The scene: a cozy New York apartment on the L.A. set of Heroes in August, where an ordinary man trying very hard not to become an extraordinary monster pops the cork on a champagne bottle. ''The ziti smells terrific!'' says Gabriel Gray (Zachary Quinto), calling out to the woman who's minutes away from damning him to his predestined future as a brain-mutilating serial killer. Her name is Elle (Kristen Bell), and not only does she emerge from the kitchen sporting a Betty Crocker smile and holding the aforementioned Italian casserole, she also promises him a tasty side dish in the form of a scruffy dinner guest who possesses a secret power. ''He's special too,'' she coos.
It's all part of a pivotal Heroes flashback episode airing Nov. 10, which tells the origin stories of the series' key supervillains, including Gabriel/Sylar. Watching the cast and crew, it is clear they're laboring hard to make the fantasy feel real and unique. ''I want to do something different,'' Quinto tells director Allan Arkush as they refine a fight sequence. ''I think I want to rip my glasses off.'' The work seems to pay off: By afternoon's end, Quinto & Co. have concocted a clever, creepy scene, worthy of Heroes at its very best.
But how many of you will still be around to watch it? That's the urgent question facing Heroes and several other returning shows that have found themselves struggling to regain their audiences after being out of sight, out of mind for as long as nine months a consequence of not coming back last spring following the writers' strike. The show is now averaging only 9.4 million viewers, down from last year's 11.6 million average. And the Oct. 6 episode notched its lowest number ever at 8.2 million viewers a far cry from its peak performance of 16 million in season 1. But not all the news is bad: Season 3's first two episodes averaged 3.1 million DVR viewers over seven days, a jump of 5 percent from last fall. And while the drama has taken a tumble in overall viewers, it ranks eighth same as last season in the advertiser-coveted 18-49 demo. Heroes may no longer be a pop culture phenomenon, but it is still a good, though not great, performer for NBC.
Problem is, good might not be good enough. To hear series creator Tim Kring tell it, Heroes needs to be or, at least, needs to be seen as zeitgeist-tapping, blockbuster event television in order to remain viable. As Kring told EW in September: ''Looking at the state of serialized TV, the shows that succeed are rare. You wait months for [shows like Lost and The Sopranos] to come back, and when they do, there's a smaller amount [of episodes], which makes them feel special. It's hard to stay special if you're on all the time.'' To keep Heroes buzzy, Kring last season adopted a strategy of dividing each season into shorter ''volumes,'' which he hoped would ''build toward exciting finales and create excitement in between story lines.''
Yet has the third-volume Heroes met Kring's own criteria for vitality? Many critics and fans don't think so. ''Villains,'' now at its midpoint, has embroiled its core characters including time-traveling Hiro Nakamura (Masi Oka), power sponge Peter Petrelli (Milo Ventimiglia), and quick-healing Claire Bennet (Hayden Panettiere) in a comic-bookish yarn about a prison break of mutant baddies and a mystery menace aspiring to unleash superpowered anarchy upon the world. The episodes have certainly addressed many complaints about Heroes' poorly received second season: The pace is quicker, the premise has been clearly established, and most of the characters have been plugged into the central arc. Unfortunately, though, last year's bugs have been replaced by new ones. And they must be stopped. NBC's No. 2 drama won't ever reclaim its status as a ratings powerhouse, but it can regain its creative glory provided producers start fixing things now. In order to speed things along, we present our five-point plan to save Heroes...from itself.
NEXT PAGE: Problem 1 Too many Heroes