It’s “sweeps season” again for the television networks, the time when the creative minds will do anything that strikes them as fresh and new to get ratings up–which means they’ll try the same tired old tricks they’ve been trying for years, just with new characters. Friends and Ed both have weddings happening. Special editions of reality shows are multiplying like rabbits. The WB’s Everwood has already trotted out the old teenager-loses-virginity story. And on Smallvillle, also on the WB, the 42-year-old father of the main character faces a potentially fatal illness.
If that last one sounds a little odd, it should. Since when do fathers get to do anything important on TV–especially during sweeps? TV dads generally function as punchlines, and that’s just on the major networks. On the relentlessly teen-oriented WB, fathers go to jail for selling drugs (Dawson’s Creek), experiment with open marriages (ditto), ignore their offspring (One Tree Hill), or disappear altogether (too many to mention). On most of these shows, a father’s illness might inspire his kids to throw a party.
But even on the WB, we occasionally see what a colleague calls a “flower in the wasteland.”
In some ways, Smallville, which follows the adventures of Clark Kent (Tom Welling) in his pre-Superman days, is just what you’d expect from a teen drama. Clark and his friends are played by gorgeous young adults who haven’t been near a high school in years. None of them appears to have more than five minutes of homework on any given night, leaving them free to pursue such typical afterschool activities as investigative reporting and running a coffeeshop.
And of course, there’s angst aplenty as the teen alien protects his secret and fights various kryptonite-empowered villains. The glowing green substance has been used for so many purposes, from youth elixir to tattoo ink to special bullets, it has been dubbed “the hemp of Smallville.” Clark also has to deal with a prematurely bald buddy named Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum) who shows a little too much interest in Clark’s strange abilities. As you’d expect, the show has a strong following among comic-book groupies, who enjoy the inside jokes.
But what pulls in viewers like me, for whom the average comic book holds as much appeal as a technical manual written in Korean, is the unusual element at the heart of the show: Clark’s close relationship with his adoptive parents (the Dukes of Hazzard’s John Schneider and Annette O’Toole). What sets Smallville apart is its creators’ novel idea that a hero as noble as Superman must have had a really great mom and dad.
Consequently, Jonathan and Martha Kent are portrayed as strict but loving, the kind of parents a kid can talk to about anything–even the fact that he sometimes flies in his sleep. And they have certain old-fashioned ideas about character that they share with Clark every chance they get, whether or not he’s in the mood. As University of Georgia film professor Alex Wainer has pointed out, Clark’s parents appear to bear in mind the old axiom about absolute power corrupting absolutely, and they realize that their extremely powerful son needs sound moral training in order to avoid that fate. Wainer continues, “Though Clark’s mother Martha . . . is a strong, nurturing presence, it is Jonathan Kent who stands out as the greater influence on his son…. Clark’s sense of responsibility, instilled by his father, is what keeps this young superhero’s feet on the ground.”
To drive the point home, we also see young Lex Luthor fighting the influence of a seriously twisted father (the deliciously diabolical John Glover). Under the guise of teaching Lex to get ahead in a harsh world, Lionel Luthor lets hardly an episode go by without finding some new way to deceive or control his son. In his desperate efforts to beat Lionel at his own game, Lex–who started as a likeable if somewhat shady young man–is gradually becoming as ruthless and selfish as the father he loathes.
If Smallville’s creators had merely conveyed that a father powerfully influences his child for good or for evil, that would have been praiseworthy enough. But last season, they threw in a twist that took that message a step further. Good parental teaching is all very well, but here it’s the response of a father whose child has completely blown it that sets an unforgettable example of forgiveness and self-sacrifice.
In the second season finale, Clark attempted for about the 900th time to use his powers to protect his family and friends, but this time he caused an accident in which his mother was hurt and her unborn child killed. Horrified and ashamed, mild-mannered Clark Kent ran away and tried to cut all ties by beginning the kind of life more suited to an archvillain.
To recover his prodigal son, Clark’s dad went to a mysterious contact and arranged to become temporarily strong enough to overpower the out-of-control teen. Don’t ask me to explain just how this worked–as I mentioned, the comic-book aspects of the show are Greek to me. But the important point is that, before he could be charged with the necessary powers, Jonathan had to promise that he was “willing to sacrifice anything.” Without hesitation, he did so, thus allowing viewers to enjoy a no-holds-barred, superpowered brawl that finished up with a tearful family reconciliation.
But as entertaining as all these fireworks were, they left us in the dark about what exactly had been sacrificed. And we were left there for quite some time. After all, there were plenty of other exciting plotlines to engage our attention this season–such as Lex’s starting a murder investigation of his father, who promptly had Lex drugged, clapped him into a mental institution, and ordered up a massive dose of electroshock therapy. In the midst of all that excitement, Jonathan’s little bit of unfinished business was left unfinished for so long that many fans probably forgot about it. Until the Wednesday right before the beginning of sweeps, when our young superhero walked into the family barn and found his father on the floor having a heart attack.
Whether Clark will realize what caused his dad’s collapse is still an open question (although hearing Jonathan gasp, “Not now–not yet” may have clued him in that this wasn’t coming completely out of the blue). My guess is that he will, and that the revelation will teach him the most important lesson he will ever learn–a lesson about the qualities that truly make someone a hero.
John Schneider put it well in an interview: “It’s important for viewers to see that someone can love a person that ferociously, and be willing to pay that kind of price.” It’s especially important, he might have added, to see that kind of love coming from a father. Because, sad to say, it’s not just in pop culture that fathers act like jerks. Those of us who have been blessed with great dads in real life are increasingly realizing just how rare our experience is. As we listen to the cultural authorities drone endlessly on about how dads aren’t necessary, while simultaneously watching our friends suffer the consequences of paternal selfishness, carelessness, and neglect, we sometimes wonder what we ever did to deserve our incredible good fortune. Instead of something one expects as a matter of course, a good dad has almost become as unusual a sight as–well, a good show on the WB.
–Gina R. Dalfonzo is a writer for BreakPoint and a graduate student at George Mason University.