This week NBC’s surprise smash hit Heroes turned a big corner – it got rid of the shitty opening and closing voice over. I don’t know how that decision got made, but I hope it sticks. The show sports some of the worst writing on network TV, and the terribleness of it is only highlighted in those faux-meaningful voice overs.
Heroes was always destined to be a hit with the majority of nerds, and not just the indiscriminate kind who have kept Stargate on the air for about 43 years. It’s a show that mixed elements of the X-Men franchise with ABC’s Lost, creating sort of a homo superior of TV geek watching. It never worked for this nerd, although I always found it oddly watchable.
One of the reasons I have given the show ten episodes is the fact that I know that it can take a series like this a long time to find its legs. An ensemble show needs a number of hours to shake out which characters are interesting and which actors are good, while science fiction/fantasy shows need time to feel out their universe and solidify their approach. If I had watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer in season one I would have missed a great show, because I would have quit by the fourth week. It took that show about 11 or 12 episodes to find its feet, and tonight’s episode of Heroes gave me hope that this show can one day do the same.
There are still a lot of obstacles that need to be overcome. First of all, the show is completely without interesting characters. While Hiro has become a favorite thanks to the actor’s enthusiasm and charisma, he’s a blank as a human being. Even spending weeks in the past and falling in love with a doomed girl has had no noticeable effect on him afterwards. That’s a sign of the show’s poor writing, which extends beyond the clunky dialogue – the writers don’t seem interested in changing their characters, or exploring how events on the show affect them. Compare Heroes with Battlestar Galactica, a show borderline obsessed with testing its characters in situations and seeing what changes are wrought.
What’s baffling about the complete lack of character development is how glacially slow the show’s pacing is. It’s funny to see Lost criticized online for not moving forward and then to see people adoring this show, which takes weeks and weeks to have the most simple events occur. The show’s pacing is partially indebted to Lost (as are many of the elements, especially the concept of a central “mystery” moving the show forward), but it seems mostly based on the current vogue in comic book storytelling, decompression.
Decompression is a fancy way of saying “stretching a story out.” I’m not an expert on the recent history of decompression in comics, but the first time I became aware of it was in Brian Michael Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man. He took six regular sized issues to tell the same story of Spider-Man’s origin that Stan Lee handled in about a dozen pages back in Amazing Fantasy #14. The decompression was pretty cool in the first few issues of Ultimate Spider-Man, as it gave the characters room to breathe and grow. Uncle Ben didn’t get killed until issue four or five, which meant that we got to know him and his death took on a more personal aspect.
But Heroes isn’t doing that. Ten episodes in and I still don’t care about the characters, and some of them I dislike so much I can’t wait for their portions to be done with. I am looking at you, Ali Larter. Most of the other characters are more or less interchangeable outside of their individual circumstances and power gimmicks; most of their dialogue seems to exist only to move forward basic exposition.
All that expository talking isn’t going to move the narrative forward, though, so the writers have resorted to the worst possible gimmick – three times. They have one character whose power is to paint the future, and his paintings set much of the story in motion in the beginning. Then they have another character who dreams the future, and his dreams move him forward to meeting with other super-powered people… one of whom is a guy who can travel to and from the future, bringing warnings with him. I’m not sure that I have ever seen a narrative so completely relying on fortune telling to move it along almost every single step of the way. It’s lazy, and it turns all of the characters into people who just keep reacting and having revelations, instead of acting and figuring things out.
That’s because the show’s only interested in the plot, no matter how slowly it deals with it. Lost is almost the opposite, which is why so many people find it frustrating. Lost is among the most character-oriented shows on television, and it often happily puts the narrative on hold to reveal elements about the people trapped on the island, and it often disrupts its own narrative by having people react to situations as their personality dictates, as opposed to whatever is needed to drive the story forward. And some of them even proactively do things, like investigate hatches and jungles. It should be noted that Lost has done something troubling this season, though, which is that it added a character who might be able to see the future. John Locke has long had prophetic dreams; Mr. Eko had them on occasion before getting scrubbed. But now Desmond is showing precog abilities, making me nervous. At least Locke’s dreams were open to interpretation and not spelling out exact events in detail, as has been the case on Heroes. Desmond’s fortune telling seems much, much more specific.
Back to the show at hand… while these character problems remain, the show seems to have figured out that it needs to bring these people together and have something actually happen. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that the whole first season will be leading up to a finale that features the events we saw foretold at the end of tonight’s episode – in other words, the pace won’t be picking up that much – but hopefully the fact that many of the characters are meeting up means the dynamics will change. For much of the first ten episodes everything felt like wheel spinning, especially Claire’s momentumless storyline. Now, with the chess pieces moved into position, the actual storytelling can begin.
I do have to give Tim Kring and his crew at Heroes credit – you can really chart the show’s improvement on a graph. Each episode is better than the last, and this past one was the best yet – but none have yet been really very good. They’ve just been “good for this show.” There’s a lot of potential in the concept, even if most of it will be familiar to comic book fans – we’re pretty desperate for that stuff in other media, so we’re happy to overlook how dramatically Heroes lifts from other sources, like Rising Stars.
There was one other thing this week that gave me serious hope, besides the removal of the voice over. For weeks the show’s promos had a tagline so bad as to be comical: “Save the cheerleader, save the world.” This week, with the cheerleader saved, the tagline became “Are you on the list?” That’s a vast improvement, and if that basic concept – there are many, many more powered people to be introduced over time – is handled right, and Heroes turns into a show with more character development and more momentum than it has now while avoiding becoming Smallville’s freak of the week nonsense, we could have a series that will have episodes that are very good. For any show.