Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Save the Cheerleader, Doom the Show

Why NBC’s Heroes is struggling

The first season of NBC’s Heroes was unreservedly outstanding. It was the subject of both critical and popular acclaim and several of its members – Hayden Panettiere, Zachary Quinto, and Ali Larter among them – have since progressed to increasingly bigger movie roles outside the show. It was a great time to be a TV viewer.

Sadly, the seasons since have suffered badly. The show still has its entertaining moments, but nothing like the grandeur of the first season and ratings have plummeted. There are lots of theories on the web about what’s wrong with the show and what needs to be done about it. I like the show and I got to thinking about it myself. I have some ideas about what’s gone wrong that aren’t necessarily in synch with other members of the Internet community. Let’s start with why Season 1 was so great.

Season 1 had a lot of characters, some of them likeable and some of them (Greg Grundberg’s telepathic cop in particular) less so. It was a delicate balance to keep them all relevant and interesting and fresh each episode, but the writers did a good job of shuffling them around. A lot of them have since been killed off, but the show has added new ones and there aren’t really too many fewer than there once were. No, the problem today isn’t that there are too many heroes, it’s that they’ve got nothing much to do.

In Season 1, there was natural character development because the heroes were all discovering and learning to deal with their powers and their situation. These days, the heroes all seem downtrodden in various ways, just trying to eke out normal lives. Sure, it’s nice that Claire’s not jamming her hand into a garbage disposal every five minutes so nobody forgets that she heals really fast, but it at least had a lot more dramatic tension to it than watching her do the Beverly Hills 90210 routine at college. Ando and Hiro are scrabbling around without purpose, lamenting Hiro’s impending death. Larter’s character (I can’t keep track of her name anymore, it seems to keep changing) is taking a stand against sexual harassment in the workplace. Ho-hum. Oh, and there’s the new power to see sound, which is great except that the hippies were doing the same thing with LSD thirty years ago. There’s just no serious character development going on, at least nothing that’s interesting. Our only reason to care about these characters is predicated on our past relationships with them – we like them because they used to be cool. And they used to be cool, because they were subjected to intense pressure that turned them into diamonds. But without the pressure, that carbon doesn’t become diamond, just burbling pools of icky black oil.

The dramatic tension in the first season was intense. There was nuclear devastation on the horizon. There was a killer on the loose, hunting and killing specials. There was a dire warning from the future (via the uber-cool, soul-patched Hiro that Hiro never became, sadly) that led to a quest to SAVE THE WORLD. There was prophecy to guide them, there were villains to thwart them, and there was a mystery about the whole thing – nobody knew what was really going on, except the writers. They knew and they expertly choreographed the dance. By way of comparison, they were the exact opposite of Battlestar Galactica’s re-creators, who boldly proclaimed at the start of each episode that there was definitely a “plan,” then worked diligently to prove that in fact they hadn’t the slightest clue where the story was going. It’s a big part of the reason that I grew to hate BSG but am still hoping that Heroes will stage a triumphant return to greatness.

Lastly, Season 1 had a very well-written story. There was something going on, and it made sense in little pieces week by week, but also when you stepped back and looked at everything you’d seen so far, right up through the end of the season. Information was carefully revealed little by little, while mystery abounded. But it never felt contrived – there were secrets and they were told to us bit-by-bit. There were good guys, bad guys, and some who were hard to classify. There were people who knew what was going on, some who wanted to know, and some who didn’t care. There were decisions made in the past that affected the present, and decisions being made in the present that affected the future, and we got to take it all in and absorb and consider it. THAT’s good writing, and Season 1 was filled with it from soup to nuts.

So let’s recap. In Season 1, there was character development driven by dramatic tension driven by dire events and horrible villains, all brought together by a cogent and entertaining plot. Season 2 fell apart trying to take those elements and rework them, essentially re-telling the story of Season 1, but in a twisted, confusing fashion. It had some high points, such as the lead-up to the battle between uber-heroes Sylar and Peter, but it wasn’t as rich as season 1 in part because it was missing the character growth we’d gotten used to but primarily because the writing just wasn’t nearly as smooth. There was a lot going on, but I’ll be damned if I could explain what it was.

Season 3 suffered from the Writer’s Strike, and I sure hope those writers got whatever it was they were after, because they kicked a whole slew of TV shows and movies right in the crotch to get it.

So here we are, now, in Season 4 (I think – the weird half-seasons and the strike threw me off a bit, but I think that’s what we’re calling this one), and we’re missing the character development, we’re missing the dramatic tension, we’re missing the sense of impending doom, and we’re missing any inkling of a story arc tying everything together. Ok, so there are some circus freaks and they don’t seem too nice. Big deal – they hardly appear to be mass-murderers or harbingers of nuclear devastation at this point, though “Flash with knives” caused a little mayhem. And yeah, Sylar could GROW to be a true villain again, but at this point we almost know him too well for him to be a truly effective bogeyman. The shadow governments and secret societies seem to be lying low, there are no prognostications of global catastrophe going on, nothing to really stir the passions of the viewers.

Granted, we’re only three episodes into the season. It may be that the writers have something brilliant up their sleeves to redeem the last three seasons and make these early lead-in episodes out to be something far more vital and critical and interesting than they’ve seemed so far. I just hope they don’t wait too long – NBC is getting creamed in the ratings at every turn and I’d hate for them to do something drastic before Heroes hits its hypothetical stride. I’ll also be the first to publicly recant this whole post if they do manage to get their act together and pull off a season that’s worth of the show’s inaugural storyline. I’m not optimistic that I’ll need to do that. I expect to continue watching until the bitter end, but I’d sure like to see Heroes resurrect its former glory rather than just limping along unsure of what to do with itself. Saving the cheerleader seems to have doomed the show, because it’s never been as good since. Good luck to the show’s writer’s and producers to find that spark again.

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