I know comic book fans love origin stories, but I dunno... how a superhero came to be has always been less interesting to me than what they eventually do with their newfound powers after they first don the red tights and cape. Of course, I seem in the minority here, at least if the recent success of such big-screen comic book origin stories as 'Spider-Man,' 'Batman Begins' and 'Fantastic Four' are any indication. In any case, I surprised even myself by really digging 'Smallville,' the look-how-hot-Superman-was-as-a-teenager spin-off TV series that I initially despised on principal alone. But with an entertaining balance between superhero geekness, origin nonsense and pure teen melodrama, it quickly became one of my favorite guilty pleasures on TV, and -- until 'Heroes' -- the best comic book series television has seen in eons.
Unfortunately, Warner has made my job of converting the non-believers a bit difficult, by releasing The Complete Fifth Season of the show on HD DVD first, which is a bit backward. There is really no easy way for a newbie to jump in and enjoy the show, as none of these episodes really make much sense if you haven't caught at least a few of the episodes from earlier seasons. So little of what I can say will make much difference if you haven't seen the show, which makes 'Smallville's debut on HD DVD mostly for the diehards. Which is a shame, as the studio had a real opportunity to reel in some early adopters who might have previously missed the show.
Anyway, there is one advantage to jumping into 'Smallville' a healthy ways in -- quite frankly, the first season was pretty bad. Even fans of the show poo-poo it (if not outright dismiss it) as being schlocky and unfocused. Saddled with "Villain of the Week" syndrome, poorly-drawn characters and a somewhat tentative (if understandably so) performance by Tom Welling as Clark Kent/Young Sup, the show improved dramatically in later seasons. By year three, the show's writers had much better refined the Lana Lang/Clark dynamic, believably fleshed out the Kent family (a wonderful Annette O'Toole and John Schneider), and at last gave both Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum) and the inquisitive Chloe (the underrated Allison Mack) something to do other than just stumble around half-baked plots about school newspapers and coffee shops.
Ultimately, Season Five ranks as one of the show's best, if not quite up to the level of what I consider the glory year of the series, which was Season Three. But still, all of the elements gel more often than not, even if it is a bit formulaic. Sure, the Lana-Clark back-and-forth romance stuff long ago grew tired, and I'm really over everyone coming down with amnesia in some ridiculous fashion after finding out Clark's secret. Oh, and let's not forget Lex, who laughably runs a multibillion-dollar conglomerate from a single home office in Smallville -- or Chloe, who for so long has put up with Clark's let-me-cry-on-your-shoulder-over-Lana puppy dog thing that I want to smack the girl every episode just to knock some sense into her. But hey, Season Five also introduced some cool cross-pollination with the original comic books and big-screen Superman movies, including the return of Zod (or at least some minions), the arrival of Aquaman, a nice bit of daddy rivalry between papas Kent and Luthor (John Glover), and (at last!) the Fortress of Solitude.
The show's production values also continued to impress in Season Five. Though the season opener, "Arrival," was graced with a far bigger budget than the rest, there are some strong episodes and action setpieces scattered throughout year five. I particularly liked the action of "Solitude," the don't-mess-with-genetic-engineering scary tale "Cyborg," and the infected Kryptonite storyline of "Splinter," which at last required Welling to really act. I even fell for "Lexmas," one of those "The 'Smallville That Might Have Been" fantasy things that usually grates but in this case was actually kinda fun. Sure, there are some dreadful episodes, too, like the bad 'Buffy' rip-off "Thirst," and the intro of Aquaman in 'Aqua.' Still, for every bad episode there are usually two better ones, so in terms of sheer percentages, Season Five is a hit.
The episodes included in Season Five (and on the disc) are: "Arrival," "Mortal," "Hidden," "Thirst," "Exposed," "Aqua," "Solitude," "Splinter," "Lexmas," "Fanatic," "Lockdown," "Reckoning," "Vengeance," "Tomb," "Cyborg," "Hypnotic," "Void," "Fragile," "Mercy," "Oracle," "Fade," "Vessel."
Though I'm not a disciple, I have seen a good number of episodes of 'Smallville' in HD on The WB/The CW, as well as cable networks such as HDNet. So I was looking forward to comparing how the pre-recorded HD DVD transfers would compare to the over-the-air HD. The results are quite positive. Though not the same step-up you'd get going from standard-def DVD to high-def, the HD DVD is clearly a much more stable, consistent and impressive presentation all around.
'Smallville' is one of the few semi-older shows to have been shot in 16:9 HD from the start. Warner presents all 22 season five episodes across five discs, with five per platter except for the last disc. That allows for a pretty healthy bitrate, and much more stable compression than broadcast. I've grown so accustomed to blockiness during fast action and frequent pixel break-up on 'Smallville' as it airs on TV that watching this HD DVD is, if not a revelation, then a very healthy breath of fresh air. Sure, there still are a few bad patches. A couple of explosions and the odd effects shot still had a bit of pixel-y-ness (most notably in the opening blast of "Solitude"), and there are the occasional moments of shimmering in high-contrast areas. But this is pretty minor stuff -- maybe a minute or so out of about 16 hours total of HD material.
'Smallville' is also a very colorful show, with a heavy-handed if effective use of comic book primary hues. The most immediately impressive aspect of these transfers are how bold and clean colors are. It's a readily apparent improvement over the broadcasts I've seen, which are sometimes fuzzy and noisy. Greens and reds are especially vibrant, and fleshtones aren't quite as dark and smeary. Detail can sometimes be fantastic, though that is usually dependent on the budget and quality of the effects in a specific episode. The more pricey season opener, "Arrival" fares among the best, with a very slick look and some shots that are truly three-dimensional. Certainly, 'Smallville' on HD DVD is one of the best-looking TV shows I've seen in high-def. Granted, there is not a lot to compare it to as the next-gen formats are just getting off the ground. But based on this early effort from Warner, if you've only seen broadcast HD, you ain't seen nothing yet.
'Smallville' sounds good, too. Warner has sprung for Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround tracks (encoded at 640kbps) on each episode, which is an substantial upgrade over the standard-def releases of the show, which are currently in Dolby 2.0 stereo only.
Granted, this is no $200 million-budgeted action movie, but the sound design of 'Smallville' still excels for a television show. Predictably, the surrounds are used almost solely for the action scenes, which usually number about one per episode. (If something blows up, you can bet you'll here it echo in the rears.) The only exception is "Arrival," which won a Technical Emmy for Best Sound Mixing or something, and it shows. Sustained atmosphere and envelopment is much improved, especially on the normally subdued score, which here has a majestic heft. Otherwise, dynamics on the rest of the episodes are fine in general terms, though still superior for TV. I could have done with less harsh dialogue (why does Chloe's voice grate on me so much?), and low end is punchy but not truly forceful. But overall the mixes sound pleasing and lively, and shouldn't disappoint.
For the fifth season of a television show, Warner has produced a very nice set of supplements for 'Smallville,' a collection sweet enough that it exceeds those found on many DVDs for bigger-budgeted, blockbuster movies. (The only disappointment? All of the video-based supplemental material was shot in 16:9 widescreen, but alas is windowboxed in 480i video only.)
Two episodes get audio commentaries. In a nice example of the show's sense of humor, the 'Smallville' crew voted "Thirst" the worst episode of the season, so writer Steven S. DeKnight and executive producers Alfred Gough, Miles Millar and Ken Hortonso all joyously join in for a self-effacing track that's quite entertaining. Almost the equivalent of a celebrity roast, they laugh kind-heartedly at some of the show's flaws, from the cheesier sets, to Lana's increasingly erratic (not to mention homicidal) behavior over the years, to an alleged "twentieth episode of the season always sucks" curse. Certainly, this is one of the most enjoyable commentaries I can remember hearing for a TV episode. By contrast, the second commentary for "Splinter" is far more straightforward. Featuring DeKnight again, with director James Marshall and actor James Marsters, it's pretty self-congratulatory, though the detail on the episode's big spaceship crash is interesting. Unlike the track for "Thirst," you can probably skip this one unless you're a diehard fan.
Next we get a 29-minute featurette, "'Smallville's 100th Episode: The Making of a Milestone." This one was far better than I expected. Instead of a bunch of clips and teary-eyed cast and crew interviews, the nitty-gritty of the production is analyzed in surprisingly in-depth detail, from the writing to the shooting to the post-production effects to the score. There is a wealth of making-of footage, and the featurette goes so far as to examine the telecine process involved in bringing 'Smallville' to the small screen. This one is a real step above most making-ofs of this type, and is definitely a must-watch for even casual fans.
A bit cheesier are five Webisodes totaling about 18 minutes. Dubbed the "Vengeance Chronicles," these little vignettes were excised or compressed from the "Vengeance" episode, and feature Chloe and the masked vigilante. The production values of these are way below the normal standard of the show, and quite frankly I thought the story was rather crap. But these are here for completists.
Also included are a ton of Deleted Scenes. The material adds up to about 26 minutes, and 11 episodes boast excised material: "Hidden" (2 scenes), "Thirst" (2 scenes), "Fanatic" (5 scenes), "Reckoning" (1 scene), "Tomb" (3 scenes), "Cyborg" (1 scene), "Hypnotic" (2 scenes), "Fragile" (1 scene), "Mercy" (1 scene), "Fade" (1 scene)" and "Vessel" (2 scenes).
Finally, I liked the very economical packaging Warner is using for 'Smallville.' It is about the width of two normal HD DVD cases, and includes an inpressive full-color booklet, which features nice and lengthy episode info, including air dates. Be warned, however, that there are plenty of spoilers in said booklet, so you may want to avoid reading it until you've already watched each episode.
Though I don't subscribe to the wisdom behind launching a new series on HD DVD with its fifth season (instead of its first), Warner has done a very fine job bringing 'Smallville' to high-def. It looks and sounds great for a television show, and there are enough extras to appease even diehard fans. And the HD-exclusive episode commentary is a nice plus. If nothing else, I hope this box set sells well enough that Warner will invest in bringing the rest of 'Smallville' to the format. Up, up and away!