Monday, September 30, 2013

Writing Under the Influence: Smallville

Now, in my last few posts, I've only said positives things I've been taught from TV shows I love. And while it is true, mostly what I take from my favorite shows are the good things, you're bound to get some "don't-ever-do-that-ever-ever-ever" lessons mixed in there, too. No TV show is perfect.

For instance, in the TVD blog I could mention how Elena is one of the worst characters ever and I wish Katherine would kill her and Bonnie and their dual death would bring back Alaric because JULIE PLEC DO THIS PLEASE! But I digress.

Smallville, by and large, is one of my favorite shows that has graced my TV set. A watcher from the beginning, I grew up with those characters. I wept when Clark had hard times and got his heart broken, I cheered when Product-Placement Pete moved away and I only cried for a week when it was Jonathan Kent's time to leave us.

It's no secret. I love comic books and superheroes and all things geeky and nerdy. And while he's not at the top of my superhero food chain, Superman is so close that ten years worth of show dedicated to him had to make my list.

So here's are three things Smallville did absolutely right and how I apply them to writing and two things I will consider lessons learned and hopefully never go there.

The Good -
1) Embrace the quirks of your universe.
The entire time Smallville was on the air, its self-awareness was what made it work. They never had any doubt Clark was different and the characters on the show knew the things that happened shouldn't be happening - but hey, meteor! They knew - we're in Smallville, Kansas and this sh*t is bananas. And it worked so beautifully.
But more importantly, the writers and creators knew what they were up against. It was a reboot that had been told a million times. Comics, TV, movies. It had all been done. Some well, some terrible. Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, they shined it up and put a big ass tire on it. They brought Clark Kent to us from a completely new angle. A teenager getting his powers as he went and applying his superpowers to the same struggles every single one of us go through. 
From learning he's an alien as a parallel to learning you're adopted to his powers equated to the inner freak we all feel we are, Smallville hit the nail on the head. But on top of that brilliance, the jokes and lore of Superman weren't shied away from, they were embraced.
A myriad of guest stars and recurring characters played by actors from the history of Superman were used. Christopher Reeve, Annette O'Toole, Teri Hatcher, Dean Cain, Margot Kidder and the list goes on.
They make jokes about capes and unitards and Clark not looking good in red and blue.And when he runs for student council his platform is truth, justice...and other stuff.
But it goes beyond that even, John Scheinder played Jonathan Kent and also famously, Bo Duke. In one episode he's in his truck listening to the Dukes of Hazzard theme song. In another, Luke Duke (Tom Wopat) shows up as his buddy - in the General Lee! And wonder Woman is Chloe's mom.
It's inception for the entire Krypton/Smallville/Metropolis universe. But completely unique.

And it works because they know it, use it, embrace it and expand it.

How it applies:
No matter what story you're writing, it's been told before. Now don't get mad. It has. You know it, I know it, everyone knows it. So embrace the good things about the tale as old as time and then expand on it and make it your own. The story made have already been told, but no one is going to tell it like you.

2) Don't take yourself so seriously.
Don't be afraid to let your readers know you know that purple-alien-zombies from Planet WeLuvsWine have invaded and in all the galaxy,  one fourteen year old who can't win a chess match is the only hope is a crazytown scenario and you know it. It doesn't mean it won't work. It doesn't mean it can't be serious. It doesn't mean it can't be deep.
It means it makes your characters real.
In Smallville, when Clark finds out he's "not from around here" he asks his dad, "I suppose you hid my space ship in the attic?" Jonathan shrugs and says, "The storm cellar actually."
It's such a ludicrous thing to happen, that to not take it seriously was the only way to take it seriously.
Lex Luthor (the best one that's ever been, IMO) is so serious and we know he's going to turn bad. But in the many years it takes him to get that way, we can't help but see the good in him. That maybe if we believe in his over-the-top drama and hug the unfavorite only son, he might be good. The show lets us have that dream while shoving in our face what we know is inevitable in the cheekiest of ways.
And you know what? It's brilliant that way. We buy in to it because it's a fantasy. We're allowed to take the leaps of faith and crazy conclusions with the characters because we know we're in Smallville. We know everything here is "really? That happened?" and because we know it, we believe it.

How to apply it:
Buy doing just what those writers did. Turn it on its head and don't take yourself so seriously. Let your characters have moments of "So this is a thing that is happening" and your readers will follow them right along. 

3) Ground your stories in the people, not the fantastical.

There have been two superman movies comes out since Smallville hit the air and while both have had merit, neither have struck gold with the public. I have feelings about this, the biggest being Smallville did it right and until it fades in memory a bit, we don't need another origin story.

But how did Smallville get it right and the movies didn't? The movies relied on the audience doing the research into Superman's past and already being connected when we showed up, then tried to hold us there by explosions, loud noises, and big-box-office-budget-spandex.
But it should've been the other way around. in Smallville, Clark doesn't even suit up in his tights until season ten - in the SERIES finale.

You're so invested in the characters that when someone chews kryptonite laced gum and gets stretchy your first thought isn't "yeah, right", it's "But that power will go to Product-Placement Pete's head and he might do something to get himself killed!"
Every time a character makes an out-of -this-world choice or gets a power, you aren't pulled from the story, you're drawn in and wonder how it will affect the character you know and love.

How to apply it:
Let the audience know the character and see inside. Give away a little bit of the story. Even if we know where it's going, caring about the characters will pull us through the what and into the why and how did it get that way? Characters drive your story. Without it, it's just idle movement.

The Not-So-Good
1) How to turn a beloved love story and character into the equivalent of nails-on-a-chalkboard. See: Lana Lang.
I was a die-hard Clark and Lana fan. To the point where I didn't want them to bring Lois Lane on the show. I loved their sweet chemistry, their doomed love, their missed moments. And I admit, their last goodbye still makes me cry with each viewing.
But by the time it got to the end, I was so over her and her character's stupid whining and not understanding Clark and ugh, Lana just shut your face! I mean, the guy saved her eleventy-billion times and was always there for her and yet she never trusted him until she found out he was super. Well, not kidding you love him then!
Oh, everything snaps into place, but I won't say sorry about all those times I was crap to you and all the bad decisions I made. (Although, to be fair, two of those bad decisions were Ian Somerhalder and Jensen Ackles, so maybe girl has a point) I'll just love you know for the alien I always knew you were even when i said I didn't.
*eye roll*
She was such a fan favorite they couldn't just write her off the show, i guess. Bu they made every bad decision with her. Writing this now, maybe they did that to make way for Lois and to show she was better for Clark. Maybe it was actually so genius, i didn't even see it until this very moment. *strokes chin* So now I don't know what column this goes in,

How to apply it: Know when it's time to let go of a character. Over kill is not always, actually rarely, a good thing.

2)Stick to formula.
In season 9, Zod invades and Lex goes away. The good news is - make way for Tess Mercer! She's one of my favorite things about Smallville. But the Zod invasion with the Candorians. Of course, he wants to rule Earth and make it into a new Krypton and blah, blah, blah he's evil. Yeah. We know. The problem with this arc wasn't the arc itself, but that it forced the show to violate rule number one and two up there in serious ways.
It violated rule one by no longer embracing the already well-placed universe, but pulling every character ever onto Earth. Jor-El. Lara-El. Kara(Supergirl). And the crystals, the Fortress of Solitude,  Lex Luther, a new society, The Traveler, the Phantom Zone, time-travel to the future, The Legion, JLA. Separately, all these things are amazing and individually they had worked on the show. But in season 9, they all collided and weren't so much embraced as thrown into a blender and served up as disgusting soup.
It violated rule two by being so dark and deep it forgot to laugh. it took itself way too seriously. I know at this point, they were still deciding on a season 10, and thank god they did because they ended the series beautifully, and not just because Green Arrow was there the whole time either. But season 9 needed color and laughter. 

How to apply it: Pick a story line a run with it. Make a series if you need to, but don't over cram. It cuts out the awesome factor on so many levels. Also - make 'em laugh, or at least freaking smile.

So there you go. This was s long-winded one and I'm sorry-not-sorry. I could do a whole series on just this particular show. It holds a dear place in my heart for many reasons, and some are just weird, but if you haven't seen this one, go watch immediately. it's worth your time and effort. The first few episodes have extra-cheese as far as freak-of-the-week and special effects, but solider on. Truth, justice and the American way are just around the corner.

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