In a more fair world, one where television shows are not judged by the announcement of their intention to exist but instead by the content of the episodes they produce (which is to say, a world without Twitter), we would keep our mouths shut and wait for Heroes: Reborn to hit the airwaves next year before deeming it the mediocre thing it has every chance of being. But my editors tell me that taking a respite from obsessing over True Detective “might be healthy” for me. And anyways, there are some legit things to fret in theory about the prospect and potential of Heroes: Reborn.
Heroes was a geek dream come true when it premiered on NBC in 2006. Comic book storytelling translated into a handsomely produced television serial? That had fun with the superhero genre without making fun of it? I had been yearning to see that on my small screen since I was kid, writing letters to Marvel Comics pitching them my dream cast for a TV adaptation of the Chris Claremont/John Byrne X-Men comics. (As I was watching a lot of General Hospital – a story for another day – I believe I had Jacklyn Zeman down for Jean Grey, and, uh, me for Cyclops.) Smallville was, at the time, just swell, but the “no flights, no tights” policy made it a show that fell short of my ideal. Not that I needed costumes. I just needed a show that wasn’t afraid of its genre, and made the audience most likely to watch it the audience it most wanted to please. Heroes didn’t have “tights,” either. But it had flights, and alt-timeline doppelgangers, and brain-eating serial killers, and killer cliffhangers, and cosmic philosophy, and apocalyptic doomsday plots, and a global vision embodied by a diverse, game cast, and more-more-more. Not everything worked during the pop phenom’s first season, but each episode was usually so overstuffed with stuff to always be entertaining; and when everything worked, it was fanboy bliss – so much so, that know-it-alls like myself were willing to forgive Heroes for
basically ripping off liberally borrowing from the genre that inspired it. (There was very little that Heroes did that The X-Men and more didn’t do first.)
Heroes was created by Tim Kring, best known before then for Crossing Jordan. He was a relative comic book novice who became interested in the genre as he watched the movie culture go increasingly ain’t-it-cool and wondered if there was an opportunity to bring that sensibility and event flick energy to the small screen. He did the smart thing of recruiting other writers who knew the field better – most notably comic book scribe and screenwriter Jeph Loeb; Alias producer Jesse Alexander; Smallville director Greg Beeman – and together they represented a formidable creative team, full of passion and experience. Heroes, it seemed, couldn’t go wrong.
But it did. Badly. An engrossing rookie season that was steadily if sometimes awkwardly building to a cataclysmic clash between fate and free will, good and evil – super-powered psycho Sylar (Zachary Quinto in his breakout performance) versus the combined (and equally well-cast) might of Hiro Nakamura (Masi Oka), Claire (Hayden Panetierre), Peter Petrelli (Milo Ventimiglia), and all of their genetically goosed destiny-linked super-friends – crashed on the rocks of a shockingly flat finale. We were promised blockbuster spectacle; what we got was clumsy plotting and characterization and a clunky street brawl lacking the imagination required to overcome the limits of television production. Fans hoped it was just a misstep, while some critics, like Alan Sepinwall, argued that it was the inevitable outcome of a storytelling machine that was always flawed. What’s certain is that Heroes was never again as good as it was in the first season. The second season erred with well-intended miscalculations (like dialing back the breakneck speed-plotting strategy that often caused season 1 to run too hot, too messy) and creative misfires (like Hiro’s protracted exile in the past). Kring and company knew how to sell an origin story – for individual characters; for their whole world – but had no idea how to build from there and stage big saga TV. NBC canceled Heroes after its fourth year. The show still had fans, but the thrill had long gone.
And now it’s coming back. As a 13-episode “event series,” run by Kring, characters and actors TBD. There’s irony to this: I remember Kring telling me back when I was reporting on Heroes that his original conception was a series that reinvented itself every season with new characters played by different actors – in other words, something akin to American Horror Story or True Detective. Would Heroes have flourished had it existed as an anthology series? Can it function now as such? It probably depends on your feelings about – and faith in – Tim Kring. I have a great respect for him. I remember a guy who was sincerely jazzed by his creation, who appreciated success, who wanted to please his audience. But after Heroes, and certainly after the fail of his follow-up, Fox’s Touch, I’m skeptical if he’s the right guy for this jump-start. He’s going to need to tweak his storytelling brand to make resurrection magic happen. He should start by giving the we’re-all-connected mystic mumbo jumbo a break. Hopefully he’ll surround himself with ace writers and genre pros as he did last time. (Added thought at 6:09 AM on 2/25: Hannibal exec producer and Pushing Daisies creator Bryan Fuller worked on the first season of Heroes and wrote one of its best episodes, “Company Man.” I’d love to see him take a crack at running Heroes: Reborn.)
Heroes doesn’t just have a creative challenge to conquer. It has an image problem too. This is not 24, which is getting an “event series” revival later this spring. 24 had run out of gas, but not out of goodwill, and with Jack Bauer, it had an iconic character that we’d gladly watch save the day over and over again (preferably on a full tank of creativity). Heroes? Damaged goods. And no Jack Bauer equivalent, although that is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I think Heroes: Reborn’s best chance at a second chance is to start over from scratch – new characters, new conflicts, even new mythology.
Another challenge for Heroes: Reborn – and another argument for why radical reinvention might be its best bet for success – is that it won’t be the novelty that Heroes was when it debuted in 2006. Much came in its wake, for better and worse, including Syfy’s Alphas and NBC’s The Cape. 2015 TV could be super-saturated with superhero serials. Arrow. The Netflix Marvel shows. The Flash. Constantine. Gotham. The Tomorrow People. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., if it can survive this choppy first season. More? This overload is itself a cause for concern: As much as it tickles my fanboy heart to see TV’s comic book makeover, I’m beginning to worry about what we’re losing; I’d rather see more original shows like Orange Is the New Black and The Americans than Gotham or Constantine, neither of which is likely to tell me a story I haven’t already read and enjoyed in their original mediums. Regardless: In a TV skymall now crowded with name-brand superheroes, something called “Heroes” sounds like a cheap generic-label knock-off. We’ve been spoiled with superhero pop, good and bad. Now, we are – or should be – choosy and demanding. Heroes: Reborn might be able to get a seat at the table on the strength of its name. It’ll have to bring something valuable to the table – quickly – to keep it.
And maybe it can. Heroes: Reborn doesn’t have to sweat the business of protecting or evangelizing corporate asset characters like Flash or S.H.I.E.L.D.; it can afford and indulge more edge, more daring, greater creative chances. Moreover, in a culture with too many superheroes, with mainstream audiences now intimately familiar with superhero conventions, perhaps Heroes: Reborn could comment on and/or deconstruct superhero archetypes; it could be an ongoing Watchmen for an era that loves watching superheroes. Regardless: Heroes: Reborn needs a compelling point of difference and provocative point of view.