It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a second chance! Smallville conquers its creative troubles to become the most watched show on The WB.

I’m beginning to think I’m made of kryptonite. I’ve spent the better part of two 12-hour days on the Vancouver set of Smallville, and Clark Kent (secret identity: Tom Welling) has avoided me like the green space mineral that saps his strength. I’ve been told to stay out of his ”eye line” (which I was planning to do anyway, since he recently gained the power of heat vision) and not to jot anything down in my notebook when he’s around because it ”makes him nervous.” Could the future Superman really be afraid of me, a mild-mannered reporter?

Suddenly, he strides over, shakes my hand with his best Man of Steel grip, and says, ”I’m sorry for making you wait so long for our interview.” I accept his apology because, well, I just can’t stay mad at a superhero. Plus, like most Smallville fans, I’ve grown accustomed to delayed gratification. After all, the show’s launch was rockier than Clark’s home planet.

”The first season was a lot of on-the-job training,” remembers Welling, a 25-year-old ex-model who was thrust into the lead role of a rural Kansas high schooler struggling to adjust to his burgeoning superpowers (which don’t yet include aerial travel, per the show’s strict ”no tights, no flights” policy). While its strong and familiar concept helped Smallville’s premiere soar to record-high ratings for The WB (8.4 million viewers), the numbers soon fell earthward — and so did the quality of the scripts.

”The show had a lot of potential last year, and I felt frustrated because it wasn’t reaching that potential,” says Kristin Kreuk, who costars as Clark’s unrequited hometown love, Lana Lang. ”We’d have a few good episodes, and then a chunk of bad episodes.”

What happened? Early in the season, the show veered from its original concept: to filter typical teenage problems (pubescent physical changes, puppy love, hyper-protective parents) through the lens of the Superman legend. Instead, too many episodes focused on ”freaks of the week,” a term used on the Internet (and the series’ set) to deride the bizarro, kryptonite-crazed superbaddies who wreaked excessive havoc on the corn-covered burg. There was the student-council candidate who attacked his opponents with killer bees, the cold-blooded stud who sucked out his conquests’ body heat, the football coach whose hot temper lit fires under his players — literally — and so on.

”Miles and I promised the fans that we would break up the kryptonite freaks of the week [this season],” says executive producer Alfred Gough, who developed the show with his Shanghai Noon screenwriting partner Miles Millar. In the producers’ defense, The WB’s entertainment president Jordan Levin says they were merely trying to reestablish the show’s premise for new viewers who might have found the series late: ”Because the show succeeded so quickly, the attempt to replicate elements of the pilot with the freak of the week became formulaic. It didn’t fulfill the potential of the themes Al and Miles wanted to explore.”