Smallville: Season Eight (Blu-ray)

January 28, 2012 17 Min Read

Review by: Daniel Pulliam

Plot: What’s it about?

The first season of “Smallville” originally premiered on October 16th, 2001. In retrospect, I find it more than significant that the series began so shortly after 9/11. Traditionally speaking, Superman has always faired far better with audiences when the real world has found itself in greater need of what he represents. I suspect that the initial success of “Smallville” had as much to do with people reaching out for an incorruptible icon as it did anything else. Looking back now, the first season of the series could be best summarized as a “freak of the week”, formulaic show. As times have changed in our real world, however, “Smallville” has never hesitated to evolve as well. The second season began to establish a deeper mythology for its characters, while still maintaining a bit of the serial formula of Season 1. In Season 3, the tone shifted to incorporate darker thematic elements, and the show became more than a series of relatively self-contained episodes. Season 4 was a bit of a transitional one, bringing in characters like Lois Lane for the first time. And while some of the storylines were a bit out there (Lana-Fu, anyone?), that year ended on a high note with Clark finally discovering the fortress of solitude. Season 5 was a huge improvement over the preceding year overall, and several developments (such as the death of Jonathan Kent) began to line the series up closer and closer with the Superman back-story I was so familiar with in the Richard Donner films. The sixth season saw the show focusing more on relationships once again, a path some fans loved while others thought distracted too heavily from where the series should have been headed by that point. During the seventh year of the series, I began hearing more and more cries of “is that show still on?” And if Season 7 wasn’t quite the rebound I was hoping for for the show, it was still more than entertaining enough to keep me tuned-in every week.

I only give that rather dry summation of the series’ history to make a point: “Smallville” has always been an extremely underrated and underappreciated show. To have lasted as long as it has on the premise of a prequel is pretty amazing. Most shows don’t even make it to Season 8 (and now Season 9) in the first place, let alone do so with a concept that, by all accounts, probably should have run its course years ago. Everyone knows where the Superman mythology is headed, after all. But it’s a testimony to the continued creativeness of the series’ writing team that “The Complete Eighth Season” emerged for me as one of the strongest and most consistently engaging seasons that “Smallville” has ever had. Virtually gone are episodes that add nothing to the story arc or throwaway characters that we never see again. Even a few of the early episodes in Season 8 that appear at first to be unimportant become unexpectedly significant toward the end. Lois and Clark have far more time onscreen this season, and Doomsday is even introduced as Clark’s ultimate foil. Granted, as many have pointed out, the series probably should have changed its title to “Metropolis” a few years ago, as it’s really not about that boy from a farm town any longer. But regardless of what one thinks about “Smallville’s” leisurely pace in getting where it’s going, no one can argue that the powers that be are doing something very right headed now into Season 9. I, for one, can’t wait to see how they finally manage bring the “Smallville-verse” fully in line with the mythology that we all know and love. Season 8 was a huge step in the right direction for the series as a whole (yes, even including the Lana arc that so many apparently disliked), and I hope the show continues to inspire us next year just as it has since way back in 2001.

Ironically, I think that one of the major factors of the artistic success of Season 8 was that “Smallville” was faced with a sizable budget cut going into that year. A true case of necessity and invention, the lower budget meant that the writers had to focus more on moving the characters forward and rely less on empty spectacle. Much of “Smallville’s” sixth and seventh seasons got bogged down in that kind of storytelling with episodes like “Combat” and “Bizarro”. And I’m not singling those out as particularly poor episodes (they’re both actually extremely entertaining), but while they were visually fun to watch, they ultimately did little to advance the real point of the show (i.e., getting us from Clark to Superman). Also in Season 8, far fewer commercially-licensed songs were able to be implemented. This meant that the season would, by necessity, favor an almost exclusively orchestral soundtrack. The end result lent the show a much more cinematic and grown-up feel. That subtle but vital change in tone and not-so-subtle change in focus toward central character arcs gives Season 8 a more intent and cohesive feel than many of the seasons that preceded it. It’s almost incredible to say, but “Smallville” in Season 8 is as strong as it has ever been artistically. Sure, there are gaping plot holes large enough to drive a Mack truck through that seem to crop up every few episodes, but I try and always keep in mind that I am, in fact, watching a series about an alien who shoots fire from his eyes, blows hinges off doors, hears things from miles away, and throws cars around like tinker toys. It’s important, I think, to keep these things in perspective. For fans of Superman, though, “Smallville” is as well-done an origin story as they could ever have hoped for. It just so happens to also be a surprisingly strong television series in its own right. Bring on Season 9!

Video: How does it look?

For a newly-produced television series, “Smallville” hasn’t enjoyed the most solid Blu-ray releases. The previous season, in fact, attempted to squeeze all 20 episodes onto a mere three discs, leading to a slew of compression and noise problems, compromised blacks, clarity inconsistencies and shimmering to contend with. As a fan of the series, I’m thrilled to say that many (though not all) of those problems have thankfully been eradicated this time around. Here, we have 22 episodes housed on four discs, the increased space allotted per episode no doubt playing a vital role in making this set of transfers the easy victor over the previous offering. The main improvement here is overall crispness and clarity of the image. In viewing the previous year’s Blu-ray, I often felt that I was watching something that was just on par with the broadcast version. Not so here. For the first time since it began appearing on Blu-ray, “Smallville” finally looks close to how it should in high definition. The video quality here easily surpasses that of the versions I saw broadcast, and fans should be very pleased with the effect this has on the overall experience. Check out the scene in the very first episode where Clark relaxes on Oliver’s private jet. Nothing on the earlier Blu-ray releases even approached that level of sharpness or detail. Clothing and skin textures really come to life this time, giving the show that frequent 3-D pop so often lacking in earlier seasons. Colors, as before, are bold and clean, and black levels have even been improved slightly over Season 7 as well, with deeper and inkier results. Unfortunately, I can’t give these discs an unqualified recommendation as there are still some compression issues here and there to contend with. Warner Bros. is no doubt trying to get the most bang for their buck with these releases, and I suspect that one more disc, with four to five episodes per disc instead of five to six, would have made all the difference in the world. As it stands, these transfers are quite strong, but still not as effective as they could be were compression (and the resulting digital noise present on what should be stable backgrounds) not still a minor annoyance. That said, this is very easily the best “Smallville” has ever looked on a home video format, and even those who weren’t too thrilled with last season’s edition should at least give these a rent. From the perspective of someone who has seen this series on every medium on which it has been released, I found the results on this Season 8 release to be quite impressive…a welcome first for “Smallville”.

Audio: How does it sound?

If the video is a pretty drastic improvement over Season 7, the audio is, comparatively, more of the same. As per Warner’s habit with Smallville, all 22 episodes of Season 8 come equipped only with lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes. That’s not to say that the audio, for what it is, is particularly weak, because it isn’t. But after getting used to the lossless compression we enjoy on so many feature films (and even other television shows) these days on high definition media, it’s a shame these mixes weren’t given a bit more room to breathe. The resulting tracks have a decidedly “DVD” feel to them, though I will say to their credit that they are quite powerful and even moderately immersive when called for. Surrounds, while not as consistently in use as I would have preferred, are occasionally used to heighten the effectiveness of what’s happening onscreen, and I will say that I came away from these discs with the feeling that the audio was a bit more controlled and pleasing than that of the episodes’ broadcast counterparts. Separation is very good, as is directionality. Transparency, as lossy tracks go, is pretty strong, and I was never taken out of the episodes due to any particular deficiency of the accompanying audio. I’m still giving the tracks a strong rating, as I believe my perception of what I’m hearing is, at least in part, influenced by my bias against lossy soundtracks. No one will be put off by these sound mixes to be sure, but they just don’t distinguish themselves as I feel they could and should have. The audio aspect of “Smallville” is sadly a mostly overlooked component to the show’s continued success and effectiveness, but the outstanding work of the series’ score composer, Louis Febre, keeps everything appropriately (dare I say) epic. It’s the kind of sweeping, majestic, and even intimate orchestral accompaniment that simply begs for a lossless option. The show’s music editor, Chris McGeary, is even up for an Emmy this year for his work on the episode “Bloodline”.

Supplements: What are the extras?

While I’m not sure if it qualifies as an “extra” per se, there’s a newly-added feature on Season 8 that allows the viewer to turn the recap sequences on or off based on personal preference. This is especially useful for those watching the series straight through who don’t find the need for a “Previously on Smallville” segment preceding every few episodes. It’s a nice touch and a welcome and clever use of Blu-ray’s enhanced functionality. Several deleted scenes are included on the discs just as they were with Season 7, with indicators in the booklet as to which episodes contain them. The scenes are presented in 1080p video and 2.0 Stereo audio only. Honestly, I was happy to get these scenes in HD at all, and they’re an interesting look at a few things that were left on the cutting room floor, even if most of them are a bit extraneous and unnecessary. Still, it’s a nice addition for completist purposes. There are also two featurettes included on the release. The first is a piece on Allison Mack’s directorial debut, the ill-received episode “Power”. Mack is candid and a real pleasure to watch as she brings us into the world of filming “Smallville” from the other side of the camera. The second featurette is on the creation of “Doomsday” for Season 8, a feat I’m still shocked the series managed to accomplish to the degree of effectiveness that it did with such a shoestring budget. There are also a pair of episode-specific commentary tracks, one for my personal favorite episode of the Season, “Identity”, and the other for “Legion”, which comic book fans will no doubt be thrilled to learn includes writer Geoff Johns. All in all, this is a pretty satisfying package that will please fans of the series. It’s not as filled with extras as I would have personally liked, but then I don’t know if that would be entirely possible. I would also love to see the return of the “Blooper Reel” feature that was so entertaining on the first few series box sets. Still, I’m more than pleased to add this set, with its much-improved video quality and solid audio mix to my collection…and to say that I’m pleased with this release is saying quite a bit. I have high standards for “Smallville”, and the Blu-ray release of The Complete Eighth Season comes with my highest recommendation.

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