Smallville: Season 5 (US - DVD R1)
Gabe Powers is stuck in Kansas with Superman, Lex Luthor, and Lois Lane...
I don't want to complain. This reviewing thing is a great gig, really. The only time it sucks is when you get an unexpected package in the mail with a DVD you didn't ask for and don't want to watch in it. The only thing worse is when you get a package with six DVDs, 925 minutes of entertainment you don't want to watch. But you soldier through it, in hopes of that day the unexpected package contains that super-special DVD you didn't even know was about to be released. Hey, it can happen.
I have no interest in Smallville. I've caught five or six minutes of it here and there flipping through channels, and it looked like the average WB station teen melodrama, staring impossibly pretty people. This doesn't mean I don't appreciate the concept, which is comic book related entertainment for 12-25 year old girls. With the advent of Smallville comes the advent of comic book geeks watching primetime television with their girlfriends.
Something really bad happened to DC Comics entertainment in 1995, and its name was Joel Schumacher. Though the general public didn't seem to notice how brutally awful Batman Forever was, they caught on two years later when Batman and Robin didn't only ruin DC's future in comic book films, but almost ruined the chance of any comic material finding a home on the big screen. DC pulled back, and decided to focus a little more on the small screen.
They continued their incredibly well made Batman and Superman cartoons, and gave Bruce Timm, Dan Riba, and company near carte blanche with their new Justice League series. In the realms of live action they made two attempts on the new Warner Brothers owned TV station (that I can remember), Birds of Prey and Smallville. Both series gained a cult following, but it was Smallville that ultimately won mainstream acceptance. I never watched either series, and made some assumptions based on the channel's other popular material.
I don't know much about Smallville’s mythology, all four previous seasons of it, but I do know Superman. I can see that the series has made the characters of Clark Kent and Lex Luther its own. I'm slightly shocked to say that I actually found myself enjoying the series greater arc, and all the fun (sometimes disguised) character cameos—geeks will notice Brainiac, Metallo, and of course Zod and Aqua Man. No sign of Mr. Mxyzptlk, and I'm sure they're saving Dark Seid for the series finale. All this re-appropriated comic stuff is great; it's all the little in-betweens that didn't work for me.
The first disc of the DVD seems to have done its best to catch me up to speed on the series. The 'previously on Smallville’ blurb was a nice touch, but made absolutely no sense. It was all sound and fury signifying nothing to this series virgin. It's OK though, it only took me about four episodes to figure out who was who, which is impressive in itself. I learned quickly which characters were good, and who had what motivations. It did help to have a basic understanding of adult Superman though.
The show's problem is the same problem I have with most popular TV; it's determined to stretch eight episodes worth of good material into a whole season. I care about Clark telling people about his powers, fighting Kryptonians, and learning to hate Lex Luthor. I don't care about all the other namby pamby super villains and psychos, or the Nancy Drewish adventures of Chloe Sullivan and Lois Lane. The show's great without all the vampire episodes, or Stir of Echoes and Saw rip-offs. Seriously, a Saw inspired episode of a show about the teenage origins of Superman? Give me a break.
If I find season five a bit repetitive, I can only imagine how repetitive the series as a whole must be. What I can't imagine is finding seasons earlier seasons interesting at all. Minus these comic continuity inspired revelations, a show about high school aged Clark Kent fighting other high schoolers doesn't sound very intriguing. I have to admit that this serial writing style is relevant to the Silver Age comics the series tends to emulate, so some slack must be cut.
As a non-fan, that the best reason to watch the show is Michael Rosenbaum as Lex Luthor. He's the best actor and very easily the most interesting character. The other leads, and the majority of the supporting cast, are all very good (and big credit to Superman himself, Tom Welling, for competently directing a pivotal episode), but Rosenbaum really stands ahead of the pack. The Christmas episode actually chocked me up a bit because I'd actually developed a bit of an emotional attachment to the character (pretty good for a show I was not at all interested in liking). Good guys becoming bad guys are always interesting because villains are always more interesting than heroes. Rosenbaum can also be heard voicing the Flash on the vastly superior Justice League.
The special effects and general theatrical feel of the series impressed me a lot. This isn't anything like the low budget exploits of The Incredible Hulk I remember growing up with. The directors involved have a nice habit of keeping the camera moving fluidly, and when action kicks in, it's almost always Hollywood tier. It always ends too quickly, but it looks nice. The production values are huge, and had these DVD sets not sold as well as I'm led to believe they have, we may've had a very different season five on our hands, one where Clark and Luthor talk about their problems on a tweed couch on an empty sound stage.
The series big folly comes with its 100th episode, when the producers look like they're willing to make the ultimate sacrifice in killing an important character, only to pull the same stunt Superman: The Movie pulled to undo the entire revelation. They try to make it up to us by killing the one character any basic Superman fan should already know was entirely expendable from the first episode. This is the kind of gutless writing is what made me stop reading comic books regularly when I was about sixteen. Had the 100th episode been the season finale, this review may've read differently though, because the following episodes were some of the strongest in the set.
I suppose if I had watched the show from the beginning I might've cared a little more about Clark's relationship with Lana Lang, but I found myself wanting them to break up so I could escape all the lovely dovey angst, and get back to the hateful brewing angst between Clark and Luthor. As an outsider, I see this as two shows that don't ever quite gel, the super hero myth, and the tear-jerking soap opera. One of these shows worked for me, and one did not. Can you guess which is which?
I've got to give the show huge credit for actually and blatantly addressing Clark's fear of bedroom antics. Anyone who's seen Kevin Smith's Mallrats will understand immediately the problem of a super-powered Kryptonian having sex with a mere mortal girl, and though obviously funny, the producers really stuck their necks out on this one.
Part of Smallville's appeal is its larger than television look. Quite often an episode will look like a medium budgeted Hollywood effort, and the anamorphic, 1.78:1 widescreen scope helps. The transfer is overall very impressive, but does have a few minor blemishes. The series has been printed in HD since season two, according to imdb.com, and has to be downgraded for standard DVD release. The compression process seems to have created some slight digital blocking and low-level noise, which is a problem I've seen in HD to DVD transfers before. As stated, these blemishes are minor, and for the most part the series is breathtakingly sharp and colourful.
It's too bad that Warner Bros. hasn't mixed these episodes into a 5.1 mix, because the scope dictates it. The sound here is of a Hollywood mainstream level, and though the Dolby Surround track gets the job done, it still sounds like television. I can't find any mistakes or flaws in the soundtrack beyond this general feeling of smallness. The score is huge, full-on theatrical, and attentive viewers will notice a few homages to John Williams' original Superman score, not to mention a nod to Danny Elfman's original Batman score on the episode featuring the very Batman-esque character, the Angel of Vengeance.
The theme song and use of Top 40 radio music at vital moments is really obnoxious, and it cheapens the entire show. I find it yucky, from a very personal place.
The sets extras are par for the course when it comes to seasonal television box sets. They include a featurette, a few commentaries, some deleted scenes, some 'webisodes', and an excerpt from Bryan Singer's Superman documentary.
The better of the two commentaries is on the silly vampire episode Thirst. The folks involved decided to ad a commentary to this particular episode because they basically wanted to apologize for it. Self deprecation always scores big with me personally when it comes to wealthy creative types. They also do a great job of making fun of some of the series more repetitive aspects (like people constantly storming in on Lex in his study). The other commentary track is on a better episode, Splinter, and isn't as much fun because of it.
The deleted scenes are the most impressive feature. There are a lot of them, and for the most part they've been fully produced. Their deletion is, as per the norm, with good cause, but few of them are entirely dispensable. The webisodes are kind of like promotional deleted scenes that were part of the WB's website. Fans could watch this little side story featuring the newly introduced Angel of Vengeance (who's basically Batgirl, as mentioned in the audio section) telling her story to new reporter Chloe, and included some snippets from the series itself. This little adventure isn't up to the normal production levels of the show, and probably won't play into the continuity at all, but was entertaining.
The 100th episode featurette is a very boring, fly on the wall genesis of the 'shocking' episode. Fans and industry insiders may be enthralled by these shaky-cam talking heads, but I was not. The following excerpts from Look, Up in the Sky! The Amazing Story of Superman are little more than an elongated ad for the new documentary. Unfortunately, they really do their job, and I really want to see the doc now. Those crafty, dirty, commercially minded DVD producers...
I almost, almost did the impossible and was this close to giving Smallville: Season Five a 7 out of 10, but it had too many down episodes for me to go through with it. Instead it gets a hard earned 6 out of 10, and considering my complete disinterest on the outset, I'd say that's some huge praise. Fans will most likely already own this, but non-fans may want to give a glance, or at least not judge too soon. The show hinges on some fine performances, a nice look, and an exciting greater series arc. It was only the side tracked episodes that turned me off. The DVD looks and sounds as good as could be expected, and the extras are a decent addition.
I don't know if I'll make an attempt to catch the upcoming season six, but I admit that the cliff hanger ending left me curious. Maybe I'll just wait a year when the DVD release inevitably finds its way into my mailbox, entirely unannounced.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 12th September 2006
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 English
Subtitles: Spanish, French
Extras: Crew Commentary, Smallville's 100th Episode: The Making of a Milestone, Deleted Scenes, Vengeance Chronicles Webisodes, Excerpts From 'Look, Up in the Sky! The Amazing Story of Superman'
Easter Egg: No
Cast: Tom Welling, Michael Rosenbaum, Allison Mack, Kristin Kreuk, Annette O'Toole, John Schneider, John Glover
Genre: Action, Adventure and Drama
Length: 925 minutes