With the exception to LOST, broadcast TV hasn't been kind to speculative fiction. Science fiction series died by the bunch last year, with only Invasion surviving long enough to have a full season run … and not being renewed. Before LOST, Fox killed off Firefly, the most promising SF series in years without even trying to find it an audience.
And now we have Heroes, a superhero series that inherits almost a decades worth of superhero momentum, and tries to do something amazing with it. There are two big questions: is it any good … and will NBC let it survive long enough to thrive?
Of Heroes and Hiros
The answer to the first question is a qualified but enthusiastic yes: Heroes is good. The series tells the origin stories of a half-dozen superhumans as they discover and then learn how to use their powers.
The pilot introduces us to Mohinder Suresh, an Indian scientist who's brilliant father recently went missing in New York City. Suresh knows that his father was working on a theory that anticipated a sudden learn forward in human evolution, and which might have been able to pinpoint where those individuals might appear. He fears that his father's disappearance might be related to that research and immediately leaves for New York City to find him.
As Suresh tries to solve the mystery of his father, viewers are introduced to the first of the would-be heroes: Claire Bennet, a cheerleader who's body heals at an astounding rate; Niki Sanders, a single mom with a murderous reflection, Nathan Petrelli, a politician who just might be able to fly, Isaac Menendez, a heroin-addicted artist with apocalyptic visions, and finally Hiro Nakamura, a Japanese office worker and geek who can will himself to move in space and time.
None of these heroes instantly knows how to use their powers, and most -- with the notable exception of Hiro -- are hesitant to embrace their abilities. Claire the impervious cheerleader thinks she's a freak but then uses her powers to save a man from the inferno of a train wreck. Nathan just wants to win an election, and tries his best to ignore his abilities, even when he must use them to save the life of someone close to him. This is standard tortured superhero stuff, but Heroes quickly moves out of familiar comic book territory when it begins mixing heavy doses of horror.
Isaac turns to drugs to deal with his apocalyptic visions, but it's Niki who demonstrates this series isn't for kids. We're introduced to her as she tries pay her bills-and keep her brilliant son in a prestigious private school by borrowing money from mobsters and attempting to pay them back quickly by resorting to pay-on-demand internet porn. And then things get really weird: when she looks into mirrors, Niki sees her reflection moving of its own accord. Worse, the mirror image seems to have its own agenda, or perhaps manifests Niki's own secret desires. When she sees it, something bad is about to happen or is happening … and in one case, the mirror vision is so intense that Niki blacks out and when she wakes the thugs sent to collect her mob loan are dead. Did she murder them? Did her reflection? Either way, it gives the series a dark edge that instantly excludes it from the 12-year-old market.
A few years ago I was surprised by the movie Unbreakable, a film by M. Night Shyamalan. I had no idea that it was a superhero movie, and I watched it I was surprised by its heroes-among-us setup coupled with its gritty, realistic execution.
Heroes surprised me again, and for the same reason. I expected Heroes to try and emulate Spider-man or X-Men and in the back of my mind I may even have harbored a few memories of NBC's earlier superhero TV series, the short-lived Misfits of Science. What I got is something that's falls somewhere between Unbreakable and Batman Begins, giving us exceptional people without the capes.
The pilot wasn't the same sort of jawdropper in the same class as Firefly or Battlestar Galactica. The mishmash of genres was disorienting, particularly when it felt like it were trying to jam in bits of LOST inspired retro continuity. It felt uneven, and a little forced, but at the same time you could sense that there was a lot of potential here and that it could really be something once the writers found their voices and stopped trying so hard to make everything fit.
The series darker elements could have ruined it, particularly after Episode 2 when we discover just how evil the heroes' villain will be. Fortunately though, we have Hiro, the one character who celebrates and embraces his powers as any good geek would. I suspect that the character of Hiro isn't the sort of nerd you might actually find in Japan -- he constantly drops references to American favorites like Star Trek and X-Men, but rarely utters a word about any anime titles. I can live with this cultural anachronism though because he's just such a great, enthusiastic character who embodies the empowered geek. I expect he will ultimately become the heart of the superhero team, and the entire series may hinge upon how good his stories are, and how he reacts to the unfolding nightmare.
I'm actually hopeful on this count, because after Episode 2 it seems clear that Hiro will be a major player. Episode 1 ended with Hiro having willed himself to New York; Episode 2 ends with him realizing he's willed himself five weeks into the future as well. There he witnesses the cataclysmic destruction of New York City, teleporting back to his own time just as the blast wave was about to vaporize him. That glimpse of the future alone was enough to get me hooked because it promises a coherent storyline.
Such Wonderful Toys
There's one last part of Heroes that deserves mention: the Web site. For the most part it's standard fare, but it has two standout components. The first is the video archive, which serves up the previous week's episode and makes it simpler for Tivo-less geek dads to catch up on what they missed when called away to change diapers. Watching the video via a Web browser (rather than being able to download it directly to a computer) can be frustrating, but I appreciate the effort.
The second, and more impressive component, is the graphic novel section. Each week sees a new graphic novel posted that expands the series' mythology. The site offers a clunky, difficult to use web-interface for viewing each graphic novel, but fortunately this can be bypassed in favor of downloadable PDFs. The most recent of these looks at Hiro's return to Japan and his resolution to prevent another nuclear holocaust. The art is excellent, the stories are solid, and I'm amazed that NBC is putting so much effort into reinforcing the series' superhero feel. It gives me hope that we might actually see Heroes fly.
With Heroes and its follow-up, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, NBC has put together an engaging night of television that will have you planning your schedule (or at least your Tivo) around it.