Most TV shows have to create one (or maybe two) lead characters which audiences can follow through each and every episode - The Shield has Michael Chiklis' excellent Vic Mackey, Alias has the lovely Jennifer Garner's Sydney Bristow and CSI: Miami is dominated by the ever-reliable David Caruso. However, very few shows come with pre-established lead characters who draw us in more than the big names on offer. Smallville is one of them - a TV series revolving around the big man himself, Superman, during his younger years on the planet. Personally I don't adhere to the Tarantino's Kill Bill proposition that Superman is the best of all of the comic book superheroes (The much darker and much more interesting Batman takes that title - if you don't count the Sin City graphic novels' Marv) but his youth is obviously much more conducive to painting an interesting picture of High School life with a difference.
Although the show primarily revolves around Superman's alter ego Clark Kent and his colourful teen years, he is not the only familiar name that we will recognise from comic book lore. Aside from his ever-reliable parents, Martha and Jonathan, we get the childhood sweetheart, Lana Lang and the brooding would-be nemesis, Lex Luthor. To add to what we are familiar with we get the best friend Chloe and the added influence of Lex's equally shadowy father Lionel, the first in the long list of alterations they had to make to the Superman legacy in order to make the show more interesting, the latest of which is the appearance of a new but very familiar character at the beginning of the fourth season.
We come into the show after three whole seasons, which is quite a long journey for any newcomer to make without any knowledge of the history. I cannot stress the importance of starting a series like this from the beginning, but as a very brief recap Smallville started with a meteor strike that hailed an extra-terrestrial baby to the Earth. Adopted by the Kents, Clark Kent was borne unto us and we spent much of the first season being introduced us to the main characters and establishing their relationships - including the on-off will-they-won't-they bond between Clark and Lana. Many of the standalone episodes showcased mysterious Smallville residents who had been somehow 'affected' by the meteorite and we saw an increasing paranoia by Lex Luthor, the son of corrupt billionaire businessman Lionel, who starts to take an interest in Clark's mysterious origins. Subsequent seasons play out the Lana/Clark romance to its extreme - until we don't really care whether they are together or not - see Lex undergo no end of devious mistreatment at the hand of his evil father, culminating in Lionel's incarceration - and promote Chloe to the position of inquisitive mind when it comes to Clark, particularly given her involvement with the Smallville High School newspaper, the Torch. Superpowers-wise, we see Clark learning how to control his strength and speed, how to use his x-ray vision and heat-vision, then his super-hearing, with even a little bit of gravity-defying hovering thrown into the mix. He also faces the threat of his Achilles' heel, Kryptonite (kind of a big issue living on a planet which it is made of a substance that kills you) - both in its most destructive green form and then, later on, in its more devious red form, which basically turns Clark evil (or rather very, very naughty). We are also introduced to Clark's real father, Jor-El, whose aura inhabits a strange, purportedly ancient cave and who Jonathan Kent made a deal with to gain the power to stop Clark's last red kryptonite crime-spree. Phew, I don't know what happened to the 'brief' introduction but, anyway, the third season closed with a multitude of cliffhangers. Lex had been poisoned, Chloe's house was blown up and Clark has followed his Kryptonian father's calling and unlocked a secret portal in the cave - with dramatic consequences involving his Earth father, Jonathan.
Now, I am afraid that I cannot see how I can review this fourth season without giving away some spoilers, one of which occurs in the opening scene. If you want to experience all of the surprises first-hand, skip to the end and go and buy this series. You have been warned. The fourth season kicks off with the introduction of a new character who will go on to be a regular throughout the season. You see, the whole Lana Lang thing was clearly getting too much for audiences - in much the same way that Kim's exploits in 24 became so irritatingly improbable that they had to take her out of the show - so, whilst Lana is still lurking around somewhere ready to spoil all the fun, the focus is now very much on this newcomer. Lois Lane. A lightning strike sends her car off the road when, low and behold, who does she find but Clark lying naked in the middle of a field. Familiar territory, but a not so familiar Clark, who has no memory of his life so far but appears to have a new super-power... Soon - but not without some effort - things are seemingly back to normal. Clark is Clark again, Lana returns from Paris with a new beau in tow, Lex is still suffering the after-effects of the poison but has a new quest to dominate his life and Lois is determined to get to the truth behind Chloe's assassination.
The season sees various old and new enemies - and even a new colour Kryptonite - emerge to challenge Clark's strength of will and super-powers, along with a few potential new friend - including a rather fast young superhero who most comic fans will be pleased to see. Clark also join the High School football team, with some fairly interesting results. In fact, these guys have all been at high school for an unbelievable length of time now (most of the cast must be in their twenties!) so this is also finally their year of graduation, leading to the graduation ball and lots of farewell tears shed. Generally, it is a strong season, with good standalone episodes mainly thanks to the introduction of the witty, sassy Lois Lane - whose fresh face has given the show a new lease of life. Purportedly brought on board because everything was getting too dark in the series, she serves her purpose well and the resulting episodes are still adventurous and thrilling but with a new, more comical edge. The real trouble comes with the story arc, involving three mystic pieces to a mystic puzzle (sound familiar?) which draws in the interest of Lex, Clark and, most strangely, Lana. Now Lana's range of emotions fluctuates between one of two looks - smiling or crying, sometimes one right before the other. Choosing to involve her in the major story arc is a fatal flaw that leaves many of the episodes with a significant chunk of wasted drama involving Lana and her new-found heritage. It is convoluted, unbelievable but - most tellingly - not in the least bit interesting. Lana was a good character for the first season, lost her way in the second and by the fourth she is in desperate need of being sidelined because every scene is jarringly familiar to 24's Kim and her beloved puma friend. Still, when all is said and done, the fourth Smallville year is an eventful and fun ride, with some stellar standalone moments and at least a story arc that triggers some nice superpower moments including a great Lionel-Clark prison episodes, a nod to Crouching Tiger and of course the huge season finale.
Acting-wise, the casting of the original characters was largely good. Superman's Clark Kent looks the part - tall, dark and handsome - and is just the right demeanour to pull off the role. His giveaway tells are ludicrously prominent when he lies (he would make the worst poker player in the world) but I hope this was done intentionally to make Clark Kent seem more innocently misleading rather than deceptively sneaky. His parents are also great choices - with John Schneider on solid, stalwart form as Jonathan and Annette O'Toole (who you may recognise as the actress who played the original Lana Lang in Superman III) is elegant but loving as the devoted mother. Lex has a tough role cut out for him and Michael Rosenbaum (who has had a few bigger screen roles, like the paltry Urban Legend, but nothing major to his name) does a superb job at capturing the behaviour of a confused young man whose father may or may not be the most evil man on the planet and whose best friend may or may not have super powers. Then there's his father, Lionel, played to mischievous perfection by the actor John Glover, who portrays the mysterious mogul as an unreadable entity - you simply cannot figure out whether or not he really is a changed man or whether his diabolical schemes have just got bigger and more all-encompassing. Chloe is played by the cute Allison Mack, who made her into everything Lana should have been - a close friend to Clark who has secret feelings for him (as opposed to the admittedly pretty Kristin Kreuk's drama queen version of Lana).
As for newcomers, Erica Durance does an excellent job as the boisterous and over-curious Lois Lane and Jenses Ackles (from Dark Angel) is adequate but slightly unnecessary as Lana's new love interest, Jason. We also see the return of the alluring Sarah Carter as the super-power wielding Alicia, to distract Clark no end for a great mid-season two-parter. After the 'real' Superman, Christopher Reeves, passed away, it also saw the passing of his character - who popped up in previous seasons to give Clark fateful messages. Instead, we have another familiar Superman face, the actress who originally played Lois Lane in the 80s Superman, Margot Kidder, along with my personal favourite Bond girl, Jane Seymour. Oh yeah and Superman II's Terence Stamp provides the vocal talent for Clark's Kryptonian father, Jor-El.
Smallville is a solid and engaging TV series that increasingly plays on the strengths of the Superman legacy whilst still maintaining an interesting teen drama plot. It was about time that they changed some things around and this is the season where everything happens - to Lex, Lionel, Lana and Clark. If you've been following the past seasons you simply have to pick this up to fuel the addiction, but be prepared for some tiresome Lana interludes amidst an otherwise satisfying series - and a huge must-see finale. Newcomers have probably picked the wrong season to come in to, so it is probably worth going back at least one - if not to the beginning - to really appreciate this great TV show.