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Even with powers beyond those of mortal men, things aren't always super, man, for alovsick teen in a tortured town. That's the buzz about Smallville, WB's supernaturally cool makeover of the mythology of Superman.

by David Hiltbrand

Sure, he s strong as a tank and he can see through walls. But at the moment, Clark Kent is engaged in a ritual all too familiar to your average high schooler: desperately cleaning up the remains of a rowdy party before the parents return from out of town. Of course, Clark has an advantage: he s scooping up the crushed chips, the spilled cups and empty pizza boxes at a Mach 3 blur. Ready? Done.

That scene, airing in this week s episode of Smallville (WE, Tuesdays 9 P.M/ET), sums up the teen drama, a fresh reinterpretation of one of America s most beloved and enduring pop icons, When she was first approached to play Clark s mother, Martha, Annette O Toole remembers thinking, "Superman again? Haven t we done that?" (O Toole, 47, played Lana Lang in the 1983 film "Superman Ill.") As she soon found out, Smallville is much more than a superhero-in-the making It s a multitasking wonder, TV s ultimate combination plate.

Yes, the series is a poignant coming-of-age story with hip tunes courtesy of such groups as Fuel, Alien Ant Farm and Eve 6, and it s got a theme song by Remy Zero. But it s also prime time's sweetest romance (hello, Lana) as well as a surprisingly earnest family drama. And at the same time, it's a horror show. In each episode, some mutant emerges to menace the townsfolk.

The triumph of Smaliville is the way it juggles all those elements—the sentimental and the scary, the rustic and the alien—somehow fitting Nonnan Rockwell and Bieronymus Bosch in the same frame. Joim Schneider; who plays the Kent patriarch, Jonathan, marvels, "This show is as freaky as The X-Fiies, as teen angst-driven as Dawson s Creek and as family-oriented as 7th Heaven I m not sure how they re managing to combine all those genres"

It just goes to show how much you can accomplish when you start with a great concept. Smailville offers a clever, contemporary twist on the Superman legacy, focusing on the years when his extraordinary powers are beginning to emerge. "That part of the story was always dealt with in two minutes in the movies," says Brian Robbins, who, along with partners Mike Tollin and Joe Davola, is an executive producer of Smaliville. The comics introduced an adolescent version of the superhero back in 1945, but Superboy was always something of a prankster. "If you look at the material," says Paul Levitz, the publisher of DC Comics, "it was very Tom Sawyer—influenced."

Like all classics, Superman has been subject to repeated updates and interpretations since the character burst on the scene in 1938 during what is now deemed the golden age of comic books. The pulp version of his origin—created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster—had an orphaned infant rocketing to Earth from the doomed planet Krypton, crash-landing in a field. He grows into a young man of extraordinary strength and otherworldly powers before taking a newspaper job (his cover) m the big city. Since the 1930s, Superman's story has been altered to suit changing times and contemporary sensibilities and tastes. In the 1940s, he was a harsher crime-buster. In the ‘70s, he took a TV anchor job. In the ‘90s, he grew his hair and married his colleague, Lois Lane But Smailville presents a particularly ingenious renovation "The strongest feeling I have about the show," says Levitz "is a kind of creative jealousy. They ve done such a cool job of playing with the mythology to make it better."

Perhaps the most inspired innovation was to create a destructive meteor shower to coincide with our future heros arrival on Earth. This device serves two crucial purposes. First, the radiation from these Kiyptonite fragments creates an endless supply of dangerous mutants, which makes it possible to set a sci-fi action senes in a quiet farm town without shipping in villains from Metropolis every week. Second, the meteors link together the show s three protagonists. They allowed Clarks spaceship to land undetected. They made an orphan of Lana Lang And they irrevocably altered Lex Luthor, leaving him bald, bitter and traumatized. Because Smailville airs on WB, otherwise known as Hottie Central, all three actors register way off the cuteness charts. In fact, Tom Welling, who plays Clark, began as a model. The 24-year-old, from Putnam Valley, New York, got his acting feet wet last season as a sexy martial-arts instructor on a handful of Judging Amy episodes He went right from there to Smailville.

It was quite a promotion. As the star of the series, Welling is in almost every scene. That means he is on the set up to six days a week, for up to 16 hours a day. He accepts that grueling schedule with characteristic grace "This is really all that I know," he says. "I have nothing to compare it to."

Knstin Kreuk, who plays Lana, the show s anguished but angelic homecoming princess, is working overtime, too The 18-year-old actress, one of several Smaliville cast members so young they could list high school productions on their résumés, is simultaneously starring on Edgemont, a Canadian teen soap. (Until recently, Edgemont aired in the States on Fox Family Channel.)

But Kreuk, who is of Dutch and Chinese descent, has a distinct advantage when it comes to unwinding after work: She is a native of Vancouver, British Columbia, where Smallville is shot. "Basically get to stay at home," she says. "I still live with my parents. I have all my friends around me."

For Michael Rosenbaum, born in Oceanside, New York, and raised in Newburgh, Indiana, playing Lex Luthor means putting in extra hours—before the cameras ever start rolling. "Every day I come in early," he says. "They break out the razor, lather up my head and start shaving." He submits to the daily depilation willmgly "They let me try a skullcap," he says, "but it was ndiculous. I looked like a Conehead."

Of the three leads, Rosenbaum, 29. has by far the most extensive acting experience. One of his first but perhaps strangest gigs came right after he graduated from Western Kentucky Umversity when he was cast in a recurring skit on Late Night With Conan O Brien as one of the woefully misinformed Amsterdam Kids. Since then, he has worked steadily on TV (The Tom Show and Zoe, Duncan, Jack & Jane) and in film ("Sweet November" and "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil"). Around the set, Rosenbaum has gained a reputation as a mimic (he does wicked impersonations of Kevin Spacey and Keanu Reeves) and a DJ. The makeup trailer is usually throbbing with his strange compilation CDs. "It s all really cheesy ‘70s love songs," he explains "Music like David Soul, Chicago, Rita Coolidge, Melissa Manchester. Everyone makes fun of me, but it s all I listen to."

The Smallville studio is wedged into a converted frozen-food warehouse in a bleak, industrial neighborhood 20 miles east of Vancouver. From the street, there is no hint of what is transpiring withm those drab cinder-block walls— except for a Daily Planet delivery truck parked out front. (Metropolis, home of the fictional newspaper, will be featured sporadically, as the season progresses.)

The mood on the set is relaxed and jovial. Like Dark Angel and Pasadena, Smallville shoots in Vancouver for economic reasons. But distance has freed the cast and crew from much of the hype and the pressure usually associated with a hit series. (Smallville is already WB s second-highest rated series. It ranks fourth among all the networks new shows this season for viewers 12—17.) ~We are very much sheltered here," says Welling, "which is welcome for me. It means I can just focus on the work . The show doesn't even air in Canada"

If the buzz ever does catch up with him, he can always turn to his TV dad for advice After all, Schneider went through the identical situation 22 years ago, vaulting from unknown to primetime star when The Dukes of Hazzard became a surprise hit. The similarity of the two shows barnyard flavor isn t lost on him. "Plaid and gingham— the constants in my life," 41-year-old Schneider says.

For his part, Welling can recall little exposure to Superman s exploits— either on the page or the screen—as he grew up. And since getting the role he has avoided doing research. "I think it's a positive that I have none of that information in my brain," he says. "That way I'm able to go only with the script I have." His intentionally naive approach certainly makes sense, considering that in the Smallville universe, Superman doesn't exist. Not yet, anyway.

"It was apprent from the time that Welling auditioned that this show would be a departure from all previous Superman stories. At that meeting, producers announced their now famous "no tights, no flight" edict. "My understanding," says Welling, "is that putting Clark in a suit and cape and having him fly would tarnish his believability. By keeping him grounded, so to speak, it allows people to relate to him more."

"You might see him leap somewhere down the road, but you're not going to see him fly," says Alfred Gough, who developed the series with partner Miles Millar. (The pair wrote the screenplay for "Shanghai Noon.")

Casting Clark Kent was a challenge much like choosing the right actor to play teenage Anakin Skywalker in the coming "Star Wars" films. "Everybody knows where this story is going in the future," says Smallville producer and director Greg Beeman. "You know Clark can never really fall in love with Lana. He goes to Metropolis and falls in love with Lois Lane. You know Lex isn't really Clark's friend because they are going to be archenemies. The fun is watching it evolve."

Even with such a handsome and noble protaganist, the show is often stolen by a bald guy with questionable ethics. That's because Smallville is Lex's story as much as it is Clark's. "They say this series is the making of ahero," observes Rosenbaum. "But on my side it's the making of an anithero."

In early shows, Lex has seemed fairly generous, even sweet. That s what makes his character so fascinating: We know that underneath that smiling facade is a predisposition for absolute evil. He s a viper in the corncrib. Rosenbaum has done a marvelous job of conveying that lurking menace. "You couldn't ask for a better, more dimensional Lex," says Peter Roth, the president of Warner Bros. Television. "He combines a wonderful arrogance with a terrifyingly unclear agenda."

A recent episode provided a tantalizing glimpse of the future as a psychic seer envisioned Lex in the Oval Office. To film that scene, Rosenbaum flew from Vancouver to the set of The West Wing in Burbank, California. It was the day following the Emmy Awards, crew members of the NBC drama approached him to express their enthusiasm for the show.

"I was like,You re on an Emmy-winning show and you love my show? " he recalls. "It was mind-boggling."

You'd think a White House endorsement would make the denizens of Smallville positively chatty. But there are still two things you will never hear around the Kent homestead: Clark referred to as Superboy and details about any future episodes. But we did manage to pry a few secrets.

Later this season, Lex will be visited by a former flame (British actress Brook) who is instrumental in activating his dark side. The Kryptonite-infected stories will gradually decrease. And some old, familiar names will eventually pop up, like Perry White and Lois Lane.

(It may turn out that Lois has a relative in town: Clark s friend, Chloe, hyper-girl journalist.) And Gough and Millar would like to enlist another budding superhero. "Our, dream," says Gough, "is that Lex has a rich, brooding friend from Gotham who comes to visit him." Bruce Wayne down on the farm?

Smallville is gethng bigger all the time.