So a half-decade later, Heroes returns to NBC tonight as Heroes Reborn, and you probably don’t really give a damn. I get it.
The ordinary-superhero series, which ran from 2006 to 2010, has remerged not thanks to its rabid, vocal, undying fan base (think Arrested Development or Wet Hot American Summer), but due to network execs cynically plumbing their junk drawer of dormant properties (think 24: Live Another Day). “Hey! We’re fresh out of ideas, but we have this thing that worked once.”
There are other reasons to be skeptical. Though a 78-episode run over four years is nothing to laugh at, Heroes nonetheless gave us plenty to laugh at: bogged-down mythology, wan characters who lingered long past their expiration date, the entire Mohinder Suresh experience, etc. Full disclosure: I bailed out before the final season. But maybe, just maybe, there is some cause for hope. So let’s squint our eyes real hard and do a Hiro Nakamura time-jump back to 2006.
Season one of Heroes: pretty good! For 23 episodes, creator Tim Kring and company made a fun, oft-surprising popcorn-muncher, and that sort of thing never quite goes out of style. Better yet, the show landed two years into the LOST phenomenon: That behemoth left many a sprawling, unwieldy, mythology-heavy TV drama floundering in its wake, but Heroes might be the only series that actually pulled off the trick, if only for a little while.
It gave us a world of indestructible teenage girls, time-traveling office drones, mind-reading cops, and murderous watch repairmen. For the most part, they were losers—lonely, lost, looking—with some sure they were destined for greater things, and others convinced they were doomed. It was real Superhero 101 stuff, and it worked, thanks to a diverse cast, a world-spanning scope, a solid mystery, and a few memorable catch-phrases. (“Save the Cheerleader, Save the World.”) It was driven by a well-tuned plot machine calibrated to get its characters into the right places at the right times, forming and breaking alliances along the way. Think of it as a Crash/Magnolia/Short Cuts hyperlink movie, but with people who can fly.
Even revisiting it now, there are still moments that can leave you surprised and delighted. Damage-proof cheerleader Claire’s (Hayden Panettiere) first appearance falling from a construction site and casually snapping her body back into place. Mopey Peter’s (Milo Ventimiglia) slow realization that he doesn’t have one power, but every power. The way every teleportation by Hiro (Masi Oka) resulted in an excited exclamation, arms thrust into the air triumphantly. Or the constant gray area Claire’s dad, Noah Bennett (Jack Coleman), occupied as a man both hunting heroes and harboring one.
There is joy here. There is a good story here. There is mystery here. And there’s also an alluring darkness: I’d forgotten the horror of every telekinetic craniotomy executed by the villainous Syler (Zachary Quinto). You even get some legitimate, real-world emotion: Ventimiglia isn’t going to be lining his mantel with acting awards anytime soon, but he wrangles sympathy anyway here as a character desperate for love, but burdened with the belief that he may be responsible for the impending death of thousands.
Even a lot of the little stuff lands: It’s peppered with memorable short-term runs with the likes of Jayma Mays and Nora Zehetner. Malcolm McDowell swallows his scenes whole. Bonus points, too—in Season One, anyway—for casting children who aren’t flaming morons that leave you rooting for their immediate death (see The Walking Dead or The Strain).
It isn’t perfect. Mohinder (Sendhil Ramamurthy) was never more than a whining plot device gifted with the superpower of always being wrong. The Dr. Jekyl/Mr. Hyde aspect of Niki/Jessica (Ali Larter) aimed for badass but settled for eye-rolling. Isaac (Santiago Cabrera) and his giant faux-comic panels predicting the future was a hokey idea even 10 years ago. And in later seasons, the universe cracked as it expanded: Turns out minor characters have known THINGS … ALL ALONG!
It started to feel less like a plan and more like the creators were playing plot-point roulette. That disease killed the show, but right at the onset, only a few minor symptoms were evident. The sloppy Season One finale—more of a wet squib than the epic explosion teased all season—was the clear turning point.
But Heroes Reborn returns tonight to a different world. TV shows are at yet another inflection point, this one marked by shorter seasons, and an emphasis on streaming and binging. Kring and his writers always seemed to work better in short bursts, so a 13-episode miniseries feels like the right length to keep a story tight and moving, as opposed to the 20-plus episodes of open-ended television that used to be the norm.
The superhero world has changed even more dramatically. The original Heroes hit a year after Batman Begins, but two years before Iron Man launched the Marvel Industrial Entertainment Complex. Reborn is a chance to play in those sandboxes and benefit from Superhero Mania without the burden of fouling up a long-term master plan like the one now constricting Marvel. It should be freeing; it will hopefully also be fun.
The cast welcomes back a few familiar names, but only one is a true red flag (ugh, Mohinder). Reborn’s new collection of unfamiliar faces bodes well, though: The one recognizable newbie is Zachary Levi, and that’s a plus, too, for anyone who enjoyed his five years top-lining Chuck.
I’m no Isaac: I can’t paint a future for Heroes Reborn. Will it be a tightly written and propulsive piece of pop like it once was, or will it be a rambling mess too in love with its own cast and wayward ideas to make anything meaningful of them, like it eventually became? That’s this show’s central mystery, at least until it gives us a better one. But for now, I’m willing to step off that ledge one more time and hope it flies.
Dan Eaton says “actually” way too often, has an unreasonable love of Arby’s roast beef, and watches just the right amount of TV and movies without jeopardizing his marriage. He writes about other things for other people, but they don’t let him swear.
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