Heroes

Rarely have I approached a new tv show with as much goodwill as I approached Heroes. My desire to see it succeed can basically be attributed to one thing: the sense that most of the recent glut of superhero films, and in particular the Bryan Singer (and, latterly, Brett Ratner) X-Men films, good as they have often been, are still irretrievably hobbled by their medium. Superhero stories, especially superteam stories, as told in comics, do not fit neatly into 90- or 120-minute installments arriving once every two or three years. They are serials. They sprawl. They should be a natural fit for tv, yet in recent years we’ve had to make do with shows like the fits-and-starts Smallville, or the frankly dire Mutant X. It has been frustrating, to say the least: a good superhero epic reaches parts that other stories just don’t.

So it is with a certain caution, and the knowledge that my glasses may be somewhat tinted, that I say that on the basis of the first two episodes, Heroes, which I heard about a couple of months ago and have been looking forward to ever since, seems to actually be what I want it to be: a naturalistic ensemble show about the first people to develop superpowers. Like all superhero stories, it begins with a Beginning. The first episode (or the first chapter, “Genesis”, as it is inevitably labeled) is essentially a collection of origin stories, set mostly in America, but with occasional visits to other continents to convince us we’re watching a global event.

Admittedly, the beginning of the beginning is not terribly auspicious. Series creator Tim Kring seems to be trying just a little too hard. Not only do we get a poorly-written opening crawl (“In recent days, a seemingly random group of individuals has emerged with what can only be described as “special” abilities … Volume One of their epic tale begins here”), immediately afterwards we get an almost-as-poorly-written voiceover (“Where does it come from, this quest, this need to solve life’s mysteries? … perhaps we would be better off not looking at all, but that’s not human nature. Not the human heart”), to one of the great visual cliches of superhero stories: someone stepping off the edge of a building. And it turns out to be a dream sequence.

The rest of the episode is not without its limitations, either. There is some cringeworthy dialogue, notably from Professor Mohinder Suresh (Sendhil Ramamurthy, trying his best), as he enthuses to his class about the potential “next step” in human evolution, and between the dreamer, Peter Petrelli (Milo Ventimiglia), and his pragmatic, running-for-office-and-proud-of-it older brother Nathan (Adrian Pasdar). Some of the characters seem to be low-watt bulbs, or at least have their motivations unfortunately shorthanded: mother-turned-stripper Niki Sanders (Ali Larter), for instance, has borrowed a large sum of money from the mafia to pay for her genius son Micah (Noah Gray-Cabey)’s education, with (a) no apparent means or plan to pay it back, and (b) predictable consequences, at least until her superpower, which appears to take the form of a death-dealing mirror twin, asserts itself. The web of connections between the cast is at times, inevitably, somewhat contrived, and the convenient solar eclipse that looms over all the threads of the story is a rather heavy-handed way of giving them unity.

But on balance, within the constraints of a plot that’s darting back and forth between various locations (which looks likely to be a temporary constraint, since most of the characters are rapidly gravitating towards New York), it’s nowhere near as incoherent as might be expected. Particularly enjoyable are the introductions of invulnerable Texan cheerleader Claire Bennet (Hayden Panettiere) and teleporting Tokyo salaryman Hiro Nakamura (Masi Oka). Bennet we meet through camcorder footage filmed by her friend, as she climbs up on top of some abandoned mining machinery, and throws herself off to land with an all-too-convincing thud. After standing up and wrenching her dislocated shoulder back into place, she looks into the camera and says, with a cool detachment that seems inappropriate to her years, “This is Claire Bennet, and that was attempt number six.” Not test: attempt. The irony is clear and black: she found about her invulnerability because she was trying to kill herself. She wants to self-destruct, but can’t, which is not exactly your stereotypical cheerleader character arc. By contrast, Hiro is endearingly excitable, and the comics geek of the bunch to boot (even if it’s a little improbable that he’s a fan of Western comics, rather than the home-grown variety). It’s Hiro who makes the obligatory X-Men reference, Hiro who babbles about “breaking the space-time continuum”, Hiro who is eager to grow into his powers. He’s the opposite end of the spectrum to Claire. “You don’t understand,” he tells his colleague, “I want to be special.” (“We are not special,” his colleague retorts, “We are Japanese!”)

Moreover, the show looks the part. We’re not talking Unbreakable levels of moodiness here, but the aesthetic is pleasantly subdued. You sense that costumes are and will remain off-limits, that being able to teleport won’t also miraculously make these characters olympic athletes, and if they get hurt, they will bleed. Dave Semel’s direction is good; the camerawork, particularly in its framing of New York City, is stylish without being obtrusive. And if the powers are somewhat off-the-shelf, the depiction of them isn’t always, and mostly knows when to nudge the viewer: the futures that Isaac Mendez (Santiago Cabrera) finds himself painting while high, for instance, are the scenes of death and destruction that might be expected, including an apocalyptic conflagration that looks like being the Heroes’ first job to prevent … and are captured in the bold strokes of comic-book panels.

The cliffhanger that ends episode one is another example. Peter stands on top of a building, recapitulating the dream sequence we saw fifty minutes earlier. Everything we’ve seen throughout the episode leads us to believe that he’s going to step off the building and soar — one of Isaac’s paintings seemed to capture Peter in mid-flight — but when he does, it’s Nathan, the one who doesn’t care, doesn’t believe — the one who already has everything — who catches him. It works because it seems so wonderfully, tremendously unfair, which should (I think) be one of the show’s key messages: life ain’t fair. So it’s a bit of a disappointment when, half-way through episode two, the show goes back on what it seemed to tell us. It turns out that Peter flew as well. I suppose it would be genetic.

Actually, the end of the beginning (“Don’t Let Go”; the best that can be said for the titles is the way they’re plastered on bits of scenery) is a bit of a mess all around. This is not unexpected, given its genesis — by all accounts, the pilot was originally 75 minutes long, a third of which was later chopped off and shunted into what was episode two — but it’s hard not to feel it should have been better than it ended up. Between repeating material from the pilot to reintroduce the existing characters and introducing two new ones (Matt Parkman, a genial, telepathic cop, based in LA; and Mohinder’s father’s perky neighbour), the episode’s actual plot development is pretty vestigal.

Claire’s adoptive father — who at the very least has been keeping an eye on Mohinder and his father, and may have had something to do with the latter’s death — gets his hands on the tape she’s been making of her suicide attempts. Niki’s mysterious twin provides her with an escape route from Vegas in the form of a car, a map, and a mutilated corpse. Various characters stumble on references to “Sylar”, who appears to be a mutant serial killer with a taste for brains: Mohinder discovers a voicemail suggesting that his father somehow ‘activated’ Sylar; Parkman overhears a detective speculating that a gruesome crime was Sylar’s work. As for Hiro, on arrival in New York he is, predictably, deliriously happy, at least until he discovers a comic book that tells exactly the story he’s just lived (no prizes for guessing the artist), stumbles into another crime scene with Sylar’s apparent MO, idiotically picks up the gun lying nearby on the floor, and promptly gets himself arrested by roughly half the local police force. Despite the contrivance involved, it’s Hiro story that saves the episode, just about, by providing a second killer ending.

And this time it’s not a cliffhanger. It’s impossible to know, of course, but it feels like the natural end of the pilot, and you get the sense that everyone would have been better off if they’d stuck with the original 75-minute version and not tried to chop it and stretch it into two unequally weighted but more-or-less equally long parts. So I’ll be watching on, probably at least up until Christmas, because a lot of what’s bad about Heroes feels like teething troubles, and what’s good about it — some of the characters, some of the acting, the general premise — could be enough to make something special. It hasn’t used up my goodwill yet.

18 Responses to “Heroes”

  1. Abigail Says:

    a lot of what’s bad about Heroes feels like teething troubles

    You think so? I’m having a lot of fun with the show and I’m definitely going to keep watching, but there’s no denying that on almost every qualitative scale, the show is undeniably awful. The dialogue is embarrassing, the characters aspire to be clichés, and with only one or two exceptions the cast is solid oak (the exceptions, by the way, are getting by on their own charisma – Greg Grunberg playing the same character J.J. Abrams had him playing on both Felicity and Alias – not anything the writers gave them). I think this has more to do with a lack of talent in the writing room (or, to be more charitable, the writers’ creative energies being directed entirely towards plot, with no blood going to dialogue and character) and the cast than teething problems.

    Right now, what’s floating the show is the intricacy of its plot and the glimpses of an unpcoming arc, but that was true of Lost two years ago. If the sense of whimsy, of campy fun, is sustained, then I can see Heroes soaring. If the the plot begins to flag, however, the whole thing is going to come crashing down, because there’s nothing else keeping the show alive.

  2. Niall Says:

    You think so?

    Yes, because I think most of the unevenness is due to the writing, which is something that can be fixed. I don’t think the cast is nearly as bad as you do (the only one I really have problems with is Larter), nor do I think the characters are as bland.

    I’ve seen a lot of Lost comparisons, but I’m not really seeing them: Lost *never* had a particularly interesting or intricate plot, to my mind, and I found the central characters far more dull than I find Heroes‘ cast. That said, it’ll be interesting to see where the show goes from here — whether it focuses on one hero a week, which is what I suspect will happen and will probably give them some space to redistribute some energy from plot to character, or whether they keep trying to advance every thread every episode.

    Lastly: whimsical, yes, at least when it comes to Hiro; but campy? I’d have said it’s quite the opposite — there have been too many genuinely grisly or sexual scenes for me to read it as camp.

  3. Joseph Says:

    There is some cringeworthy dialogue, notably from Professor Mohinder Suresh (Sendhil Ramamurthy, trying his best), as he enthuses to his class about the potential “next step” in human evolution

    I suppose it’s too much to hope for a show which majors on the emergence of mutants to recognise that evolution is a contingent process without a sense of direction, and therefore that the idea of a “next step” is utter nonsense. *Grump!*

  4. Niall Says:

    Joseph, to an extent they do — there’s a later exchange in which Mohinder talks about how any mutation starts out in a population of one, and only later spreads through a population depending on whether or not it proves to be a survival advantage or not. I’d actually say Heroes is doing better than the average, except that the average is so low that doesn’t mean much (and even so they keep talking about rungs of the evolutionary ladder).

  5. Carl V. Says:

    Nice review of the show. The things that bother you, some of the dialogue, etc. are things that I actually like and think keep the show in the realm of comics. I’m probably not as objective because I’m a fan of Jeph Loeb, but I like the voice overs, dialogue, etc. Thus I disagree with the ‘lack of talent in the writing room’ considering that both Kring and Loeb have some great success under their belts.

    Hiro’s part in the ending of the second episode was fantastic. Loved it. I love the pacing in the show because, even if it doesn’t have the moodiness of Unbreakable it does have that sort of feel to it and I’m really enjoying it. I have yet to read the online comics or Hiro’s blog but I need to as I’m sure they add small things to the overall enjoyment of the show.

    I am glad it is doing well among viewers and truly hope it continues in the same vein. I enjoyed the ‘limited commercial interruptions’ aspect of the first episode and wish they could’ve gotten companies to commit to doing this for each episode as it was nice to get more story with fewer breaks. I know, I should just get off my butt and get Tivo!

  6. Abigail Says:

    I think most of the unevenness is due to the writing, which is something that can be fixed

    Can? Maybe. But will it? Writers usually try to put their best foot forward in the show’s pilot episode, and this pilot put so little emphasis on clever dialogue or interesting characterization that I find it hard to imagine the writers focussing on these traits later on. But, as we’ve established, I take a dimmer view of the show’s shortcomings than you do.

    I suppose it’s possible that what I’m reading as camp – Mohinder’s ponderous voice-overs, Claire’s over-the-top ‘what about prom?’ histrionics, Peter’s emo crisis (not to mention the Batman-esque pose he strikes against the skyline in his final scene) – were intended in complete earnest by the writers. I’m choosing to read them as camp and knowing because that reading makes the whole show a lot more fun and a great deal less self-important.

  7. Niall Says:

    Hiro’s blog

    !

    I did not know about this, but Google reveals all.

  8. Liz Says:

    I watched the first episode and was fairly unimpressed with what I got, which was a bunch of cliches running around and some kind of pseudo-scientific twaddle about evolution, only redeemed by the ending, and I see from your post that the one thing I really liked about the ending is turned around in the second episode.

    I might watch a few and give them a chance to get over the problems with splitting the pilot, and see if it gets better once I know the characters a bit more – I like Hiro a lot, and Niki’s mirror twin is potentially interesting.

  9. Ian Says:

    I really enjoyed both episodes; watching them together masks the weakness of splitting the pilot. As for “off-the-shelf” superpowers, I don’t think that’s fair – OK, flight and invincibility are rather, but they aren’t combined in one character, and I’d say more “classic” anyway. It certainly appears that the fliers can fly – and that’s it. The mirror twin thing is totally not off the shelf (I can’t think of a comic I’ve seen it used in at all – it’s more fantasy horror than SF comicbook). Painting the future while high is also not usual, and as for Hiro – he’s rather different to a teleporter, telekinetic or time-traveller as usually portrayed.

    I don’t think you could do a show about superpowers without touching on the firmly established ones, but I don’t see any of them as a cliche, yet – they could easily become that, though, if the show isn’t careful.

  10. Niall Says:

    Ian — that’s sort of what I was getting at by saying the powers are familiar (teleportation, precognition, flight, healing factor — and I suspect the mirror twin is going in a jekyll-and-hyde/Hulk direction) but the depiction of them isn’t always.

    Abigail:

    Writers usually try to put their best foot forward in the show’s pilot episode,

    I’ve been thinking about this, and while it’s obviously true, I don’t think they succeed very often. “Welcome to the Hellmouth” is nowhere near Buffy‘s best; the pilot of The West Wing is nowhere near that show’s best; the pilot of Angel, while pretty good, bears absolutely no resemblance to what the show became a season and a half later; the pilot of Farscape is outright bad; and so on.

    As for the camp — yes, I think Mohinder’s voice overs (to pick an example) are intended in earnest. That’s why I thought they were bad. I see a distinct difference between how Heroes is handling its heroes with how, say, early Angel handled its hero; the latter clearly did play up the camp, which makes it somewhat miraculous that they also managed to pull off the Angel-as-dark-and-brooding-hero moments.

  11. TonyC Says:

    Am I the only one who’s seen episode 3? Because while it still hasn’t quite settled down (though signs of plot are appearing), it does appear to be developing a nice line in goshwow endings. Jaw-dropping, in fact, but then I’m easily impressed.

  12. Ian Says:

    Tony, I’ve seen episode 3, and think that it is indeed shaping up very nicely – and the ending was nicely *horrific*, as well as asking several questions about just how some of these powers work.

  13. Niall Says:

    I finally got a chance to watch “One Giant Leap” this evening. Solid episode, I thought: they’re somehow managing to balance all the different character threads without ending up with a horribly uneven mish-mash. I liked the ending, too, because it’s not a twist (trying to come up with a twist ending for every episode would have been a really bad idea), it’s a logical plot development, just presented in a more, er, graphic and unflinching manner than you’d normally see.

    On the downside, I really could do without Mohinder’s voiceovers now, and I’m hoping against hope that the black guy in the bar doesn’t turn out to be (a) Sylar, (b) Micah’s Dad, or (worst option) (c) both.

  14. The Greatest Show In The Galaxy #6 » Solar Flare: Science Fiction News Says:

    [...] Niall Harrison presents Heroes posted at Torque Control, saying, “Review of the first two episodes of the new tv show.” [...]

  15. Recent TV « Torque Control Says:

    [...] One of the things that’s marked out Galactica all along is its tendency to include episodes, like “Unfinished Business”, that have absolutely no need to be sf, and could be transplanted wholesale to a more contemporary setting. That’s not an accusation you could ever level at Heroes, to which I now freely admit I’m addicted. Of course, the foregrounding of speculative elements in Heroes isn’t why the show works, per se, although it sure doesn’t hurt; the secret of its success is largely in its plotting. The decompressed, immaculately-woven tapestry of story threads feels, at least to me, like one of the things the show has most successfully ported from its source medium (although it’s worth noting that Galactica at its best, and in particular at the start of season two, has also used such techniques, so it’s not exactly a pure comics tradition). In that and many other ways, it’s fair to say that Heroes has become exactly what I hoped it would be when I first wrote about it, and fittingly the “fall finale”, Joe Pokaski’s “Fallout”, is the strongest episode of the season to date. Somewhere on livejournal I saw someone say that “Fallout” was made up of nothing but moments that would have been the centrepiece of an entire episode on another show, and that’s not much of an overstatement There’s an utterly gobsmacking amount going on, almost all of it enormous fun, and if you asked me to pick a favourite moment from, say, Eden, the closing vision, Isaac’s painting, Peter and Claire, and the Haitian, I don’t think I could do it (and could probably name another three or four contenders if I took longer to think about it). The flipside, the show’s critics will say — and I have a running debate with Abigail about this — is that the show doesn’t do dialogue, doesn’t do character, doesn’t really do depth of any kind. The first two criticisms had some merit to start with, but it seems to me the writers have come on in leaps and bounds; with the possible exception of Niki, I don’t think there’s a single character on the show I’m not interested in, which is not a small accomplishment. The lack of depth is perhaps a more serious criticism, but even there I think a lot of people underrate Heroes — and anyway, it’s an attack that shifts the goalposts. First and foremost Heroes is more consistently fun than anything else on TV, and that’s not a small accomplishment, either. [...]

  16. Martin Says:

    I’m having a lot of fun with the show and I’m definitely going to keep watching, but there’s no denying that on almost every qualitative scale, the show is undeniably awful.

    It is amusing to gaze into the past and see that, as useful, Abigail gets it spot on and Niall gets it so, so wrong.

  17. Abigail Says:

    Yes, but did he write a sentence that follows ‘there’s no denying’ with ‘undeniably’? Groan.

  18. Niall Says:

    But hers is the rightness of cynicism, and might is the wrongness of optimism. :-p


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