A show about strange things happening to strange people in a strange place, on Wednesdays at 8 p.m.? That would be Lost, ABC's rookie phenomabout castaways stuck on Twilight Zone Island. But that would also be Smallville, the WB drama about the teen years of superherodom's commander-in-chief, Superman.
Until Lost came along, Smallville was arguably the best hour of geek TV in the post-X-Files! Buffy era, albeit by shameless imitation: Its mix of symbolism and supernaturalism is straight out of the Chris Carter-Joss Whedon playbook. While the series is perhaps best appreciated by those who can tell you who supervillain Mr. Mxyzptlk is (and not think I just fell on my keyboard), it has resonated with outsiders by developing a Big Theme through its two iconic characters, Clark Kent (Tom Welling) and childhood pal/adult archenemy Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum): Are we born good (or bad), or do circumstances shape us that way? But last season, Smallville became hobbled by a most unexpected creative kryptonite the Superman lore itself. Once, the famous mythology supercharged the show with dramatic ironies, none more so than the romance between Clark and Lana Lang (Kristin Kreuk). Their saccharine scenes puppy-dog eyes, gauzy photography, emo-band background music contained a bittersweet pathos, since we all know Superboy is destined to be with a certain investigative reporter at The Daily Planet. But those double meanings grew stale, as did an X-Filesish conspiracy story line something about weird caves with weird hieroglyphics that access weird dimensions. By tying itself into knots to create dramatic tension, Smallville had become emotionally trapped in its own Phantom Zone.
The good news about Smallville's fourth season is that a hero has come to save the day: none other than Lois Lane herself, played with great screwball energy by newcomer Erica Durance. In her very first scene, Lane discovers Clark buck naked in a cornfield (Smallville loves to dote on Welling's body, the pigs), her jaw dropping at his steely manliness giving this often gloomy series a jolt of levity and a door into adulthood. Better yet, the addition of Lois/Durance has loosened up Welling and Kreuk, whose mopey characters often denied these actors the chance to show range. In her new story line concerning a college boyfriend (Jensen Ackles) with secrets not yet revealed, Kreuk has dived deeper into Lana, an orphan forced to mature more quickly than she'd like. And in his sparring sessions with Durance, Welling has integrated into Clark some of the charisma and edge he gets to flash during the series' periodic episodes featuring red kryptonite, a substance that unleashes his inner rapscallion.
The arrival of actual character development has made Smallville's increasingly rote freak-of-the-week stories tolerable. (But I did like the ugly duckling who got an extreme makeover courtesy of kryptonite-spiked injections. Unfortunate side effect: a psychic STD that passes on her damaged self-esteem when she swaps spit. Obviously someone at Smallville wants to write for Nip/Tuck.) Moreover, the show's essential nature/nurture question has been reinvigorated. For three years, it has been established that Lex's future villainy is due largely to the toxic influence of his dad (John Glover), whose idea of tough love is trying to murder his son (or so Lex thinks). With Lex talking ominously of a creeping darkness, Smallville seems poised to finally seal the deal on his Darth Vader progression.
More promising is the change in Clark. Smallville posits that Superman might have become a weapon of mass destruction if not for his adoptive parents (John Schneider and Annette O'Toole) and their Rockwellian values, like ''Thou Shalt Not Use Your Powers to Cheat at Football.'' (Smallville: Sly comment about coming of age in a war culture? Discuss.) The show's wisest choice has been to explore this notion not with a convoluted conspiracy plot but with those two pillars of teenage-boy life: sex (Clark's virginity is in jeopardy, thanks to a teleporting girlfriend played by Sarah Carter) and sports. One of the series' finest moments comes when Clark saves friend Chloe (Allison Mack) from a baddie while simultaneously throwing the winning touch down during the state championships. And no, Pa, he doesn't cheat. At long last, Superboy seems ready to become a Man of Steel. B