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.