If you had told me a year ago that the breakout hit of the 2006 television season would be a serialized epic about superheroes, I would have probably rolled my eyes. It’s not like there’s any shortage of superheroes among our current entertainment choices. Maybe Bill Maher summed it up best in his book, New Rules: “Let’s make at least every second American movie not based on a comic book. If we keep making superhero movies, the rest of the world is going to start seeing America as some kind of infantile fantasyland where… all our problems can be solved with violence.” So the question is: do we really need yet another story about people discovering supernatural abilities and learning to do good – or evil – with them? The answer: if it’s this good, why not?
Heroes isn’t really about super-powers anyway, but about ordinary, disconnected people who want to believe there’s something greater out there than their workaday lives. The first character we’re introduced to is Peter Petrelli (Milo Ventimiglia), who’s nearing thirty and still has no idea what to do with his life; based on his vague belief that he’s meant to help others he becomes a hospice nurse. Meanwhile his brother Nathan Petrelli (Adrian Pasdar) is running for a Senate seat in New York and feeling the claustrophobic pressure of having the press investigate his private life. He and his estranged family have a forced Sunday brunch in order to appear as wholesome as possible in a newspaper article, but privately he’s desperate to leave his marriage.
In addition to the Petrelli family, Heroes focuses on almost a dozen main characters over the course of its first season, and inevitably some of its plotlines are more compelling than others. The best is arguably the journey of Hiro Nakamura (Masi Oka), a Japanese cubicle drone who teleports himself to New York City and, inspired by fictional heroes like The X-Men, tries to prove himself as a worthy champion. Taking second place is the dysfunctional home life of an indestructible cheerleader Claire Bennet (Hayden Panettiere), who slowly realizes that her adoptive family is hiding a terrible secret. Unfortunately the rest of the characters are hit-or-miss. Ali Larter’s Jekyll-and-Hyde killer stripper is a bore and the scenes with her family usually feel like a waste of screen time. Police officer Matt Parkman (Greg Grunberg) at first has the most thrilling plotline, hunting down a super-powered serial killer named Sylar (Zachary Quinto), but he quickly loses the trail and his scenes become focused on his relationship with his shrill wife. Aside from his discovery that she’s cheating on him, the show doesn’t think to explore the disturbing intimacy of being able to hear the thoughts of everyone around him.
So Heroes is far from perfect, and, worst of all, its season finale was surprisingly weak. The long-awaited confrontation with Sylar turned out to be an anti-climax, and the shows over reliance on cryptic dream sequences and prophecies to further the plot allowed the writers to gloss over some of the characters’ motivations. For instance why do the members of a superhero conspiracy believe that a nuke going off in New York City will be a good thing, when all the evidence suggests it results in a dystopian future?
With the show’s flaws and tremendous ratings a backlash was probably inevitable, and a handful of critics have branded Heroes as a less intelligent, far less nuanced knockoff of Lost. After their respective season finales, Devin Faraci of CHUD.com wrote a scathing review of the entire first season of Heroes, accusing it of everything from plagiarism (not entirely unwarranted) to being “one of the worst written shows I have ever watched.”
I’ll agree with Faraci on the general point that Lost is the smarter, better-written and better-directed show. But what I object to in his review is his implication that intellectual complexity is the sole yardstick by which a television show should be judged. Faraci seems in awe of Lost’s nerve, its willingness to challenge the audience with multi-year mysteries that, in some cases, still don’t have answers. By contrast, he dismisses Heroes as being too willing to cater to the audience and wrap everything up neatly so that nobody gets frustrated. Is he kidding? The entire first season forms one larger story arc ,(whether you like that story or not), and virtually every episode ends on a “To Be Continued” cliffhanger. It’s baffling to read someone arguing that Heroes explains its on-going mysteries too quickly when the show is more serialized than almost everything else on television.
The charge that Heroes is poorly written probably stems from the earliest episodes of the first season, which tend to suffer from some awkward exposition to get the story up and running. It also has many, many speeches in which one of the characters, (usually the angst-ridden, dreamer Peter Petrelli), muses aloud about his or her place in the universe. “Do you ever get the feeling that you were meant to do something extraordinary?” Peter asks his cab driver in the pilot.
Heroes does eventually find its own voice, one that doesn’t require the characters to talk about their feelings out loud in every other scene. However some of the show’s casual stealing from classic comic’s storylines is harder to accept. Many of the heroes are working to prevent a bleak future in which the United States has become a police state and members of their own kind are hunted down – essentially the same plot as “Days of Future Past” fromThe X-Men. I’ll give that one a pass, since so many fantasy and science-fiction epics have reused the concept of a dismal alternate version of reality.
Yet the show’s wholesale theft from Alan Moore’s magnum opus Watchmen isn’t nearly as ambiguous. Both feature a megalomaniac former superhero who, disillusioned with the state of society, engineers a massive terrorist act in New York designed to bring the world together in peace. That’s a little too specific to be a coincidence or an homage, even if series creator Tim Kring keeps insisting that he’s not a comic book reader as a sort of plausible deniability. Then what’s the excuse of staff writers like Jeph Loeb, who have worked in the comics industry for years and should certainly know better?
But the on-going plot about the looming destruction of New York was always hopelessly convoluted by vague prophecies and predictions. The story’s real heart has been in the characters’ gradual realization that their former lives might be lost forever, and that’s where Heroes is truly captivating. The season’s best episode, “Company Man”, centers on the life of a devoted agent for a shadowy corporation that tracks and experiments on these nascent superheroes. He’s ordered to adopt a baby girl who might one day develop powers of her own, at which point her normal life will be over and she’ll be considered their property; his flashbacks and a crisis situation in the present chronicle his slow development from a dutiful, unquestioning employee to a father who is willing to sacrifice everything, his career, his family’s safety, and even his life to protect his daughter. While Heroes might lack the density provided by Lost’s Byzantine plotting, it’s able to compensate with a more direct emotional pull.
Beyond its strong characterizationHeroes is also notable for its timely, surprisingly subversive political undercurrents. The threat of a nuclear attack on New York is more than just a horrifying endgame. The season’s villains are a cabal of behind-the-scenes power brokers who are already calculating how they can use the public’s fear and outrage in order to manipulate their own advantage. The writers are keenly aware of our current political reality, when national tragedies can be quickly co-opted for good press and the partisan agendas of those in power.
Whatever its flaws Heroes has given us a cast of characters that makes us believe in the mythic power of superheroes, no matter how often we’ve seen it all before. When the show returns for its second season this September, let’s hope that the writers fix up the loose ends and develop a stronger, more satisfying plot to feature the characters in. Heroes is already far above the competition. Let’s see if it can soar.
The most fascinating special feature included in this DVD set is the original, 73-minute cut of the pilot episode with optional commentary from show’s creator Tim Kring. The majority of the restored footage consists of a single plotline about an Arabic man who can generate radiation from his body and is struggling with the moral dilemma of whether or not to help carry out a terrorist attack in America. Initially Kring wanted Heroes to tackle the issue of terrorism head-on, but NBC balked, wanting a more family-friendly show so the superpower in question was eventually reassigned to another character.
There’s also over fifty deleted scenes culled from the entire season, as well as audio commentaries for about half of the episodes. The commentaries feature a rotating line-up of cast and crew members, and while actors are rarely as interesting as the characters they play, it’s nice that just about everyone on the show gets a chance to chime in instead of hearing the same voices again and again.
Disc five contains a spookily accurate mind reading game. If anyone out there has tried it and knows how this sort of thing is programmed, I’d love to hear an explanation. Disc seven includes five separate features focusing on the show’s special effects, the stunts, the musical score, a profile of artist Tim Sale, and a general making-of documentary. Unfortunately, they’re all in the range of about ten minutes long and are pretty insubstantial. The main making-of feature in particular is just a self-congratulatory look at how popular Heroes has become, while the others only offer the occasional nugget of interesting trivia, such as the fact that Tim Sale is colorblind and forced to rely on others to complete the artwork seen on the show, or that Masi Oka was formally a CGI programmer at Lucasfilm before being cast as Hiro. Since the audio commentaries are mostly concerned with the actors talking about being on set, it feels like a real loss that none of these special features goes in-depth with the creators to discuss the pressures of delivering a television show where every episode is just another chapter in a much larger story. Like the show itself, there’s some room for improvement for the second season DVD set.