With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD, it gets harder and harder to keep up with new shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. If you watch these 10, you’ll have a better idea of what that series was about, without having to watch the whole thing. These are not meant to be the 10 best episodes, but rather the 10 most representative episodes.
Superheroes are all over television in 2015. Marvel’s Cinematic Universe continues to expand with Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter on ABC and Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and more on Netflix. Meanwhile, longtime rival DC Comics offers an interconnected televisual universe of its own on The CW with Arrow, The Flash, and soon, Legends Of Tomorrow. Elsewhere, Fox tells the early years of Jim Gordon on Gotham, NBC hopes that audiences are ready for the revival of its own superhero franchise Heroes, and even CBS, network of all that is perceived to be unhip, debuts Supergirl later this month.
Although it might not seem that way now, with the pervasiveness of superheroes on contemporary TV and across all media, it wasn’t that long ago that the icons of Marvel and DC were still considered entertainment “for kids.” At the turn of the 21st century, live-action superhero shows were nowhere to be found. The previous successful attempt, eccentric romance Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, flamed out on ABC in 1997, the same year that Batman & Robin temporarily poisoned film studios’ perception of superhero properties on the big screen. This is the world in which Smallville, the show about Clark Kent’s journey to becoming Superman, came to be.
Like the hero at its core, knowing Smallville’s production origin story is essential to understanding the show’s life on the air, and how, despite all its faults, it paved the way for TV’s current league of superheroes. Originally conceived as the story of pre-Batman Bruce Wayne before Warner Bros.’ film division vetoed the project to explore a successful rebooted film franchise, Smallville reconfigures the future Superman’s life as a genre-bending tale about young people and their weird hormonal bodies in a small town—which made it perfect for The WB. In developing Smallville, superhero agnostics Alfred Gough and Miles Millar pulled from Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s monster-of-the-week structure and high-school-is-hell metaphors, creating an action show about the Kryptonite-infected Smallville High in the years after a meteor shower brought Clark (Tom Welling) to Earth. Yet, 7th Heaven’s conservative, family-first morality was just as important to Gough and Millar’s vision for quintessential Midwesterners Jonathan (John Schneider) and Martha Kent (Annette O’Toole) and the chaste love triangle between Clark, Lana Lang (Kristin Kreuk), and Chloe Sullivan (Allison Mack).
Less important to the creators, however, was portraying the Superman mythology as fans knew it. Gough and Millar famously adopted the “No tights, no flights” policy for their central character, portrayed Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum) as Clark’s slightly older rich friend, and waited nearly two full seasons to utter the word “Krypton.” Once producer and comic book show whisperer Jeph Loeb left at the end of season four, Gough and Millar struggled to take advantage of DC Comics loosening the reins on famous characters or storylines, resulting in a Lois Lane (Erica Durance), who initially functioned only as eye candy, and a Bizarro (Welling) who stole Clark’s life to snuggle up with Lana, among other misfires.
Smallville never balances its relationship drama, procedural stories, and hero’s journey as well as Buffy, but the early seasons’ Superman remix helped make it The WB’s last real hit. (The 2001 premiere will go down as the network’s highest rated episode ever.) Likewise, despite every silly Kryptonite-fueled villain (Amy Adams as a super-charged crash dieter is still the best) or uneven seasonal arc, Smallville’s original ideas are often delightful. The show’s portrayal of Lex is the best ever, thanks to Rosenbaum’s electric performance and the tragic relationship between Lex and his demented father Lionel (John Glover). Mack’s Chloe, a dogged reporter turned hacker and Justice League wrangler, serves as both audience proxy and the show’s heart and soul. Late-era additions like Oliver Queen (Justin Hartley) and Tess Mercer (Cassidy Freeman) cushion the blow of Lex and Lana’s departures and populate Clark’s world with complex adults who aren’t afraid to call him on his tendency to mope.
In its early seasons, during an era when Hollywood turned skeptical of superheroes as franchise prospects, Smallville thrived because it presented something other than a superhero show—a teen soap, an all-American family drama, and a genre procedural. By the time The Dark Knight and Iron Man catalyzed a new level of audience interest in superheroes and inspired another DC-Marvel arms race, Smallville had been something else too long, leading to a fun final three seasons of universe expansion that were ultimately more DC and Warner Bros. experiments than stories consistent with the show’s original DNA. Still, it is Smallville’s longevity that made those experiments—and Arrow and The Flash—possible.
Smallville’s first season does a fine job of establishing the basics—Clark is a high school freshman who knows that he’s from another planet, Lex is nearby to help run his father’s LuthorCorp, and the former saves the latter from drowning, setting off years of suspicion on Lex’s part—but mostly turns in freak-of-the-week stories about Kryptonite-influenced students trying to kill Clark and his pals. Season two smartly expands the show’s storytelling capabilities while staying grounded in coming-of-age high-school plots. “Red,” wherein Clark is accidentally infected by Red Kryptonite via class ring, losing all inhibitions in the process, is an early example of the sophomore year’s improvements. It’s a fun way to turn Clark from farm boy to bad boy, complete with a leather jacket and motorcycle, and to dress up a familiar story about teenage rebellion with a little Kryptonian panache. But as Jonathan is forced to physically confront his super-powered son’s dark side for the first time, this episode also illustrates that Smallville’s exploration of fathers and sons often results in its best moments. The show returns to the Red K well countless times after this hour, and never misses an opportunity to temporarily alter characters’ personalities in general, but it doesn’t get better than lame 16-year-old Clark trying to be cool in a biker bar.
Season two begins to reimagine Clark’s alien origins with the introduction of the Kawatche Caves, a subterranean location with wall paintings predicting an endless battle of good and evil, and the Luthors’ drive to determine the purposes of a mysterious octagonal disk (it’s the key to Clark’s spaceship). After Clark experiences bizarre visions and has an alien language downloaded into his brain, he reaches out to reclusive physicist Virgil Swann, played by another Superman, Christopher Reeve. Swann lays out the cliff notes of the familiar story—Clark is from Krypton, his parents sent him here for protection, etc.—but it’s the second half of Jor-El’s (Terence Stamp) message that comes to shape Clark’s attitude toward his heritage, and the show as a whole: Clark was sent to Earth to “rule with strength.” “Rosetta” starts the trend of other people explaining Clark’s destiny to him, but draws significant power from Welling and Reeve sharing the screen. Moreover, the shock of Jor-El’s decree is an effective wrinkle to the Superman mythology that leads to years of internal strife for Clark and offers the show another avenue to explore its interests in free will and nature versus nurture.
By the third season, Smallville was just as much Lex’s show as it was Clark’s, with both men returning to town after tumultuous summers—Clark spends his in Metropolis hopped up on Red K in response to Jor-El’s controlling nature, while Lex gets trapped on a deserted island after his new bride Helen (Emmanuelle Vaugier) conspires with Lionel to crash his plane. Already reeling from PTSD, Lex begins to crack when he learns that Lionel had his own father killed. “Shattered” puts Clark’s already-wavering faith in Lex to the test, as he and Lana race to prove that Lex is indeed sane, only to be subverted by Lionel and crime boss Morgan Edge (Patrick Bergin) at every pass. This episode’s final 10 minutes highlight Rosenbaum’s range, as Lex flips out on everyone, looks on in awe when Clark reveals his secret, and eventually resigns himself to being committed. The closing moments, with Lex in a padded cell and Lionel plotting to erase his short-term memory, make great use of Johnny Cash’s take on “Hurt” (predating the ubiquity of The Man In Black’s Nine Inch Nails cover) and provide heartbreaking evidence for why Lex would eventually become a supervillain.
The show’s third season is by far its darkest, and also its best, with every plot thread cumulating here. “Covenant” is an emotionally wrenching hour where every character’s past choices comes back to haunt them: Clark discovers Lex’s secret room dedicated to uncovering his alien secret, Lana pulls a Joey Potter and heads to Paris to get away from Clark’s lying ways, Lex and Chloe feel the wrath of Lionel’s power after deciding to testify against him, and the Kents’ decision to ignore Jor-El brings deadly consequences to Jonathan. With one superb final montage, Smallville blows up three seasons’ worth of story and underscores that morally ambiguous stories can work in the Superman universe.
Season three’s pressing darkness bummed out Gough and Millar, resulting in a senior year at Smallville High that tries to refocus around the Americana vibes and Krypto freaks of the early days: Clark becomes an all-state quarterback, Lana doubts her college prospects, Chloe wins prom queen, and together they encounter a Gatorade love potion, a sauve foreign exchange student version of Mr. Mxyzptlk, and an exploding baby. But season four is also the show’s most narratively ambitious to date, as Lois Lane and Bart Allen (Kyle Gallner) come to town, Lana becomes a powerful witch and dates a college boy (Jensen Ackles), Lionel finds salvation after a temporary body swap with Clark, and everyone chases the three stones of power around the globe. The extra-long “Commencement” isn’t quite as narratively satisfying as “Covenant,” but it presents Clark at his most heroic, as he rushes to save his community from another meteor shower and eventually unites the stones just in time to be transported to the Arctic. This episode also begins a multi-season run of finales that do such a wonderful job of delivering action-packed moments and thrilling cliffhangers that you forgive the show for uneven moments in the previous 21 hours.
For the majority of its 218-episode run, Smallville functions as a crime-solving procedural with a Superdude at the center. “Mortal” follows those typical episodic beats—Kryptonite-influenced villains invade the homestead, leaving Clark and Chloe to save the day—but the stakes are different this time because Clark is without his abilities after reneging on a deal with Jor-El. While some of the show’s procedural plots run together because there’s little drama, this one creates real stakes for the in-danger Kent family and evokes legitimate laughs as Clark complains his way through having to complete the mission with Chloe using “normal” skills. Smallville’s most notable hours push Clark to consider the responsibility of his abilities. “Mortal” succeeds because he employs brains and moxie, rather than super strength or X-ray vision. Bonus points to this one for the first instance of Clark-Lana coitus, starting a chain of events that make up one of the show’s strongest runs.
Other than the Clark-Lana-Lex triangle (this is the season where it turns legitimate love triangle, with the latter two getting married), the biggest story that carries over from year-to-year in Smallville’s middle seasons is the construction of a proto-Justice League. The show took what we now recognize as the Marvel approach, introducing The Flash (Gallner), Aquaman (Alan Ritchson), and Cyborg (Lee Thompson Young) in spiriting individual spotlights across seasons four and five and then bringing Hartley’s Green Arrow into the picture on a recurring basis at the start of season six. The chemistry among the team members—including Mack’s Chloe, the tech support—is one of the best things Smallville ever produced, culminating in this episode’s showdown with a full-on villainous Lex. The show’s unfortunate budget restrictions mean that this is mostly driven by the kind of generic warehouse action you see on Arrow, but everybody gets to be a star at least for a moment. C’mon, it’s a live-action Justice League having fun; when will you ever get to see that?
Good or bad, the first six seasons of Smallville are identifiably about something. Season seven? Not so much. It’s jam-packed with what feels like Gough and Millar’s final ideas: Clark’s younger cousin Kara (Laura Vandervoort) shows up and is more powerful than him! Clark and Lana have superpowered sex! Lois gets a job at the Daily Planet! Yet, although the show is stuck on autopilot in this strike-shortened season, Rosenbaum is decidedly not as the darkness fully consumes Lex. A rushed, partially retconned final arc inspires Lex to finally discover Clark’s secret, which allows Rosenbaum to tear through his character’s pent-up betrayal, distrust, and anger. But it’s an event a bit earlier in “Descent” that is the season’s most important, where Lex fulfills his destiny, pushes his father out of a penthouse to his death, and then symbolically murders his inner child. It’s not easy to execute moments or episodes that have been anticipated by the audience for nearly a decade, but Rosenbaum and Welling, who embodies Clark’s shock and disgust perfectly, validate Smallville’s refashioned exploration of Lex’s heel turn. This is a show that will unfortunately never be remembered for its great performances, but episodes like “Descent” signal that the actors almost always do right by the important scenes.
The eighth season kicks off a creative reboot, with Gough and Millar no longer in charge, Lex and Lana mostly out of the picture, and a newfound focus on Clark and Lois in Metropolis working at the Daily Planet and Clark trying harder to be a real hero. “Identity” isn’t the season’s most action-packed episode, particularly with Davis Bloome/Doomsday (Sam Witwer) hanging around as a murderous poor man’s Bruce Banner/Hulk, but it’s the most representative of the later era’s confident embrace of all things Superman-adjacent. When Jimmy Olsen (Aaron Ashmore) snaps a picture of the “Red-Blue Blur” making a triumphant save and starts to believe that the man behind the Blur is Clark, Clark—aided by Chloe and Oliver—concoct a scheme to move Jimmy and Lois off the scent. Although shenanigans predictably ensue in this mostly light-hearted romp (a secretly Brainiac-infected Chloe does short circuit a random’s mind in the B-plot), the episode offers a mature consideration of what a secret identity could do for Clark and an uplifting showcase for what his actions can do for Metropolis, elements too often disregarded amid the middle seasons’ interest in dead-end romantic entanglements and familiar villains.
In its first seven seasons, Smallville methodically introduces one or two pivotal characters from the comics per season, some who stick around (Lois), and many more who do not (Perry White, the Justice Leaguers). But beginning in season eight, DC and Warner Bros. opened the doors to previously inaccessible corners of the larger comic book universe. The resulting three seasons feature a litany of special appearances, from fan favorites Legion Of Super-Heroes and Booster Gold to glorified bit players Mia Dearden and Bruno Mannheim. The peak exemplar of this suddenly expanded universe is the two-hour episode “Absolute Justice,” which introduces Clark to the Justice Society Of America, a band of mostly retired superheroes that are being killed in the present. Penned by DC Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns, this event effort entertainingly displays the pros and cons of the late interest in costumed heroes. On one hand, it briskly maneuvers between a dozen JSAers, Amanda Waller (Pam Grier) and Checkmate, and a frazzled Clark and Lois on the back of a mystery structure the show doesn’t often employ. On the other hand, the sheer number of new characters, middling performances, and budgetary restrictions illustrate that newfound ambition isn’t the only thing required to make superheroes look cool on television.
And if you like those, try these: “Rogue” (season one, episode nine); “Heat” (season two, episode two); “Insurgence” (season two, episode 12); “Memoria” (season three, episode 19); “Transference” (season four, episode six); “Lexmas” (season five, episode nine); “Reckoning” (season five, episode 12); “Bride” (season eight, episode 10); “Homecoming” (season 10, episode four); “Finale” (season 10, episodes 21 and 22).
Availability: Smallville’s 10-season run is available in a 62-disc boxset. Individual episodes and seasons are also available for purchase via iTunes, Amazon, and Google Play.