When Bad Things Happen to Good Series, or How Should Cult Series End?

The May 20th issue of Entertainment Weekly included a list of what they saw as the most controversial television series finales; they included Lost, The Sopranos, Seinfeld, Saint Elsewhere, and Newhart. The piece was timely since as I was reading it, I was hearing of some of the controversies surrounding several of the cult television series which concluded this season.

Reader Polly Robinson shared with me an interesting set of developments around Stargate:Universe getting canceled. I wrote some time ago about the ways Stargate fans worldwide had lobbied to keep this franchise in production. In this case, the much publicized Universe extension had been canceled by the SyFy Network after only two seasons and dedicated fans wanted an explanation. Craig Engler, Senior Vice President and General Manager of Syfy Digital, went on the GateWorld blog to offer an explanation, offering some interesting behind the scenes insights into how cable networks make decisions about how long and in what ways to prolong struggling series. Not every fan was satisfied by Engler’s answers, but most appreciated his efforts to help them understand what had happened.

About the same time, I received an email from Margaret J. Bates, a longtime Smallville fan, who was disappointed with some of the narrative choices made in that series final episodes. Bates had been part of an effort featured on this blog to produce a television commercial paying tribute to the character of Chloe Sullivan, though she wanted me to be clear that the opinions she expressed were her own and not necessarily a reflection of that movement as a whole. I asked her to frame her concerns in a way that I could share them with you via this blog and this is what she had to say:

Chloe Sullivan and Caveat Emptor

By Margaret J.B. Bates

Betrayal.

I’ve wracked my brains for a week to find a way to express my feelings about the finale that don’t seem trite or the feelings of a scorned shipper. I tried a first draft pointing out the host of problems about the finale in general, from the insult of Lex’s mind wipe to the terrible Superman Returns plot rip off to only seeing a CGI cape after a decade, but I was asked to focus on Chloe only. I can say that, as one of her biggest fans, I was left crushed and angered by her end.

I want to separate this from what I’ve done for Legendary Women, Inc. and for the Legendary commercial. This is my personal opinion piece and reflects what I feel and what other online fans I’ve talked to at length feel. It does not, however, speak for either the women who made the commercial or the women who work at LW, Inc. This is personal, not professional.

I also wanted to separate this from what I’ve done as a fan, as far as working in campaigns, sending in letters, making donations in Chloe Sullivan’s name for charity, creating a commercial, and erecting organization in her honor. While I speak for myself only, I still can’t separate all that Chloe Sullivan was and can be from my fandom experience, which did include these ventures. I witnessed it. It wasn’t just in myself. Chloe Sullivan inspired women and men, both, to write a myriad of letters to the producers expressing what a role model she was by being devoted to her career and by helping superheroes without even having abilities or fighting prowess. She just had herself and her wits. Chloe Sullivan inspired people to raise thousands over two years for The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation because she, as a character, would support philanthropy. Chloe Sullivan inspired a charity to rise composed of other young, business-minded women

She’s a hero and a role model, and I cannot speak for anyone officially but myself, but I also can’t ignore what a monumental impetus she’s been over the last decade for young women and men everywhere to take action.

That’s why the finale crushed me and left me feeling cheated beyond words.

Ten years ago, I was promised in part the story of who Chloe Sullivan was. I was promised that I’d see her grow and see an ending to her, and I didn’t see that on my screen on May 13, 2011. Chloe was set up as a reporter and a heroine. In the pilot, she’s the only character even noticing and investigating Smallville’s weirdness, her home illustrated to be the corners of The Torch office. Five years later, fans everywhere cheered when she achieved what she called her dream of working at The Daily Planet (“Thirst,” 5.05). When she was fired two and a half years later, not for incompetence but for protecting Clark’s secret from Lex Luthor, fans were outraged and waited for her to return. They wrote letters, made books, made donations, and kept asking online spoiler sources and at Comic Con “When will Chloe go back to journalism?”

In the mean time, Chloe established herself as a hero in her own right, especially in season nine and her limited run in season ten, by re-organizing the disbanded Justice League as well as establishing Watchtower as an entity. In season ten, after faking her death, she was able to best the Suicide Squad and use them to save Clark, Oliver and the rest of the JLA from the clutches of the government. This was a woman who was active in her heroism, used her intelligence to outwit opponents such as the Suicide Squad whom the JLA failed to stop, and fought vibrantly for what was right.

She never backed down.

In the final two episodes of her winter arc this season, she expressed that she hadn’t “felt like Chloe 1.0″ since her days at The Torch student newspaper. She longed to go back to journalism as much as her fans had always begged and asked for it. In “Fortune” (10.15), although it was rushed and established offscreen while the episode was a wastedHangover rehash, Chloe told Clark she was going to report at The Star City Register under an alias so that she could work as a journalist by day and mentor young superheroes personally by night. She was going to have a double identity inspired by Clark, himself.

I was excited when I learned Chloe would return in the finale, ecstatic even. I figured with the press hints about future flash forwards and the quotes about how the finale would show Chloe evolving that we’d be able to glimpse her working at a newspaper, to see that career woman so many fans had missed and clamored for during the last three years, the person Chloe said that she wanted to be. We were also excited to see how she’d mentor the new generations of heroes. Even if it was just a minute or two flash of her leaving her office at The Register to go to a night training session of an unnamed student, it would have been a coda to who she was independently as a journalist, a mentor, and a heroine.

We didn’t see that.

We didn’t see anything that reflected what Chloe Sullivan had been established as over the ten years of the series. She was there merely to be the maid of honor, promote the wedding we all knew was destined to happen at some point, and to disappear with little aplomb fifty minutes into the episode. While returning cast members like Rosenbaum, O’Toole and Schneider (who played a ghost no less) all had final one-on-one scenes with Welling, Mack was denied this. Chloe and her fans were denied final closure on the only relationship that had been presented onscreen for all ten years of the show’s run. An eleven second hug and a “See you in the funny pages” quip was not sufficient, especially in a finale that dragged in the first hour and repeated plot points like Lionel making a deal with Darkseid.

It was a clear slap in the face.

The producers, for whatever reason and I suppose ratings, held out a steak for us and promised that the finale was about returning characters and that Chloe had something special just for her and a great moment to shine.

They lied.

Chloe was an afterthought.

Her biggest role as narrator was the biggest slap to me. It could have been done more convincingly with any Canadian day player/random extra reading a comic book to their son. It would have made so much more sense. Why would there even be a Smallville comic book in a universe with Superman in it? How does Clark even have a secret identity in a world with Smallville and DC Comics? Why does Lex have to have an erased memory if everyone can learn Clark’s secret identity for the price of a comic?

Besides being an essential paradox to have Chloe Sullivan reading Smallville comics to her son in 2018, it’s a huge retcon to the character. In ten years, over two hundred episodes, Chloe never once expressed the desire to become a mother, never once. Lois has. Lana has. Tess acted as a surrogate mother with Alexander/Conner Kent. Chloe Sullivan was one of the few female characters on the show never to express an interest in motherhood. She wanted and talked endless about her career–whether that be journalism, heroism, or both—and she was always shown as having severe abandonment issues because of her mother leaving her as a child. Of all the women of Smallville, frankly, Chloe’s deep psychological issues make her least fit to even be one.

But that’s moot. She never once expressed the desire. The majority of her fans wanted her to be kickass reporter or kickass Watchtower or both. There wasn’t a need to see her out there, seven years down the line, a spectator to the world of heroes she’d forged, reading bedtime stories. It doesn’t match with the character created over a decade, nor does it match the character from the comics. In DC Comics, Chloe Sullivan was introduced as a well-decorated blogger out to investigate Luthorcorp, not a mother.

I wouldn’t complain as vehemently if we’d seen her tuck her son in and then walk down the hall past awards for journalism on the walls or if she’d kissed him goodnight and said “Mommy has an article to finish up tonight.” Then I could at least know she was still living her dream of reporting.

We didn’t see that.

It would have taken a line drop, a prop, even an extra scene in the middle of a turgid pace to clear up the ambiguous and shoddy end for Chloe Sullivan, but the producers didn’t even bother. The writers didn’t care. They wanted the wrap around gimmick of reading Clark’s story to be done by Chloe, probably not even realizing the paradox it created or the way it took Chloe from hero helping shape Clark’s world to a narrator passively retelling it half a world away.

Yes, half a world.

No one bothered to explain why the package she sent Lois came from Signapore, a place Chloe had never been to during the series and a place she’d never expressed an interest in living and one, frankly, that was pointedly as far from Clark, Lois, Superman and The Daily Planet as possible and fairly far off from The Star City Register and Oliver Queen as well. No one bothered to explain why after going through superhuman efforts to “free herself from her old identity, she settled for something lesser…a relationship” (10.14 “Masquerade”) by being married to someone under her birth name. Note it is even unclear to whom she is married, Oliver or a nameless future beau. Writer Al Septien and director Greg Beeman have differed publicly on the child’s parentage already. The producers didn’t explain why, as pointed out in “Legion” (8.11), no one even knows Chloe’s name or that she ever existed when she’s using it here, when she’s alive, and when she basically built Watchtower from the ground up as her baby and saved Clark, Oliver and the League a dozen times over.

No one bothered.

They didn’t care to.

That’s what hurts most—to see my heroine reduced from this vital intense career woman to a forgettable person half a world away doing daily mommy chores and acting a passive narrator to the great exploits of Clark Kent. She was a non-entity and after ten years of waiting she deserved more .

Her fans deserved more.

It was a contract. We paid hundreds of dollars over the years for merchandise and DVDs, gave them ratings to survive, and invested a decade and hours upon hours in Chloe’s story as well as Clark’s and Lex’s. All we got was “It’s a comic book because it’s like a comic book.” Clark reached destiny because the future said so. Lex was stripped of his mind and any reason for even being evil, stripped to two dimensional villainy. Worst of all, Chloe Sullivan became a forgettable housewife in Asia with an ambiguous and poorly written ending because, I’ll just say it, she has the wrong name.

Chloe Sullivan shouldn’t exist.

So the writers did worse than kill her; they murdered everything she ever stood for and promised us we’d like it.

We hate it. I hate it.

They had the final say and discretion in how Chloe Sullivan’s onscreen life ended on the show Smallville , but, I hope via fanfiction and charity projects and even lobbying DC to see more of Chloe the comics, that the fans can ensure that the character doesn’t fade away.

She’s a reporter. She’s a career woman. She’s a mentor and hero.

To us, she’ll always stay that way.

The final shots of Chloe onscreen were a betrayal, but they give us a choice too. A choice to reject and re-appropriate, a choice to vote with our wallets. I might not have seen an ending that honored ten years of show continuity, character history or even comics canon, but, then again, I don’t have to buy box sets ever again, and I won’t.

Buyer beware but, damn, how sweet it is to be paying for it no longer.

Craig Byrne, webmaster of KryptonSite and author of five Smallville licensed companion books, offered this account of fan response to the final episode:

I think the general response to the finale of Smallville is dependent on what the viewer signed up to see. There are people who were elated that their favorite characters ended the series together, and there were people who celebrated the fact that after ten years, Clark Kent has become Superman. There is some negative reaction – some have complained about the computer-generated Superman and lack of full-on Superman from Tom Welling, and others didn’t care for having Lex Luthor forget everything – but there is a strong feeling that the show at the very least was able to go into a series finale and conclude itself rather than having the network make the decision for them.

There have been several cult series that have been canceled with no real warning. Veronica Mars, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Heroes, and recently V being prime examples. To be able to go into the last year, as a viewer, and know that I’d end up satisfied, that things wouldn’t be left hanging, was really appreciated, as I’m sure it was for the show’s producers as well.

There are inevitably people who won’t let go. The ones who want a Season 11, or those who want Tom Welling to be the next movie Superman. Having been through this before with Lois & Clark, I know the routine when it comes to Superman projects – it’s onward and upward to the next version of the story. I have no doubt Tom Welling, Erica Durance, and others might take part in future Superman projects in other roles – much like Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Teri Hatcher, and even Annette O’Toole did with Smallville. It’s a legacy and something they will never lose.

It sounds cheesy but a cult series never ends as long as it exists in your heart. If you wonder what happens to the characters after that final moment, they did their jobs.

Personally I’m excited to discover new things and hopeful another comic book TV series that’s as good as Smallville was comes along someday. I’d love to see a “Smallville Season 11″ comic as Joss Whedon did so well with Buffy for Dark Horse comics. But if we don’t – that’s fine. Sometimes I think Clark’s destiny as Superman is best left to the imagination.

I think every effort was made to throw in as much as possible for the long-time fans. Getting Michael Rosenbaum back was a must, and although their time with him was limited, he elevated the material. Having John Schneider back as a ghostly Jonathan was also one of the episode’s best touches.

Inspired by what GateWorld had done to help fans get some closure on the ending of their series, I reached out to contacts I had with the Smallville production team via Mark Warshaw of The Alchemists, who had developed some of the original transmedia content around the series. Through his help, we’ve been able to talk with several folks associated with the program, and their responses will run next time. I should be clear that I have only seen a limited number of episodes of Smallville and so am not taking my own position on this, but since I was in a situation to help clarify things between the producers and the fans, I am offering this website as a channel of communication.

I welcome your feedback on the conclusion of Smallville or of other cult series, and will run a special reader’s response post, if I hear back from enough people. Send your comments directly to me at hjenkins@usc.edu and signal if they are intended for publication.

Comments

  1. ladysugarquill.wordpress.com says:

    This may sound harsh, but I personally don’t listen to people complaining about how a show ended. It mostly means “oh no, it didn’t ended EXACTLY how I expected/wrote in my fanfiction! The writers are WRONG!”

    Hm, no. All shows, cult and otherwise, should end however their writers want, just like any other piece of fiction. Unless there was executive meddling, the show ended how it was supposed to end. That is the correct ending, and fans’ pet theories were wrong.

    They may like their own ending better; my answer is a “Deal with it” macro.

    Signed: a fan who is tired of her favourite things’ endings being trashed by other supposed “fans” :/

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