Monday, November 10, 2008

REVIEW: Heroes, Season 1

"Seven days..."

All these people in the world go about their daily lives just happy to be alive, unaware of the genetic miracle happening all around them. Why do they scurry about? What is their purpose? It is one of life’s great mysteries. And where there is mystery, there is hope. We always hope for someone to share the mystery with, to bond with someone who understands us. And yet, there is a great loneliness…


That’s how nearly every episode of Heroes begins, with the character of Mohinder Suresh delivering a rambling, pseudo-quasi-profound monologue while the “music” of “Shenkar” (formerly known as “Shankar,” seriously) hypnotically assaults your will to live. It’s all supposed to be very inspiring in a New Age sort of way, and is the perfect introduction to one of the most delusional shows on television. What started as a severely flawed, but often amusing and sometimes exciting action-adventure show completely fell apart by the end of the first season, then flailed about like a fish on the poop deck all throughout its second, mercifully cut short by the writer’s strike.
Yes, I will get around to reviewing The Happening eventually.

Debuting two years and three days after the debut of ABC’s smash hit Lost, NBC’s Heroes went for a similar kind of vibe: a diverse cast full of mostly young-ish, mostly attractive people each dealing with their own personal dramas while also coming together for a single epic sci-fi storyline. It’s the ongoing storyline most of all that makes me compare Heroes to Lost, because while these weren’t the first shows by any means to have a truly ongoing storyline, rather than a one episode at a time approach, they were and are two of the most popular TV adventure/dramas that you really have no godly chance of understanding if you don’t watch every single episode. In an era before the internet, DVD boxed sets, frequent reruns, and full episodes at, people could never have kept up with this show.

"Pssst, kid. If you help me get out of my contract, I'll send for you as soon as I get out of this crappy show and back to movies."

Heroes also came at the height of Hollywood’s superhero phase, not that it’s remotely done with. In fact, with its premise that genetic mutation has caused random people all over the world (in other words, a ton of them in the continental US, plus one in Japan) to develop wildly implausible super-powers, Heroes bears more than a passing resemblance to X-Men, the third movie adaptation of which had debuted in theaters a few months before Heroes’ premiere to much box office success and more derision. Heroes is very different from X-Men in that until the first season’s finale, the superheroes never get all together at the same time, although several of them meet and work together a few at a time.
"Roger, I think you should pull over and ask for directions." "Come on, Maude, the map says the art museum's at the corner of Isaac Mendez and Simone Deveaux in Lower Manhattan. It's gotta be around here somewhere!"

The overarching story of the first season--pardon me, the first volume, dubbed “Genesis” with the bold and horrible implication that we have 65 more volumes to go--begins with Dr. Mohinder Suresh, an Indian geneticist, giving a lecture to his students. This is where my first attempt to watch Heroes ended. Suresh gives one of those hilariously implausible lectures where he rambles on about evolution at its most superficial, though totally incorrect level, which was somehow preceded by 53 classroom minutes of even shallower rambling, since the bell rings just after he makes his point. Anyway, he journeys to America to find out why his father, also a geneticist, was murdered. We eventually find out (if we were dense enough to not figure out already) that his father was genetically mapping all the freaky mutations that are happening across the world’s populations. He was killed by the first super-person he found, one with the ability to absorb other people’s super-powers by eating their braaaaiiins. After killing Papa Suresh, the main series villain, who’s adopted the name Sylar, takes the professor’s research and goes around getting more and more powerful as he gains telekinesis, freezing, super-memory (?), etc. He's kind of a biological, evil Mega Man.

Also in on the fun is a mysterious organization known by the predictably and implausibly vague moniker “The Company.” We’re never really sure whether The Company is a government agency, a private organization, a terrorist group, or something else, but it goes back many years and both captures and employs super-people into its service. These guys are bad, but they’re not psychotic the way that Sylar is, so they fight with him as often as they do with the good guys. Their entire organization also appears to consist of about four people, so I don’t really get the sense of massive threat and conspiracy I think I’m supposed to feel. A super-tough, but non-super human named Noah Bennet is one of their top agents, and the mysterious billionaire Mr. Linderman is vaguely connected to them in some way that I don’t really give a damn about. Generally speaking, the only thing that binds all of the individual characters in the series is that they all cross swords with Sylar, Bennet, Linderman, or one of The Company’s other members/opponents.

"Thought you could escape me, did you?"

As the show progresses (and if this review seems to lack coherence, then I‘m glad I‘m getting that across), some of the super-people are able to see the future in one way or another, and they prophesy that New York is going to be wiped out by a nuclear explosion, and the country is going to become a police state that persecutes its super-people in reaction--yeah, this has nothing to do with X-Men. The main thread of the season is figuring out how the plots of Sylar, The Company, and the good guys themselves lead to the annihilation of NYC, so that they can save the future. To discuss everything that happens over the course of the season would not exactly make for concise and interesting reading, so I’ll summarize the whole season in one sentence: A bunch of people figure out they have superpowers, learn to use their powers to marginal effect, resolve soap opera-ish personal problems, and have a 12-second fight with the bad guy in the last episode.

All right, I'll make this joke one more time: 23:59:58, 23:59:59...

Now, you might have noticed that I’ve avoided using the term “hero” to describe these people, even though that’s what the show clearly wants me to do. It would definitely be a shorter word to use than “super-person.” Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I think the title of hero results more from accomplishment than freaky genetic birthright. And boy, these people don’t accomplish much. Most of them are a bigger danger to themselves than to any villain they‘re supposed to be heroic for opposing, and they employ their powers with the kind of tactical prowess not seen since the age of vaudeville comedy routines.

Mickey Blue Eyes

And they’re bland, too. None of them has a costume, an alias, a cool hideout, or any of that. In a sense, that’s fine; this show is trying to strip the goofy comic book elements out of the superhero genre… while simultaneously having a subplot about a guy who eats people’s brains so that he can become indestructible. But could you have worked on the superpowers a bit? I remember the X-Men powers mostly being pretty nuanced, odd, and varied, with a great mix of abilities and eccentricities. Some of them had multiple powers, some of them were deformed, some of them had a mix of strengths and weaknesses. There was the blue guy with the tail. The guy who looked like a pterodactyl. The guy who had to wear sunglasses all the time or else he’d blast everything into oblivion. The big metal guy with the little head and the frowny face. Everyone looked interesting, and most of their powers had some interesting limitations or fringe benefits. Here, you’ve got the one with super strength, the one who reads minds, the one who flies, the shape shifter, and so on, and most of them look like American Idol winners.

"Maude, I don't understand this new Palestinian art exhibit." "Oh, Roger, you're so fussy about trying new things!"

To be more specific:

Claire Bennet (Hayden Panettiere): Texas cheerleader and adopted daughter of Noah Bennet. Completely indestructible, which is an ability later retconned to mean that she’s indestructible as long as no one lops off her head or eats her brain; it’s Highlander rules, basically. All the prophecies that figure so largely in this series say, “Save the cheerleader, save the world,” which basically means that if Sylar steals Claire’s power, there will be no stopping him. Fair enough--in Season 2, there‘ll be another indestructible guy, but it doesn‘t seem like Sylar gives a flip about him. Her great personal drama involves the simultaneous horrors of being stalked by a vicious super-powered serial killer and being unpopular with the other cheerleaders.

The bus driver jammed on the brakes, but too late.

Nathan Petrelli (Adrian Pasdar): Congressional candidate representing New York City, affiliated with no political party in particular. Given that he has to cheat to win a New York City election, that some of the people propping up his political campaign are evil, and that this is a Hollywood production with some obnoxiously up-front political messages, I’d say he’s a Republican. He can fly, Superman-style, with no obvious means of propulsion. He’s very loath to use this power, since he’s more concerned about coming back in a tough election, but he’s such a dour, dead fish of a human being that it’s a miracle even a war hero/former DA from a fabulously wealthy political family (the trifecta!) could get close to being elected with his demeanor. Dude, you don’t need to smile for the camera if you wear a superhero mask. You’d probably feel pretty comfortable in there. Plus, he’s unknowingly Claire’s mother, having conceived her during an affair… with a girl who turns out to be another super-person. Sure are a lot of them hanging around.

Peter Petrelli (Milo Ventimiglia): Nathan’s little brother, a male nurse with no particular political ambitions. Initially, we think that he too has flight, but it turns out that he can permanently copy the power of any super-person he comes near, so before long he’s trotting around with mind reading, flight, invincibility, invisibility, lightning bolts, time travel… It all seems a bit excessive, but fortunately they’ll give him amnesia early in the second season to give us a break from his godliness. He’s set up as the main nemesis of Sylar, since one’s good, one’s evil, and yet they’re both walking arsenals. I’m not buying it. This dude’s so powerful that in the post-apocalyptic future the good guys visit, Peter’s still alive and well after being hit point blank (I mean really point-blank) by a nuclear blast that annihilates NYC. Although oddly, he does have a scar, despite regenerating perfectly from everything else. What does that mean? Being vaguely cool looking is more important to the producers than even the most basic continuity, that’s what.
"Look at the bright side, honey: at least the wallpaper matches the mattress."

Niki Sanders (Ali Larter): LA (internet) stripper with a heart of gold who deals with a convict husband, a child (also super powered), a house that I’m not remotely convinced she could afford, and a Gollum-like alternate personality that takes over to do very bad things for long stretches. She also has super strength, which actually seems to have been an afterthought, since her evil side spends far more time acting bitchy and/or slutty than doing any damage. In evil mode, she’s some kind of mercenary for Linderman; in good mode, she’s trying to escape her criminal ties to him. If you enjoy the first 30 scenes where she has an imaginary battle of wills with her alternate personality, you’ll probably enjoy the next 100.

Hey, I'm the one who writes the captions around here!

D.L. Hawkins (Leonard Roberts): Niki’s husband, who can walk through walls, Shadowcat-style. Token black guy, and he’s beaten up enough to earn that moniker. Also an ex-con with a heart of gold who’s being framed for a crime he actually didn’t commit. Hang on, I’m tearing up. Oh wait, that’s actually vomit. He’s actually a very likable character, so much so that 1) it’s hard to believe this guy was ever actually a criminal, except as the standard “master thief who just wants to feed his family,” 2) he makes his mad-as-a-hatter wife all the more unlikable.

Micah Sanders (Noah Gray-Cabey): Niki and D.L.’s son. He can touch a computer and immediately pull any piece of information from it or tell it what to do. He uses this power to HEROES IS THE GREATEST SHOW EVER. I’M SO GLAD THAT IT GOT AN EMMY. WATCH HEROES, RIGHT AFTER 'CHUCK'--IT'S A COMEDY WHERE A NORMAL GUY BECOMES A SECRET AGENT, HOW CLEVER IS THAT??? ONLY ON NBC, YOUR HOME FOR MUST-SEE TV.
"Damn you, Olestra!"

Matt Parkman (Greg Grunberg): Cop who can read minds, and he eventually learns how to control them too. And there’s really not much more to say about him, other than that every big fight starts with him getting the crap kicked out of him, and that his “psychic attack” body language challenges the otherwise-great Dark City’s finale for sheer goofiness.

Isaac Mendez (Santiago Cabrera): Comic book artist who can paint important scenes in the future, just so long as he’s high. I’m bored with this guy already.

"Now listen here, Mr. Fancy Pants Curator, I paid my $25 admission, and I want access to the Indian pottery exhibit!" "Roger, stop making a scene! You're embarrassing me!"

Hiro Nakamura (Masi Oka): Tokyo cubicle rat with a job eerily similar to my own. An excitable comic book fan who gets all wrapped up in his own “heroic journey” when he discovers he can travel through space and time at will. He must also be a big Lord of the Rings fan since he strings along his own personal Samwise, fellow cubicle rat and BFF Ando. He decides for whatever reason that a guy who can freeze time on his enemies needs to learn how to fight with a Samurai sword. Dude, I don’t think fighting with honor is the wisest choice right now. You could fight with a Sears refrigerator and win, just so long as you make competent use of your ability. Which ain’t gonna happen. He has the opportunity several times to hack his opponents’ heads off when time’s frozen, but just as often decides that making use of his magical power is dishonorable, and opts for the “appear 20 feet in front of the guy who shoots lightning bolts, and sprint at him with your sword over your head” maneuver.

Gabriel Gray, AKA Sylar (Zachary Quinto): Lead villain. Watchmaker with an inferiority complex who decides he should be so much more, and gets his wish when he discovers he can eat brains to steal super-powers. He’s the only one with a superhero pseudonym, but instead of going with Captain Ultra or something, he takes a conveniently evil-sounding name from a (fictitious) watch company. Has no moral compunction about killing these people to get his powers, but almost gets out of the super-villainy game entirely when he discovers he’s destined to wipe out NYC in the future. Whaaaa? That’s some skittish morality, my friend. In a better TV show, this guy would be the hero, since it’s basically him up against a massive government agency, a invincible guy with super-powers far more useful than his own, and a bunch of other random idiots with super-powers.
R. Lee Ermey begins his first day of his post-military life, training Hooters waitresses

The best character of the show doesn’t even have any super-powers. Noah Bennet is one of the few really great things to come out of this show, a quick-thinking and believably tough half-villain/half-hero who gets the majority of the compelling moral dilemmas. He’s an agent for the company tasked with imprisoning and/or recruiting super-people, a daunting task considering that the super-person population is so prevalent that both Niki and D.L., and Nathan and Claire’s birth mother (a pyrokineticist) managed to hook up and have children without even realizing they both had super-powers! Unfortunately, he has to make up for the shortcomings of the rest of these idiots. While the show’s actually entertaining enough to be worth watching casually--I only saw it because the whole first season was available on Netflix’s online viewing service, and I was between semesters at grad school--I can’t figure out why people take it seriously. It has better production values than something like Andromeda or Mutant X, but really has the same level of cheesiness. But it’s a new age yuppie cheesiness that alternately thinks it’s making some great statement about the human condition and thinks it would be funny to have a Japanese guy see Nathan Petrelli landing in the desert and yell “Frying Man!” And frankly, when one of your major guest stars for the season is George Takei, you’ve forsaken the right to be taken seriously. Warp speed ahead!

When Heroes is at its best, it’s having its super-people team up and use their powers creatively in conjunction with one another to solve unusual problems. That’s always the best part of X-Men or Fantastic Four, but it only rarely happens here. Instead, we get to see Hiro stop short of hacking Sylar’s head off while time is frozen, then whine to Ando about how he needs more Samurai training to be able to confront him. God almighty.

"Hory mory! The tanning bed brew up!"

After an anticlimactic showdown with Sylar where all the super-people at least finally pop up at the same place all together, the show boldly proclaims that Volume 2, Exodus… excuse me, Generations, will follow with Hiro having been warped back to feudal Japan in an absurd coincidence, and the fate of Peter and Nathan uncertain after having flown into the upper atmosphere to keep the nuclear blast safely away from the city. Unfortunately, the show was right, and there was more to come. And while Genesis was a laughable, but generally amusing and sometimes fairly clever X-Men rip-off, Generations explored those pits of the television underworld at which All in the Family and Grey’s Anatomy currently, or soon will toil for all eternity…

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