“Smallville,” depicting Superman as a teenage boy with teenage problems, attacks exactly the same audience as, and will air exactly opposite, the show it replaces on the WB, “Roswell,” which has landed on UPN. That means Tuesdays at 9 will be reminiscent of those Japanese monster flicks that pitted one supernatural being, Godzilla, against another such as Megalon or Gigan. Now our matchup involves battling extraterrestrial pretty boys, competing to see which heart-throb can melt the most teen girls in the audience with his sad and soulful eyes as he avoids being detected for the alien super-hero he really is. Place your bets now on which show will stay in this slot and which will be sent back to the scheduling office to recover from a potentially lethal blow. My money’s on “Roswell” staying put and “Smallville” flying to another night where it would have a shot at finding its full fan base.
The reason for giving odds to “Roswell” doesn’t have a lot to do with the overall quality of this newcomer. For what it is — one more semi-soap opera about beautiful teens with self-esteem troubles — “Smallville’s” well produced, and it certainly boasts some impressive special effects in its pilot episode. Ultimately, though, the familiarity of the story might work against the show. As with last season’s decent entry “The Fugitive,” people may feel they’ve already seen this before and know where it goes.
“Smallville” opens with an impressively rendered meteor-shower landing on the small Kansas town, flattening the corn fields and overturning the pickup trucks. Nine-year-old Lex Luthor has his red hair singed off permanently, 3-year-old Lana Lang becomes an orphan and childless Jonathan and Martha Kent find a toddler they name Clark and raise as their own.
Leaping ahead 12 years to the present day, Clark (Tom Welling) is a freshman in high school and has an unspoken crush on cheerleader Lana (Kristin Kreuk), who’s dating quarterback Whitney (Eric Johnson). The show is filled with these stereotypical American icons, although they’re presented fairly realistically and not exaggerated to extremes. The look of the series similarly opts for a believable bucolic idealism, rather than going the comic-book route.
In the pilot, Clark pines to play football, which his dad (“Dukes of Hazzard’s” John Schneider) doesn’t allow. Pop also doesn’t let his son keep the brand-new truck he’s given for saving ultra-wealthy (and very bald) Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum) when the latter accidentally runs his Porsche off a bridge in another solid action sequence. When Clark whimpers about being forced to be “a loser,” Dad tells him the truth about his origins.
In Alfred Gough and Miles Millar’s teleplay, Clark’s an outsider, no matter how beautiful, fast or powerful he is. He is, in that sense, every teenager who wants the prettiest girl in school but for one reason or another can’t have her. “Smallville” is a bit whiny in this regard. The pilot goes so far as to have Clark hung on a cross in the corn field — a cruel annual ritual that plays a big role in this first episode. You can’t find a stronger image of Superman as victim rather than hero, and this is the picture posted on billboards advertising the show. Pity the boy who can leap tall buildings in a single bound — he’s not popular! And, worse, he feels so very guilty that his arrival on a spaceship has caused such havoc to the good people of Kansas.
We’re used to these teen roles being cast with actors clearly older than their characters, but this case is particularly extreme — Tom Welling looks different from different angles, but in none of them does he look like an adolescent. It’s more of a problem here than usual because it blurs the age difference between him and one of his primary foils, Lex, who’s supposed to be seven or so years older than Clark but looks the same age.
Allison Mack and Sam Jones III play Clark’s buddies, while Annette O’Toole is a late replacement in the role of his mother, Martha.