Why Superman & Lois Went Full Friday Night Lights
Superman & Lois showrunner Todd Helbing breaks down the latest episode, and explains why focusing on the family elements is so important.
This article contains spoilers for Superman & Lois episode 6.
There’s a moment in “Broken Trust,” Superman & Lois episode 6, that will make you confused about what show you’re watching. Volunteer assistant football coach Clark Kent is in Metropolis with the boys for their first game against their old school, and the first time Jordan is seeing his ex-bullies since he gained his powers. Like any kid who found their confidence after time away from their tormentors, Jordan is revelling in showing them up a little – he lays a massive hit on one of the Metropolis High players and taunts him over it. He gets called off the field by Clark, and when Clark grabs Jordan’s face mask and threatens to bench him if he doesn’t knock it off, you’d be forgiven if your first reaction was to cock your head and mutter “Coach Taylor?”
That Friday Night Lights comparison is not an accident, according to Superman & Lois showrunner Todd Helbing.
“I think Tammy and Coach Taylor was such a great relationship, so that was sort of the inspiration” for Clark and Lois’ on-screen relationship, he says. “As a couple, [we wanted to] have them be respectful and great parents and a mature relationship. They talk about the stuff that they’re dealing with.”
Having that show’s family dynamic laid over the Superfamily is revelatory in what it exposes of two of the oldest, most examined superhero characters. “We just wanted [Lois] to be fearless and independent and a great mom,” says Helbing. “With Clark, we wanted him to be humble and good and a great dad, and as Superman, we really wanted Clark Kent to be the person, and Superman to be the alter ego.” After decades of people complaining about how Superman is too powerful to be centered in good stories, and Lois being unable to hang with him, Superman & Lois is succeeding simply by making them both competent, emotionally healthy adults. It’s breathtaking.
At the point where Clark and Lois’s stories diverge in “Broken Trust” is a scene with Tyler Hoechlin and Elizabeth Tulloch that shows how beautifully this show has balanced their relationship. Lois is trying to get into the mines and complaining to Clark about her lack of success, and he starts trying to escalate his assistance. He’s immediately and forcefully waved off by Lois, who orders him to stick with the kids while she figures out her own solution, and he does. The effortless, egoless transition of authority between the two makes it really easy to believe this relationship: you see Hoechlin and Tulloch completely inhabiting their roles as the most powerful man and the greatest journalist on the planet moving through life as equals. The trick, Helbing says, is “to strip away that they’re two larger than life characters and write them real. Bitsie and Tyler are so good and so honed in, if we just write them as a real couple, then who they are shines more.”
At this point, Superman’s origin story has been so absorbed into the popular consciousness that comic book alchemists have found the most economical telling of it possible. It’s almost not worth trying to retread that ground, because it’s been worn into a chasm at this point. And yet, one of the subtler beauties of Superman & Lois is they’re actually pulling it off. And they’re doing it through Jordan Kent.
“Broken Trust” is as much about Jordan and how he’s dealing with his developing powers as it is about his hyper competent parents. At one point, Clark takes him and Jon under the barn to show Jordan how Pa Kent taught him to control his own strength, and we get to see a battered old telephone pole with hand marks all over it. It doesn’t go great, at least at first: Jordan smashes his hand pretty hard trying to throw what appears to be his first punch ever. “The lessons [Clark] learned from Jonathan Kent, all the lessons we learn from our parents, when we’re adults, they sink in differently, they mean different things,” Helbing says. “And when you try to teach your kids those lessons, you’re coming at it from a different angle, but you understand now what your parents meant. That was the angle that was really interesting to us.”
That angle gives a way into Jordan’s character, too. Jordan’s powers are fritzing out as they develop – at the end of the football game, he gets jumped by the losing Metropolis side and the stress causes him to build up a heat vision blast that his father protects him (and the rest of the field) from. This is, understandably, difficult for the Kents to take, but it’s another way to look at Superman’s origin – by seeing what it wasn’t, through his son’s eyes.
“Clark got bullied, but not in the same way,” says Helbing. “How does he then relate to this kid like that? He’s got to figure it out for himself in an interesting way.”
The care put into character work doesn’t just stop with the Kents. Erik Valdez’s Kyle Cushing gets a little more dimensionality this week – Lana gets a new gig as Edge’s person on the ground in Smallville, and Kyle takes her out to celebrate, but not before Lois tries to get them to flip on Edge and give her something she can use to expose his malfeasance. Kyle doesn’t have the benefit of Lois’s broader view of Edge’s history, but he is very tied to this hurting town, and he views what Lois is doing as fundamentally destructive. And he’s not entirely wrong – the town was dying before Edge got there, and now everyone is employed and there aren’t many obvious cracks or problems.
“To [Lois], it’s a very important job to do because she feels like [Edge] is going to destroy this town,” says Helbing. “[Kyle] feels like she’s going to destroy this town if she gets rid of this guy. They both have a point, and we’ll see how they collide further on in the season.”
That wasn’t the only point where Helbing was coy about what was coming. For all of Superman & Lois’ (excellent, effective) focus on character, it’s still one of the sharpest looking shows in the Arrowverse, full of extremely deep cuts (X-Kryptonite?). “Broken Trust” is no different – a conflict between burgeoning super-speedster Tag and Superman takes the pair in front of an oncoming train and has Clark, at super speed, catch the train mid-air and use his heat vision to collapse the tracks back to the ground to keep the train moving. It’s an extremely effective capital-S Superman moment, as it was at the end when Sam Lane’s DoD squad, out to recapture Tag, fires a kryptonite bullet into Superman’s chest. While Helbing was sketchy on it, he promises more to come. “We do this super cool thing coming up with the Fortress of Solitude . I would tell you but it’ll spoil a lot.”
If the rest of the season is half as good as the start, it’ll be well worth the wait.