We all have our coping mechanisms; those things we turn to in times of high stress or periods of mental unwellness. For me, during my hardest fought battles with depression, Smallville saved me (pun intended).
Certainly, the first time round when I watched the show I was a teenager, mostly concerned with Tom Welling’s abs, his will-they-won’t-they chemistry with Kristin Kreuk as Lana Lang, and the eventual demise of his friendship with Michael Rosenbaum as Lex Luthor. Sure, these plot points had very little to do with my own life, but we often find ourselves in the stories of fictional characters, in ways we didn’t expect.
So why did my obsession with the show begin? Simply put, Superman is my favourite superhero. Now, I know that probably makes me ‘basic’ by today’s standards, and to that I say I do not care. He is my favourite because he inhabits basic principles; trying to be good and do ‘the right thing’ in the face of everyone else’s cynicism. Plus super strength, speed, flight and fire from his eyes, which also helps in his cause to save people from themselves.
Sure, Superman has a pretty black and white view of the world, which can be problematic and likely responsible for his eventual downfall, but it is nice to be exposed to that side of thinking in the face of negativity, especially when his overall values are based in the following: people are generally good and they do bad things, but everyone can be saved. I mean, that’s basically what I was taught during my psychotherapy training, so who’s really in the wrong here?
Still, understanding that sometimes morals can take you into a grey area, is important in understanding why a show like Smallville did so well, and ran for ten seasons. Instead of handing us a Superman who was fully formed, self-confident and clear in his values, they gave us a teenage boy and then met our expectations with his flaws and mistakes, as all teenagers are wont to do as they develop into people.
He had the female best friend who kept saving his ass before she knew his secret and even after, all whilst harbouring a secret love for his dorky, inept but dashingly good-looking self. He had the guy friend who would eventually become his enemy, who he didn’t completely trust but who’s wealth and determination to be Clark’s friend, kept that friendship going for a good few years. And he had this very close relationship with his dad, who he idolised and fought with, and the loss of which made him into something stronger but also more sensitive.
But what the hell does all of this have to do with depression? Well, not much on the face of it. Yet, for years after the show stopped airing, I would go through the series, from beginning to end, watching the story and the characters develop, feeling that good feeling inside my belly, the one that was absent throughout the rest of the day when I was going through the numbness of depression. Maybe I liked that it was a show about someone being good, showing that the world was worth living in, and that eventually, the good wins out.
If you’ve ever experienced depression, you’ll know that it thrives on negative thoughts, on the idea that the world is a terrible place where you are a terrible person, and perhaps neither of you really deserve to exist anymore. You know, just regular, self-effacing thoughts that force you to stay away from people for long periods of time.
And then you switch on this show where you can just get lost in the story, in the messed up friendship between Clark Kent and a young Lex Luthor, in the antics of Clark before his Superman moniker, running in and saving the day without being seen. And in his eventual ascension to visibility as various characters try to convince him to be a symbol for hope, first as The Blur and then eventually, in the final episode of the series, as Superman.
And that’s the crux of it; Superman represents hope. What could be more counteractive to depression than hope? Exactly. Now don’t get it twisted; I know he is not real and no one will swoop in to save me if I happen to be falling from a tall building by accident. However, he represents the possibility of the human ideal, perhaps one of the many things that separates us from other species; foolish, unrealistic, motivating hope for something better. In spite of everything that is placed in front of us, we still have the capacity for hope, which really if you think about it, is pretty dumb. But, I’ll take dumb hope over depression any day of the week.
So thanks Smallville, for the hours of distraction from dark and painful thoughts, and the constant visuals of people being saved and helped and finding the strength in themselves to keep going. They’ve helped me climb out of the bad place more times than I can count.