On the chilly Monday morning that Hollywood's writers went on strike, Heroes creator Tim Kring called from the streets outside the Hollywood studio where his NBC series is shot. ''Yes, I'm picketing my own show,'' says the 50-year-old writer-producer. ''So surreal.''
But Kring wasn't calling to discuss labor woes he was calling to explain why Heroes, suffering a creative decline and a 15 percent ratings drop from the same period last year, went from Human Torch hot to Iceman cold. The good news? A turnaround appears to be under way. After weeks of sluggish storytelling, the Nov. 5 episode recaptured some of last season's fanciful energy. We've also seen the next two episodes and we like them, too. The cliff-hangers are back. Narrative purpose has been discovered. Old favorites like Peter (Milo Ventimiglia) and Horn-Rimmed Glasses (Jack Coleman) take center stage. Even more encouraging: Kring himself is keenly aware that Heroes is broken. Here's his candid critique:
THE PACE IS TOO SLOW ''We assumed the audience wanted season 1 a buildup of intrigue about these characters and the discovery of their powers. We taught [them] to expect a certain kind of storytelling. They wanted adrenaline. We made a mistake.''
THE WORLD-SAVING STAKES SHOULD HAVE BEEN ESTABLISHED SOONER The premonition of nuclear apocalypse created a larger context that unified every story line last season. Kring now sees that Volume 2 (the first 11 episodes of season 2) would have been better served if Peter's vision of viral Armageddon had appeared in the season premiere rather than episode 7. ''We took too long to get to the big-picture story,'' he says.
THE ROOKIES DIDN'T GREET THEMSELVES PROPERLY New Heroes Monica (Dana Davis), Maya (Dania Ramirez), and Alejandro (Shalim Ortiz) ''shouldn't have been introduced in separate story lines that felt unattached to the show. The way we introduced Elle (Kristen Bell) by weaving her in via Peter's story line is a more logical way to bring new characters into the show.'' (That said, Kring says a few newbies won't make it beyond this second volume, which wraps Dec. 3.)
HIRO WAS IN JAPAN WAY TOO LONG Hiro's (Masi Oka) time-bending adventure in 17th-century Japan where he mentored samurai hero Takezo Kensei (David Anders) finally came to an end on Nov. 5. But Kring says it ''should have [lasted] three episodes. We didn't give the audience enough story to justify the time we allotted it.''
YOUNG LOVE STINKS Kring regrets sticking Claire (Hayden Panettiere) with a super-dud boyfriend and forcing Hiro to moon over a cutesy princess. ''I've seen more convincing romances on TV,'' he admits. ''In retrospect, I don't think romance is a natural fit for us.''
Yet while Heroes has finally found some dramatic traction, this second volume is pretty much a wash. The Dec. 3 episode has been retooled to function as a potential season finale a move inspired by the writers' strike and a desire to give the show ''a clean slate'' when it goes back into production for Volume 3. At that point, Kring wants to craft a rebooted Heroes that can attract new fans and win back those who've tuned out: ''The message is that we've heard the complaints and we're doing something about it.''