”No tights, no flights” is the much-repeated quote from the creators of Smallville, a retelling of the youthful Superman story that’s been given the full-court WB press: a chiseled star (super-cheekboned Tom Welling) who feels alienated in two senses (he’s from another planet, like the hero of Roswell, and he feels like ”a total loser” in his hick-town high school) yet who attracts a fabulous-looking girl (sparkly Kristin Kreuk as Lana Lang). Although he demonstrates superstrength and superspeed, Welling’s Clark Kent won’t don the famous cape and body-sock to do the it’s-a-bird-it’s-a-plane thing, either because it’s a worn-out gesture after all those Superman movies and TV shows, or because it’d superinflate the show’s budget.
In any case, Smallville’s Kent now takes his place beside the hero of another WB show, Angel, as a noncostumed, extra-powerful but appealingly humble slice of beefcake. (If this superhero parallel seems strained, let me point out that Angel – and Buffy the Vampire Slayer – creator Joss Whedon has said of David Boreanaz’s Angel, ”If I had to [make a comparison to] a superhero, Batman would probably get the nod.”)
Where Whedon built his fantasy world from scratch, the creator-producers behind Smallville, Alfred Gough and Miles Millar (Shanghai Noon), had to, if anything, considerably scale back their hero’s complex mythology. Over the years, DC Comics has told and retold the Superboy tale in a number of different ”origin stories,” and comic-book aficionados will have their quibbles about this new version. For the general viewer, though, Smallville is smart, tart, and tidy: Jonathan and Martha Kent (The Dukes of Hazzard’s John Schneider and Superman III’s Annette O’Toole) find a toddler in the rubble of a meteor shower; he grows into a strapping teen who flirts with cheerleader Lana while nursing guilt over the fact that the crash debris caused by his flight from planet Krypton killed her parents.
Smallville plays up adolescent loneliness and cruelty. In the premiere, that resulted in an eerie sight: Each year, we’re told, the high school football team, the Crows, chooses an unlucky freshman ”scarecrow” – a stripped figure with a Smallville ”S” painted on his chest, tied to a wooden cross. The imagery was multi-allusive: the ”S” like the one on Superman’s suit; the pose from the Crucifixion. But the scene – used in print ads to promote the show – also evoked the memory of Matthew Shepard, trussed up and left to die in Wyoming because he was gay. The episode even included a line questioning Clark’s sexuality; his straightness was quickly reaffirmed. (A previous ”scarecrow,” played by Adrian McMorran, became the pilot’s vengeful villain.)
That troubling echo aside, Smallville seems capable of becoming an intriguing mix of teen angst and bright adventure. By contrast, the new season of Angel is both Batman-dark and sly fun. What began as an awkward Buffy spin-off now has, under the guidance of exec producer David Greenwalt, its own tone, embodied by Boreanaz’s relaxed L.A.-hipster vampire-detective: He’s become the Dean Martin of bloodsuckers, and I mean that as a compliment.
Gone, mercifully, is last season’s awkward love interest, a vacuous cop played by Elisabeth Rohm, who’s now dragging things down on Law & Order. The show’s core team – Angel, sassy assistant Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter), Brit ”Watcher” Wesley (Alexis Denisof), and Gunn (J. August Richards), an African-American vigilante whose race is occasionally pivotal in some of the show’s best plots – has been joined by the frail Fred (Amy Acker), whom Angel rescued from another dimension and who’s still recovering from the breakdown resulting from her captivity.
Together, they solve crimes and each other’s problems, with moments of comic relief. The Oct. 15 episode, in which an old man switched bodies with Angel, gave Boreanaz the chance to play an evil Angel with lascivious wit. Angel remains a brooding hero, and the writers have also tapped into a Batman-like wryness, as well as a scary pleasure taken in pummeling bad guys. The WB used to do Buffy-Angel crossovers that are probably impossible now that Buffy’s gone over to the UPN dark side. May I suggest a Superboy-Angel team-up? After all, when Superman and Batman united in comic books, they called the series World’s Finest. That might describe the result on TV, too. Smallville Grade: B; Angel Grade: B+