When showrunners Al Gough and Miles Millar introduced “Smallville” in 2001, the WB made a point of insisting that the Superboy series would be devoid of certain traditional comic-book elements, most notably by adhering to the rule, “No tights, no flights.”
What a difference 15 years – and an explosion of Marvel properties – can make. Gough and Millar are back doing genre television, with two series premiering in relatively short order: “Into the Badlands,” a martial-arts drama set in a post-apocalyptic future and starring Daniel Wu, which arrives Nov. 15 on AMC; and “The Shannara Chronicles,” adapted from a series of fantasy books, which brings its Elf and human heroes – at war with a demon army – to MTV in January.
Obviously, a lot has changed in terms of TV’s appetite for superheroes since “Smallville” made its debut, with “Supergirl” donning tights and flying all over the place, and “The Flash” chasing down strong ratings for the CW. “The climate is more favorable toward genre television,” Gough says. “Obviously, the biggest show on television is ‘The Walking Dead.’ When we developed ‘Smallville’ in 2000, the Bryan Singer ‘X-Men’ film had just come out, and the last Superman series was ‘Lois & Clark.’”
Looking back, Millar says in regard to “Smallville,” “There was an incredible degree of nervousness about doing that series. It was met with skepticism by many people. … There was a lot of press beforehand, like, ‘What are they doing?’”
“It took us six seasons to get to a superhero team-up, and it feels like in some of these shows they would do that in episode six now,” Gough says.
Perhaps appropriately, even the series that the producers used as their guidepost, the one they hoped to emulate, is currently making a comeback. “The North Star for us, which was like the only genre show on TV that critics liked and audiences liked, was ‘The X-Files,’” Gough says. “They took something that in the past had been very silly and very campy and treated it very seriously.”
“Smallville’s” success doubtless contributed to today’s more hospitable environment, but the writers say the key has been what Marvel accomplished theatrically. Notably, they had something of a front-row seat for that as well, having worked on early drafts of “Iron Man” when the project was still at New Line, where they were rather notoriously asked, “Does he have to fly?” (They also worked on the screenplay for Sony’s “Spider-Man 2” in 2004.)
“The Marvel era was sort of exploding while ‘Smallville’ was on the air,” Gough says. “Once the comic-book film took off, with Marvel getting a toehold in that, people took it more seriously.”
“Marvel really redefined the cinematic landscape,” Millar adds. “That’s been the most significant force that changed everyone’s perception.”
Largely because of their history working on a superhero show, the writing/producing team was clear, as Millar puts it, that they “didn’t want to follow in our own footsteps. And it also feels like that is, dare I say it, oversaturated.”
Still, they have undertaken creating new worlds in both of their current series. AMC had wanted to do a martial-arts show, Gough says, “and they were all in from the pitch” for “Into the Badlands.” By contrast, despite coming from established source material (Terry Brooks’ books), “Shannara,” met with more resistance.
“Obviously, ‘Game of Thrones’ sort of kicked the door down for fantasy on television, but it’s still a big proposition. … The price tag was potentially scary,” Gough says.
Greater international financing, as well as a growing global appetite for such programming, has helped offset some of those concerns. While both shows present unique production issues, Millar notes that the level of action on “Badlands” – which requires operating a separate fight team to choreograph and mount those sequences, working concurrently with the principal unit – has represented a logistical “jigsaw puzzle” that has been “more challenging on every level.”
“People say, ‘Why aren’t there more martial-arts shows on TV?’” Gough says. “Because they’re actually damn hard to make.”