Written by: Rob Van Winkle, CC2K Staff Writer
It seems that everyone these days is talking about the deteriorating quality of NBC’s Heroes, with negative reviews appearing everywhere from Entertainment Weekly to our own forums. I am the first to admit that my voice has joined these naysayers this season, and let’s be honest; there have been quite a few missteps so far. But I also feel, at the risk of adopting a minority viewpoint, that overall the show has done quite well for itself this season, and given a chance I think it can once more become destination television.
But, before we can talk about what they’ve done right, we need to take a look at everything that’s gone wrong.
Season 1 –
The joy of Heroes when it first came out was the slow evolution of both the story and its main characters. It was a treat to have a serialized show that didn’t rush itself, and this allowed us to develop our fondness for the players even as they themselves developed. The heroes in question weren’t always heroic, in self or in deed, and they had decidedly different reactions when they discovered their powers. This gave us some truly terrific moments: the cheerleader taping herself jumping off the bridge, Hiro’s utter glee during those first days with his new abilities, and Peter’s wide eyed astonishment when he saw the painting of himself flying, just like he dreamed he would. As the show evolved that year, they even threw in enticements for what the future (of the show) would hold, such as the glimpses into Hiro’s future as a vigilante badass, and (my pick for the smartest moment of Season 1) when human tracker Molly expressed her terror for one man – NOT Sylar, who was the only villain we had at that point – who, when she looked for him, could look back at her. Heroes wasn’t just creating a show; like all good science fiction, it was creating a universe.
Even the biggest apologists for Heroes had to admit that it had some growing pains. They sometimes presented situations they clearly had no solution for, most notably the decision to turn Sylar into a powerless watch maker who somehow discovers a way to steal the abilities of others by ripping out their brains (an issue they have wryly alluded to once this season, yet still have not for one second actually explained). On other occasions, they pounded us over the head with plot points until we wanted to scream (seriously, how many different ways can a sixteen-year-old cheerleader be accidentally killed in one week of high school?) And while all the characters began the series very compellingly, not all of them aged well. For example, it was a great moment when Ali Larter’s character passed out at a moment of stress, only to wake up to find the mutilated bodies of her aggressors around her, and her mirror image winking at her. It was also a cool touch to have a political candidate desperate to cover up both his and his brother’s supernatural abilities during an election. But by the end of the season, she became some kind of awful multiple-personality storyline, and he was nothing more than a douchebag who could fly.
(Bonus Negative for Season 1 – Peter Petrelli’s moppish hair)
Season 2 –
The best part of Heroes’ second season was that it recognized what direction it had to move in, and boldly went there. The first season took us on a journey with “special” characters as they discovered what made them unique. There’s simply no re-creating that joy of discovery again (short of completely starting over every season), and there’s no drama in watching now super heroes just kick everyone’s ass each week. Thus, the only way to move the series forward is to ratchet up the stakes, and somehow find a way to put these super-human individuals in even greater danger now that they have their powers (a formula used almost all the time in this genre, with Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight, The Empire Strikes Back, The Matrix Reloaded, and Superman 2 as just a few examples).
To that end, Season 2 was successful. A seemingly invincible assassin was introduced (he killed Hiro’s father in the very first episode!), the danger was far more pervasive (Molly’s scary man was introduced, along with a virus that would wipe out most of mankind, if memory serves), and in the best move of the season, the mythology was made exponentially deeper by expanding the roles of the previous generation, and indicating that events are far more sinister and planned out than we had once believed. They even ended the season by killing off the two weakest characters, the aforementioned Nathan Petrelli and Nicki Sanders (more on this later), showing that they were paying attention to the fans, and casting off the weaker components of the show.
The biggest problem that I could see with Season 2 was that in far too many cases their priorities were confused. In their quest to introduce a new villain to us (the immortal Adam Monroe), they drew out his origin story to an interminable degree, made worse by the fact that the time-traveling nature of that storyline forced WAY too much of each episode during that span to be taken up with it. In their desire to present a darker side to the development of super powers, we were given a storyline about a Hispanic woman who made people die with her black tears, the creepily devoted brother who could calm her down afterward, and a powerless Sylar (!) taking them to New York. In their effort to get some bigger names into the show, they introduced two Heroes into the cast (Kristen Bell and Regina King) whose presence – due to their stature in the entertainment industry – can only be sporadic at best. And lastly (and most egregiously), in their effort to keep all of the stars from Season 1 intact, some of them were reduced to truly stupid roles. Ando went from amusing sidekick to whiny second fiddle, and HRG went from truly compelling mystery man into a doting father who is desperate to keep his indestructible daughter “safe.” They strove to be ambitious, but ended up coming across as playing it safe.
(Bonus Negative for Season 2 – Peter Petrelli’s shirtlessness.)
Season 3 –
For this season, let’s review in reverse.
There have been a lot of blunders so far this season; there’s no denying it. Things started off on a terrible foot right away, with the following series of events:
- Hiro is bored, and yearns to fulfill his destiny.
- Hiro receives package about his destiny.
- Package is posthumous message from father, asking him never to open the safe we knew nothing about until that moment.
- Hiro decides to open safe.
- DVD in safe is of father yelling at Hiro for opening safe, but now imploring him to make sure that no one ever gets their hands on the formula in safe.
- Hiro picks up formula out of safe.
- Someone steals formula.
These things all happen in the span of ONE SCENE! I understand that they needed a way to get Hiro – in Japan – involved in this season’s events in the U.S., and I understand – though disagree – that they want to keep him “light,” but to introduce a Maguffin seconds before losing it? That’s just…stupid.
From there, matters were made worse by bringing back the two characters that were killed off last season. Sure, we never had confirmation that Nathan had died, and Ali Larter is supposedly playing a different person…but it’s a terrible decision nevertheless. Not only have both these characters’ storylines worn out their welcome (She’s now one third of a triplet…and he’s still just a douchebag who can fly), but it shows us that all the characters are now “safe.” Other shows have proven that, if a fan base is going to stick with a show like this long-term, there needs to be a sense of danger for those involved; the whole cast needs to be anyone other than Kiefer Sutherland in 24. You can have one or two safe characters – take a deep breath, Matthew Fox and Evangeline Lilly – but if you make it clear that no one’s going anywhere, you have dulled the edge right off the premise.
The last of the big problems – in my book at any rate – has to do with the issues that always arise when writers try to go back and re-write their own mythology. In this case, I am referring to Sylar. In Season 1, we learned that his thirst for power was rooted in his perceived insignificance as a watchmaker, and his never consummated desire to be important in the eyes of his mother. It was concise and effective. This year though…he’s now a FULL BLOOD BROTHER to Nathan and Peter Petrelli! He refers to their mother as “mom” and everything. There are some revelations that, when they come, are unexpected in a good way. This twist was the opposite of that; a labored and hackneyed device that elicited eye rolls where they wanted gasps.
(Bonus Negative for Season 3 – Future Peter Petrelli’s voice)
Despite all that has gone wrong (and three cheers for me for FINALLY getting to the thesis of my article!), I still contend that there are many good things happening as well on the show, and these are the things that need to be focused on in order for the show to survive. First and foremost, they wisely made the tone darker across the board. By adding a layer of gravitas to the characters – Claire’s despair at losing her ability to feel pain, Peter (from the future) forced into a life of crime in order to do what he thinks best, etc. – it gives them some emotional depth to work with, which drives their actions far more effectively than otherwise. Hell, they even allowed Hiro to observe Ando murdering him in the future. Thus, even though it is nearly certain that this is actually an elaborate illusion similar to when Hiro “murders” Ando earlier this season, it gives them a persona other than goofy bumblers.
(As for Suresh…the jury’s still out on that. I am all for his Dr. Jeckyl / Mr. Hyde evolution – ESPECIALLY since it was self-inflicted – but I’m not sure if Dr. Suresh / Mr. Fly was the best way to go with it. In other words, it’s a pretty stupid device, but it’s not completed yet, and so I’ll let it play out before I judge.)
Secondly, the inclusion of “Level 5” and the villains was a great touch. Hey, if you’re going to have a show featuring people with super powers…give them people with super powers to fight! There should have been dozens of such characters that escaped, allowing them to pop up at any time. I’m not sure how many are left at large at this point, but it has been fun to see a different class of super-human affect the show so far this season.
Speaking of villains…Heroes Season 3 really got going for me the moment Mr. Parkman approached a comatose Mr. Petrelli and spoke to him in tones that belied true fear and respect. It was at that moment that the scope of this chapter took shape. By taking another page from the playbook of other successful shows, the writers have presented another “side” in this particular battle, without a clear sense of who will (or, in some cases, should) win. Think of it this way; “The Others” terrorized the castaways in Lost, and since we followed the latter group, we always assumed that the former was bad. However, The Others have always insisted that they were the good guys, and to this point in that series we really have no idea of what the truth is. That is what I see so far in Heroes. Sure, Mr. Petrelli is an evil bastard who has done horrible things, but he has indicated that he believes himself to be saving the world, and we have not yet seen anything to prove that he’s not. This is the ambiguity from which great drama is made, no matter how the storyline ultimately resolves.
Speaking of ambiguity, I am going to do something a bit unexpected here, and praise the Sylar storyline. I know I’ve just finished ripping apart the Sylar-as-Petrelli storyline, and I stand by that. However, despite the corny way in which they got there, I love that the writers decided to make Sylar a more complex character. For the first two years, Sylar was nothing more than a power collector. He wanted to be able to do things, so he’d brutally murder people to steal their powers. This made him an “easy” villain who was nothing more than evil. But now, by giving him some conflicting thoughts and a gnawing “hunger” at the source of his need to acquire abilities…he’s something more. Is he still evil? Undoubtedly. But is he also a good soul trying to get out from his addiction? Could be. I don’t know the answer, but I’m interested to learn it, and that’s a component of good television.
So even as Heroes seems to be shedding more viewers than skin cells these days, I will still be tuning in dutifully every Monday night for the time being. I still see a great deal of potential for this show, and I still have faith that Tim Kring and company can continue to mine their premise for all the good nuggets still left to be revealed. And they’d better, because if they can’t start making the good outweigh the bad, Heroes might face a death that even they can’t resurrect from.