Friday, August 27, 2010

'Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman' (1996)

Starring Dean Cain, Teri Hatcher and Lane Smith
Developed by Deborah Joy LeVine

After the third season went completely off the rails, I have to admit I wasn't entirely excited to start on the fourth season. I was worried that it would be more of the same kind of godawful storytelling that dominated the second half of the third year.  Fortunately, despite a few hiccups, the fourth season is actually quite a bit better than that.

This is not to say that the show is anywhere near the top of its game like it was the first two seasons, but it certainly isn't throwing around the kind of laughably bad "twists" it was in Season Three.  This year begins where the previous one left off, with Clark leaving Earth to rule over a lost colony of Kryptonians in order to save them from an evil tyrant named Lord Nor.  Unfortunately, once Nor learns that on Earth, he and his followers would have incredible powers, he makes his way there and captures the town of Smallville, enslaving its residents.  Clark returns to Earth to defeat Lord Nor and finds himself on trial by the Kryptonians for treason and sentenced to death.  Of course, there wouldn't be much of a show if Superman were dead, so Clark is given a chance to redeem himself and fight Nor to the death.

Once that story is over with, we finally get to the wedding of Clark Kent and Lois Lane, which was promised all the way back in the middle of Season Three.  From there, Lois and Clark begin their lives as newlyweds and the show gets back to business as usual (mostly).  The rest of the season follows them as they attempt to build a life and a marriage while dealing with villains like Toy Man, Deathstroke, Lex Luthor Jr., Mxysptlk and yet more time travel shenanigans with Tempus and H.G. Wells. 

There are some pretty lame episodes here, but also some really clever ones.  In particular, this year's Christmas episode featuring the imp from the 5th dimension, Mxysptlk (Howie Mandel), where Christmas Eve repeats over and over again.  This is a pretty standard sci-fi trope, having been used everywhere from "Groundhog Day" to episodes of "Star Trek."  But the clever twist here is that as each day repeats, peoples attitudes change for the worse - it seems that without tomorrow to look forward to, people lose hope.  So as Christmas Eve repeats over and over again, things become more dire.

This episode is also a great example of one of the things this show has always gotten right: exactly what it means for Clark to be Superman, and what Superman means to the people around him.  I've had conversations with others regarding this.  People seem to hate Superman because he's so powerful, making him hard to relate to as a character.  And yet, I've never subscribed to this idea.  Superman is an icon for a reason.  Far beyond his ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound or to punch evil into the next galaxy, Superman's greatest power is his unwavering sense of good, honor and justice.  He's an icon meant to inspire.  Ultimately, he's simply a good person - He gets up in the morning and he uses all his abilities to make the world a better place, and does so without asking anything in return.  And despite his god-like power, he is just a man (super or otherwise) - he goes to work, he has friends, he has parents and he falls in love.

But I'm getting beyond the bounds of this series.  Frankly, this fourth season, although getting the iconic and mythic nature of Superman and his relationship with Lois Lane indelibly right, is showing its age.  Scenes that involve Lois and Clark attempting to build a life or family are perfectly charming, but many of the villainous plots feel tired.  Too many times it seems that some madman somewhere has gotten hold of some wild invention and is willing to kidnap Lois Lane in order to force Superman to complete some kind of evil task.

The real charm, then, of this fourth season falls entirely on Lois and Clark, the characters, rather than the plots.  In this, the season is more successful than the previous one, by not resorting to having the two of them stand around making profound speeches about love every thirty seconds.  In fact, the two make fine, charming newlyweds, with an easy chemistry together.  Lois has finally simply accepted the fact that Clark must rush off at a moment's notice, and often encourages him to do so when he gives her an apologetic look.  A thread running through the latter few episodes of the season has the two of them exploring the idea of conceiving a child, whether they're ready for such a responsibility or if they're even physically capable of doing so, considering Clark's alien DNA.

Unfortunately, this thread comes to a non-conclusion when a baby is left on their doorstep... and the show ends forever.  A fifth season, promised by the network, never materialized and that's the final moment of the series.  It also means that the series finale is pretty limp in general, given none of the weight or importance a series finale should have - especially one for a Superman series.  Indeed, several earlier episodes in the season, or even the premiere two-parter with Nor's forces attempting to take over the Earth, would have made better finales for having more dramatic weight.

"Lois and Clark" ends with a whimper instead of a bang, which is unfortunate, but there's still a good amount of fun to be had.