May 27, 2010

Both Smallville and Buffy the Vampire Slayer can be said to be bildungsromans (stories of growing up). Both originally take place in a small town where assorted weirdities take place for an in-show logical reason (the Hellmouth in Buffy, the meteor shower in Smallville). Thus Smallville was thought to appeal to the previous Buffy audience.

Yet it is at these superficialities that the similarity ends.

Smallville insists on overt transparency, but covertly resists both transparency and its root of trust: and it is not Lex Luthor who is the first to mistrust. The entire show hinges on this principle. Clark inherits mistrust from the father he trusts; and after several rejections, Lex reluctantly does the same, from the father he has never trusted. Clark's secret, shared with Lex after the first-season automobile crash, could have been a secret source of mutual strength. Instead, it becomes the destruction of them both.

In contrast, Buffy accepts that overt communication can never communicate the really important things, but continually hopes for the important things to be seen between the lines. Several episodes examine this theme directly by taking away spoken speech from the characters: forcing them to find other ways to communicate or die. Yet those who are able to share these secrets do become strong, together.

If Buffy is a show about change and growth, at least the first four seasons of Smallville have been about resistance to change. Not one episode of Buffy ends with virtually all the characters returning to precisely where they were at the beginning of that episode: the polar opposite of almost every one of the high school Smallville episodes. With only two exceptions, if a non-Kent character in Smallville learned about Clark's powers, by the end of the episode they were made to forget. Amnesia, both involuntary and deliberate, is a desirable thing for the core characters on Smallville: for it returns the amnesiacs to a previous state of innocence.

By comparison, just try to imagine any core character on Buffy willing and determined to deliberately forget what they have learned. As a result of events in each and every episode, every one of these characters learns, and grows. To take away their memories of events is to erode their very selfhood: as Tara makes quite clear during the musical episode, when her lover Willow magically erases Tara's memory every time they run into an awkward moment, rather than work it out the hard way. If inducing forgetfulness in another is to seize complete power over that other, what then is a repeated erasure of another's memory? Willow sees her actions as the most logical solution to a problem – and on a non-empathy level, absolutely it is. Yet Tara sees it as rape.

And, well, if a society as a whole is determined to retain only the shortest of short-term memories: whose, really, is the responsibility for what transpires? and what can politicians possibly say to this blank cheque except "Thank you"?

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