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'Heroes' biggest feat has been becoming a hit show

Neal Justin
McClatchy Newspapers

So, you can leap tall buildings in a single bound and outrun a speeding locomotive. Good for you. Try emerging as a new hit show in this dismal fall season. Now that's impressive.

Only five of the 23 rookie network series qualify as runaway successes, the most unlikely of which is "Heroes," the Monday-night drama about a group of mutants who have the daunting task of saving the cheerleader, saving the world and saving NBC, not necessarily in that order.

The series averages 14.3 million viewers a week, roughly the same as ABC's "Ugly Betty," and more than the other early winners, "Shark," "Jericho" and "Brothers & Sisters."

Before its launch, the show sounded like kryptonite. It was yet another serialized series, which are as complex and sticky as Spidey's web, and it involved science fiction, a genre that rarely does well on TV, unless it features someone named Alf or Mork.

But "Heroes," like WB's modest hit "Smallville," doesn't rely on superpowers. The success of the show is rooted in real, down-to-earth characters, dealing with such mortal dilemmas as being a single mother, struggling with a language barrier, drug addiction or trying to live in the shadow of your big brother, the most common archenemy around.

"I knew we didn't want to rely too heavily on sci-fi. There's not enough of a broad market for that," said creator Tim Kring, whose previous knowledge of comic books appears to have been limited to Bazooka gum wrappers. "Plus, you have to make a show every eight days on a limited budget and you can't compete with $200 million feature films. You have to approach it from the standpoint of the character."

No character has registered more with audiences than Hiro Nakamura, a cubicle-bound office worker in Japan who knows only a few words of English, but comes to America to stop world destruction with his ability to bend time. Even more unbelievable than his power to freeze-frame life is his exuberance and never-say-die spirit. He may be the peppiest, most optimistic TV persona since Chrissy Snow.

"He's such a joy to play," said actor Masi Oka, who is doing battle with America Ferrera of "Ugly Betty" as this year's breakout star. "He's the kid we probably all once were, but couldn't hold onto. There's not enough characters on TV that have that much hope."

Oka knows a few things about succeeding in the sci-fi world. When he's not charming audiences onscreen, he's behind the scenes, as a digital-effects artist.

He has worked on such films as "War of the Worlds" and the three most recent "Star Wars" installments.

He also spent the first six years of his life in Tokyo, where commuters inhale comic books as if they were celebrity tabloids. Oka said "Heroes" may have more in common with Japanese comic books than American ones, because over there the genre is packed with romance, comedy, action and the kind of soap-opera antics one would expect on afternoon TV.

"There's a lot of negativity in this world and people are looking for entertainment and levity," he said.

Sounds like a plausible theory, except that hanging over every second of the series is the threat of a nuclear explosion in New York City. "Jericho" also stars an atomic bomb, not the cuddliest character in a post-9/11 age.

Adrian Pasdar, who plays Nathan Petrelli, a politician with the ability to fly, said it's better to deal with the reality of the world than to ignore it.

"It's there in the newspaper kiosk and on CNN. You can't get away from it," he said. "I think people accept it as a basic intrusion in life. Our show presents the state of the world, but with people willing to take extraordinary steps to change it."

Kring, who created "Crossing Jordan," said the show is basically about hope.

"The message is that, yes, the world is a scary, complicated place, but we've deposited the theory that the world has also populated itself with people who can do something about it," he said.

With that in mind, it seems highly unlikely that the world will go "boom" at the end of Season One. Kring promises that the current crisis will wrap up in May and that the gang will start a new adventure in Season Two.

How do you follow up a year in which you save the world and emerge as a smash hit? We suggest a keg party at the Fortress of Solitude. These warriors deserve it.

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