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"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

Heroes Will Rise

by Ken Newquist / October 8, 2006

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.

Uneven Setups

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.

Final Analysis

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.

Comments

I agree that it will be worth watching. I actually completely forgot it was airing already until Tuesday. Fortuately, I was able to acquire the first two episodes and watch them. I like what I've seen so far, and it looks quite interesting.

This will be one of my Must-See shows this season.

Definitely. My biggest complaint about it right now is that there's so many characters that I feels like things crawling forward. I expect that, like a good role-playing campaign, things will speed up considerably once the hereos start linking up.

btw, if you haven't checked out the graphic novels on the NBC site, you need to do so. They're too short, but they provide that extra bit of depth that I really appreciate.

I have to disagree here. I want to like this show... I really do. But it comes off to me like the writers are trying far too hard to be the next "Lost" rather than be a good show on its own. The writing comes across as bland and boring, both in dialog and plot. They haven't been able to make me care about a single character on the show with the possible exception of the Japanese teleporter/time freezer Hiro (Side note - is it just me or is there a fun Snow Crash reference with this character?)

I really went into this show with high hopes... the premise could make for a great show. Instead, it just seems like it is trying way too hard to be brilliant, and ended up being mediocre. I haven't given up on it; I'm still watching hoping it changes my mind.

I guess I'm just a sucker for future history -- while it does occasionally try too hard to be Lost, I think its started to settle down over the last two episodes. I'm enjoying the whole "discovery of super powers" theme, as each person learns of and then tries to deal with their powers, and I wish we saw more of that. The show is struggling to maintain a balance between telling the origin stories and moving the plot along, and its not doing it nearly as well as Lost.

None of the characters have really had enough set-up, and some -- like the cop whose name I can't remember (and which just proves one of your poines -- disappears just as soon as we start getting to know hi.

But I like the storyline with Peter as he transforms from someone who's just drifting through life to someone who's actually doing something, and while it often strains believability (who brings their kid with them to bury dead bodies? in the back of a convertible, in the freaking desert sun?), I'm enjoying the mysteries surrounding Nikki (split personality mom).

Ultimately though, it's the future history that hooks me. It brings to mind the classic "Days of Future Past" storyline from the X-Men (which Hiro mentions in the pilot, when espousing Kitty Pryde's theories of space and time) and my interest in that story tends to overshadow the uneven writing.

Well, hopefully they'll pull it together and tighten up the writing. Given that Heroes is sandwiched between Deal or No Deal (which falls into the "so god-awful-bad it is good" category for me... who else but a network programming genius would decide box picking would be a compelling game show?) and the addictive Studio 60 (I can't stand Aaron Sorkin's preachiness at times, but he can write damn amusing dialog), I'm going to keep watching.

I love this show. Spoiler free but trust me, SO MANY excellent scenes, and unbreakable-esque setups for how the super can exist in our mundane world.

I'm with you Ken, this here's a keeper. NBC MUST SAVE THE CHEERLEADER!

J

I agree. The 11/13 episode was week, but this one was much better, much more solid. Of course, it was another Hiro-intensive episode ...

(slight spoiler)

... with his first attempt at directed time-jumping, but overall I'm pleased with its progress. My hope is that we'll see the Sylar storyline wrapped up this season, and have a wholly new villain for Season 2. That way they can avoid some of the trouble that LOST is having with stretching out the central mystery too far.

Scott, I agree about the preachiness in S60 but it is another contemporary fantasy that shows the heroic in the common in a completely different way. Hiro shows up in Times square, & I cheer... But when NBC characters at a major corpeatupb are brave enough to challenge their own values & mine with intelligent commentary from the left AND the right? That's when I believe Sorkin can fly (lol). But yeah, nobody's going to mistake his personal belief for his leading lady over that of his leading man's -- and OH yeah! His dialogue is scalpel sharp and clasic saturday-nite funny (just which his S60 skits were too).