reason enough to watch the show.
But for everything that "Smallville" has going for it, it also has a lot going against it, which could make Tuesday’s numbers the highest that the series will ever see.
First and foremost, its time slot of Tuesday at 9 p.m. is perhaps the toughest in television, with all six networks running potential hit series.
"Smallville" competes with one of the most successful rookies this season, CBS’s "The Guardian," one of the most successful characters on TV, Frasier Crane of NBC’s "Frasier," ABC’s flagship drama "NYPD Blue," and that other teen alien drama, the WB castoff "Roswell," on UPN. Fox’s "24," which has been earning praise as one of the best new shows of the season, will also debut in the slot on Nov. 6.
Viewers have so many choices for the hour that it will be tough for any show to break out as a hit from that time slot.
Further hurting "Smallville’s" chances are that the show is both younger-skewing and darker in tone than expected.
The show focuses on high school life to a degree that’s unusual even for the WB. For all of the network’s teeny-bopper reputation, very few of its current shows are set in high school and with scarcely any adult characters. The change is particularly jarring after "Smallville’s" lead-in "Gilmore Girls," which is almost exclusively about parent-child relationships.
Also because of this high school focus, "Smallville" is darker in tone than many of its Superman predecessors.
Teenage Clark doesn’t have the sense of noble purpose that Superman does, and his character is full of potentially destructive angst. It makes for good drama, but viewers looking for the light comedy of "Lois and Clark" will undoubtedly be disappointed.
"Smallville" has all the right elements to be a huge hit for the WB, but it has to survive its time period and the viewer’s expectations of what Superman should be in order to get there.
October 22, 2001 © 2001 Media Life
-Elizabeth White is a staff writer for Media Life.