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Arrow: The Legacy of Smallville

Ah, the cruel mistress that is The CW. On the one hand, they can skew heavily toward the tween soap opera both in content and quality. On the other, they have a history of doing more Sci-Fi and fantasy themed programming than most other networks combined. It’s also one of the only places on television a DC fan can hope to see their favorite characters in the flesh.

Way back in 2001, The CW (then WB) premiered a little show called Smallville. After a decade on the air, the show’s “Superman in high school… and, er, Metropolis but not as Superman” premise helped pave the way for new super-shows, like the soon-to-air Arrow. Despite some spotty quality-control issues, Smallville remained one of the top shows on the network during its run. With ten successful seasons, there’s plenty for a young superhero show like Arrow to learn from its rarely-caped predecessor, both good and bad.

Do I have to say spoilers for a show that’s been off the air for over a year? Well, SPOILERS!

What Smallville did right:

Arrow CW

Incorporating the DCU:
Whether in the introduction of A-list characters or simple winks, Smallville managed to bring a lot of DC characters into the live action realm for the first time. Arrow shows signs of taking a page from that comic book. We already know Deathstroke will be making an appearance (ok, yes, he was on Smallville too, but only kinda), as will China White, and casting info for Huntress has been announced (I’m just putting this out there, you’ve got the makings of a great rebooted Birds of Prey spinoff there!). They’re off to a good start; with Oliver Queen’s position and resources, the opportunity to introduce others is practically endless.

Don’t overplay your hand:
One of the most frustrating things about being a fan of Smallville was waiting for Clark to turn into Superman. We saw a lot of his powers early on, but there were a few things that kept getting teased and teased but never quite happening (learning to fly, getting the suit, etc). Even his relationship with Lois was platonic-bordering-on-adversarial for seasons before any legitimate romantic interest was worked into the mix. Ultimately, though, slow and steady won the race.

Arrow has a good setup in Laurel (aka Dinah) Lance. In the comics, Dinah’s Black Canary is the kickass Juliet to Oliver’s badboy Romeo. She’s got a great back-story and a frequently tumultuous but always interesting relationship with Oliver. There’s plenty of material to keep fans in anticipation.

On the other hand, the show hasn’t even premiered and they’ve already teased Deathstroke, Huntress, a possible future Speedy and a couple of brilliant geek-casting moves with an unnamed John Barrowman role and a vague but tantalizing nod for Battlestar Galactica’s Helo, Karl Agathon. Done wrong, Arrow’s first season could very well turn into a cameo-athon. Patience is a virtue.

Don’t over-complicate the costumes:
This is one of the issues any live action interpretation of a superhero comic runs into. The simple fact is, there are things that work in a drawn medium that just don’t when you stick them on a person. While many of us fans were tearing our hair out waiting for Clark to finally finally finally put the S on his chest in Smallville, not giving us all that blue spandex (until that tiny blip at the very end) was probably one of the smartest plays the show ever made. Even the characters who showed up with real ‘costumes’ generally had more subdued versions, or thematic reimaginings, of their comic looks – one of the rare times when a smaller budget probably did them a favor, considering the disaster when they tried to do a full-on Hawkman costume.

From the trailers and promo images, it looks like Arrow’s done a pretty decent job of that so far – it helps that, up to now, he’s the only one on the show who we’ve seen actually wear a hero costume – so we’ll just have to keep our fingers crossed that as more crimefighters enter the world, they’ll keep up that trend.

Don’t get stuck on canon:
Two words – Lionel. Luthor. Regardless of how you feel about characters like Chloe and Tess (who was secretly Mercy and you cannot convince me otherwise), all of Smallville’s original characters are validated by the existence of the awesomeness that was Lionel Luthor. Likewise, Smallville did a lot of canon rejiggering to get the characters and circumstances they wanted to fall into order (for example, Clark faced Zod not once, but twice in the show’s canon, long before he ever put on the cape). Arrow already seems to be laying the groundwork for this by complicating Oliver’s family dynamics and playing with Dinah-sorry, Laurel’s back-story. Time will tell if those changes will work out.

The seasons where Smallville struggled most creatively were the middle few where they kept trying to find an excuse to keep the show grounded in, well, Smallville. They did so despite the fact that practically everyone in town had been a kryptonite-irradiated monster of the week at some point and the entire “high school” cast was almost 30. Lana started dating a teacher and got possessed by the soul of a witch and then married Lex because they were having a baby only not really and… it was bad, ok?

But then Smallville did a very smart thing, they ignored their title and actually let Clark start doing some real heroing in Metropolis. There was still some seriously zany stuff going on in the later seasons (remember that The Hangover rip-off episode?), but opening up the world gave the show a lot more room to breathe. That’s something a show like Arrow – which runs the risk of getting bogged down in all-Starling City/Queen Industries/Laurel romance-all-the-time – definitely needs to keep in mind.

Mistakes to learn from:

Deathstroke MaskBe careful with canon:
Deadshot’s Smallville appearance was the Deadshot readers knew in name only, a waste of an otherwise great character. Same deal with Mr. Mxyzptlk (an exchange student? Really?). Or when Jimmy Olsen died and we found out at the funeral that he had a little brother who was also, apparently, named Jimmy and was destined to be the ‘real’ Jimmy Olsen (because that’s a thing that makes sense). Oh, and remember those couple of episodes where Clark fell in love, got married, was widowed, and then we never mentioned that girl again? Yeah, you don’t have to be bound by canon, but don’t shoot yourself in the foot with it either. Remember, Arrow, you’re supposed to have great aim.

Smallville actually did a decent job between giving Clark an African American best friend in the early seasons and by giving Lana Lang a hint of Asian heritage. Unfortunately, as the seasons wore on, Clark’s crew started to look a lot more like the cast of a Land’s End catalogue. The advantage that Arrow has is that its cast of characters aren’t as rigidly defined. Even people who know nothing about comics know Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen, but Oliver Queen’s world is more of a blank slate. This leaves a lot more room to play around with things like race, orientation, even disability (Nope, I’m not leaving the Oracle thing alone, I want a Birds of Prey series!)

Ladies who don’t want to bone the hero:
This one’s a pet peeve of mine. On a list of ‘significant ladies of Smallville who had no apparent interest in getting on Clark Kent’s junk at any point’ there was Clark’s mom, his cousin Kara, and maybe Tess (I think. Tess’ perpetual bedroom voice and tendency to talk in code sometimes made it kind of hard to tell when she was hitting on people). At a stretch you could include Stargirl and Waller. Other than that, every other vagina Clark was in proximity to for an extended period of time started to pay attention. It’s possible this was an unexplored Kryptonian power.

Oliver, unlike boy-next-door Clark, is a known ladies man. So far, the announced cast for Arrow includes a version of Dinah Lance, the woman Green Arrow eventually marries; Huntress, a well known patron of the amorous arts; his mom and sister; and John Barrowman, who I have to keep reminding myself is not necessarily playing a bisexual just because he was Captain Jack – even though I’d totally watch that.

There’s nothing wrong with playing up the romance angle. Having seen the Stephen Amell shirtless more often than I’ve seen him clothed by now, I can’t blame anybody for wanting to break off a piece of that. It would be nice, however, to have a non-relative gal or two around who’s presence didn’t have to be validated by Oliver’s penis.

Explore the world:
This one goes back to the evolution we talked about earlier. I have a theory that whoever built the barn set for Smallville had it in their contract that the show would use that set at least once per episode. Even long after it stopped making sense (Clark and Lois work in Metropolis but they commute out to Kent farm every night?) the show kept right on using their old mainstays. Sure, there are money constraints and you have to keep the budget down, but the DCU provides the opportunity to go to a lot of interesting places, especially with a billionaire like Oliver as our lens. Metropolis, Central City, Cost City, (dare I say it?) Gotham – there are so many opportunities for a show willing to step out of its prescribed setting.

Sigh. This is the biggest one, and probably the one with the least hope of correcting. In the words of my boyfriend, “Smallville had one core deficiency throughout it’s run – the writing.” And as much as some of us, many of us, loved the show, I don’t think there’s a fan out there that can deny it. It wasn’t always bad, but when it was, there was no way to ignore it. Floundering plots, dialogue from the first day of Screenwriting 101, more deus ex machina than you could shake a stick at.

Then again, I don’t know of a CW show you couldn’t say that about.

Where Smallville lucked out was that it had a handful of actors who elevated some of the middling mess (no lie, my underwear would still fly right off my body if I met Michael Rosenbaum, and Erica Durance was Lois Lane). Arrow could be in trouble on this front – the primary writing team’s credits include Dawson’s Creek, Everwood (remember that show?!), No Ordinary Family, Wrath of the Titans, and the flop heard round the world, Green Lantern. But, uh, they have some good actors, so maybe it will be OK? I don’t even know, guys.

Ok, fine, this is a pipe dream. That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be amazing! Warner Bros. is famously protective of The Bat, (which is why his existence was never even hinted at in Smallville, despite the fact that the original pitch was for a Bruce Wayne series) but now that Nolan has finished his run with the Caped Crusader and we’re between Bat-media, it would be a perfect time to work with some of the non-Wayne members of the Bat-fam. You’ve already got Huntress, which is a great start, but a little Nightwing wouldn’t be hard to work in here or there (don’t talk to me about timeline issues – they already have Huntress, Nightwing works just as well). How cool would it be to have the looming spectre of Oracle on the fringe of the show’s awareness? (No, I will not stop pitching a Birds of Prey show and you can’t make me!)

So that’s what the show could do, should do, with any luck, will do. The concept and some of the early action footage for Arrow has been promising. Could we see an underrated comic character make it big on the small screen? I hope so. It’s still The CW and I, like many a beleaguered CW-show fan, have learned it’s sometimes best not to get my hopes up.

Arrow premiers, October 10, 8/7c.

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