It's a familiar story. A new TV show becomes a pop phenom only to slump through a disappointing sophomore season, setting up a get-back-on-track third year. That's the situation facing NBC's Heroes, though the drama might have to work harder than most to regain its mojo. Because of the writers' strike, it's been MIA since December. Let's say the show returns stronger, even better do you still care?
That question has inspired NBC to launch an aggressive marketing campaign marked by a bold tactic: Mucho spoilerage. The push began on July 26, when creator Tim Kring screened the season premiere at Comic-Con two months before its airdate and then beseeched attendees to blog about it. ''There were some last year who thought the show wasn't what it should have been, so we decided that since we have a great first hour, let's show it,'' says John Miller, NBC's marketing chief, who hopes that through ''reenergizing the core fans, [they'll] become very loud advocates'' for the show.
It sure needs the push, but at the very least, the premiere suggests that Heroes learned from its season 2 miscues. To wit:
THE STAKES ARE QUICKLY ESTABLISHED
Heroes' Sept. 22 return peeks into the future (twice!) and establishes that Volume 3 dubbed ''Villains'' and slated for 13 episodes is about averting apocalyptic anarchy unleashed by a population of superpowered rogues. Among the (alleged) rotten apples: a gun-toting, sexy/jaded Future Claire (Hayden Panettiere). Teases Kring: ''The primal questions of the first season Who am I? What is my purpose? Where do these powers come from? all get reframed and turned on their head in this volume.''
NEWCOMERS ARE MORE STRATEGICALLY INTRODUCED
Unlike last year's roundly hated wonder twins, Alejandro and Maya, this season's rookie characters will be integrated through established vets like Daphne (Brea Grant), a superfast foil for time-stopping Hiro (Masi Oka).
THE PACE IS QUICKER
Sylar (Zachary Quinto) gives Claire a power-sucking craniotomy; Suresh (Sendhil Ramamurthy) synthesizes a serum that mutates normals into specials; and Future Peter (Milo Ventimiglia) kidnaps Present Peter, right after being revealed as...well, are we seriously supposed to spoil everything? ''Loyal fans know not to reveal too many big secrets,'' says Miller, clearly calling from a parallel world more trusting and sweeter than ours.
Of course, one episode doesn't constitute a comeback, which is why Heroes is launching with two back-to-back episodes. But fans shouldn't worry about feeling lost after all this time away: Kring indicates the new season isn't too dependent on knowing what happened last year. ''We're not doing much recap,'' he says. ''That's how confident we are that you can pick right up and start watching.''