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What ‘Supergirl’ Can Learn From ‘Smallville’

How to win with cheesy scripts, love triangles, and underdeveloped superpowers

CW/Ringer illustration
CW/Ringer illustration

There’s a scene in the current season of the CW show Supergirl in which Lena, the sister of the incarcerated Lex Luthor, detonates explosives at LuthorCorp HQ. The building comes tumbling down — that is, until Supergirl and Superman fly up to hold the nearly toppled structure in place. Supergirl then leaves Superman alone to support the building as she reconfigures the crippled support beams, fusing them together with lasers that shoot from her eyes. The building doesn’t fall. The day is saved. I clapped.

Just kidding; actually, I laughed. If you like your superheroes to be dark and relatively realistic like Jessica Jones or Daredevil, then you might want to sit this one out. Go back to Marvel on Netflix where you belong! If, however, you appreciate when a series takes the escapist nature of superhero TV drama to ludicrous extremes, then I cannot recommend Supergirl any more highly. It is the silliest TV superhero franchise of the decade, and it’s the best thing to happen to American television since Smallville.

The true gift of the superhero dominance of pop culture is the genre’s great variety of styles and tones. On the CW alone, the “Arrowverse” of DC Comics shows — including Arrow, The Flash, and Legends of Tomorrow — range from “funnier, lighter, bluer-sky” (The Flash) to brooding, post-Nolan serialization (Arrow). I’d describe the CW’s latest franchise, Supergirl, as “a charming workplace rom-com with good fight choreography and bad CG.” This is my jam.

The CW’s run of DC Comics superhero dramas started in 2001 with Smallville, which starred Tom Welling as Clark Kent in a series that ran for 10 seasons on the network, then known as the WB. Like Supergirl, Smallville was a frivolous show. In its first season, the teenaged Clark Kent isn’t yet known as Superman, nor has he learned to fly. He and his friends Pete, Chloe, and Lana are all Smallville High School students who play ball, gossip, flirt, and solve local mysteries involving kryptonite and LuthorCorp.

Supergirl debuted on CBS last year and then moved to the CW — where the series always belonged, really — for its second, current season. With its sappy characterizations and melodramatic villains, the show — starring Melissa Benoist as Supergirl and her bookish alter ego, Kara Danvers — picks up where Smallville left off spiritually.

Helpfully, Smallville left us with the following lessons on how to build a great TV drama around a beloved young superhero.

Don’t Overthink the Script. Don’t Think About It At All, Actually.

First, I admit: Smallville is a very poorly written TV show. I love it, but it’s terrible. In the seventh season, there’s a whole episode sponsored by Stride — featuring music from OneRepublic — in which the returning character Pete Ross gets super-stretch powers from chewing gum laced with kryptonite. That’s the magic this show was working with: product placement as a resurrection subplot. And you know what? That’s exactly why I watched 150 hours of Smallville in the course of a decade. The zany episode plots, the plug-and-play romantic combos, and the artless and hormonal speechifying weren’t just unlikely elements of the show’s charm; they were provocations so shoddy and lame in execution that each week of Smallville’s original run I would be legitimately excited to see what preposterous disagreements these moody knuckleheads would come to next. It’s how I imagine hate-reading a botched hot take works, on some deep and underexamined psychological level.

In any case, Smallville’s prominent teen-drama elements are what sharply distinguished the show from contemporary superhero franchises such as X-Men and Iron Man. Those are more conventionally heroic and massively adventurous, while Smallville was just a bunch of oversexed kids apologizing for their friendship-killing outbursts and varying levels of emotional unavailability. Jessica Jones comes close, but no one does ruinous romantic dynamics better than Lana and Lex.

CW
CW

Supergirl, too, is much better at achieving trashy teen-drama status than it is at establishing Supergirl as a formidable player within the broader DC multiverse. In the premiere of its second season, media mogul Cat Grant, played by Calista Flockhart, encourages her lowly assistant Kara to accept a reporting gig at the newspaper. Grant makes her case with a heart-to-heart speech that hangs on an excruciatingly extended swimming metaphor. “Dive,” Cat tells Kara. “You are standing there looking out at your options — the icy blue water, the fast-flowing river, and the choppy sea — and they all look very appealing to you because you’re dying to go for a swim. But you know that water is going to be cold.” I like to think of Cat Grant’s “cold water” speech as the scriptwriting inverse of Wilson Fisk’s “Samaritan” speech from the first season of Daredevil. Thankfully, I have room in my heart for both.

Don’t Stop at Love Triangles. Build a Love Rectangle — or a Love Pentagon, If Possible.

Every Smallville character was hot. Lex Luthor was hot. Lex Luthor’s father, Lionel, was hot. Martha and Jonathan Kent were hot. Everyone! Despite the superhero origin story pretensions, Smallville was basically a coming-of-age teen drama in the spirit of One Tree Hill, and the series was at its best when its misguided heartthrobs were tripping over one another to fall in love with exactly the wrong person at the wrong time. I think Clark dated Lex at one point. If you’re looking for a Spider-Man, Batman, or Iron Man–type situation in which the cinematic love subplot is singular and straightforward, Smallville was not for you.

Supergirl is off to a strong start in this regard. As of Episode 2 of Season 2, we’ve already got a love triangle: The dweeby CatCo gopher Winn Schott has an unrequited crush on Kara, who likes Jimmy Olsen, who likes Kara back, until Kara decides maybe she and Jimmy should just be friends for now. And then Jimmy becomes Kara’s boss once Cat takes an indefinite “leave of absence.” While Flockhart’s recent demotion to recurring-guest-star status has significantly lowered the odds that Cat and Kara will end up in love, I personally think that that’s the hypothetical marriage to beat here.

Start Your Hero Off With a Wack, Undeveloped Superpower

One of Smallville’s most profoundly irritating qualities was Clark Kent’s refusal to fly. This was due to the contentious “no tights, no flights” policy that Smallville producers honored until the series finale. Young Clark Kent sprinted at supersonic speeds, the blurry CGI rendering of which made him look like an express-shipping mascot for UPS commercials. I say it was frustrating because who wouldn’t expect Superman to act like Superman in a TV series about Superman. Instead, Smallville teased. This was thrilling in the ultimately ungratified sense that you watched each episode with the hope that maybe this was it, maybe this would be the episode where Clark, having imperiled one of his friends in some extremely hopeless and unprecedented manner, would just fucking fly already. For viewers, there was great tension in watching a teenaged Clark Kent explore the variety and extent of his soon to be world-renowned powers under the cover of youth and rural obscurity for 10 years — a full adolescence. Some would argue that Smallville was the Boyhood of TV dramas about famous American superheroes.

Unfortunately, Supergirl doesn’t get such a careful and patient introduction. Her origin story is a hurried voiceover spiel that recaps her Kryptonian lineage and relation to her cousin Superman at the top of each episode.

CW
CW

I know that the countless, redundant Batman and Spider-Man movies have soured critics on origin story arcs, but I dunno: I think the only good episode of Luke Cage is the one with all the prison flashbacks, which do more to humanize Luke than any of the otherwise countless scenes of him walking around and absorbing bullets like a charmless robot tank. Origin stories are good! Especially in service of characters who, like Supergirl, aren’t already massively overexposed in popular culture. (Sorry, Clark.)

Supergirl is two seasons deep, so I suppose it’s too late to rethink the show’s premise and timeline, but I will suggest that Kara would benefit from a few key shortcomings apart from her workplace shyness. What if Kara could fly but like, occasionally she short-circuits and just falls out of the sky? Would spice things up, if you ask me.

Overact Like You Mean It

The two best Smallville characters were Chloe Sullivan, played by Allison Mack, a nosy and innovative friend who inserted herself in everyone’s clandestine business; and Lex Luthor, played by Michael Rosenbaum, a business-casual goth who drove himself mad vying for the validation of his vicious father, Lionel, as well as the affection of Lana. Chloe and Lex: two very different characters, both great because they executed their respective soap archetypes with extreme conviction. Here’s a clip of Lex Luthor spazzing at the series producers from within the show itself. “This is Smallville!!!!!!”

In Supergirl, the only character who has so far achieved similar distinction as a standout performer is the witty and withering Cat Grant, who just left the series last week! Supergirl is just getting started, though. Truth be told, Welling always was a bland and clueless Clark Kent. Benoist, on the other hand, has run away with her Supergirl role just on the strength of her amazing facial expressions. And her lovesick beta admirer, Winn, is shaping up to be an extremely corny and adorable comic-relief slash mid-series boyfriend option, at least until Kara indefinitely swears off relationships in order to protect the people she loves from the many explosive special effects in her life. Honestly, she is so brave.