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Smallville: The Complete First Season
2001-2002 (2003) - Warner Bros.

review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

There are few things that are more inherently American than the character of Superman. An immigrant from the planet Krypton who fights for Truth, Justice and the American Way, Superman originated in the 1930s in Action Comics. Over the years, in addition to his bread and butter existence in the comics, he's been brought to life in numerous animated shorts, in various live-action TV incarnations and a series of feature films. In the 1990s, an attempt was made to update the character for Generation X viewers. Starring Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher, Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman saw moderate success, but just didn't have the creative spark needed to really catch fire. It was more like Moonlighting with tights and a cape.

Flash forward to 2001. A new series based on the iconic character premieres on the beleaguered WB Network. The basic premise of Smallville is simple - what if Clark Kent, who is destined one day to become Superman, were a teenager today, going to high school in tiny Smallville, Kansas and dealing with all of the pressures facing kids in the first decade of the 21st Century? In this one major story change lies the brilliance of Smallville, and also its weakness.

As intended by the show's producers, Smallville tells the story of how young Clark (played perfectly by newcomer Tom Welling) discovers his mysterious powers, which he doesn't understand. It's the story of how he and his parents struggle to cope with these changes in him, and how he gradually becomes the man who will eventually take on the mantle of a superhero. But in another brilliant story move, Smallville is also the story of young Lex Luthor (equally well played by Michael Rosenbaum), who first starts out as a friend to Clark, but who slowly descends into the twisted super-villain we know he'll eventually become. It's this duality that makes the show so interesting. Clark just wants to be a normal young man, and to grow up to be like his upstanding father, Jonathan Kent (John Schneider, yes... of Dukes of Hazzard fame). Meanwhile, Lex yearns for the family Clark has (his own father is the power hungry industrialist, Lionel Luthor), and also wants to lead a normal life. Both young men are struggling to fight their own destinies... and as these episodes play out, they're both losing.

Smallville: The Complete First Season

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Buy this DVD now at DVD Planet!

One of the problems with this show, however, is that in an effort to make it accessible to the teenaged crowd, Smallville does play into typical 90210-style angst issues a little too often, particularly in this first season. The first season also stumbles too often over the "monster of the week" convention that so many genre shows fall prey to. The typical plot goes something like this: some poor young Smallville teen is exposed to kryptonite-laced meteorite rocks (which are scattered all over the area as a result of the shower that brought Clark to Earth). Said teen then transforms into some hideous creature or is suddenly given a mysterious and deadly power her or she can't control. Naturally, the victims of these mutants are usually all Clark's friends and family, who also include his mother (played by Annette O'Toole from Superman III), his loved from afar girlfriend, Lana Lang (Kristin Kreuk), or his usual partners in crime, Pete (Sam Jones III) and Chloe (Allison Mack). For those of you who don't recognize Chloe (and why would you, as she's a completely new character to the mythology), on this show, she's the cousin of Lois Lane (who we have yet to see on the series). Like Lois, she's also an intrepid journalist, so she's often the hook into unraveling deeper mysteries behind each episode.

In terms of video quality, these episodes look generally very good on DVD. They're all presented in anamorphic widescreen, which is a must for new TV shows on DVD (note that the show is seen in full high-definition on the WB). The episodes show a lot of film grain, particularly in this first season, owing to the budget of the series. That's not really a problem, except that there's also a lot of digital artifacting if you look for it. Contrast is a little bit lacking, but it's generally adequate. Thankfully, the colors are vibrant and accurate, which is good because color plays a huge role on this show. I imagine Season Two will look better on DVD when it arrives in 2004.

The audio is also okay, but it too leaves something to be desired. The sound is presented on DVD in Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround. It definitely serves its purpose, supporting the on-screen images adequately, but it's not very active in terms of rear channel usage. Dialogue is clear and music is well presented, but more active panning for effects and general creation of atmosphere is definitely needed. Again, I expect Season Two will sound better... hopefully in full 5.1.

This six disc set presents all 21 first season episodes of the show. Extras include audio commentary by series creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, as well as director David Nutter, on the pilot episode. There's also a second commentary on the episode Metamorphosis by the creators. The tracks are a little low-key, but there are some nice insights into the changes made in the Superman mythology, and the motivations of the various characters. They're worth a listen. You also get 8 deleted scenes (in anamorphic widescreen with optional audio commentary by the producers - 7 minutes worth of scenes in all). Some of these include very nice character moments, which had to be cut for time. There's a 4x3 storyboard montage for the opening sequence of the pilot episode, which is okay but nothing special. An interactive tour of Smallville lets you click on various locations on the show - you'll get a brief video featurette for each, in which the producers explain the importance of the place to the characters and the story. It's also anamorphic, which is nice. There's a TV spot for Smallville, as well as promos for the WB shows Fearless and Tarzan and Jane. And finally, the set includes DVD-ROM weblinks to more online content at the show's official website, and Chloe's "Wall of Weird". It's not much, but the good is better than you'd expect.

I'll admit it... I'm a Smallville fan. This is a very good show, even if the first season is pretty uneven. If an episode turns you off, my advice is to keep watching, because the next is just as likely to surprise you. They also get better throughout the season, which ends on strong note with a good old-fashioned cliffhanger. Smallville has a spark that really works, in large part due to the excellent cast. Thankfully, the producers have gotten a lot better as they go at nurturing that spark into some genuine dramatic heat. In fact, if Warner were smart, they'd postpone their latest effort to revitalize the Superman feature film franchise and hand the mantle to Smallville. With two or three more years or character development on TV, this cast and this backstory could transition perfectly to the big screen. Did I mention that Christopher Reeve made a damn cool cameo appearance in Season Two as a mysterious scientist with the keys to Clark's identity, and that his character is likely to recur? Well he did, and it is. Trust me... if you love Superman, Smallville is well worth your attention.

Program Rating: B

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B-/C+/C+

Bill Hunt
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