2010-2011 season wrap: Smallville

With the 2010-2011 television season officially over, I’ll be taking some time over the next week or so to look back on how some of television’s best and worst fared this season.

General thoughts: Endings are, of course, difficult to manage. This has to be especially true for a series that has been on the air for 10 years and is about the most recognizable fictional character in the world. In retrospect, it seems like Smallville‘s final season had so much working against it. Not only were expectations high from both Superman and Smallville-only fans, but the ending was so obviously there. If you would have asked me in August what I thought the ending of Smallville‘s final season would be, I could have gotten 90 percent of “finale” off the top of my head.

That’s the danger of working towards a specific place that lines up with a larger property. Moreover, the end of the ninth season more or less made Clark the kind of Superman-ian character fans had been waiting for. He was assertive, he was strong and he was intelligent.Throw all that together and there’s really nowhere to go in a 10th and final season except sideways. The results were often middling and regularly felt like the series was stretching out 10 episodes of story across 22 episodes while making sure to check off a few big moments from a list. You might be shocked to know that I don’t think that’s the best way to conclude a story.

But as I’ve wondered in countless pieces here on TVS, I’m not sure how much we can really hold much of this against the creative crew of Smallville. This is a series that realistically should have gone five or six years at most, even if two of the best seasons came near the very end. But the CW’s poor state of affairs meant otherwise and ultimately, I’m personally happy that I got to spend time with the later season versions of Clark Kent and Lois Lane. Oftentimes, I think the Smallville crew was literally doing the best that they could with what they had, both in the talent and budgetary departments.

However, the final season of the series felt so uninspired, so paper-thin and frankly, dumb (even for this series’ standards) that I can’t give Smallville a free pass. I would imagine that the production team was asked/told/pushed/directed to line the series up with the general Superman mythology and that process ended up impacting the finale in negative ways. But I don’t think DC or WB asked the season to rely on the countless parading of returning guest stars, a flood of paper-thin villains and flat-out lifts of other, more popular narratives. Returning to the beginning is a popular and oftentimes useful way to close out a story, but in Smallville‘s tenth and final season, the re-appearance of many characters, from Jonathan and Lionel to Kara and even Chloe, didn’t work as well as the series’ producers probably would have hoped.

The result was, like many Smallville seasons I guess, completely uneven and certainly more so than the last two seasons. The really great episodes of the season — like “Homecoming,” “Finale” and “Booster” — were series all-timers and will be watched repeatedly once I own the DVDs. But when balanced with at least four episodes with narratives taken directly from other stories (The Matrix, 300/Gladiator, The Hangover, Date Night), the overall effectiveness of the season doesn’t hold up to well. This again returns me to the fact that this final season would have worked much better with a shorter episode order, but alas, it was not to be.

As a whole, a final season has to be evaluated in two ways: As a conclusion and as an individual season with a (at least somewhat) self-contained conclusion. At times, Smallville was trying too hard to be former to be the latter and at others, trying too hard to be the latter to be the former. The parade of guest stars dragged down the season’s ability to tell a truly new story, but the new story Smallville was trying to tell in season 10 wasn’t that good to begin with. It’s almost as if the series would have been better off committing fully to one or the other instead of striking some sort of balance. This is a series that’s never been able to sketch out a narrative arc, but even with the blueprint and checklist right in front of them, the producers mostly bungled season 10’s more than anything since the series’ nadir in season seven.

With the end-point outwardly known, it was much easier to throw my hands up in frustration at the series’ narrative and character stalling, which has been a Smallville trademark since basically the pilot. If this was supposed to be the end, there wasn’t any real reason to keep the cards close to the chest, was there? Especially since we already knew what cards the series was holding in their hand! But for most of season 10, Clark went floundered in a neutral state when he was clearly ready to be the Superman we all know and love. And as Clark goes, so does Smallville.

It wasn’t all bad, though. If there is one thing the tenth season gets to hang its hat on, it’s the development of the Clark and Lois relationship. They’ll never get the respect they deserve, but Tom Welling and Erica Durance were truly wonderful together, especially over the past three seasons. Durance’s energetic performance livened up Welling in a way that no other actor on the series could do and the season did a nice job of moving through their relationship without letting it totally dominate the proceedings. They talked about the secret, worked together beautifully and had a number of honest, heartfelt conversations about the realities of their relationship. Some folks were upset that the first half of the final episode was dedicated entirely to their relationship and not-wedding wedding, but not I. I found it to be completely earned. Even if they didn’t get married right then and even if they had stupid last minute-jitters, the series treated Clark and Lois with the utmost of respect and it’s the only thing that kept the season afloat in many spots.

Ultimately, Smallville finished its run almost exactly how it operated throughout most of the previous nine years: Totally uneven, sloppy and frustrating. The highs were oh so high and the lows were just sickeningly low. I guess it’s fitting that the series went out on that kind of note. I’ll miss it, but I can’t say I’ll miss most of this season.

Season grade: C+

Best seven episodes: “Finale,” “Homecoming,” “Booster,” “Luthor,” “Kent,” “Beacon,” “Abandoned”

Worst three episodes: “Fortune,” “Collateral,” “Supergirl”

Best performance: Erica Durance. Tom Welling as very good this season, but Durance showed a lot of range and held up some of the terrible episodes with a heartfelt, natural performance.

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