Warner Bros. // 2001 // 922 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bryan Byun (Retired) // November 24th, 2003
Every superhero has a beginning...
From their modest origins in the 1930s as pulp fodder for children, comic book superheroes have evolved into a uniquely American mythology, and no character looms larger in that mythology than Superman. Through 70 years of comic books, movies, novels, and TV shows, the story of the Man of Steel has been mined again and again, each generation redefining the character according to its own values.
Smallville, a TV series currently in its third season on the WB network, is the latest addition to the Superman mythos. Taking that obligatory superhero staple, the origin story, as its subject, Smallville focuses on the years before Clark Kent took up the red cape and blue tights. In doing so, the creators of the show have assumed a unique and daunting challenge. Is the prologue to the Superman story rich enough ground to produce a watchable series? Is it possible to maintain interest and suspense in a story whose conclusion is known to all?
When I first tuned into Smallville, the answer seemed to be "probably not." While entertaining enough, the show appeared to exhaust its potential in its first few episodes, falling into a predictable pattern derivative of shows like The X-Files and Roswell. So I tuned out, which, as it happens, was a big mistake. Catching up with what I missed of the first season in this six-disc DVD set, I was surprised to discover a captivating series that not only lays the groundwork for the Superman saga, but re-invents the character's origins in a way that transforms what was once little more than backstory into a vital and intriguing tale in its own right.
Smallville: The Complete First Season contains 21 episodes spread over six discs:
"Pilot": This pilot episode introduces us to the people of Smallville, and shows us the fateful meteor shower that is to forever shape its destiny. Smallville's first Freak of the Week: a hazing victim who, 13 years later, emerges from a coma with electrical powers and a taste for revenge against the jocks who tormented him. Grade: B+
"Metamorphosis": The Freak of the Week (FOTW) is Greg the Bug Guy, a stalkerish nerd whose only friends are his creepy-crawly pets. After being bitten by radioactive (via "meteor rocks") insects, Greg develops bug-like powers. Unlike Spider-Man, however, Greg's great power comes not with great responsibility, but great lust -- for Lana Lang. Grade: B-
"Hothead": The Great Santini meets Carrie when Smallville's football coach, a "winning isn't everything, it's the only thing" martinet who makes Bobby Knight look like an anger management counselor, develops pyrokinetic abilities (do you sense a pattern here?) after a meteor-rock-enhanced sauna. When our FOTW decides to literally fire up his team, Clark steps in to keep the situation from blowing up. Grade: C+
"X-Ray": Clark develops X-ray vision, and in the show's most unrealistic turn yet, he doesn't spend the next 40 minutes sitting outside the girl's locker room with a goofy grin on his face. Instead, he chases after our FOTW, a shape-changing teenager. Who knew that all it takes to change completely into another person -- including hair, skin, voice, and clothes -- is "soft bones"? Grade: D
"Cool": This week's FOTW is born when he falls through an ice-covered lake that happens to have meteor rocks at the bottom. He becomes a living heat sponge. A promising career as a nuclear power plant cooling rod, however, is cut short when our FOTW decides to get his heat fix from people -- specifically, attractive girls in various states of undress. Grade: B-
"Hourglass": In Smallville's first promising regular episode, Harry, an old geezer at a nursing home, becomes the FOTW when his wheelchair tumbles into (yet another) meteor-laced pond. There's some resulting hoo-ha revolving around an age-old vendetta, but the real story is Clark's friendship with another elderly resident of the home, a lady named (appropriately, as it turns out) Cassandra who can apparently see the future. Will Cassandra see what the rest of us know lies in young Kent's future? And, uh-oh, is that Lex Luthor coming in for a visit? Grade: B+
"Craving": Like early Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes, many of Smallville's plots are thinly-veiled allegories of teen angst issues. This one takes on eating disorders, as a weight-obsessed teenaged girl drinks a radioactive veggie shake and gets an instant super-liposuction. Where there's a purge, though, there must be a binge. Grade: B
"Jitters": Candyman's Tony Todd guest stars as Earl, a former LutherCorp employee who's been FOTW'ed by a mysterious green mist that makes him shake like he's had about 1,000 cups of coffee. After literally rattling a man to death, Earl heads to Smallville to expose LutherCorp's dirty secret -- that it's the company that developed the "Acme Earthquake Pills" Wile E. Coyote used in that one Road Runner cartoon. Grade: B+
"Rogue": Smallville finally departs from the FOTW formula with this tense episode, in which Clark's visit to Metropolis results in a good deed which, in true form, does not go unpunished, when a shady police detective inadvertently witnesses Clark's superpowers and blackmails Clark and his family. Grade: A-
"Shimmer": Smallville meets Dynasty this week as we get a glimpse into Lex's twisted world of intrigue, sex, deception, and an altogether unseemly lust for power. There's a FOTW in the form of an invisible stalker who's haunting Lex and his gal pal Victoria, but the real story is the deliciously E-vil corporate power games that foreshadow Lex's future villainous machinations. Grade: B+
"Hug": A glad-handing fertilizer mogul and an enigmatic local recluse share a mysterious connection in this standout episode, one of the season's finest. Smallville is best when it focuses on the theme of heroism and the question of what makes a hero a hero, which this episode does quite effectively. Grade: A
"Leech": As with "Hug," an episode exploring the idea of what puts the "super" in "Superman," as Clark's powers are accidentally transferred to another student. A FOTW story that's elevated by strong writing and the exciting conclusion to Lex's business scheme introduced back in "Shimmer." Grade: A-
"Kinetic": Multiple FOTWs this week as Whitney gets mixed up with some former high school jocks who show you precisely why your mom and dad won't let you get that tattoo. Grade: C+
"Zero": In a clever bit of foreshadowing, the first season has been peppered with tantalizing references to some mysterious event from Lex's past, revolving around an incident at Club Zero in Metropolis. Those hints pay off with this episode, which delves into Lex's past and cements his position as the most fascinating character on this show. Grade: A
"Nicodemus": It seems that every series dealing with the fantastical eventually has a "strange phenomenon makes the characters reveal their innermost natures and run completely amok" episode, and this is Smallville's. For fans of Kristin Kreuk, this is the one that'll motivate you to learn how to use that "A/B Repeat" feature on your DVD remote, when Lana goes "girls gone wild" all over a hapless -- but not unhappy -- Clark. Grade: A-
"Stray": The Kents take in a young runaway with the power to read people's minds. A fairly predictable plot that turns into something more, thanks to strong performances and a clever, funny, and genuinely touching script. And the kid, amazingly enough, isn't annoyingly cute. Grade: A
"Reaper": A man trying to honor his mother's request to end her suffering instead becomes a FOTW with a deadly touch. Not without its moments, but a disappointment after a run of strong episodes. Grade: C+
"Drone": Clark for President! No, not Wesley Clark, Clark Kent. If you thought Dubya stole the 2000 election, at least he didn't use swarms of killer bees to off his competition, like Clark's opponent, the Meteor-Freak Party candidate. Grade: B (What else?)
"Crush": The "A" plot of this episode, centering around a cartoonist who loses the use of his hands in an accident, but gains the ability to move stuff around with his mind, is standard FOTW fare, but subplots involving Lex's troubled reunion with a former housekeeper, and a tragic loss for Whitney, makes this a standout episode for fans of the show. Grade: A
"Obscura": AKA "The Eyes of Lana Lang." As Lana deals with visions in which she sees through the eyes of a serial killer, Lex delves deeper into the mystery behind the meteor shower that changed the lives of everyone in Smallville. A terrific character-based episode. Grade: A-
"Tempest": The season's ongoing plot threads all come together in this "stormy" season finale, in which the LuthorCorp plant is shut down and Clark's secret is discovered by a reporter. Grade: A
In the pantheon of DC superheroes, Batman is usually given credit for the most psychological complexity, with his dark, brooding psyche and blurring of moral boundaries. By comparison, a pure-of-heart Boy Scout like Superman, defender of Truth, Justice, and the American Way, seems about as interesting as a bowl of oatmeal. Yet, I've always found Superman to be the more intriguing character. It's easy to see why Batman battles the bad guys -- he's as damaged as they come. But what makes a guy with godlike powers choose to live as a regular Joe, devoting his life to the service of humanity instead of, say, becoming the Emperor of the World? How could someone with such awesome abilities grow up into such a humble man?
These are the questions that Smallville seeks to answer. In these 21 episodes, we witness the development, not only of Superman the hero, but also of Clark Kent the man. We see his relationship with his parents, and how they instill in him his sense of purpose and moral fiber. We see in his connection to his friends and community -- the series is called Smallville, after all, not Clark Kent -- his sense of public duty and responsibility. And in a fascinating twist on the Superman story, the show's creators imagine a childhood friendship between Clark and his future arch-enemy, Lex Luthor. It's a brilliant concept that has been approached but never really exploited, and it's the key ingredient that gives epic dimensions to this origin story, and makes it more than the "Dawson's Creek with super powers" teenybopper show that its premise suggests.
Smallville's creators, Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, are well aware that they are engaged in the process of mythmaking. Superman is, in a way, the secular pop culture stand-in for Jesus Christ, a messiah figure for our generation. The series makes this theme explicit in its pilot episode, in which Clark is symbolically "crucified" in a cornfield. That striking bit of symbolism becomes the central preoccupation of the series; Clark is the savior who sacrifices all for the greater good of humanity, and Smallville shows us how he comes to accept and embrace that role.
Despite some early missteps, once the show finds its legs, it delivers the goods. A high-concept premise only goes so far; solid writing and excellent performances are what make Smallville compelling viewing. The casting of this series is pitch-perfect; I can't imagine a more ideal actor to play this superpowered farmboy than Tom Welling, with his wholesome, honest face and heroic good looks -- Welling not only resembles Christopher Reeves physically, but has all of the earnest charm that made Reeves the quintessential Superman.
Smallville isn't just about the birth of a hero, it's also about the birth of a villain, Lex Luthor, and Michael Rosenbaum makes this pivotal role his own, giving this future bad guy unexpected depths. This Lex is a genuinely likable character who wants to be a hero, but is weighed down by his warped upbringing and inner core of darkness. Smallville turns Lex into a conflicted anti-hero, in whom good and evil wage constant battle, and knowing which side will eventually win that war gives Lex's tragic figure an almost Shakespearean grandeur. It's a fascinating character arc, and his complex friendship with Clark is one of the strongest aspects of the series.
In keeping with the youthful focus of the show, Gough and Millar have made Clark's adoptive parents younger than they're normally portrayed, and it works. Jonathan Kent isn't just Clark's moral role model, he's the standard by which Clark defines what it is to be a man, so showing Jonathan in his prime of life underscores the ways in which the son becomes the father. Former Duke of Hazzard John Schneider is terrific in the role, giving Jonathan a bit of a redneck quality that takes the stuffiness out of his position as Voice of Reason. And Annette O'Toole's Martha Kent (an interesting bit of casting -- O'Toole played Lana Lang in Superman III) is re-imagined here as a modern woman whose idealism and can-do spirit makes an effective counterpoint to Jonathan's more cautious nature. Between the two, we understand what gives Clark the ability to know injustice when he sees it -- and the gumption to do something about it.
Then there are the Babes of Smallville, Lana Lang and -- new to the Superman canon -- Chloe Sullivan. As Lana, the painfully luminous Kristin Kreuk makes it easy to see why she was the obsession of Clark's early life, while Allison Mack holds her own as Chloe, the Smallville version of Lois Lane (note the little anagrammatic joke in the name). Lana and Chloe make up two points of Smallville's requisite romantic triangle, as Clark's affections swing between one and the other in tried and true fashion. (Between the two, it's difficult to see how Clark had any extra space in his heart to fall for Lois.) While it's a predictable part of the show's structure, the characters and situations are drawn well enough to keep it from becoming completely annoying.
Last, but not least, we have Eric Johnson as Lana's jock boyfriend, Whitney; and Sam Jones as Pete Ross, presented here as sort of a precursor to Superman's pal Jimmy Olsen. Part of Smallville's appeal is that these potentially stock characters aren't given the stock treatment, but emerge as layered, fleshed-out personalities. Whitney, for instance, develops over the course of the season from a standard-issue romantic rival to something of a moral foil for Clark, one who embodies a more traditional path to manhood that Clark can only look upon with envy. It's easy to dismiss Pete as just a comic-relief sidekick, but in fact he's the show's Everyman, a character with a down-to-earth perspective who, unlike the iconic figures that surround him, is just a normal guy. Pete, in his quiet, unsung way, grounds the series in an identifiable reality.
Video: I'm happy to see more TV shows being broadcast and/or packaged on DVD in a widescreen format. Smallville is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, which works particularly well here, giving the episodes a cinematic feel. The series has some excellent production values, and these episodes look great, with sharp, bright images, good contrast with deep blacks and whiter whites, and vibrant colors that reflect the red-and-blue dominated primary color palette of the show. One of the best things about Smallville is its evocative visual style, in which imagery often tells the story, and it's very well presented here.
Audio: The Dolby Digital 2.0 surround track is quite brisk and varied, especially during the show's many musical interludes, but as with most 2.0 DVDs with great sound, one wishes Warner had gone the extra step of remastering the audio in 5.1. Not that it makes much difference -- the 2.0 audio sounds great and few listeners will have any complaints.
Extras: This is a set that really could have benefited from a making-of documentary or some discussion of the Superman mythology to give some context to the show. Making up for this absence somewhat are two audio commentaries by Millar, Gough, and David Nutter, who directed the pilot episode and "Metamorphosis." The commentaries are informative and lively and impart some interesting tidbits about the creation of the series and the production process. We also get a selection of pretty good deleted scenes from the first two episodes (with optional commentary); a "Storyboard to Screen" comparison feature; an "Interactive Tour of Smallville," which lets you click on various locations around town to get some production info on that location; a pair of eminently skippable trailers for WB shows, and a DVD-ROM feature that lets you visit Chloe's online "Wall of Weird," among other things. (Yeah, I know. Woo-hoo.) These TV series box sets are rarely heavy on special features, so the relative paucity of extras on this set isn't exactly a disappointment, but I hope future seasons will include some cast interviews and more commentaries.
The "meteor rock causes freakshow" device that fuels most of Smallville's plots, sometimes threatens to become the show's greatest weakness. The first eight episodes follow a predictable formula: a town resident is exposed to "meteor rocks" -- okay, let's just call it Kryptonite already -- and gains powers that are inevitably used in some malevolent fashion, leading to Clark's intervention and, in the final act, someone being carted away in an ambulance. (The Smallville hospital must have its own X-Files division by now to deal with all the bizarre patients that come in. "Freezing touch? Okay, put him in the bed next to the pyrokinetic guy.") As with the residents of Sunnydale in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, everyone knows there's something weird about their town, yet no one ever thinks to call the FBI despite someone dying grotesquely every week.
Starting with "Rogue," though, Smallville begins to expand out of the "freak of the week" rut and tell more diverse stories, like "Zero," in which the fantastical elements take a back seat to emotional and psychological development. Its best episodes are the ones that focus in on Smallville's most resonant theme, that character, not power, is what defines a superhero. The series is strongest when it sticks close to those basic themes, and weakest when it falls back on soap operatics and gimmicky X-Files plot devices.
Smallville is often compared to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but to me it's an apples-and-oranges comparison. It has the same "weird goings-on in a small town" premise and a similarly myth-making approach, but where Buffy's appeal has much to do with its angst-fueled hipness and snarky perspective, Smallville has a much more earnest feel that is engaging in its own way, heartfelt without being corny. Like Superman himself, Smallville is powerful, but unassuming.
Smallville: The Complete First Season is found not guilty -- but would you expect any other verdict from a website whose motto is Truth, Justice, and the Digital Way?
Review content copyright © 2003 Bryan Byun; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 922 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Audio Commentary on Pilot and "Metamorphosis"
* Interactive Tour of Smallville
* Pilot Storyboard to Screen
* Pilot and "Metamorphosis" Deleted Scenes
* TV Promo Spots
* TheWB.com (Official Site)
* Smallville Ledger (Official Site)
* KryptonSite (Fan Site)