Ranking ‘Smallville’ Episodes, Pt. 1: The Premieres

Posted on September 26, 2010


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As this tenth and final season for Smallville has kicked off, a lot of retrospectives will be flying around, no pun intended. Many fans will also attempt to rate the show in context, particularly in ranking episodes. I’m working on a complete series ranking, an undertaking already accomplished for the first 9 seasons by one viewer.

During that process, I thought I’d address each episode with its counterparts from across the 10 seasons. So premieres will be ranked against other premieres, second episodes against second episodes, and so on.

More after the jump.

While I initially started this blog/site to review a number of different TV shows, it’s fairly apparent that my large focus has been on Smallville. While not my favorite TV show of all-time, it is in my Top 10 and I belong to a large community of fans who interact on a regular basis. In fact, of all the shows I’ve ever liked, Smallville is the one I’ve interacted with people over the most.

So, the majority of my reviews have been for the show. I’m not sure that’s going to be changing any time soon. Not that I don’t watch other shows. But there’s only so much time to watch shows, review shows, work, pursuing my ultimate career goals, and, you know, live life.

While I couldn’t say I’m the foremost expert on Smallville, I am very well versed in the show and have enough history, I think, to make valid comparisons and rankings. I didn’t watch the show in its first season, not having been aware that the show was going into production or exposed to it during that first season but for a few commercials I somehow always managed to just catch out of the corner of my eye. I eventually saw promos for the Season 1 DVD set, which was to be released just prior to Season 2 airing. I’m a Superman fan so I went for the set and got immediately hooked. I ended up joining in on regular viewings of the show part of the way into Season 2 and have stuck with it since.

Credentials out of the way, let’s throw down on these rankings. Again, these are just against the corresponding episodes amongst the seasons. Eventually, I will rank each episode against all episodes and publish a full series ranking.

The premieres…

10. Odyssey (Season 8)
For me, by far, the weakest season premiere of the series. After the very disappointing Season 7, I was ready to ditch on the show. However, there was some excitement and uncertainty about the series because of a number of shake-ups behind the scenes. Michael Rosenbaum and Kristin Kreuk had both left the series, removing two-thirds of the original trinity of series’ stars and focus. More importantly, series creators Al Gough and Miles Millar decided to leave, ushering in new showrunners and fresh ideas.

And yet, ‘Odyssey’ felt like a big hangover from Season 7. They didn’t seem to know how to properly write Lex out of the series for the time being, so his specter hung in the air. Once again, we’re given a Clark without powers… and he dies. Again. And is resurrected. Again. It was neat to see members of the Justice League again but they all seemed criminally incompetent in how they were captured. Chloe is shown to have manifested new powers and lost her healing ability. (Yes, it would be revealed she was infected by Brainiac.) And Martian Manhunter comes to sacrifice his abilities to save Clark.

My issue with Season 7 is it felt like a series of great ideas that were all undercooked and executed very poorly. ‘Odyssey’ felt like more of the same and rather muted any excitement I had mustered for the new regime. It’s not a bad episode, especially in the grand scheme, but it was a rather weak premiere.

9. Bizarro (Season 7)
The Phantoms storyline from Season 6 was hit-and-miss but it ended on a high note with the creation of a cloned Clark who was “bizarre”. While Smallville‘s version of Bizarro was wildly divergent from his comic counterpart, I enjoyed Tom Welling’s performance in the part. The throwdown between Clark and Bizarro was impressive and, after touching on it in Season 3’s ‘Perry’, it was nice to see the focus given to how much a role the sun plays in Clark’s abilities. In addition, Clark stopping the flood from the dam was one of the most stunning visuals of the entire series.

So why does ‘Bizarro’ stack up so low? There’s not really anything technically wrong with the episode. It’s one of the best of the lackluster Season 7. It’s more a personal preference. I’ve never cared for the character of Kara Zor-El and her Smallville version didn’t win me over. Lana alive in China was cringe-inducing. The resolution of the fight with Bizarro was too pat. And ultimately, I didn’t find the new story threads that exciting or engaging.

8. Zod (Season 6)
I can’t say that the Phantoms storyline really truly got me fired up (especially calling them “Zoners”), though starting the season with Clark in the Phantom Zone was a highlight. I liked Raya and wish they could’ve done more with her, which is ironic because I’ve never been huge on the idea of other Kryptonians being around aside from Clark and Zod’s crew.

Speaking of Zod, I must say that I was somewhat disappointed by the use of Zod by the show at this time. Don’t get me wrong. I liked the physical confrontation between Clark and Lex!Zod, but I was particularly keen on the concept of Zod being a disembodied Phantom with seemingly no way to reclaim a body that would be distinctively Zod. While there were a couple of good things, I didn’t feel that Rosenbaum really captured an essence of Zod, so it kind of separated me from the whole effect.

While I was grimacing when I heard the announcement that Zod would be the big bad of Season 9, I am glad they did a (sort of) do-over of the character. Yes, Clark isn’t Superman yet and will likely face Zod again after the series is over. The Season 5/6 Zod storyline just felt a little weak and wrapped up far too tidy for me.

7. Pilot (Season 1)
As pilots go, this episode does fairly well, setting up the show in strong fashion and hitting the ground running. Things are a bit wobbly in the acting department, particularly on Tom Welling’s and Eric Johnson’s parts, but everyone is earnest enough and creates such good will that you still buy into it all. I think they had a great set-up with Jeremy Creek as the villain but ultimate he proves kind of feeble and you don’t feel as emotionally connected to his story as the episode would’ve liked you to be.

From the beginning, as luminous as Kristin Kreuk was, you never really felt like there was much meat to the bones of this characterization of Lana Lang. She felt like an object of affection not a person. I was enchanted by her but I wasn’t that interested in her. Sadly, as soon as the next episode I’d already grown tired of her and knew precisely what her role throughout the series would be.

Tom Welling was winsome enough to stick with Clark. This episode perfectly captured the entire premise and conceit of the series in its early years. I’ve had my issues with Tom’s performances but from the get-go he felt like Clark Kent. Everyone else, Lana and Whitney aside, felt lived in their characters, which made the show that much more appealing.

6. Vortex (Season 2)
‘Vortex’ is actually a well-done premiere that doesn’t get recognized as well as it should. My only real issue with it – and why it falls on the list where it does – is that it happened so early in the series and other premieres feature bigger events and more engaging stories. That said, I think it handled resolution of the stories left over from Season 1’s finale very well and spun us off in great directions for what I would consider Smallville‘s best season.

5. Lazarus (Season 10)
As I mentioned in my full review, I was impressed with how ‘Lazarus’ was allowed to focus on character, most importantly Clark, and breathe for full effect. This was a deflty handled episode that felt like a continuation of the proactive Clark we’d seen in Season 9, particularly in ‘Salvation’. It also set up an exceptional trial for Clark to overcome in his final journey, even if it had to sloppily handle Clark’s characterization in a scene to really do it. The big thing is it seems to address the concerns in matching up this Clark Kent with the Superman known from the comics.

4. Crusade (Season 4)
I don’t care for Season 4 and make no bones about it. The Stones of Power storyline was ludicrous in the way it involved everyone and the Thoreaux Witch storyline did it – and Lana, who should’ve rightfully been written out of the series following a good exit in ‘Covenant’ – no favors.

That said, ‘Crusade’ is a strong follow-up to what I consider to be the best season finale of the entire series, Season 3’s ‘Covenant’. You have a cold, strictly-business Kal-El, breaking the heart of Martha who is already crushed with losing her son and trying to hold on hope for her barely-living comatose husband. You have a wild and fun introduction of the best part of Season 4 in Erica Durance’s Lois Lane. Lex’s inexplicable globetrotting for the stones, as well as the blood purification (that was all-too-quickly dropped), was exciting nonetheless. And Allison Mack’s Chloe wasn’t only missing from the episode, really playing up the idea that she was killed off, but she was also missing from the opening credits.

And, of course, who could forget the moment they told us would never happen – and through clumsy writing sleight-of-hand still “hasn’t” – when Clark flies. Sure, it’s the Kal-El persona but this was Clark’s body. And it was exciting to see that special effect of the kinetic energy draw for the first time and him rocketing off into the sky while Martha was tossed aside like a bag of oats.

Season 4 might have been repulsive but ‘Crusade’ sure wasn’t.

3. Savior (Season 9)
I’m a bit surprised at the lack of love this episode gets from fans, with many dismissing it outright and quite a few claiming it as worst premiere of the series. I was stunned at how different ‘Savior’ was from the Smallville we’d seen before it. There was a significant visual shift that I thought lent a greater weight to the story they were telling and spoke of yet another refocus on the creative side of the show now that Brian Peterson and Kelly Souders were sole showrunners.

After the complete mess of what was arguably the worst season finale of the series, ‘Doomsday’, there were threads that needed to be tied up but really no immediately clear direction to take the show. The biggest of these threads was Lois disappearing with the Legion ring. And while I can’t say I like where they ended up taking that story, I was fired up about it in ‘Savior’ and just as gaga to see Lois’ return as Clark was when he found her on the train he saved.

We finally saw a Clark that was doing something and seem to have a direction of his own choosing in life. And he was wearing an ‘S’ no less.

The problems that would plague Chloe’s character throughout the season would start here but you could at least sympathize with and feel her grief in ‘Savior’. She was completely off-base in her request and recusation of Clark after his response but she still felt like someone affected by the events of ‘Doomsday’. I also really liked the tension created between the two friends and wish they had better expressed that throughout the season than in the ways they eventually did.

Then, of course, there is Zod. I separate my main villains of the series into two camps, those conflicted and those purely evil. While Lex and Lionel certainly top the list of conflicted villains, Zod is easily the most purely evil character ever on the show, besting even Brainiac. Callum Blue’s performance in this episode and Zod’s manipulation of everyone around him completely sold me on the character.

2. Exile (Season 3)
Season 2 is the consistently best season of the series, but Season 3 is still my favorite and it starts here. We finally get some significant time spent in Metropolis as Lana and Jonathan both try to track down Clark, who is the Red-K renegade “Kal” when we first meet him in this episode. Tom has always seemed to have fun playing an alternate version of Clark and he really has a good time with Kal in ‘Exile’. Everyone seems to be having a kick detailing Kal’s crime spree.

Lex’s time spent on the island after his plane crash is a great window into the mind that will crack later in the season. I enjoyed the interplay with “Louis” and the reflection of Lex’s own relationship with Lionel. This would play heavy throughout the season.

The best thing I like about ‘Exile’ is its almost a premiere and finale of its own, ending with a great cliffhanger. Jonathan, powered up in a deal with Jor-El, confronts Red-K Clark and have a super-powered fight, ending with them both going out of a window high up in the LuthorCorp building.

1. Arrival (Season 5)
This was the make-or-break premiere. After the set-up in the epic ‘Commencement’, and the horrible taste of Season 4 still lingering, ‘Arrival’ had to step up and change the game. Boy, did it. This was the first season outside of the original concept of the show and they used it to make a shift towards more of the comic book elements of the source material from the teen drama the show had built itself upon.

We have Kryptonians claiming to be Disciples of Zod. A destroyed town looking out how to recover. The introduction of the Phantom Zone to the Smallville universe. The first appearance of Brainiac on the show, oozing out of a black spaceship. Lionel becomes the vessel that Jor-El will eventually assume, spouting off Kryptonian knowledge. And the creation of the Fortress of Solitude.

Chloe reveals she knows Clark’s secret, forming the backbone of the series for the next few years. Clark begins his training with Jor-El, only to give it up and stay with Lana while she recovers in the hospital, costing his powers and setting up what will come to be a pivotal change in the show and Clark’s character in the later Season 5 episode ‘Reckoning’.

The stakes were high for ‘Arrival’ and they were handled with aplomb. Without this episode, there would not be a true bridge between original recipe Smallville and DC Comics Smallville the show would slowly evoled to over the last five seasons.

Part 2: The Second Episodes