UK TV review: A look back at Heroes
Neil Brazier | On 20, Feb 2014
We look back at Tim Kring’s superhero series – where it went wrong, where it went right, and where you can watch Heroes online in the UK.
Receiving the highest rating for any NBC drama premier in five years and attracting 14.3 millions viewers on it’s debut, Heroes was a highly anticipated and refreshing change to the television landscape. But as a victim of the 2007/08 writers guild strike, it could never find the instant healing ability it needed to get back on track after an impressive first season.
Creator Tim Kring wanted to create a multi-arc episodic drama about saving the world, a show that was bigger than real heroes you’d find in the police or at the hospital, but people with abilities to actually rescue the planet. Over the course of the four seasons, the major cast remained the same, each fighting a similar battle within themselves and each other, a formula which, unfortunately, got stale quickly.
In its debut season, ordinary people were dealing with the fact they had extraordinary abilities and this created its heroes and villains. One person could fly, another could heal and one could prophesise the future through painting. That was the theme of the show: trying to understand each others’ abilities before the destruction of the Earth.
It was a promising start, and exciting too. The characters’ stories each weaving in and out of one another, the first half of the season looked at saving the cheerleader; the second, saving the world. Through that struggle, the show’s main antagonist appeared in Zachary Quinto’s Sylar; though named after a watch, Sylar was one of the most watchable and evil villains on television, deadly and uncaring – he even slayed his own mother.
But then came Season Two.
The cliché “second year blues” has never been more apt. The storytelling from Season One was out the window, plots dragged on too long and everything just seemed confused. Time-traveller Hiro was trapped in feudal Japan, engaged in a love story with a princess while the catalyst for the New York nuke at the end of the first season had now conveniently contracted amnesia and was trapped with a bunch of Irish gangsters.
The second season was hit by the writers strike of America and this was used as the scapegoat for the decline in viewership, but it couldn’t take all the blame. The writing started badly and got worse; the only thing the strike did was to allow the writers more time to think about how they could rectify their sinking ship. While some episodes did stand out and new characters were introduced, such as Kristen Bell as electro-powered Elle, it wasn’t enough.
This season also brought about the issue of death when dealing with abilities and consequently added to the audience’s apathy. While it was great writing – it was bold and shocking to have one of the main characters killed off – the drama was severely reduced when another person brought them back to life. This might have been acceptable once, but to repeat it over and over was too much and lost any empathy we had built up for these characters.
Season Three, therefore, was a chance for redemption, to brush the second season under the carpet and re-focus. In areas it succeeded, but the damage was already done. The season had potential, featuring role reversals for the lead roles Peter and Sylar, now fighting for the other side, if only briefly. We had more amnesia, this time in the form of regression, as Hiro became his 10-year-old self to protect him from the horrors of the future.
Unfortunately, while a dramatic improvement on what came before it, Season Three suffered from repetition as there were now two companies to fight against. Meanwhile, the heroes lost their powers and regained them again, while scientist Mohinder (Sendhil Ramamurthy) battled with not having powers, working with formulas to gain them for himself and take them from others. Over the entirety of the show’s run, Mohinder was one character to really suffer from poor development – he should have been kept as the discoverer of the gene and then forgotten about or killed off.
The final season changed setting once again, forgetting the jumping back and forth through time and staying within the present. We now had a travelling carnival come to town; the freaks within were actually people with abilities, hidden in plain sight. The ringmaster was Samuel (Robert Knepper), a much welcomed new face who could take some of the pressure from Sylar. His ability, though, manipulating minerals like the earth or ink, was weak, like his motives – his big plan was to sink Central Park and leave the world quaking at his feet.
As for Sylar, he was everywhere. In a strange turn of events, he had shape-shifted into a congressman who was assassinated in Season Three. He was also haunting the mind of Matt Parkman (Greg Grunberg) and recovering from amnesia at the carnival. The Sylar and Matt interactions made for great TV: the two actors had a rapport with one another that just clicked. They were also two characters that hadn’t shared much screen time up until this point, so it was a new dynamic that worked.
Casting was something that Heroes got right most of the time. Sylar was the villain the show needed, perfectly acted throughout the shows run by Zachary Quinto (Star Trek’s new Spock), even when he was sidelined with stupid situations. Jack Coleman was Noah Bennet, the company man who got on with business, his weathered visage hinting he had some stories to tell. Doyle, the puppet master, was perfectly cast in David H. Lawrence XVII; frightening, he evoked real fear when controlling his victims, creating real nail-biting television. Even amid the final season chaos, Samuel (played by Robert Knepper), was the stand-out figure, perhaps proving that it’s the bad boys of the show who really carry it.
But for every hit, there are the misses. Maya and Alejandro, introduced at the start of the second season were a flop and try as he might, poor old Greg Grunberg couldn’t look stupider as Matt tried to hone in on the voices in his head. Even the so-called star of the show, Peter Petrelli (Milo Ventimiglia), suffered from monotonous drones with his Sylvester Stallone lip curl. He had the most work to do but continuously delivered disappointing results despite his juicy storylines.
It was a show that seemed like it would make stars of its actors and while it could be argued that Hayden Panettiere and Zachary Quinto did break out, most have been quiet since Heroes went off the air, finding odd spots on the small screen or keeping busy with voice-over work – like the Heroes themselves, struggling to find their purpose.
Season Four ended with Claire exposing her abilities to the world, leaving an open end for any last minute decision to keep the show going. There has been talk of a movie that never materialised, but there have been graphic novels that carry on the story. In the years since Heroes ended, there has never been a great call for more and any fans that do miss the show have been treated with Blu-ray box sets that offer a great deal of bonus material content – or access to the series on-demand through Amazon Prime Instant Video.
Heroes had great potential, proved in point by Season One, but ultimately, it ended up confused. It wasn’t just with the cast trying to remember what power or ability they had that week but the weak and repetitive stories. There were multiple deaths and resurrections, people losing their powers, finding them again and every season featured some form of amnesia.
Travelling through time is always a sticky issue too that begs the age-old question: if Hiro could travel back, why didn’t he just kill Sylar as a baby? Of course that wouldn’t make for compelling TV, but the constant back and forth of Hiro and Peter, with other versions of themselves appearing in different time lines, only served to muddle things. Paradoxes be damned!
Looking back now, Heroes had its foibles but so does every series. It arrived in 2006, just as the super-hero industry was really booming. X-Men: The Last Stand had just been released and Spider-Man 3 was on the horizon. It was a great time to launch. The numbers tuning in to the first season proved this was what the public wanted.
Now, the superhero market has become extremely saturated in both the cinematic and TV marketplace. Netflix has signed a deal to produce four shows based on Marvel properties, while we also have Arrow, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D and the upcoming Gotham all vying for viewership. If it were airing today, Heroes probably wouldn’t have lasted past the first season, but it paved the way for what was to come. It’s a stepping stone that can be remembered as entertaining, if not exactly super.