That Smallville has managed to last 10 seasons is a testament to... well, something. A dedicated fan base? Producers managing to keep the costs down? Only Jor-El knows.
For me, Smallville is as easy to like as it is hard to defend. It's minimal presence on The A.V. Club is an indication that the series just isn't as good as some of us would like it to be. But this is the final season, so coverage of the premiere and (hopefully) the finale seems warranted.
Personally, I'll give almost anything with superheroes in it a chance (even crap like the Ghost Rider movie), but I had mostly skipped this Dawson's Creek style take on the Boy of Steel except for the occasional episode. When they introduced a semi-version of the Justice League in Season 6, I was hooked.
Smallville has its flaws (many of them outlined well by Zack Handlen here), but the past couple of seasons have been fun to watch. The departure of original producers Alfred Gough and Miles Millar also meant the demise of their credo "no tights, no flights," which is a good thing. Clark Kent/Kal-El (Tom Welling) still hasn't put on the red and blue Super suit, nor is he flying. But Season 9 offered a glimpse of the big red S, as well as appearances by a number of DC Universe characters.
A full recap of season nine would take longer than anyone has patience for, but here are some highlights to get you caught up before we talk about the season 10 premiere. (Obligatory spoiler alerts. The Smallville Wiki has lengthier recaps if you want them.)
- Zod is back, but he's younger and is a Major rather than a General, at least at first. Callum Blue (whose name sounds like a Power Ranger) is kind of a poor man's Rufus Sewell, Euro-accent and all. He's too small and a bit marble-mouthed, but he manages to be tremendously evil and even gives us a good "Kneel before Zod." He proves to be a royal prick - telling Lois that he's The Blur (that's what they call Clark Kent instead of calling him Superman), killing Metallo (Brian Austin Green, who does a decent enough job as the Kryptonite-powered villain), and burning Tess Mercer's face with heat vision. He even kills his wife (to be fair, he didn't know she was pregnant at the time), then tells everyone it was Kal-El's fault.
- Much of season nine revolved around Zod trying to get powers for himself and a group of Kandorians after they emerged from a black orb in season eight. Episode seven ("Kandor") explains via flashbacks why Zod looks younger (and less facially hairy) than he did when he popped up a few seasons ago, and also why these particular Kryptonians don't get any powers from Earth's yellow sun. The former is because Zod and Co. are clones. Their blood was collected before the city of Kandor was destroyed during a war, which was a few years before all of Krypton went boom. They have no powers because Jor-El bathed the Orb with Blue Kryptonite because he didn't think Earth could handle a whole army of super-powered Kryptonians. (I mean, like, duh.) Also covered is why Zod hates anyone from the House of El - Jor-El refused to place DNA of Zod's dead son in the Orb. A cloned Jor-El (Julian Sands) makes an appearance and spends some quality time with his son Kal before he dies.
- The two-parter "Absolute Justice", written by DC Comics ubermensch Geoff Johns, introduced the Justice Society of America (JSA), and included glimpses of many Golden Age DC heroes. Hawkman (Michael Shanks) and Stargirl (Brittney Irvin) make cameos again later in the season, and Martian Manhunter (Phil Morris) finally looks like Martian Manhunter, at least briefly.
- Amanda Waller (Pam Grier, always welcome) and shadowy government organization Checkmate are in "Absolute Justice." They show up again in later episodes but it's a bit meh. Martha Kent turns out to be the Red Queen, some sort of government operative, which doesn't really make any sense, but at least the writers don't linger on it for very long. She's also dating Perry White (played by Michael McKean).
- In the season nine finale ("Salvation"), Kal-El manages to get all of the now-powered up Kandorians to leave Earth and move to some other planet. Zod, of course, doesn't want to go, but the Kandorians turn on him when they overhear him admit that he did, in fact, kill his pregnant wife. (Note to self: don't admit to doing something bad around people with super hearing.)
- The portal that takes the Kandorians away from Earth only works on powered-up Kryptonians. Zod and Kal-El have a decent superfight, during which Kal-El allows Zod to stab him with a Blue Kryptonite dagger, which takes away his powers long enough for Zod to get sucked into the portal while Kal-El falls off the building.
And that brings us to season 10, the beginning of the end for Smallville. "Lazarus" picks up right where season nine left off - Clark Kent falling from the sky, arms out like a Christ figure, powerless because of the Blue Kryptonite dagger in his chest. In case you missed the subtlety of the episode title, he doesn't die; Lois saves him, but not before he gets a guilt trip from Jor-El. Green Arrow (Justin Hartley) is captured by agents from a group we eventually learn is Cadmus. Lex Luthor has been growing clones of himself, but they all die except for a little boy version that Tess Mercer seems to be raising at the Luthor manse. (Tess took over as head baddie when Lex died, or rather when Michael Rosenbaum left the series.) A grown-up Lex clone does one of those "you can either save the love of your life or a large group of people" routine; Clark actually saves everyone. A major Superman villain shows up at the end, Jor-El continues to give his son a really hard time about everything (although I suppose "I saved you and only you when our planet blew up" is the ultimate guilt-trip), and we see many glimpses of the iconic suit -- but he doesn't put it on. Yet.
OK. Yes. It's all sort of dopey. But after 10 years of playing Clark Kent, Tom Welling has managed to develop a reasonable version of the character. He's not Christopher Reeve, but he isn't trying to be. Erica Durance's Lois Lane is still kind of bi-polar; one minute she's a tough-gal reporter, the next she's gazing at Clark Kent all moony-eyed. But like Welling and the rest of the cast, she commits fully to whatever she's asked to do, and it works.
Smallville may not have the pedigree (or the media coverage) of a show like Lost, but it does have 70-plus years of Superman stories to work with. Admittedly, a lot of the show's appeal is the geeky recognition factor. What it lacks in common sense (even comic book common sense) it makes up for in "Hey! That's Lightning Lad!" (season eight, "Legion") and some fun superhero battle moments. (See also: Teri Hatcher is going to play Lois' mom later this season; she played Lois Lane on "Lois and Clark".) There's also something to be said for declaring that this is it, we're done, and we will dress him like Superman before we leave. Bottom line: season 10 of Smallville looks like it should be entertaining, as long as you don't think about it too much.
- At this point you can see the moves being made to keep costs down - a character is mentioned but the actor isn't actually shown, not to mention the special effects that sometimes look like they were done in Microsoft Paint.
- When Clark returns to the Fortress of Solitude after saving Lois and the good people of Metropolis from getting crushed by the Daily Planet sculpture, he tells Jor-El that he was "almost" flying and that he finally felt heroic. So flying seems to be a metaphor for letting go. This jives with an episode in season nine, when Clark was under the influence of Red Kryptonite and was acting evil, he could fly. Again, subtle.