Teen drama is one of the most under-appreciated genres in television and film. But when Hollywood gets it right -- as in Beverly Hills, 90210 or Buffy, the Vampire Slayer -- the series light up our popular culture, exploding beyond the screen into magazines, fashion, lifestyle and the fantasy lives of millions of adolescent Americans.
Smallville, a new series from WB chronicling Superman's teen years in the farming community of Smallville, Kansas, is an example of television getting it right. The themes -- teen angst, coming-of-age, puberty, loneliness, intimacy, connection and lack of connection to parents -- are skillfully woven into an engaging story line that reinterprets the 63-year-old mythology of Superman for a new generation.
Let me get the cynical-adult-TV-critic wisecracks out of the way quickly by mock-marveling at the incredible good looks of the teen Superman (Tom Welling) and his object of desire, Lana Lang (Kristin Kreuk). Is anyone except the comic relief or villain not incredibly good-looking on WB?
And isn't it just a fabulous coincidence that young Clark Kent and Lana aren't living with their biological parents at the very time they are searching so fiercely for intimacy and a sense of identity? What's more, Lana lives just one farmhouse down the road from Clark, and he can go out to the barn at night under all those stars on that great American prairie and zoom in on her front porch with his telescope.
But so what? These are weasel-whining-fact-quibbles about a drama that tries to speak straight to the teen psyche in the language of myth.
Like so many things in our culture since Sept. 11, I suspect the opening of the pilot will have an extra emotional resonance for many young viewers. The year is 1989, and Smallville, the self-proclaimed Creamed Corn Capital of the World, is enjoying an all-American, heartland, high-school homecoming weekend when a Kryptonite meteor shower of Biblical proportions starts raining down fireballs.
By television standards, the special effects seem impressive, as buildings on Main Street explode, and residents are vaporized just seconds after waving at passing floats in a parade. But, maybe it's not the special effects that resonate as much as the real-life images from last month's terrorist attacks still rattling around in our heads.
Either way, this is the cataclysm that brings Clark Kent to Earth as a toddler. A childless couple (John Schneider and Annette O'Toole) take the boy in after they find him wandering in a cornfield where a small rocket ship crashed among the meteors.
Flash forward to the present. Clark is a handsome but insecure and occasionally awkward high school student, whose life is further complicated by the emergence of super powers that frighten and thrill him. He's especially awkward when he gets near homecoming queen Lana, who wears a Kryptonite pendant around her neck to remember the events of 1989 that claimed the lives of her parents.
Not that anyone in Smallville ever will forget. The town of 25,001 now calls itself the Meteor Capital of the World, and in the past 12 years, there have been all sorts of strange mutations and whispered-about events in the seemingly placid community.
Clark feels responsible, and believes he must do what he can to keep the forces unleashed that day from destroying his new home. Think of him as a teen-age Fox Mulder working his own X-Files.
There is a major downside to Smallville -- the acting is pretty bad. The best performance in the pilot comes from Michael Rosenbaum as the young Lex Luthor. Rosenbaum is most widely known for his work on the failed WB sitcom, Zoe, Duncan, Jack and Jane, so we're not talking about Dennis Franz or even Denis Leary. If you're over 21, you probably won't be impressed by any of the lead performances.
But when was teen drama ever about acting? You think they're studying the early work of Jennie Garth or Luke Perry at the Actors Studio?
Smallville fries bigger fish in tonight's pilot. In an hour's time, an imaginary place is conjured, and a venerable popular narrative finds a new way to try to speak to the inner life of American teens.
The series premieres at 9 tonight on WNUV (Channel 54).