Although the marriage of the WB and UPN hasn’t yielded all the anticipated benefits, a few of the survivors continue to do yeoman work, perhaps none more so than the sixth season of the Superboy series “Smallville.” Deftly mixing elements of young-adult soap, family drama and comic-book fanboy action, the show has been adept at adding intriguing twists to the Superman mythology, including this week’s break-the-TV-piggy-bank episode assembling a youthful version of DC Comics’ Justice League, with facsimiles of Green Arrow, Aquaman, the Flash and Cyborg joining the young Man of Steel.
Beyond being a lot of fun, the episode comes as a welcome respite from the ongoing “Smallville Place” love triangle involving Clark Kent (Tom Welling), Lana Lang (Kristin Kreuk) and Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum), with Lana and Lex having hooked up after Clark and Lana couldn’t get it together, suggesting that all great feuds — in this case, Superman and arch-villain Luthor — can be traced back to a babe.
This season, meanwhile, has brought Oliver Queen, aka Green Arrow (Justin Hartley, done a good turn after starring in the passed-on “Aquaman” pilot), into “Smallville’s” quiver, wooing Lois Lane (the eminently woo-worthy Erica Durance) and jockeying with former prep school foe Luthor.
Luthor has grown increasingly evil (toward the dark side?), and in the latest twist has been experimenting upon those who have strange powers to build his own super-powered army. Queen, meanwhile, has quietly recruited fledgling heroes featured in past “Smallville” episodes, hoping to eliminate the threat. (In a clever moment, Lex provides his own strangely self-serving take on his plan to thwart those with superpowers, one that casts him — in his own mind, anyway — as a kind of populist hero.)
Despite the limitations of a TV budget, “Smallville” has always done a creditable job of bringing convincing production value to its hero- and villain-filled world — a standard put to the test by the presence of four sidekicks along with the show’s usual strange visitor from another planet.
The real skill, however, resides with the storytelling under exec producers Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, who, in essence, have spent the last six years working backward — filling in the gap in the first “Superman” movie between Clark racing through those Kansas cornfields and Superman’s John Williams-accompanied flight out of the Fortress of Solitude. Moreover, they have done so while, at times, boldly reimagining DC Comics lore, such as the notion that Superman’s Kryptonian father, Jor-El, wasn’t necessarily being a kindly benefactor when he shipped his only son to Earth.
At this point, “Smallville” has exhausted many of those strings, and the cast, led by Welling, is looking a bit too grown-up to extend the teen-into-young-adult pretense much longer. The producers themselves have joked that having the fictional principals be at least 18 mercifully unlocked some romantic possibilities starting in season five, under the heading “Everyone’s Legal.”
Nevertheless, the program has managed to deliver competitive numbers in its brutal Thursday timeslot, creating a corporate need for a sixth and maybe even seventh season. Unlike many shows in their later years, though, this ambitious Justice League episode underscores that “Smallville” isn’t mailing it in but rather still playfully toying with the “what ifs” of one of Warner Bros.’ most valuable franchises.
Put in that perspective, the series ranks as one of those rare TV commodities: A true unsung hero.