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Way Behind Reviews: Heroes

By Amanda Marcotte
Saturday, May 31, 2008 18:16 EDT

Since I so often find myself compelled to write reviews of TV shows I catch well after they initially came out, thanks to the combination genius of Netflix, iTunes, and just buying DVDs straight up (though mostly Netflix), I thought I’d just start calling these Way Behind Reviews. Marc and I just finished Netflixing all of the first season of “Heroes”. I’ll admit; I was skeptical of this show after catching a random mid-season episode, which I watched because a friend of mine with usually stellar taste recommended the show. The episode I caught seemed way too corny and derivative for my tastes, but what I realized watching the first season from the beginning was that the corny, derivative aspects are part of the fun. With the constant nods to comic books and other sci-fi and fantasy shows, the show wears its derivative aspects like a badge of honor, as if to say that these stories are the new mythology of a secular era.

I also squeaked with IMS joy to see that the score is written by Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman. Whip out your lighters now.

Still, make no mistake—this show is a guilty pleasure. They rely on some of the crutchiest of storytelling crutches, with at least three separate characters having some combination of pre-cognitive powers and/or the power to travel through time. Making time travel the centerpiece of the show is how generally to avoid using time travel as a crutch, which they do since the entire plot of the first season is about how visions of a future where a bomb blows up New York City and the characters’ attempts to stop it. That mediates the problem somewhat, but you still have a lot of moments where you’re rolling your eyes saying, “Okay, since you know who the bad guy is, why don’t you just shoot him in the head before everything goes wrong?” The show milks cliffhangers for all they’re worth, which probably means it loses a lot in rewatchability. You bite your fingernails, and then you feel bad about it.

But there are also a lot of plot twists and turns that take good advantage of the characters’ powers, so it balances out the plot problems. But what really makes this show more than a guilty pleasure is the characterization and the details/direction. Just when I’m getting irritated with some corny plot twist, the remarkable look of the show (shots and titles that throwback to comic books) will smooth it over for me, or the characters will win me over with how cool they generally are. This show just has more bad ass characters than any other show on TV, and they often defy expectations in interesting and believable ways.

The cheerleader Claire and her father Bennett have the most interesting story, which makes sense given the importance of family and genetics on the show, because Claire is a Hero and she’s adopted. But I’m also impressed by the Petrelli brothers, which is one of the more multi-layered portrayals of sibling rivalry I’ve ever seen on TV, one that captures the way that such rivalries are often as defined by love and dependence as competitiveness. And like everyone else, I’m in love with Hiro, who initially seems to be cartoonish but ends up being one of the biggest badasses on the show, has one of the most tragic love affairs, and even plays a deft hand at political maneuvers in his family. Nikki, the woman with superstrength and multiple personalities, was wearing on my nerves a bit, but it was leavened by being impressed at how the actress does manage to make it clear what personality is dominating without leaning on tricks like overacting or changing her hairdo. I’m amused at the portrayal of her son Micha and how everyone talks down to him, unaware that he’s a lot more aware than adults give him credit for.

Because the tendency to have superpowers is genetic, family politics dominates the show. The writers borrow, therefore, as much from soap operas as they do comic books, and with equally excellent results. You have the multi-generational intrigues, the same fussing over custody and control of children’s destinies, and even a hat tip to the soap opera convention of sending the little kid away until they can come back as a teenager to engage in intrigues of their own. What makes this work is that the show has a lot of people at odds with each other, but with the exception of a MacGuffin bad guy (Sylar) to push the plot forward, people aren’t easy to break into good/bad categories. Nathan Petrelli, played by the awesome Adrian Pasdar (who killed on a classic brilliant-but-canceled show “Profit”—and is a fellow Austinite), is a Machiavellian for real, not in the sense that it’s usually used. He’s not a bad person, but just very ambitious and easy to convince that means justify ends. He’s probably my favorite character next to Claire and Bennett. Claire is probably the most pure and good character on the show, and even then there’s a few times when I wanted to knock her for behaving selfishly or thoughtlessly. The Petrelli matriarch (a classic soap opera matriarch, by the way) seems the easiest to hate, but even I thought she had her moments of good.

I’m also impressed at the subtle way the powers people have reflect their personalities. The most obvious is how Claire’s tough stuff personality-wise and impervious to injury as her power, but you also have the ambitious Nathan flying, the savvy D.L. able to walk through walls, the imaginative Hiro able to bend space and time, the caring Peter with his empathetic powers, the boy genius Micha able to control machines with his will, the hot-tempered Ted is radioactive, and the manipulative Eden has the power of persuasion—just to name a few.

At the end of the day, I don’t think I’ll be watching any episodes again, because so much of the show is built on cliffhangers, but I also can’t wait to watch the DVDs of the second season.

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