The first season of a television show is typically where a series slowly finds its feet, steadily learns the character’s voices, and eventually grows with the audience. But what if the show does everything right from the start? What if the bar is set so high that when the show fails, it’s just that further of a fall?
Many Comic-Con attendees no doubt remember the 2006 presentation of the original, uncut pilot episode of “Heroes.” Written and produced by Tim Kring, the episode blew away the San Diego crowd, and it was clear the show was going to be a phenomenon when it premiered on NBC later in the year. Indeed, the stars did align just right and Season One took the world by storm.
Season Two… not so much, thanks in no small part to the Writers Guild of America strike in 2007.
It’s 2008 and here we are at “Heroes Volume Three: Villains.” So far, it’s a season that has learned from the show’s past mistakes and seems geared to bring back wayward fans. Ratings have improved over Season Two’s numbers, but nevertheless remain lower than those of Season One.
So what’s wrong with “Heroes?”
Last week, Entertainment Weekly published a cover story examining the apparent problems “Heroes” is having and what they would do to fix them. Is EW’s take just what the series needs to soar to #1 again? Let’s take a look.
PROBLEM 1: TOO MANY HEROES
SOLUTION: RETIRE SOME CAPES
EW: Three seasons later, however, it's time to trim the fat by either killing some top-tier Heroes (hello, genuine life-and-death stakes!) or giving one or two a permanent happy ending.
Indeed, the cast of “Heroes” has become so big that it’s a problem. Some characters aren’t seen for several episodes, while others – sometimes very interesting characters -- seem to be killed off simply because there is no time to properly develop them.
The “Heroes” creative team seems to agree there are too many players on the field, and has already started down the path to correct this: Micah and the rest of the New Orleans cast has had one appearance all season; Adam was brought back from limbo and killed off; and it appears as though a depowered Maya will finally be sent home.
Unfortunately, the situation seems to be a no-win. “Heroes” has too many characters, but culling the herd means that some storylines --such as that of Monica Dawson – have had to be unceremoniously cut. Dropping a character overnight as they did with Caitlin, who’s apparently just stuck in the future, creates a new problem because fans will never let such an (under)development rest.
However, playing fast and loose with the fates of the bloated cast does address a problem Entertainment Weekly didn’t mention in its piece, and that is the common viewer complaint that “Heroes” no longer presents a sense of danger. Main characters have been stabbed through the chest, thrown out windows and had fists put through their hearts, but no one really believes these people will actually remain dead. Killing Nathan Petrelli seems to have become a staple of the show, with each season concluding with his death, with a miraculous return opening the next.
When anybody could be written (or killed) off at any moment – for either dramatic or logistical purposes -- that sense of unpredictability is definitely back.
EW: Put another way, “Heroes” sent Parkman to Africa to...watch an episode of “Heroes!” Parkman, so meaningful to the Volume 1 narrative, seems tapped out.
Greg Grunberg, the actor who plays Parkman, took time off from the series because his son underwent during the production a brain surgery associated with epilepsy. Co-star Milo Ventimiglia confirmed this in a recent radio interview with Los Angeles radio station KROQ 106.7FM, saying the principal’s absence was due to Grunberg spending time at home with his son -- surely a worthy reason for having temporarily sidelined the character of Matt Parkman.
PROBLEM 2: ABSURD PLOT TWISTS
SOLUTION: MAKE THE HEROES SMARTER
EW: Nathan Petrelli's utterly unconvincing religious conversion and boneheaded choice to heed career advice from his dead nemesis Linderman.
Well, history’s seen people perform a complete one-eighty with their religious beliefs over a whole lot less than, oh, dying and resurrecting. As for Nathan taking advice from Linderman, this was of course facilitated by Maury Parkman, who specializes in messing with people’s minds – in this case, Nathan’s. EW must have missed that episode.
EW: But the most egregious development has involved one of the show's best assets, Hiro. Having him blithely embark on a potentially world-destroying adventure simply because he was bored? That's just lazy writing.
If you read CBR’s initial review of the first hour of “Heroes Volume Three: Villains,” you’ll remember we agreed the setup of Hiro’s quest was a bit contrived, but did he really set off because he was bored And would making Hiro any smarter, as EW suggests, change anything about that?
In any case, in a recent edition of BEHIND THE ECLIPSE, CBR’s exclusive Q&A with “Heroes” writers/producers Joe Pokaski and Aron Coleite, the staffers addressed this question with respect to Peter Petrelli, who at times seems determined to avoid using the best power to get him out of various situations. “Peter acts out of emotion, and has to make his decision in the moment — as we all do,” the writers said. “Sometimes that leads to poor choices. We saw a lot of questions about why Future Peter didn’t use telekinesis or time-freezing power to kill Nathan, but the whole point was to not expose people with abilities — so using an ability to kill Nathan would have the exact opposite effect. A lot of thought goes into all of these stories and episodes — debated to the point of puking. So, while people’s questions are valid — we’ve asked them ourselves and this is the answer the staff’s come up with — for better or worse.”
PROBLEM 3: OVERHEIGHTENED REALITY
SOLUTION: GET BACK TO THE HEROES' ROOTS
PROBLEM 4: STALE STORYTELLING
SOLUTION: GET A NEW BAG OF TRICKS
Let’s address these two problems together as their solutions actually cancel each other out. Firstly, Entertainment Weekly wishes to bring the characters back to their roots, but also wants the Heroes to find a new bag of tricks – a common paradox amongst superhero fans; many want to see their favorite characters mature and develop, but when any major changes happen, complaints ensue in the extreme.
EW: Kring once made a vow never to introduce characters with silly powers. That promise was officially obliterated on Oct. 13, when “Heroes” gave us a villain who could...create black holes? Maybe we're too nerdy for our own good, but that's jump-the-shark preposterous.
If a “silly power” is all it takes for “Heroes” to jump-the-shark, most viewers would agree the show did so back in Season One. Surely, creating black holes is way, way cooler then being able to melt stuff
EW: Once, "Heroes" was a show that had at least one foot firmly on the ground. Claire was a high school cheerleader. Peter was a nurse struggling with finding his life's purpose. Niki/Jessica (Ali Larter) was a single mom making ends meet by webcam stripping. This quality always made "Heroes" relatable even when it got incredible.
If Peter remained the struggling nurse all the way into Season Three, wouldn’t that be the sort of “stale storytelling” EW decried earlier?
Despite possessing incredible abilities and being tasked with saving the world, the Heroes continue to find themselves in scenarios familiar to us all. Claire realizes her father may not be the hero she thought he was. Peter struggles to reconnect with an adversarial, estranged father. Maya just tries to be normal. The Heroes may be dressed up with powers and act out fanciful fight scenes, but audiences remain connected to these characters’ emotional underpinnings.
That said, when did a single mom stripping in front of a webcam become widely “relatable?”
PROBLEM 5: “HEROES” IS TOO DISPOSABLE
SOLUTION: FIND A BIG VISION — AND SET AN END DATE
EW: After its own uneven third season, “Lost” staged a remarkable comeback due in large part to ABC's willingness to let the producers tell a long-term story through shorter seasons that would ultimately end the series itself. “Heroes” should seriously consider stealing a page from that script. Fewer episodes for each volume will translate into more meaningful episodes for each season.
No, no, no.
The writers and producers of “Heroes” should never take this to heart. What was one of the problems with Season One? The storyline occasionally dragged. What was one of the sticking points on Season Two? It took too long to realize the threat of the virus, causing that storyline to be all but scuttled in the face of the WGA strike. Now imagine if “Heroes” depicted one uber-arch that spanned several years.
“Heroes” works better in smaller arcs, when plots are resolved in a few episodes.
EW: Then shore up the audience's emotional investment with the show's favorites by adding more single-character episodes like ''Company Man,'' the Season One classic that focused almost exclusively on H.R.G.
Correct. “Heroes” needs more done-in-one episodes, to steal a comic book phrase. Longtime superhero fans would likely respond well to an episode or two in the vein of the classic “softball games issues” of the classic X-Men comics, where the cast would simply hang out during the downtime between adventures and saving the world.
Entertainment Weekly’s list started off strong but ended up a murky mess of contradictions and “solutions” that would ultimately weaken “Heroes,” not strengthen it. If the show needs to do anything, it’s size-down the cast, produce shorter stories and one-shots, and effectively bring back a sense of mortality to the characters. As we’ve seen in the early episodes of “Volume Three: Villains,” the creative team seems to be thinking along the same lines. Time will tell.
Will “Heroes” be able to return to its former glory? Probably not, sadly, as the first season caught lightning in a bottle. But that doesn’t stop “Heroes” from being one of the best shows on American television today.
But what are your thoughts on the matter? Is Entertainment Weekly off-base? Are we? Sound off on the CBR TV/Film forum.