The Series: Okay, I'm one of the biggest fans of TV on DVD as a means of reviving an older show or providing a commercial free means of seeing a series without the edits of syndication (a prime example of both being La Femme Nikita). Many shows from decades ago are being released these days but the latest trend is seeing shows that just finished a season come out on DVD, in time for fans to catch up for the following season. Smallville had built a large fan base by using the teen soap opera formula that touched on the supernatural like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed, and Angel to name a few, yet keeping all the romantic drama to allow the teenage female demographic their fantasy heart throb man; a sensitive and powerful man that looks like a runway model. Building on what went before in the series, Smallville: The Complete Fifth Season was thematically limited only by the repetitive use of the formulaic approach most TV is forced into; setting up a situation that must be solved within the allotted 42 minutes (the fact that most of the cast is far older than their characters are is a standard problem that might never be solved given the way casting is handled).
Smallville: The Complete Fifth Season picked up where the fourth left off; Smallville has been struck yet again by a meteor shower, wrecking havoc but also bringing another spaceship along with it. The ship contains some fellow Kryptonians and Clark's Fortress of Solitude play into the ultimate resolution, with Clark sacrificing his abilities in order to save Chloe (Allison Mack). This leads, of course, into the youth actually needing the powers he has come to view as a curse keeping him from his love, Lana Lang (Kristin Kreuk), but the series repeated use of moral choices furthering the angst felt by the cast had long been established. I found the fourth season something of a chore to watch so I only watched about half the episodes of season five, my first exposure to the complete season watching these over the weekend. While the geek of the week aspect seemed to taper off in the third season (to an extent), this season seemed to embrace the idea of the potential spinoff; from the Auqaman character in Aqua, the Elektra-esque character of Vengeance, the lead of Cyborg (a popular comic book character), to the young telekinetic gal in Fragile. Each of them seemed to cater to a specific demographic (female, Latino, Black, kid, or surfer dude) much like the scattering of similar characters in previous seasons but they were really pushed this time.
The main arc that carried through the season was the Milton Fine/Brainiac thread where a seemingly innocuous college professor evolves over the season to become the biggest danger of the human race, and a mere precursor to the upcoming General Zod arc. If you saw the cliffhanger season finale, you'll understand how the dangers of Lex merge with the Kryptonian terrorist leader but the old adage that you can judge the hero by the quality of the enemies he has held truer than most would understand. Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum) continued to propel the story forward more than all the romance or flavor of the week villain types that were brought up. In the earlier seasons, Lex was portrayed as a misunderstood buddy of Clark's (like the original Superboy stories) who, under the thumb of an oppressive and manipulative father (Lionel Luthor, played excellently by John Glover), becomes as treacherous and dangerous as any alien foe presented.
The foes and friends were well played but the season, while substantially better than the cheesy fourth season, had a couple of episodes that were major low points of the storyline. The worst of these was the Halloween ordered Thirst; where even the suits on the commentary track admitted it was horribly lame and the result of the network wanting a holiday episode. The vampire story took the weakest elements of the Buffy series and magnified them a lot; though the half dressed coeds and hot tub scene did at least make for nice eye candy. Lexmas a Christmas tale in the vein of It's A Wonderful Life with Lex given the choice between a mundane life as a well respected man in the community or the destined powerhouse villain. It was nearly as throw away in nature and side stepped too much of the background to really connect. The other episodes that didn't work as well almost all had some redeeming qualities even if a major part (like the silver kryptonite in Splinter) could've been better worked out.
The death in Reckoning added some spice and some of the episodes that used the least amount of effects were actually the best in terms of the drama but again, the ensemble nature of the secondary characters kept the show from getting stale. There were some notable guest appearances too, the best being Carrie Fisher and Tom Wompat, but the emergence of Lois Lane (hotty Erica Durance; best seen in Exposed and Aqua) as a more important player was a great idea by the writers too. The episodes in order and by date for the season were as follows:
1) Arrival (9/29/2005)
Smallville: The Complete Fifth Season worked best when it catered to the strengths of the series and it did this better than at any time since the second season. Some of the creative staff obviously cared enough to revamp the show as it was getting stale and some new blood helped them elevate the dynamic of the show. It would be really easy (far too easy in fact) for the show to focus on Clark's powers saving the day at every turn or making the right decision all the time. Rosenbaum and Glover were as great as ever but the true saving grace of the season for me was the addition of James Marsters as Milton Fine in the preparation of Zod arc. I admit that the political race thread showed some potential and even provided some decent material but the season was good because of the multitude of decent episodes, not the limited times the show jumped the shark. I thought that the quality of the technical matters, the extras, and the content of the 22 episodes was enough to rate the DVD set as Highly Recommended.
Picture: Smallville: The Complete Fifth Season was presented in anamorphic widescreen color with an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 as aired on the Warner Brothers network. The fleshtones were accurate, the picture crisp and clear, and the DVD set was befitting of a top of the line, recently aired season from a major network. The overall picture quality was top notch this time and I can't say that I've seen a better looking TV on DVD show.
Sound: The audio was presented in 2.0 Dolby Digital English as it aired on network TV earlier this year with optional subtitles in French and Spanish (not to mention CC for the hearing impaired). The separation between the tracks was very distinctive, particularly during the special effects and the music, with a good amount of direction and head space. From the shows I caught as it aired, none of the songs appear to have been altered as in other television shows released on DVD have been.
Extras: I liked the extras presented on the DVD more than a little bit with the ~20 minute Vengeance Chronicles fleshing out some more details from Vengeance (the possible spin-off) in a related "sort of" episode that was shown on the internet when the episode first aired back in February. There was a related Easter Egg to this section that fans will enjoy too, unlocking some neat features of it's own. There were also audio commentaries on Thirst and Splinter as discussed above with the creative types expounding on some of the interesting aspects of the episodes as well as the season, actor James Marsters joining in on the second one. Fans will also enjoy the lengthy Making of a Milestone featurette where the 100th episode (Reckoning) was given it's own Behind the Scenes look, a short couple of features checking out the Superman legend via Bryan Singer's new movie (Superman Returns) and a teaser for a documentary called Look, Up In The Sky! The Amazing Story of Superman too. Of importance to fans will also be the numerous deleted scenes from episodes; Hidden, Aqua, Thirst, Fanatic, Reckoning, Tomb, Cyborg, Hypnotic, Fragile, Mercy, Fade, and Vessel. The 6 disc set also included the folding book format with the excellent booklet describing lots of episode details as in previous seasons.
Final Thoughts: Smallville: The Complete Fifth Season was the best season of the show in a couple of years and better in some ways since it didn't rely on the freak of the week premise the first two seasons seemed to shove down our collective throats. The series had been in a slump due to some bad decisions on where to take the characters in the previous two seasons and the return of a longer thread involving Zod proved to be just what the doctor ordered to change the course of the show in favor of the fans. The upcoming season may waste the opportunity or make for an even better show but that'll depend on where the creative staff decide to take it but as far as I'm concerned, the Fifth season had some of the best writing, acting, and tension of the award winning series. I know the switch to the HD versions is coming and the show might look even better in the future but the reason so many of us stopped tuning in previously was addressed and I hope this trend continues as Clark Kent learns how to become the Man of Steel.