Fun fact: Smallville will start its ninth season this fall. Yes, you read that correctly. Where did the time go? An even better question is: What explains the continuing appeal of a show about the pubescent Superman? The conundrum isn't as complicated as it sounds, actually. It turns out that Smallville was in the right place at the right time.
Many television favorites closed their doors in 2001: Diagnosis Murder, Baywatch, Two Guys and a Girl, Walker, Texas Ranger, 3rd Rock from the Sun, Star Trek: Voyager, and Daria all ended that year. But networks saw the dearth of programming and seized the opportunity to fill the void with new shows. The Best Damn Sports Show Period and Fear Factor appeared for the first time, as well as scripted hits like 24, Alias, According to Jim, The Bernie Mac Show, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Lizzie McGuire, Scrubs, and Six Feet Under. Smallville was among the freshman class that year. Only a few of those shows remain on the air, and Smallville is one of them.
With an iconic franchise like Superman behind it, Smallville started out with a built-in cultural following and an enormous amount of material to work with. But the show didn't target long-time fans or graphic novel geeks. Instead, it went for the 18-to-25-year-olds by casting pretty, fresh (and, at the time, cheap!) faces like Tom Welling and Kristin Kreuk. Their clear skin, sparkling smiles, and shiny hair masked the show's true sci-fi identity -- and allowed The WB (later The CW) to air a geeky show without ruining the network's "pretty people" reputation.
The WB/CW's greatest achievement, however, was in its timing. Smallville first aired on October 16, 2001, just one month after 9/11. The tragedy ushered in an intense hero-worship period -- New York City's firefighters, policemen, and paramedics were the new knights in shining armor. The nation craved a bigger symbol of hope, and Tom Welling's young Clark Kent was that trustworthy figure, sent to rescue the country from its nightmare. He was his generation's champion -- and favorite new television character.
Smallville hit the ground running with glittering reviews and high ratings in 2001: The New York Times called the show "an odd mix of imitation and innovation. It has the otherworldly overtones of 'Roswell' and the good-versus-evil themes of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer,' applying their formulas rather blatantly. Yet for the overall concept, the creators, Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, blazed their own trail." By the third season, critics began to find fault with the formula: Entertainment Weekly said mourned the loss of Clark Kent's coming-of-age story: "a recent resurgence of mutant-of-the-week plotlines is dismaying."
Yet, almost nine years later, Welling & Co. are still safe from cancellation -- TV's kryptonite -- for at least another year. E! Online reported that the show was actually attracting viewers in different demographics -- namely, young men.
Variety said it best: "Mostly, 'Smallville' has stayed aloft beyond the projected flight plan largely because the CW still needs it, with even a diminished fan base still surpassing what the netlet generates with most of its lineup." In other words, Smallville is no longer a hit, but it remains one of the network's most popular shows, and it's helped keep the CW (and WB) ship afloat over the years. On a network with few other popular shows to speak of, that counts for a lot.