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Show of Strength
Giving the Superman saga a well-needed kick in the tights, ''Smallville'' leads the way as five formula-busting new series come to the rescue of the fall TV season. By Jeff Jensen

Superboy was always a dumb idea. In fact, when Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created the Man of Steel in 1938, there was no Boy of Steel, no Smallville, no teenage adventures in tights. Kal-el, last son of Krypton, crash-landed on Earth, was discovered by the elderly Kents, and then smash-cut to adulthood and the whole superhero thing. But in 1945, DC Comics thought it would be neat to see Superman as a kid, and before long, Clark Kent was sporting spandex as early as age 7 and incurring the enmity of Lex Luthor by accidentally causing his hair to fall out (quite possibly the stupidest archenemy motivation in the history of stupid archenemy motivations). Dude, Superboy even had a super-powered dog named Krypto, which he dressed up in a friggin' little red cape!

Like we said: dumb. Which just makes the WB's ''Smallville'' all the more impressive. For comic-book fans beholden to Siegel and Shuster's sacred text, this new take on Superman's formative youth is something of a water-to-wine miracle: It has transformed sacrilege into something indispensable to the mythos; finally, Clark Kent has an adolescence that actually makes sense. Better yet for the WB, the show isn't just for freaks and geeks. With a spandex-free approach that blends ''X-Files'' sci-fi and ''Dawson's Creek'' pathos with wide-screen cinematic flair, ''Smallville'' (airing Tuesdays at 9 p.m.) is luring in those who don't know kryptonite from crapola. Of course, having Tom Welling with his dreamy mug and abs of steel as Clark, and Canadian newcomer Kristin Kreuk with her emerald eyes and preternatural prettiness as Lana Lang, doesn't hurt either.

Smallville s origins can be traced to two men who previously made a mark by slathering a naked cheerleader with whipped cream. That would be Michael Thllin and Brian Robbins, producers of the 1999 film Varsity Blues, who had been developing a series about the early years of Batman s alter ego, Bruce Wayne. When that went bust, Warner Bros. Television president Peter Roth asked them to consider Superboy. After Tollin and Robbins signed on, Roth paired them with writers Miles Millar and Alfred Gough (Shanghai Noon), They quickly agreed on a philosophy: no flights, no tights. 'Our main interest was getting inside Clark Kent s psyche and understanding why he becomes the man he does," says Millar. "hiking away the suit and the glasses was really to strip him away to a more human character and get to the heart of Superman." Ironically, this down-to-earth approach threw Weffing when he auditioned for the role. "I found myself saying and doing things that were very cliché," says the 24-year-old. ‘After thinldng about it for a few days, I finally said to myself, Just play him as a normal kid; forget about those other elements. I think it paid off."

In fact, most of Superman's superhero-ish conventions have been converted into either in-jokes (Clark s loft in the barn has been sarcastically branded a "fortress of solitude" by his father, played with a nice mix of grit and corn by John Schneider) or metaphors for adolescence: Some of Clark s super-talents are emerging with the onset of puberty, like uncontrollable bursts of X-ray vision, or more obviously, his tendency to wake up hovering above his bed while dreaming of Lana. ("A superhuman wet dream," cracks Millar, hammering home the symbolism.)

"Smallville is Norman Rockwell on the surface but Twin Peaks underneath," says Gough. "We re probably more influenced by Blue Velvet than The X-Files," That jibes with the series darker view of Clark s do-gooder impulses. As in the comics, Clark fell from the heavens in a spacecraft (which was subsequently buried on the Kents farm), but Svrtaltville s stroke of genius was having the ship descend in a shower of radioactive Kryptonian debris (which has made Smallville a very strange place, populated by very strange teenagers). Consequently, Clark is guilt-racked over the damage his exploded planet has wrought—especially to Lana! whose parents were squashed by one of those falling rocks. "This is a guy who's a very reluctant hero, but he feels responsible for everything evil in Smallville," says Robbins. "He has no choice but to play that role of hero."

Similarly, Smallville paints a more tortured portrait of Lex Luthor s evil evolution; played by Michael Rosenbaum, he's an angry, bald bundle of father issues who's genuinely friendly to-ward Clark bat determined to learn his secrets. And as far as Clark and Lana go—don t expect everlasting love to blossom. "In the mythology of Superman, he never does get together with Lana; he ultimately goes off to Metropolis and ends up with Lois Lane. We re remaining true to that," says Gough.

"Heart. Hero. Mystery. Family. And really in that order" is how Gough distills the essence of Smaliville. "It s a delicate chemistry experiment." The producers admit their first six episodes struggled to find the proper balance. Episode 2 (in which a web-hurling bug boy is hell-bent on mating with Lana) got the formula rights but episode 3, featuring a fire-starting football coach, got it wrong. "It s all about the reality of the villain; they cast be over-the-top," says Millar. ‘Where Buffy the Vampire Slayer embraces camp, we cant and won t do that." Upcoming plots will include earthly threats like natural disasters and corrupt cops. Though the producers have no plans for serialized story lines (a la Buffy s season-long villains), master plans have been charted for Clark, Lana, and Lex, as well as big-bang season finales for the first three years. "By the end of this season, "you re going to see Clark become very interested in that spaceship buried in his backyard."

Smallville architects also have other surprises: A dream sequence in the Nov. 20 episode will offer peeks at Clark's and Lex's futures (hint: Rosenbaum was recently spotted filming on the West Wing set); later on, Lex gets a girlfriend and develops a kryptonite-centric business; plus, a certain future Dark Knight may pay a visit. One thing's for sure though: There will be no Krypto. "Nor Beppo the Super Monkey, or Streaky the Super-Cat!" laughs Gough. "Man, there must have been a lot of three-martini lunches at DC Comics back in the day." —Jeff Jensen