Heroes: Season One review and roundtable

“Save the cheerleader, save the world.”

If you’re smart, that phrase elicited a knowing smile and a nod from you. But if you’re like me — or me until a month ago, anyway — you may be left scratching your head. Cheerleader what? Save the world? Huh? If that’s the case, then fear not: you’re about to get a crash course in Heroes, last season’s hottest new show and the latest in a long line of things geeks show their cooler friends while saying, “See?! Something I like is popular! Nyah!”

Not… that we would know anything about that. But, you know. In theory.

When previews for the show appeared last fall, I was skeptical. For one thing, there seemed to be way too many characters and subplots to keep track of. (And that’s from a 24 fan.) Plus it looked uncomfortably similar to the comic miniseries Rising Stars in terms of its “superheroes in the real world” concept, cosmic imagery, a villain who kills other “Specials” to gain power, and most of all, the good girl with an evil, superpowered split personality (Niki/Jessica Sanders vs. Stephanie/Critical Maas). I figured I’d wait things out, see how the buzz went, and maybe check it out after a few episodes. Well, I never did get around to watching, so when the DVD was released right around my birthday, I took it as a sign: get your ass in gear like a proper comic nerd and see what all the fuss is about.

Well, I did. And…? Yeah — it rules. So if you’re as foolish as I was but would like to be smart someday, you owe it to yourself to give these characters a chance. There’s Peter, the hospice worker who can fly… sometimes, maybe, when he’s around his brother Nathan (Petrelli powers… activate!), who was that kid in school who’d rather be a congressman than have superpowers. Then there’s the artist who can paint the future — when he’s doped up on heroin — and Hiro, the most earnest supergeek ever, who I guarantee will evoke a smile from you whether you want to or not when he first discovers his powers. And of course, the aforementioned cheerleader; who, since she’s able to heal any wound, begs the question of whether she even needs saving. Plus tons more, enough to keep me talking for days… and since that’s never a good idea, let’s hear what Justin has to say instead.

Let’s just agree on something right now and get it out of the way: the comic book/superhero genre isn’t just a “fad” that’s merely passing through the mainstream of culture, here for a little while until it’s tapped dry and then sent out to pasture. Similar the recent surge of zombie movies and the resulting backlash, the superhero “thing” has been decried as “overdone”, with some critics stating that, while it was interesting and all well and good, it’s time to get back to Serious Storytelling about Hot Political Issues, and leave the kiddy stuff in the playground.

Poo on you, sir, I say. Poo.

I submit that superhero franchises are just starting to see a massive uptick in public interest, and the success of the 2006-07 first season of Heroes seems to point in that direction. Sure, this is a show that could burn brightly, then stumble and falter later on (see Lost), but people worldwide bumrushed this show in such overwhelming numbers and with such gusto that you have to admit there’s just something about superhero mythos that appeals to us greatly.

It didn’t hurt that they did it in a completely brilliant way. Without being completely explicit about it, the series actually starts in media res, in the thick of the action. Slowly and richly, we’re introduced to a new batch of mutated freaks who have discovered that they possess a unique ability, and have to struggle with what to do with it. What they don’t figure out, at least not until later on, is that this isn’t a new phenomenon – super-powered heroes have been around for decades, at least, and there are shadowy forces in play for them.

Bouncing around the world during the first few episodes, we’re introduced to Suresh, an un-powered scientist whose father figured out a way to track down these new types of humans; Claire, a 16-year-old cheerleader who continually tests why her body is suddenly invincible; Peter and Nathan, brothers who both have powers and significant influence in political circles; Hiro, a Japanese corporate flunkie who’s delighted to discover that he can bend space and time; Sylar, an unflinching serial killer; Nikki, who’s not only super-strong but has multiple personalities; DL, who can phase through walls, and more.

If the show wasn’t as entertaining as it is, and wasn’t giving you some new juicy piece of shocking development to chew on every ten minutes or so, you might become antsy at how little the characters initially use their powers. There isn’t even a clear big bad supervillain at the onset – just a clairvoyant message that NYC would suffer a nuclear explosion in a few weeks, a prophecy that most of the characters doubt or don’t care about.

My theory on why Heroes feels fresher than it has any right to be is because you can’t quite see where they’re going with it. Most superhero comics follow a very set pattern, and most of the movies know the end result — where the hero has to be, what they have to look like, etc — and have to reverse-engineer it to make it happen. You can dress Batman up in many different ways, but in the end he’s still a rich guy who has his parents killed and dons a batsuit to fight crime. Here, the end isn’t known, it isn’t a given they’ll form a team and start wearing suits and doing huge battles with supervillains. So the journey seems more innovative than it actually is, considering how many elements are borrowed (ripped off) from classic superhero tales.

The biggest hook for the series is undoubtedly its ability to keep shocking you with major surprises – the sort that most other shows would hold on to for their season finale. Just when you think you know a character, you don’t; just when you assume a character is good or evil, they aren’t. The first year takes bold, unrestrained steps where others might have been a bit more timid; I was utterly amazed at how much they played around with the format of the show, throwing in time travel and alternate universes as if Heroes had been around for a good half-decade already and was comfortable enough for such twists.

Of course, it’s not perfect, but no show is. I just can’t wipe the goofy geek smile off my face long enough to try to think of what they are. Make no mistake about it – this is the show for any superhero fan, casual or no, to watch.

So I’ll start with a soft question. Why do you think Heroes became such a breakout hit this past year?

Good question. Without a doubt, a big part of Heroes’ success is due to the rise (and sustained profitability) of superhero movies in recent years… if X-Men and Spider-Man had tanked at the box office, this show never would have been greenlit. Period. However, I think it also owes a debt to shows like 24 and Lost that re-popularized the hour-long action drama with numerous characters following distinct but intersecting plotlines. Lost in particular, the cult mystery show where every answer brings three new questions, apparently flew in the face of the conventional “simpler is better” TV formula and proved that, yes, we actually ARE smart enough to follow what’s going on, thank you, which set the stage for similar shows like Heroes to emerge.

And the final reason is that, quite frankly: it’s a soap opera with superpowers. Which is the exact approach taken by Stan Lee in creating Marvel’s franchise characters in the 60s, and to an even greater extent by Chris Claremont on X-Men in the 80s, where you were reading every month as much to see whether Rogue would steal Longshot from Dazzler as you were to watch them pound on the Juggernaut. Nerds love escapist fantasies, but EVERYONE loves some good old-fashioned sex and betrayal and mental illness. It’s a popular theory that most non-comic book fans would actually enjoy the kickass powers and characters if they could get past the goofy costumes and perceived childish plotlines; by ditching the longjohns and showing the world what comic stories actually look like these days, Heroes is helping to prove that theory true.

I don’t know, what are your thoughts?

Like you, I think we’ve seen a rich, nurturing environment for this sort of thing grow over the past half decade or so: the massive success of Spider-Man, Batman, X-Men et all, the growing mainstream acceptance of previously geek-only passions, the popularity of hour-long serials that told a complete story over 22-24 hours instead of self-contained one hour episodes.

But I’d also like to posit that Heroes managed to introduce the pure love of comic book superhero fantasy to a world that had long since made up its mind to reject it as “silly child nonsense” and then go read some bodice-ripping, lawyer-toting piece of pulp fiction. Without being overt about it all, Heroes constructed a show that wasn’t just a superhero show, but a comic book superhero show, and proved that the comic book style of storytelling was valid for the television medium. It’s the small touches that endeared the show to many: the volume/chapter format (and don’t you just love those chapter titles?), the characters who intersect and interact in a dizzying amount of ways, the acceptable suspension of disbelief for the sake of fun, dramatic poses and awesome one-liners, and the almost cheesy adherence to the desire to have (or be) a hero like this in our lives.

For anyone who’s read any amount of comic books (graphic novels, etc), it’s not hard to imagine every episode of Heroes as broken up into comic book panels. I mean, heck, they do it right there on screen for you with the 9th Wonder comic.

So since you’re the bigger comic book expert between the two of us, what other superhero/comic book connections, homages and in-jokes did you spot? I had fun pointing out to my wife about how many villains and superheroes have alliterative first and last names (Peter Petrelli), the “Kirby Plaza” (after Jack Kirby), Stan Lee’s cameo, and just how much the series resembled a more down-to-earth X-Men ensemble.

Heh… great minds think alike, my next question was going to be what “easter eggs” you spotted over the course of the season. But sure, I’ll start.

One of my favorites was pretty subtle, just a throwaway line in an early episode: Bennet comments to Mohinder that his last name, Suresh, must be as common in India as the names “Smith” and “Anderson” are here, a cute nod to the respective villain and hero of The Matrix. Then there was Niki/Jessica’s father giving Micah a new computer and telling him to go “break the internet in half or something,” which references Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada’s description of the “House of M” crossover, saying it was so startling it would “crack the internet in half.” For that matter, one of the FBI agents trying to bust Linderman is named “Quesada.” And like you said, the Stan Lee cameo was great, as was George Takei’s somewhat larger role. (And I’m not even a Star Trek fan.) Plus it’s no secret that Isaac’s paintings are done by Tim Sale, a comic artist best known for his work on “Batman: The Long Halloween”… which, coincidentally, was written by Jeph Loeb, co-Executive Producer of Heroes.

Taking a bit of a wider angle, I really like how many episodes begin by showing a scene that happened last episode, but changing it subtly… not much, just slightly different dialogue or camera angles. Doing that reinforces the comic book feel, since superhero comics traditionally use their first few panels to recap what happened last issue, often with altered dialogue or perspectives. That wouldn’t work in most shows because it would ruin the continuity in your mind, but here it feels right. And since you mentioned them, one of the biggest plot points of the first season was future Hiro coming back in time to change the course of history, a move that borrows heavily from the X-Men story “Days of Future Past.” In it, the future Kate Pryde switches minds with her present-day teenage self to try to prevent an assassination that leads to a horrible future where mutants are hunted and put in concentration camps… which, of course, is exactly what future Hiro is trying to prevent. For that matter, the moral dilemma some of the heroes face at the end, whether to prevent a catastrophe that could be used to unite the world if it happens, is lifted directly from the seminal comic miniseries “Watchmen” (which in turn closely resembles an old episode of The Outer Limits).

What are some of the ones you’ve seen? And while we’re at it, what parallels have you drawn between Heroes characters and the comic book superheroes that might have inspired them?

I’ve already listed some of the little easter eggs I’ve noticed, so I’ll answer your second question. As I said, the X-Men connection is the strongest for the show — most of the characters echo similar powers to the X-Men, are shaping up to form a team a la X-Men, and have those kind of twisty-turny loyalties and relationships that comic book is known for.

Mohinder is the Professor X smarty pants (potential) leader, even sans powers. Peter’s power absorptions echo Rogue’s. Claire’s healing ability is a comic book staple, most notably in Wolverine’s case. D.L. can walk through walls like Kitty Pryde. There’s a Mystique-ish shape shifter. Not to mention that one of the biggest X-Men themes and storylines is based on the world’s growing apprehension of the new mutants’ abilities, and their desire to lock up or eliminate the problem (as seen in the “Five Years From Now” episode). It’s not a carbon copy, and many of the series’ powers work on a more subtle level that isn’t as flashy as the more offensive-based comic book powers (Micah’s technopathy, for instance).

I think Peter Petrelli is the obvious Spider-Man homage, however — and in more than just the P.P. initials. He’s the good-hearted superhero with hardly a streak of the dark side, he’s obsessed with discovering his powers and doing the right thing, and his good intentions are often misinterpreted.

One of the more interesting season one suggestions is that this isn’t the first generation of power-enabled folk — and that there used to be a more altruistic team back in the 50s-80s (let’s say, invisible guy, Grandma Petrelli, Linderman for starters). I’d hazard a guess based on the volume two name of “Generations” that they’re going to explore and contrast between the three generations of superheroes (if not more) — the disillusioned older group who’ve either fallen out or turned somewhat bad, the current generation of conflicted heroes, and the up-and-coming generation (Micah and that little girl who can see where people are).

Yeah, the last few episodes in particular really play up the generational theme: the older group who lost their way, the current heroes (who, as we saw in glimpses into the future, could easily go down that road themselves), and the children who need guidance. I’m especially interested in those who kind of bridge the gap between the three groups, like Bennet and Claude on the older side and Claire on the younger. I’m REALLY interested in seeing what happens with Bennet, because I’m guessing that we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg in terms of the “morally gray” things he’s had to do… he certainly evokes parallels to the Cigarette Smoking Man from X-Files, but hopefully with a greater chance at redemption.

As far as the parallels, you’re right that D.L.’s power is reminiscent of Kitty Pryde and Claire evokes any of a hundred fast healers. I’d argue that Peter borrows (no pun intended) more from the Mimic, the first new member (and first non-mutant) to join the original X-Men, who could copy the skills, knowledge, and powers of anyone in his immediate vicinity. That witch Candice seems, both in powers and demeanor, like an almost direct translation of Lady Mastermind, while Niki’s split personality suggests Typhoid Mary and the aforementioned Critical Maas. I also think Hiro has a bit of Magik in him, and Ted was definitely a Captain Atom stand-in.

Okay, so – let’s talk Sylar. Without a doubt one of the most creepy (but intriguing) parts of the second half of the season, how awesome is Zachary Quinto’s portrayal? Like Norman Bates meets Freddy Krueger. Just what do you think he’s doing with those brains, anyway? Eating them? Liquefying them in a blender and shooting up? His ability seems similar to Peter’s, but obviously with a more physical, violent element to it. And yet, Tim Kring has promised that next season’s villain will be so terrifying, “he’ll make Sylar crap his pants.”

Here’s a question: in the earlier episodes, Sylar’s apartment suggested he was tormented by what he’d done, but he didn’t display any of that remorse later on. Do you think the writers forgot about that plot element or plan to revisit it later?

That’s why I’m glad you’re here to provide insight — my knowledge of the comic book world is much more cursory than yours (casual comic book fan vs. hardcore fan), and I think viewers of Heroes draw from both of those fields, as well as the “comic book? like, the funny pages?” arena.

As for Mr. Sylar, let’s take a step back to examine the show’s overall tone. One of the things that I came to really appreciate about Heroes is that it plays with your expectations, not heavily, but enough so that you don’t… quite know what to think of all these characters. There are plenty of good guys who have made questionable decisions or — for example, Nathan — flip-flopped between morally sound and degenerate corrupt. You don’t always know what’s going on in their heads, or if their path will take them to the altar of pure superhero goodness or fallen anger-based anti-heroes. It’s the same with the show’s villains — they’re not always that bad. From X-Files and Lost, we as an audience were prepared to HATE the secretive Mr. Bennet, who does a terrific turn about mid-season into one of the show’s most likable and sympathetic fellows. Who might still be really bad, of course.

Same with Sylar. He rock-solid nails down both an intense, driven serial killer mindset — he’s doing what he does out of pure belief that he deserves these powers more, and indulges in his sadistic side with each kill. He also is capable of putting on a very convincing “nice guy” mask that keeps us wondering if there’s any chance of redemption down the road, or if it’s 100% charade. I think the true Sylar is what tiny glimpses we get when his emotional guard is lowered, most notably with his mother. Part of him does want to be normal, does want to be loved and accepted without having any greater pressure pushing him forward, and he just doesn’t get that relief.

I have no idea about his apartment… kind of forgot about that. I think it might also be connected with his Mommy Issues, or even an abusive father we’ve yet to see. His mother did have that sort of detached personality that screams “married to a wife beater” on TV.

I’m not entirely happy Sylar survived. He’s not as intriguing of a character to me (part of me keeps thinking, he’s not just robbing powers, he’s robbing us of other characters that we might’ve seen grow into their own superheroes). I think this show might be a litmus test to a viewer’s personality — what character are you most drawn to, look forward to seeing, and what does that say about you?

For me, it’s all about Hiro. I mean, c’mon. He’s an intense little geek who not only has a terrific power(s), but he’s got that sort of exuberant nature that so few people in the world exhibit. He believes in the purity of the mission, the absolute good of being a hero, and is selfless in his desire to help his friends and strangers. In my book, a true hero is someone who does good things, not for him or herself, but for others out of love. Sure, it’s not a “they killed my parents in an alleyway and now I’m out for revenge” background that propels so many comic book superheroes, but Hiro shows us that there are many people out there bursting with the desire to not only be someone, but be someone for others.

Agreed, but while I love Hiro, I find myself drawn more toward Peter (in spite of his emo bangs and whining). Between them, they’re probably the two most “good” guys on the show, with the possible exception of Claire… both full of compassion and love and a desire to see justice done, but they manifest those qualities in different ways. If anything Hiro may be psychologically stronger (he’s willing to press on without his father’s approval, whereas Peter feels lost without Nathan), and I certainly think he’ll stay pure no matter what, while Peter has more of that brooding, bad-boy potential to either go dark or simply leave it all behind. But as future Hiro confirmed (“Be the one we need”), Peter is the more natural leader, the kind of person others instinctively rally around — less because he’s the most powerful, more due to his charisma and the strength of his convictions. Hiro is almost certainly the heart of the Heroes, the one who keeps you honest and reminds you why you do what you do. But I think Peter will grow into his role as the one who makes the hard decisions and assumes control when called on; not out of any desire to lead, but because everyone simply turns to him when things are at their worst.

But of course, time will tell on that one… we don’t know who’s even alive at the beginning of next season.

Okay, here’s a 2-part question: first, what was the number one thing you were hoping to see but didn’t this season? For me it was the Peter/Sylar fight in the alternate future. I mean, they’re face-to-face, staring each other down like gunfighters, their hands ignite with crackling energy, they lunge for each other… and we cut away to Hiro, who promptly teleports back to his own time. Dammit, he couldn’t have waited 30 seconds?! I know it was just a teaser for the actual, present-day Peter/Sylar showdown (which WAS pretty bad-ass), but c’mon, you can’t end things right before the fight starts… this ain’t Rocky III. I still hope to witness that fight someday.

And second, what do you expect to see in the upcoming season? I wouldn’t be surprised if they pull a Doug Ramsey at some point. For non-comic fans, Doug Ramsey (AKA Cypher) was a member of the New Mutants, the first team of “junior X-Men.” Doug constantly felt self-conscious because his power, the ability to understand any language, had virtually no combat application. So he overcompensated by throwing himself into dangerous situations, which eventually led to his being shot and killed (albeit while saving a teammate’s life). They already did something similar last season with [SPOILER]Charlie, but that was slightly different, since she was ambushed by Sylar while leading an ordinary life.[/SPOILER] This year, it wouldn’t shock me if they introduce a bright, enthusiastic young person who’s eager to go the superhero route… and is subsequently killed while trying to save people, thus highlighting the dangers inherent in that way of life.

I think what a LOT of us were waiting to see was a superhero team form into a cohesive fighting unit. Most ensemble superhero movies have spoiled us in that way, and the season wasn’t as fun if you kept going, “But, but… when are they gonna get together and FIGHT?!?” I ended up just relaxing and taking it as it happened. I really wanted to see more battles, always wanted to see more uses of their powers, and was curious how big of a scope the show was going to have (i.e., was this going to be a small, self-contained Smallville type show, or an epic world-changing saga?).

Next season will be so crucial to Heroes’ future — I can’t stress that enough. Shows with spectacular first seasons have a history of being overwhelmed with their success and falling hard (Twin Peaks, Lost). I don’t think any of us want that for Heroes. I hope they have a lot more twists and interesting plot tricks up their sleeves, without stretching too hard. I hope they haven’t “used up” the juicy bits of their characters. I am most looking forward to seeing how the characters develop and grow into their new roles. I deeply hope they won’t spend as much time with inter-family soap opera drama (like the Nikki-DL-Micah saga from volume 1) — in small doses it’s cool, but in chunks it’s like, “Okay. Can we go back to the other characters already?”

As we all know, Heroes is doing a parallel mini-series next season called Heroes: Origins, where new characters get one episode to show off their specific origin, before joining the Heroes cast. I think that’s a terrific way to broaden the Heroes universe, give us a new perspective, while at the same time not taking precious episode space away from the regulars. There’s huge potential for creating and exploring new powers. What you said about Doug Ramsey was interesting — I’ve noted that many of the characters’ powers in Heroes aren’t exactly… how shall I say this… battle-worthy. In the comics, a vast majority of superhero powers are capable of offensive attacks, simply because we love the fights and that’s a nifty way to show them off. Yet characters with less flashy talents aren’t going to be a huge asset if the show devolves into battling a villain of the week — Heroes has a guy with telepathy, a kid who can hack electronics, a woman who can hear… good, a girl who can remember a lot, and a senator who can fly. These aren’t the hallmarks of battle powers, but I don’t think Heroes is as concerned with always getting into huge fights, anyway (plus, telepathic guy gets the first major battle vs. Jessica, even without claws coming out of his hands). It’s a broader show than that, and that’s what makes it so cool. It’s part X-Files, part X-Men, part Lost, and part Hiro.

I think, too, that the show might revisit the themes that we saw in the possible future that Hiro went to — if the heroes’ powers get out (and they will), how will society react? Especially if some of them are bad? Will that push the country or the world over the edge into a panic-fueled dictatorship? Will the heroes be embraced? Tagged and bagged?

So, to wrap this up, where do you see the show heading, and what are some pitfalls it’s going to have to avoid to stay as exciting and fresh as its freshman year?

I agree with you 100% that this is going to be a critical year for Heroes. The first season managed to drag out what we were all waiting for, the “all the Heroes meet and fight together” moment, until the very last episode through a combination of (mostly) intriguing individual storylines and occasional smaller meetings. But I don’t think fans will stand for another full year of that… the first couple episodes can be devoted to people reconnecting, maybe, but we’re going to want to see a united force before long. I think that thus far, creator Tim Kring has been very successful at achieving the right balance between the parts of the show that appeal to comic/sci-fi nerds and those that interest more mainstream audiences. He’s made it clear that he didn’t grow up reading superhero comics and dislikes certain aspects of them (codenames, flashy costumes), so I doubt we’ll be seeing Nathan rename himself “Angel” or “Northstar” anytime soon.

At the same time, though, I think Kring recognizes that comic fans are the devoted fanbase that got the buzz started about Heroes before it ever aired, and are the ones who will stick with a show long after “regular” audiences get bored and move on. (X-Files, anyone?) Thus, the second season is going to walk a delicate line between giving the geeks what we want (more use of powers, more team-ups), but not making it so comic book-y that it turns off the mainstream. That can be tough, and while I accept that we’re never going to see characters wearing even the movie-style X-Men costumes, you’re right that there needs to be more fighting and more powers. Make the Company more proactive, get the older generation involved. Introduce a “Brotherhood of Evil Heroes,” criminals who use their abilities not to change the world, just to be more successful at illegal activities. Whatever you need to do, but give us some physical conflict, not just emo boys brooding behind their bangs.

I also think they’re going to have to be careful about balancing out the new and old cast. There are quite a few additional actors signed on for this year, plus as you mentioned, Heroes: Origins will bring us at least one more for season 3. Nothing wrong with fresh blood (especially when it’s Kristen Bell… mmm), but I don’t want to see any of the characters I like get pushed to the wayside. I think they’re okay for now, since we *ahem* lost a few along the way in season 1, but here’s hoping not too many “classic” heroes are killed for the sake of the newbies. I’d also like to see some more non-powered individuals get involved. Ando (and to a lesser extent Suresh) proved you don’t need superpowers to hang with the heroes, so it’d be great if that continues with even more “normies.”

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