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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Smallville: Season 5 (HD DVD) (HD DVD)
Smallville: Season 5 (HD DVD) (HD DVD)
Warner Bros. // Unrated // November 28, 2006 // Region 0
List Price: $79.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted December 19, 2006 | E-mail the Author
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If you've ever caught more than an episode or two of Smallville, you know the formula by now. Waifish harpy Lana Lang bitches to Clark that she's tired of his secrets, prompting Clark to moan to his parents about having to keep his Kryptonian abilities under wraps from the doe-eyed crone he loves so much. Lana's car flips over eight times when she plows into a meteor freak who was exposed to one of the radioactive rocks while carving a pony out of soap, giving him the uncanny ability to create feral soap ponies. Plus super strength. Clark drops Lana off at the hospital before storming over to the palatial mansion of Lex Luthor, a twentysomething billionaire who runs his multinational empire from a single boxy room in a one-horse farm town.

With smoldering indignance, Clark barges into Lex's office and accuses him of being responsible for Lana's accident. Lex pleads ignorance but offers her the assistance of the finest doctors in Metropolis anyway. Clark then turns to his old pal Chloe for a shoulder to lean on, loudly shouting about his secret in the basement of the Daily Planet. Unsure what she can do to help, Chloe's cousin Lois Lane makes some semi-ironic sarcastic comment about Clark and strips down to her skivvies for no reason in particular. The meteor freak and Lana both learn about Clark's powers in the third act, but the badnik is quickly knocked off, and Lana loses her short-term memory in another disastrous car wreck. The episode ends with Bo Duke giving Clark a smug scoopful of homespun wisdom while the new single from A Simple Plan -- which you can download at thecw.com! -- plays. Fade to black. Roll credits. Cue the teaser for the next episode, which has Lana getting possessed by a mummy.

So, that's not going to seem even a little bit funny when I go back and re-read this review in a few weeks, but it's really not too far off. Smallville has a formula, and if you're reading a review with "season 5" in the title, that means you're probably okay with it. Lana's still a screeching shrew. Only one Clark-friend at a time can know his secret, and everyone else either dies, moves to Wichita, or otherwise has that memory wiped away. The show continues its tendency to mash the reset button when anything of any possible consequence rears its ugly mug, and even with as many intriguing ideas as Smallville's writing staff can cobble together, they're haphazardly tossed aside after the writers had their fun. Characters are defined purely in terms of how they relate to Clark and are rarely given anything to do on their own. Despite surface changes like dropping Clark, Chloe, and Lana in college, the season starts off with pretty much everyone as the same exact characters they were in the show's first season. I'm sure it's frustrating for those loyal fans who tune in every week, but thanks to Smallville's transmission being stuck in first gear, the static storytelling made it painless for me dive headfirst into this set despite missing the past couple of seasons.

To the show's credit, season five does step up Smallville's game a bit. It's revealed in the season premiere that someone Clark loves will die, and even though I'm not a fan of that particular plot device (as if there's some Kryptonian machine that can say "well, we'll patch you up, but I'm going to need a loved one. Nope, someone that really loves you. I mean in-the-opening-credits loves you."), there is a death, it has a meaningful impact on the rest of the cast, and there aren't any signs of it being conveniently retconned out anytime soon. A couple other characters stumble upon Clark's secret and...hey! remember it for more than 40 minutes plus commercials. Lex continues his dark descent, and season five seems more confident juggling his as well as a few other running story arcs this time around.

The season opens with a bang: the Kryptonian acolytes of Zod. The aftermath of a second meteor storm. The introduction of the Fortress of Solitude. A metallic creature who drips from the spaceship in the episode's final moments and shapes himself into Milton Fine (James Marsters), posing as a professor whose uncertain motives could have grave consequences for both Lex and Clark. Fine toys with Clark's loyalties and threatens Lex's empire, making for a strong foil for both of the show's leads throughout the season. We also see Clark's adoptive pop, Jonathan Kent, square off against Lex in a race for the state senate, and the meandering Clark/Lana "will they or won't they?" question finally goes somewhere.

Season five has more of a sense of humor than previous installments, too many of which tended to lean heavily on the whole overwrought soap opera routine. Lana undergoes her annual possession-slash-transformation in "Thirst", a vampiric campfest that everyone had to be expecting with writer Steven S. DeKnight and Buffy alum James Marsters on the payroll. I also really liked "Exposed", and not just 'cause it has Lois awkwardly stripping to the Pussycat Dolls while helping her cousin Chloe investigate a murder in Metropolis' seedy underbelly. The episode guest stars John Schneider's Dukes of Hazzard co-star Tom Wopat and is teeming with nods to their clunky old show. Too many, actually, but hey! What are you gonna do? Smallville takes itself too seriously most of the time, and it's nice to just see the show let its hair down every once in a while.

Following the previous season's "Run", Clark's list of underdressed superhero pals continues to grow this year. First up is his future superfriend Aquaman, who looks and sounds unsettlingly like Vanilla Ice's younger brother. See, Lex is back with a brand new invention, and its waves of sonic devastation grab a hold of the lives of many creatures in the sea tightly. The devastation flows like a harpoon daily and nightly. Can A.C. and Clark make it stop? Yo, I don't know. It's a howlingly bad episode with some of the most "...the hell?" stilted acting from a guest star I've suffered through on network TV and ponytailed-middle-aged-hipster-penned dialogue like, "...and the E.P.A. blames it on temperature change, but I think that's totally bogus", "No, it's cool. I gotta bounce", and "Man, I thought I had the hookup, but the way you flak-jacketed that C-4 -- ugh, that was awesome, bro." The famous Jett Jackson makes a guest spot later in the season as Victor 'Cyborg' Stone, a once-dead football player revived by a team of scientists who aren't ready to give up their cybernetically enhanced guinea pig quite yet. With decent writing plus a likeable, more capable actor like Lee Thompson Young taking point, that one nets a thumbs-up. Smallville also introduces a superheroine played by Denise QuiƱones, only instead of recycling an established DC character like The Huntress or Wildcat, the writers instead opt for some generic masked vigilante. Forgettable but okay.

I guess the producers figured it'd be worth the twenty bucks a month or whatever to treat Smallville's writing staff to a Netflix account. "Void" is a retread of Flatliners, with Lana taking a Kryptonite cocktail for near-death experiences that let her briefly chat with her long-dead parents. Lex and Clark have similar visions throughout the course of the episode, but while their lost folks toss out information that could have a profound effect on the course the series takes, Lana's pretty much just say "Hey, honey! Golly, we sure do love you. Nice to see you again. Come up anytime!" Who cares? Oh, and she sweats and steals 'cause she's a junkie. A junkie in the "Jessie's Song" sense, but...hey! Like Smallville's going to allow Lana to do anything naughty for long. I've read that "Mercy" is a favorite among many fans, but it's such a shameless knock-off of Saw -- with a masked tormentor on a video monitor trying to teach Lionel Luthor the evils of his ways through a series of deadly games in a run-down warehouse -- that I was distracted from appreciating the episode for what it is. It's one thing to take inspiration from a movie, but it's quite another to follow it beat-by-beat and water anything remotely gruesome down for network standards and practices. "Tomb" lifts pretty generously from Stir of Echoes but stands alone better as an episode and serves as a decent showcase for Allison Mack's always-charming Chloe. "Lockdown", which aired in Europe as Panic Room 2: Let's Get This Party Started...not so much.

"Lockdown" stands out as one of the season's lower points, but there really aren't all that many out-and-out clunkers. "Aqua" is abysmal. Likewise for "Fanatic", where an overzealous supporter of Lex's political campaign shaves her head and butchers anyone who stands in the way of her balding buddy's race for public office. "Hypnotic", which has Clark enthralled by a bejeweled skank, wouldn't have seemed out of place with the rest of the first season's freak-of-the-week parades. Aside from those, the weaker installments were at least tolerable, and some episodes that should've been missteps worked surprisingly well. Every long-running show has to have the "look at what your life could've been!" Christmas miracle, and this time around, it's "Lexmas". Not nearly as bad as the title makes it sound, the episode has Lex's late mother serving up a look at how idyllic his future could be with a simple decision, but she picks the damn near worst day to use as a showcase. This type of episode would traditionally be a throwaway, but what Lex sees in this potential future as well as how he reacts actually has a profound impact on the course of the season.

Tom Welling really starts to come into his own as an actor this season, seeming particularly impressive in "Splinter", an episode that leaves Clark deeply paranoid when he's infected by a shard of silver Kryptonite. Smallville may be best known for its high production values, elaborate stunts, and impressive effects work, but it handles more straightforward suspense sequences even more adeptly, such as Clark's deranged stalking in "Splinter" and a psychotic killer tormenting the rest of the show's pretty, young actresses in "Tomb". Allison Mack, Michael Rosenbaum, and John Glover remain eminently charismatic and really buoy the show, even through its weaker episodes. Fans of the original Superman movies should appreciate the many nods to those films this season, from the rise of the crystalline Fortress of Solitude to the spinning two-dimensional prisons of the Phantom Zone.

Smallville is an addictive guilty pleasure. I can find plenty to gripe about, and I can't really defend why I watch it, exactly, but I (kinda) keep tuning in anyway. If you have a raging hatred for the show, this season isn't likely to change your mind, and it's not the best starting point for HD DVD owners eager for the format's first TV boxed set either. Still, if you've caught the first four seasons and have made it this far in the review, chances are you'll find season five of Smallville worth picking up.

Video: Whenever I've caught Smallville in high-def on cable, I'm used to seeing extremely heavy blocking during strobe effects and particularly fast motion, something that's guaranteed to happen at least a couple of times an episode. The compression on this five disc HD DVD set is far more adept, and the 1.78:1 image is also more detailed and crisply defined than any TV series I've watched on cable or over-the-air. As slick as Smallville looks on HD DVD, though, it's not perfect.

One of the upsides many DVD collectors were hoping to see from these next-gen formats is a reduction of the number of discs in their boxed sets. Season five of Smallville dropped from six discs on DVD to just five on HD DVD thanks to the format's beefier capacity and the use of advanced video codecs. Smallville marks the first television boxed set on HD DVD, but there are still some kinks to work out, particularly on the discs with five episodes. Some light blocking is visible after an explosive effect that opens disc two's "Solitude", and a number of backgrounds have a appearance noisier than the usual film grain. Considering the episode's title, I guess it's not really a spoiler that the climax is set at the Fortress of Solitude, and a stretch of the battle there has an unusual swirling of white and black that's either a botched special effect or a glaring authoring error.

Around the 9:22 mark in "Tomb", the light bouncing off a chair and leather couch in Lex's office has a sparkling, unstable appearance, clearly the result of clumsy compression. I'm sure it sounds ridiculous to gripe about the way the edge of a couch looks for a few short seconds in one episode, but it's not the type of problem you have to stand two inches from the screen and squint to see. It's extremely distracting and should never have made it past any sort of QA check. A similar effect occurred around the 15:22 mark in a rainy exterior shot of the Kent farm and again on a phone a few minutes later.

I'm admittedly not an expert in the art of video compression, but my guess is that to pack five episodes' worth of video onto a disc requires either a lot of breathing room for the bitrate or a great deal of fine tuning from a compressionist. With 16 hours or so of material (not counting extras) on this set, I can understand why a compressionist couldn't go frame-by-frame and tweak each individual shot, but the fact that these problems are only really noticeable on the discs with five episodes makes me think Smallville would've been better off with a sixth disc.

I infrequently spotted a couple of shimmering edges, but that's a minor concern, as is some occasional posterization, such as a close-up of Lex's head near the end of "Fragile".

I don't want to sound like I'm ragging too much on the way Smallville looks on HD DVD. None of the episodes are uniformly poor; pretty much everything ranks at least as 'very good', and some episodes like "Arrival" and "Fragile" have an additional pop that outclasses any television show I've watched in high-def. Some stretches are grainier or not quite as sharp and detailed as others, but even with those minor and hardly unexpected inconsistencies, I generally didn't find much to gripe about. The worst of the compression errors don't add up to a minute in length, and even then, it's still a dramatic improvement over what I'm used to seeing on cable and over-the-air. The good more than outweighs the mostly inconsequential bad, and none of the complaints I have are severe enough for me to discourage any Smallville fans from picking up this set. Still, I can't give high marks to a set with sub-standard compression, even if the overwhelming majority of it really does look great.

Audio: The fifth season of Smallville was released on DVD in plane-jane stereo, but the HD DVD has gotten a sonic upgrade to Dolby Digital Plus 5.1. Although it doesn't have the expansive dynamic range, aggressive surrounds, or devastating subwoofer activity of a feature film, Smallville sounds very nice on HD DVD. The lower frequencies aren't thunderous but pack a punchy wallop, and even though the rear channels are reserved primarily to reinforce the action up front, the Emmy-winning mix of "Arrival" and moments like the explosive teaser for "Fragile" make effective use of the multichannel setup. My only complaint would be an occasionally edgy quality to the dialogue, but it's easily ignored. Smallville isn't likely to unseat Batman Begins, V for Vendetta, or King Kong as anyone's favorite sounding HD DVD, but it's still a strong effort and extraordinary for a TV series.

Subtitles are offered in French and Spanish, and there are no alternate soundtracks.

Supplements: The flipside of the packaging promises extras that are "partially 1080i high definition", but there aren't any high-def bells and whistles that I could find. There is one feature exclusive to this HD DVD set, though: an "In Program Experience" on the effects-heavy season premiere, "Arrival". Similar to the In Movie Experiences that Warner has included for several of their HD DVDs (only retitled 'cause Smallville isn't a movie), the In Program Experience overlays a picture-in-picture window onto the screen at certain points during the episode for a sort of visual commentary. The feature is anchored around the extensive visual effects work in "Arrival", featuring comments by Entity FX's Mat Beck, Andrea Shear, Trent Smith, John Mitchell, Matt Collaroffice, Eli Jarra, and Noriaki Matsumoto. A second picture-in-picture window occasionally pops up in the bottom-left of the screen with storyboards, various stages of the computer effects, and raw footage from filming before Entity got their hands on it. The comments are light on technical jargon, but definitions for a few terms appear on-screen after they're used. Some of the particularly interesting notes include the use of footage from the original Superman movie and Twister (!) in the episode, the way the effects on the show have evolved over the past five years, a runthrough how effects are typically approached for an episode of Smallville, the mix of practical, in-camera effects with the digital wizardry, and insight into why effects are tackled a certain way instead of merely explaining how they're pulled off. Also kinda neat to hear that Entity FX scours fan forums to hear what people think, and if they stumble upon this review for whatever reason, they can walk away knowing that I really dug this feature.

Like most of Warner's In Movie Experiences, there are gaps in between comments, and a click of the 'Right' button on the remote nudges the Experience forward if you'd like to skip to the next piece instead of waiting another minute or two.

It might seem kind of odd that "Thirst" -- y'know, the campy one with Vamp-Lana -- is one of the two episodes in this set to feature an audio commentary, but that's kind of the point. The Smallville crew voted for "Thirst" as the worst episode of the season, and writer Steven S. DeKnight and his fellow executive producers Alfred Gough, Miles Millar, and Ken Horton decided to bang out a "what were they thinking?" commentary. With all the snark of a Television without Pity Bitterness Fiesta, it's basically forty minutes of the four of them poking fun at the show: their least favorite sets, the ever-shortening distance between Metropolis and Smallville, the number of characters who've had needles jabbed into their hearts Pulp Fiction style, Lana's consequence-free murder spree over the years, how the twentieth episode each season always winds up being one of the worst, and the way one couple this season breaks up again and again and again and again. They touch on "Thirst" itself too, an episode they can't stomach thanks mostly to some dreadful early cuts even if the end result is watchable enough. The slashed budget is a frequent topic, and it turns out that maybe it's not so great an idea to have your virtuous hero dig through a sorostitute's underwear drawer. With quips like "Oh, we're all hacks." and how one visual effect is "a bit Charmed", this ridiculously fun track might go down as my favorite commentary that I've heard this year. I've probably said that six or seven times in '06, but...well, here's a seventh or eighth.

The "Splinter" commentary, which teams writer/co-exective producer Steven S. DeKnight with director James Marshall and DeKnight's Buffyverse mainstay James Marsters, is much more routine. My favorite comments really didn't have anything to do with the episode itself -- the sound guy tattling to Marsters' girlfriend that he'd heard him scoping out chicks, tricking some tykes into thinking they'd found a crashed spaceship, and Smallville's adeptness at filming the most devastatingly effective car wrecks on network television -- but a lot of the rest is kinda Mutual Admiration Society material or long notes about the craft of acting. Not bad, but I found my interest waning around halfway through, and it didn't pick up after that.

Both commentaries contain spoilers for the rest of the season, so if you haven't caught season 5 of Smallville before, hold off on giving 'em a listen until you're finished with "Vessel".

The half-hour featurette "Smallville's 100th Episode: The Making of a Milestone" offers a detailed look of every stage of production: breaking the story, the pitch to the network and studio, the stacks and stacks of notes and various drafts, the creative back and forth between the writers and producers, a video conference between the team in Los Angeles and production in Vancouver, sets, costuming, hair and make-up, stunts, editing, visual effects, the sound design and mixing, the score...even the telecine and color tweaking. It's an extremely thorough examination of what goes into making a show like this, a far cry from the sort of self-congratulatory "hey! We're making our hundredth episode!" back-patting that I went in expecting. Very, very much worth a look.

Each disc also includes a set of deleted scenes. "Hidden" has not quite a minute and a half of additional footage, including a couple of brief bits with the producers continuing to mine as much out of that hospital set as they possibly can. It's a good thing those corn-fed Kansans are so resilient 'cause pretty much every single character is in the hospital at least once this season. 50 Cent wishes he had the street cred to have gotten shot as many times as Lex has. "Aqua" serves up a couple minutes more of A.C., this time defensively defending his defense of the ocean to Lois.

Disc two has a couple minutes more from "Thirst", including...yup!...another scene at the hospital. We're also treated to an awkward, extended look at the Tri-Psis and their new pledges.

There are an agonizing six additional minutes on disc three for "Fanatic", one of the season's lowest points. More stalkin', more Single White Female-dom, more of Martha's concern for Jonathan's health, and more of Lois overzealously stapling up posters. Just...more. Oh, and a superhearing bit without the usual sound and visual effects. Clark also makes a minute and a half long impassioned plea in "Reckoning" at the Fortress of Solitude that would've appeared near the end of the episode.

Disc four features three deleted scenes for "Tomb", running a little over three and a half minutes in total. We finally get to see the green sheriff, and Lex once again claims that he's not the villain he's made out to be. "Cyborg" has a 24 second snippet with Victor's galavanting being charted on a laptop, and "Hypnotic" features three minutes' worth of scenes with the toothy Simone hypnotizing her way out of a speeding ticket and Clark filling Lois in on his Simone-fatuation.

The fifth and final disc tacks on a grisly tag to the opening mayhem of "Fragile", a minute of Lionel making sandwiches from "Mercy", Martha dolling Lois up for a date with an occasionally invisible seasoned killer in "Fade", and two additional scenes from "Vessel", one of which is a goofy snippet with Lex that's shot like an overly artsy perfume commercial circa 1993. In total, the scenes on disc five run around five and a half minutes.

The five "Vengeance Chronicles" webisodes -- around 18 minutes' worth -- with Chloe and the masked vigilante from "Vengeance" have also been included. The attention to continuity is nice, but it's a little too cheesy and low-rent for my tastes, plus the story kinda falls apart near the end.

All of this additional footage is letterboxed but is not in high-def and has not enhanced for widescreen displays.

The fifth season of Smallville comes packaged in a single five-disc box that's about twice the width of a traditional HD DVD case. Tucked inside is a booklet with a spoiler-heavy write-up of each episode, so steer clear of the insert if this is your first pass through the season.

Conclusion: Well, there's "good", and then there's that qualified flavor of "Smallville-good". Season five of Smallville is a drastic improvement over many of the episodes I've seen from earlier in the show's run, but it's still too deeply flawed to amount to much more than a guilty pleasure. If you've stuck with the show this long, you might as well keep going, but gearheads who are intrigued just because this is the first season set on HD DVD would be better off getting a taste of earlier episodes from HDNet before diving in. Recommended, but not all that enthusiastically.
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