There’s a dreadful feeling one gets in the pit of the stomach when you see a television series go off the rails, and for Smallville that moment comes pretty much during the entirety of ‘Spell’.
It didn’t need to be that way. Steven S De Knight is a great writer, having contributed some fantastic episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel (as director he brought to the screen some of the latter’s best action sequences), while director Jeannot Swarcz has previously been behind the camera of some magnificent Smallville episodes.
Yet, despite that, if there’s an episode where you can sense the wheels coming off the tracks when it comes to Smallville‘s fourth season, then unfortunately ‘Spell’ is it. Smallville is not Buffy, but it’s also not Charmed. Sure, it began life on The WB, the home of both those shows (at least before Buffy moved to UPN, ironically a network that would merge with The WB to form future Smallville home The CW), but it carved a teen fantasy drama niche of its own, occupying a world pitched somewhere in the realm of X-Files style monster-of-the-week, comic book mythology and Matrix-inspired action sequences.
It hasn’t always been perfect, but it’s frequently been brilliant, and yet the shaky foundations of season four, despite a great premiere episode, becomes increasingly untenable here, going for a fantasy-comedy approach that is neither imaginative nor funny. You can see why DeKnight was put on writing duties here; Buffy and Angel were amongst some of the best genre television ever produced due to how they could combine fantasy, action and sophisticated wit and character development.
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Smallville‘s biggest issue is that it never quite hits the sophisticated heights of the Mutant Enemy series, but not everything has to, and best of all it has always displayed a high quality above the guilty pleasure charms of, well, Charmed. I say that as someone who grew up on Charmed and adored it but it’s never been a series that is going to threaten the list of all time great television shows.
What’s even more jarring here is how the series seems to be eager to fall into this realm of fantasy even though it’s not exactly Smallville‘s forte. If one didn’t know any better, it almost has the whiff of a story arc and episode mandated by network demands to bring the series more into line with other shows on the network. I’m not saying that’s what happened here. Sometimes writers miss a step and the results end up producing an episode like this particular one.
Unfortunately it’s an indication of the issues that are about to plague the rest of the season.