Looking back now, Heroes‘ greatest accomplishment was neither saving cheerleader nor world, but its amazingly rapid descent from a simple premise (ordinary people acquire, cope with superpowers) to one of the most convoluted trainwrecks that ever graced network television. If you took to graph Heroes‘ artistic merits, it would look like a roller coaster, minus all the fun stuff that comes after the first drop.
Heroes will forever be inexorably linked to Lost, another sci-fi show that was, at least early on, an out-of-nowhere ratings smash for ABC. Heroes debuted in May of 2007, a time right before ABC gave Lost its end-date. In that show’s then-airing third season, it was thus drawing the ire of viewers, impatient with what they perceived as aimless meandering. Enter Heroes, which served, seemingly at pitch, as a direct antithesis to Lost. It promised a first season that would have all its answered solved by the end. Characters asked follow-up questions when they didn’t understand something, and sometimes actually got answers to them. The pacing was brisk, with plot twists coming every episode at a time before shows like True Blood and The Vampire Diaries made that a norm for this type of genre soap. As a result, Heroes was a bonafide hit in a way that no network superhero show since- The Cape, No Ordinary Family, etc.- has been. The debut episode brought in 14.1 viewers, only a few million fewer than the acclaimed Lost pilot, and the entire season managed to average around 13.5 viewers. All creator Tim Kring and his creative team had to do was play their cards right, and we were looking at an ongoing phenomenon that was going to lead NBC out of its then-dismal (still kind of-dismal) funk.
That all fell apart after the first season, and did so in a way that I’ve never quite witnessed before. Make no mistake, the first season of Heroes is still, in retrospect, a decent season of television on its own merits. The writing is stilted and overtly serious, and half of the core cast never amounted to anything interesting (Ali Larter’s bi-polar single-mother Nikki and Greg Grunberg’s cost-efficient, thought-reading cop Matt Parkman come to mind). But the pacing of the season was solid (again, especially when directly contrasted with Lost‘s), they crafted a tremendous villain in the power-snatching, brain-devouring Sylar (who managed a sufficiently menacing presence off-screen, where he remained for half the season, before Zachary Quinto brought him to life in a career-making performance), and they produced a handful of quality episodes. Most noteworthy of those are “Company Man,” penned by Bryan Fuller (a key member of the creative team who would leave the show following the season to create the fairy-tale soap Pushing Daisies), a fine standalone that told the origin story of indestructible cheerleader Claire Bennett (a pre-Nashville Hayden Panettiere) and fleshed out her relationship with her mysterious father (Jack Coleman), and “Five Years Gone,” a late-season episode that excited fans by promising a deeper-arching mythology- one that, sadly, would never materialize.
The day after “Five Years Gone” aired, I remember a senior-year high school version of myself telling a friend, with the excitability of season one breakout star Hiro Nakumura (Masi Oka, that quirky Asian who oh-so-briefly won over America’s hearts), that Heroes had officially surpassed Lost as the show he had to be watching.
That feeling would last for a few weeks, which in hindsight, feels about right. The night Lost was airing its series-changing season three finale, “Through The Looking Glass,” Heroes was airing its own finale, “How To Stop An Exploding Man.” And just like that, less than a month after my proclamation, I was ready to take it back.
See, we had reason to be excited. Season one of Heroes was supposed to end with a climactic brawl between Sylar and hero Peter Patrelli (Milo Ventimiglia), with all of the other characters finally coming together in the same place to aid Peter. And at some point, the bomb that would destroy New York City, a prophecy that went all the way back to the pilot, was set to go off- and one of the characters was that bomb. We expected something along the lines of the recent X-Men movies- explosions, fire, intense battles, death. You know, like a comic book battle, but on a TV show. Such a thing had never really been attempted before, much less attempted. (Sure, you could point to something like Buffy The Vampire Slayer, but I’m talking about something on TV that would be comparable to the big blockbusters of 2007, when technology had finally reached a point where these epic fights could look thoroughly convincing.)
Instead, we got what Alan Sepinwall described in his recent book The Revolution Was Televised as “one guy beating up another guy with a parking meter”. What Heroes had worked so hard to guard all season become thuddingly clear- that this was still television, and Kring and company didn’t have the budget to deliver the type of show we wanted, the type of show we thought we were watching. The fight was over within minutes, Hiro teleported everyone to safety, and Sylar was not dead, but escaping through a sewer vent (more on that later).
But at the very least, it ended gracefully. See, Peter was the bomb, and the only way to save the city was to get him high enough that he would detonate in the sky, away from everyone. Enter embattled politician Nathan Patrelli (Adrian Pasdar), who had been denying his powers of flight from his little brother all season. If there was one consistent character arc in the first season, it was this one between the Patrelli brothers. This way, even though the two of them were never fan favorites, at least both could go out on a heroic note, and the series could move on and evolve in the aftermath of the Sacrifice of the Patrellis.
But if the second season would teach us anything, it was that the next three seasons of Heroes would spend the majority of its time undoing any progress that it made. Heroes wasn’t comfortable in killing off any of its cast (which was already too large as it was), and showed all the signs of a show more invested in keeping its actors employed than its story. Logic and coherence, then, were quickly thrown out the door in service of whatever plot progression seemed the most radical from week to week. Nathan was still alive, just badly burned (despite holding an atomic bomb the last time we saw him.) Peter is alive too- he just has amnesia, a common side-effect of exploding. Parkman is alive despite being the only one stupid enough to get himself hurt in the fight against Sylar. Sylar’s alive too, but he’s lost his powers and in Mexico, away from the rest of the story. At least Nikki stayed dead, but wait, why’s Ali Larter still- oh right, because Nikki had a twin sister (and I think another triplet later, who had ice powers or something.) This was Heroes‘ undoing- it preserved the worst comic book tropes rather than embracing a deeper, more challenging mythology that comic fans look for in the best serialized works. They didn’t kill Sylar off because they didn’t relish the challenge of writing a better villain, and trusted they were doing fans a service by holding onto Quinto and his fan-favorite performance as long as they could. This resulted in Sylar changing allegiances and personalities so much throughout the series that he became yet another liability.
Most egregious of all were the details that seemed small on paper, but wound up hindering the show dramatically. The writers, for instance, immediately realized that they had made Hiro too powerful in the first season, so rather than rise to the challenge and continue to develop his character into the badass we saw from “Five Years Gone,” they came up with one ludicrous reason after another to make him weaker, including a third-season plot that gave him amnesia and turned him into an insufferable man-child. It was more than ruining a favorite character- it somehow, implausibly, felt like in-house sabotage. Even worse was a moment near the end of season two where Claire’s dad was shot dead. It was a good scene, a proper end for a character who had outlived his usefulness, and a death that would hopefully encourage Claire to grow and develop as a person. Instead, he was resurrected via a transfusion of Claire’s blood. Now, death no longer applied in a series that needed that element to maintain a viable, constant threat. Anyone could be brought back with Claire’s blood, and Heroes had at last, officially, committed the cardinal sin in television of valuing plot twists over actual stakes.
The second year was also the point where Heroes revealed that it was less of a serialized show than a cleverly-disguised, season-long procedural. Though it presented each episode of a “chapter” in the midst of one or two season-long “volumes,” nothing adhered together in any way that would remotely suggest a coherent, volumes-spanning story. Indeed, season two follows the formula established by season one almost comically, this time with a prophecy that involves a virus (in place of a bomb) that will wipe out millions of people unless the heroes can stop it in time. Make no mistake- Heroes hadn’t gotten as bad as it was going to get yet, far from it- but this sudden shock of familiarity, the realization that the writers were planning on doing the same story over again, was hard to stomach at the time. The other much-maligned plot of the second season revolved around Hiro’s isolated journey back to feudal Japan, but at least that resulted in another compelling villain (Alias‘s David Anders- Heroes was, ironically, much better at writing fun villains than they were their heroes) and some much-needed pastels for a series that would soon originate the term “fifty shades of gray.”
Then the writers’ strike happened, and everything changed for Heroes. It resulted in the network-ordered death of its promising spin-off series, Heroes: Origins, which would have told six original stories, each focusing around a new character, and then ask fans to vote for which character they’d like to see integrated into the main series. But at the same time, it gave Heroes time to work on a creative resurgence. Good shows take a deterrent like the writers’ strike and use the time it gives to their advantage- see the remarkable way Friday Night Lights‘ rebounded from its own second-season miscues and delivered arguably its best season when it returned.
But Heroes was about to reveal itself not only as a show with no tricks left, but as a magician ready to go on a murderous rampage to conceal that fact. Like Friday Night Lights, Heroes abandoned some of its unresolved plotlines without ever mentioning them again (see Peter’s Irish girlfriend, presumably still hilariously trapped in the future). And this time, there were no prophecies about eventual disasters. What we got in its place was a ridiculous hodgepodge of constant allegiance shifts, nonsensical character decisions, betrayals for the sake of betrayals, Kristen Bell being completely wasted, gray background after gray background after gray background, Sylar deciding to be good one week and bad the next week (seemingly because he’s embraced the madness of this consequence-free world), and my favorite episode being the one that ends with the good guys (I think?) gathering together in one place, and the bad guys (I think?) gathering together in another, simply because even though I had watched every episode, I had completely lost my ability to follow who was on which side. It was the most patronizing season of television ever made, one that practically criticized you for not following every insane character decision that it made. One two-part episode dealt with Nathan and Peter stranded in the jungle, helping each other get out, and ended with Nathan angrily declaring that he was joining up with their (evil) father, flying away and leaving Peter there, just as baffled as I was. The tagline for the third season should have just been “still… where did the lighter fluid come from?”
If we’re being generous then, the third season finale could at least be viewed as self-referential. It ends with Nathan dead and Sylar unconscious. Panicking as to what to do, because they can’t actually lose a cast member, they have Matt Parkman use his ever-fluctuating mind powers to put Nathan’s thoughts into Sylar’s body, then have Sylar shapeshift into Nathan, so that he’ll spend the next season thinking he’s Nathan when he’s actually Sylar and I’m trying to be as clear as possible here so you see what I mean?
Of course, Sylar was back next year too (appearing as a figment of Parkman’s imagination), along with Nathan, who was really Sylar, and the third Nikki, and most every character that had been around since the beginning, all having evaded death countless times because they’re trapped in this horrible, existential place where they’re constantly on the run from something they don’t realize doesn’t exist. The fourth season is a bit better than the third because it at least takes another stab at narrative linearity and not whatever the fuck they were doing the previous year, but still, the less said about it the better (the villain is a carny with the power to move rocks and generate the types of earthquakes I’d sleep through when I lived in California. I’ve said too much.)
The series ends on a cliffhanger, with Claire revealing to the world that people with superpowers exist (she doesn’t stipulate how that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re interesting). NBC briefly considered bringing the show back for an abbreviated fifth season to tie up lose ends and appease its fan base, before looking at the Nielson ratings and realizing that said fan base no longer existed. The show that had debuted four years earlier to 14.1 million viewers saw only 4.4 million tuning in to see how it ended.
So, where did it go wrong?: The first season finale was an obvious warning sign, but I’m going to pick a specific moment early in season two, in which Peter is still coping with amnesia, and an off-duty co-worker says to him “a bunch of guys are going to Houlihans. Wanna come?” It may very well be the only time Houlihans was name-dropped in the show, but it’s when Heroes officially became the show my friends and I enjoyed watching more because of our Houlihan’s in-joke than any other artistic merit.