Heroes: Season One Review
(For those following the series on BBC2 and 3, spoilers for episodes not yet screened are clearly marked within the body of this review. If you wish to avoid them, stop reading after the picture of Claire, and pick up again following the picture of her father.)
Although the past decade has been something of a golden age for superheroes at the cinema, the same cannot be said for the small screen. Indeed, while Spider-Man, Batman and the Incredibles have blazed a trail through the box office and popular consciousness, very few attempts have even been made to replicate that success in our own homes. To a certain extent this is down to budgetary constraints - a drama about a man who can fly is inevitably more expensive than one about a man who works in an office - but it is also down somewhat to historical precedent. To a not-inconsiderable degree, the television landscape has never really escaped from the two major comic-book series of the medium's early years, George Reeves's Superman in the 1950s and Adam West's Batman a decade later. Both set the seal on what superhero shows should be: bright, colourful, somewhat silly and aimed squarely at a young audience. Fair enough for the time, and even somewhat for the Seventies with its Incredible Hulk and campy Wonder Woman, but while the parent genre - which was, of course, influenced by the West series as well - began to grow up in the 1980s the television adaptations remained routed in that early legacy. The explosion of critical and commercial success for graphic novels, spearheaded by Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore's peerless Watchmen, remained almost unnoticed by the small screen so that well into the Nineties we got placid, safe stuff like Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, the spiritual offspring of the Reeves series. Even when the industry did attempt to move with the times, it didn’t seem to really understand the revolution which had happened in the comic book world, giving us either out-and-out drivel in the shape of Mutant X or well-meaning but totally misguided attempts like Birds of Prey. The only true success of the past several years has been Smallville which is… well, people seem to like Smallville so perhaps I won't comment. But in general, the only really creditable superhero stuff that didn't totally pander was, aptly, happening in animation, with the cartoon spinoff of Tim Burton's Batman achieving far more than its live-action counterparts.
Only now, some two decades after the release of Miller's classic take on Batman, have small screen heroes finally grown up with the arrival of Tim Kring's Heroes. A huge amount of hype has surrounded the show ever since it debuted last year, arriving in Britain already laden down with award nominations aplenty and a year spent at the top of NBC’s ratings. Much of the hoopla has been around the fact that it is one of a seemingly burgeoning wave of new shows with a complex, ongoing story which treats its audience with intelligence and expects in return total concentration, but for the comic book fraternity it’s become more than that. For the first time, TV really gets comics, what they are about and what they do. Its very DNA consists of fifty years of comic lore, a genetic makeup that is both a celebration and a translation to the screen of the magic, excitement and sheer love for the genre felt by its adherents. The show’s basic concept, in which a group of disparate individuals discover they each have a different superhuman power such as flying or the ability to heal is pure X-Men, the pitch being what would it be like if that comic happened in the real world, and there was no friendly Professor X to help guide and protect the so-called mutants. But it’s not just the concept that comes from the printed page, but the series’s very soul. Not only does a comic book artist and his work form a central plot strand, but that strand is literally about comics coming to life, its characters emerging from the pages to walk among us and save the world. One of the main characters, the aptly-named Hiro, is a self-confessed geek, one who not only revels in the lore but celebrates his love for it and doesn’t care what the world thinks of him - indeed, he uses his knowledge of the conventions of the genre to know what he must do to save the day. From major points like this to the smallest of touches - the surtitle lettering comes right from the pages of any Silver Age book, the location of the final showdown is named after the seminal Marvel artist Jack Kirby and so on - this is a show that lives and breathes the lore of the speech bubble (which also has its representation in Hiro and his friend Anto’s dialogue). Stan Lee’s cameo when it comes isn’t so much a nice touch as somehow inevitable: this is fandom writ large.
A brief précis for the half-dozen people who haven’t actually seen it yet. Coming to New York to investigate the death of his father, Mohinder Suresh (Sendhil Ramamurthy) discovers that the old man had been tracking down an apparently random group of people around the world whose DNA is wired slightly differently to the rest of us resulting in their having amazing abilities. Office drone Hiro (Masi Oka) is one such person. At the same time as Mohinder is tracking down his father’s killer, Hiro is thrilled to learn that he can bend time, and manages to teleport himself to New York twelve weeks into the future. There he is somewhat surprised to find himself the star of a comic book drawn by one Isaac Mendez (Santiago Cabrera), a heroin addict who when high can draw the future, and even more surprised when he witnesses an apocalyptic explosion that destroys the city. Hurriedly returning to the present, he travels to the States with best friend Ando (Jason Kyson Lee) to stop this catastrophe from happening. But there are sinister forces at work with an uncertain agenda, apparently headed by the mysterious Mr Bennet (or HRG, for Horn Rimmed Glasses, as he’s almost universally known among aficionados) played by Jack Coleman, who are evidently aware of those with special powers. Ironically, another “mutant” is HRG’s very own adopted daughter Claire (Hayden Panettiere) who can heal any injury in her body in a matter of moments. Back in New York, the rival for Isaac’s girlfriend, one Peter Petrelli (Milo Ventimiglia), is sure that both he and his brother Nathan (Adrian Pasdar) have the ability to fly, somewhat awkwardly for Nathan as he is running for congress and doesn’t want to reveal the family secret. Teaming up with Mohinder, Peter is visited by a battle-worn Hiro from the future who has a simple message: “Save the cheerleader, save the world.” It’s all very involved, and that’s not even including Niki Sanders (Ali Larter), an internet stripper who every so often Hulks-out and who is in some way beholden to a Mr Linderman, the shady businessman who is also the chief contributor to Nathan’s senatorial campaign…
This is the complex setup that Kring and his team present with comparative ease in the early episodes. Structurally speaking, this first part of the season is fascinating. At the outset not only do the majority of characters not know each other but they are not even in the same location so that their lives are, more or less, totally separate. Indeed, disregarding the fact they are all thematically following the same path in discovering their superpowers, they don’t even appear to be taking part in the same genre, let alone the same show. While Hiro and Ando are embarking on a light-hearted road movie, we find Niki engaged in a fairly typical trailer-trash melodrama, Nathan, Peter and Isaac in some upmarket trendy New York serial and Claire a frothy teen drama ala The OC or One Tree Hill. This difference in styles is emphasised by the way they are shot: while New York is a grey, somewhat depressed metropolis full of muted blue interiors, Claire lives in an idyllic sun-soaked locale more OC than DC and Hiro and Ando float through a series of archetypal locations one step removed from reality. The ambitious scope of what the show is doing in these early episodes is extraordinary, and while we should not be surprised in this day and age that the production is able to convincingly portray such diverse locations as Tokyo, India and Las Vegas, that should not for one minute remove our appreciation that it does so. However, one does get the sense that at times its reach exceeds its grasp: the plot strands at this early point are so diverse that they don’t gel as well as obviously hoped for. Jumping from spot to spot there is little connection, and as such the first few hours can be as frustrating as they are intriguing. It takes a lot of skill to meld such disparate elements in the manner of a Short Cuts, and the show doesn’t quite pull it off - although, ironically enough, it is when the writers force the characters together before they are naturally ready - see Niki’s early encounters with both Nathan and Ando - that the writing fails to convince.
Spoilers follow for episodes not shown on the BBC
However, undeniably the first half of the season is overall stronger than what comes later. The crisis point comes after Chapter Nine, Homecoming, when the Cheerleader is indeed saved. After this, the series changes track somewhat and becomes less about asking questions than answering them, at great and sometimes excessive length. At the time of writing BBC 3’s screening of the series has reached Chapter Twelve Godsend and watching it this week with my nephew I found myself asking “How on earth did they fill another ten episodes between this and the finale?” Although the continuous nature of the show makes it more difficult than most to recollect individual episodes unless they stand out in some way (such as Chapter Seventeen Company Man or Chapter Twenty Five Years Later) the second half of the season is, comparatively speaking, far less memorable than the first, and certainly less gripping. To fill up the time between main bad guy Sylar’s first attack on Claire and the eventual showdown in New York a Conspiracy takes to the stage, but sadly it's not an especially interesting one, as the way it is tackled is very reminiscent of the approach taken in The X Files. Anyone who sat through all nine years of Chris Carter’s increasingly confused series will know two things: that the tricky thing about asking questions is that at some point they have to be answered and that whatever else you do Trust No One. With regards to this first point Heroes fortunately doesn’t obfuscate on revealing what’s going on, but the problem is that the answers are indeed much less interesting than those early mysteries. It seems a generic Secret Organisation, which has spent years tracking down and neutering said mutants, has arranged the New-York-goes-bang plan to extend their operation worldwide and launch a global crackdown. Yeah, great. Early “surprise” revelations about who is caught up in this nefarious scheme - HRG, Eden and so on - are fair enough and make for a pleasing twist, but such revelations proliferate to an almost absurd degree over the second half of the season, so much so they not only lose all power but actually end up irritating the viewer (I’m not sure when I reached my cracking point - either the involvement of Hiro’s father or Nathan’s mother I think). The convenient threads which bind the characters aren’t as exciting as one initially hoped, the contrived nature taking away from their actions and the idea of heroic destiny.
There are also the inevitable Messages. Use your talents to the best of your ability and you will prosper, but try and sponge off others, as Sylar does, and it will come to no good is the central thrust, which is fine but something that X-Men (again) was saying forty years ago. While it’s good that there generally isn’t a temptation to go into Buffy-territory and use the strains of the heroes’ ability as a metaphor for the struggle of life, one occasionally hopes for a little more. One also can’t help but groan at the 9/11 references that are crowbarred in: while this is inevitable for any story regarding a disaster in New York, I can’t help wondering whether already the political angle the show puts across is not a little outdated these days. I watched Five Years Gone within a couple of days of the sixth anniversary commemorations in New York, and the similarity of visuals between Nathan’s speech and Bush’s was striking, but it’s time to move on. The world is changing, and such sentiments, while valid, have all been said before. There’s also the problem of Sylar: while he’s undoubtedly a nutter, he’s also a victim in the end, making the finale a little uncomfortable - in the end, as much a pitiable creature who doesn’t get to put up much of a struggle. That it is be Hiro, the most pure and noble of all the lead characters, who was the one to slay him is thematically a little odd.
End of Spoilers
But the fact we can even have such discussions is a sign we have moved on a long way from Mutant X. And, almost as important, Heroes doesn’t let the side down when it comes to the actual superheroics, when the talking stops and the battles begin. For the most part the set pieces are extremely satisfying, from simple examples such as Matt’s early encounter with Sylar and Peter’s subsequent battle with him through to the showdown in the Bennet house. If the fights are sometimes somewhat brief, then that is only to expected from a television show where budget and especially time will not permit the staging of more expansive smackdowns. That said, it would be nice to have a couple more clear-cut “heroic” moment of the sort that in the old days would have been accompanied by a John Williams fanfare. This is a world of grey, but the odd undisputed moment of “punch-the-air” jubilation still would be welcome: off the top of my head I can only recall Chapter Seventeen as having anything close like that. Even Hiro, the innocent, doesn’t really get one as his moment of glory in the finale is, as said, ever-so-slightly dubious, but then that is symptomatic of the one big letdown of the series in this regard. After the massive build-up (has a full-length TV season ever been so focused on one climactic scene as is seen here?) the actual showdown is a deeply bizarre anticlimax which leaves the viewer both perplexed and very let down. One can only assume a sudden panic or lack of funds, but either way it ends the season on a really bum note, and can’t help but affect how one views the season as a whole. All build-up no follow-through: after a largely brave season which hasn’t been afraid of killing off potentially interesting characters, it wimps out.
A shame, given all the good work that has gone into the thing before. And doubly so, when one considers how credibly what is fundamentally a deeply silly concept for a show has been presented. To ground a superhero series in a real world setting is a tricky proposition - Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross’s Marvels is a superb but rare example of having managed it on the printed page. Crucial to Heroes’s success in this regard is the presentation of the powers themselves. Half the time it quite rightly presents the characters’ abilities as a deeply mystical, magical happening, most obviously with Hiro but also in such moments as Peter’s jumping off the building with Nathan and Isaac’s paintings. However, arguably far more important are those times that the powers are thoroughly grounded in a real-life setting - seeing Claire thumping into the ground does far more to earth (pardon the pun) the series than the fact Niki has Personal Problems. Equally, the fact the episodes are so pleasingly gory reinforces this fact - shows in the past have been largely bloodless affairs, but Heroes is not shy of showing body parts and copious amounts of blood, and that is all to the good - when these guys fight, it hurts. The fact that one of the basic tenets of the show is to convince us superheroes could exist in the real world means that this is perhaps the most important area in which to succeed, and there’s enough tangibility to the heroes’ powers to ensure that it passes the test with flying colours.
But of course, none of this would be worth a hill of beans if the acting wasn’t up to the job. The cast is actually a fairly mixed bunch - I’m not sold on Ramamurphy’s rather stilted “English” line-reading he gives, while Ventimiglia seems to have one permanent facial expression and Zachary Quinto is a surprisingly unthreatening villain. The rest are stronger though. Despite the show only being a year old, reams have already been written about how good Oka is, and I have little new to add: he simply embodies his place as the heart of the series, and even if none of the others were around his charming performance would be enough to carry the show on his own (it helps that he has a sympathetic sidekick in Jason Kyson Lee as Anto). In other hands the character could have become grating or cloying but importantly Oka never plays up to caricature. Strong for entirely different reasons is Carter as Niki, who when she hasn’t hulked out as Jessica gives a dedicated, committed performance, at once parentally tender and protective, desperate but proud (one can also say the same for Leonard Roberts as her husband when he appears). They are, for my money, the strongest of the bunch, but everyone else is perfectly solid, with Grunberg good as the decent everyday Joe Matt Parkman, although I’m not sure that Coleman as HRG brings anything new to a variation of character we’ve seen many times before, the ostensibly bad guy Who Turns Out To Be Actually Good..
The hysteria which has surrounded Heroes during its first season has at times threatened to obscure the fact that, at the end of the day it is just another television show, and is as imperfect as even the best of that breed can be. That it has had a strong first year cannot be disputed, with confident plotting, an attractive cast and top-notch production values all doing their part to make some first rate television. Most importantly it has heart, is in love with what it’s doing, and is always trying its damnedest to get its vision and emotions onto the screen. That it doesn’t always entirely succeed is entirely forgivable, but looking back one mustn’t be immune to those faults. It is at times a little flabby, sometimes lacks inspiration in the second half of the season, the symbolism is a little cod at times and a few of the characters aren't fully-rounded enough. It could also do with lightening up a bit - everything is taken so bloody seriously that one is exhausted at the end of each episode (Hiro, despite appearances, is not so much comic relief as just the most human character) - and occasionally verges on the edge of pretentious - some of Mohinder’s voiceovers just sound silly, while the opening sequence does nothing for me. I’m also not sure of the cliff-hanger, which for some reason reminded me of Enterprise’s third season ending - something out of left field which could go either way, although looking around the net it would seem a majority of fans are far more intrigued than I am. Overall, though, this is good stuff, and bodes well for the future. Hopefully over the next couple of seasons Kring and his writing staff will be able to match their evident ambition with more balanced storytelling that dares to do something genuinely new and which finally gives us the masterpiece this first season tantalisingly promised, but in the end never came close to delivering.
All twenty-three episodes of the first season are present in this set, which is also available as HD-DVD. Fittingly for a show passionate about its subject, the digipack packaging is superb and fully continues the comic ethos, from the Marvel-style font giving the episode synopses through to the background art which is a mixture of Isaac’s paintings and stills from the series.
Equally, the Menus are marvellous. Opening with a shot of the Earth, we zoom down to Isaac’s studio where the camera pans round, fixing on a painting which dissolves into the live action footage from that scene. Full of striking images from the series, and accompanied by the score, this is good stuff. Along the bottom run the four main options: Play All, Chapter Index, Bonus Materials and Languages. In addition to the extras detailed below, Disc Seven also has some “Sneak Peaks” aka trailers for TV shows coming to DVD soon.
The episodes themselves and all extras are subtitled.
For the first time I feel like I’m slumming with this review, as the set under consideration is the standard definition version, whereas the show was purposefully shot and broadcast for the High Definition Age, which makes it doubly odd that there are problems with the transfer. Colours are well defined (as well they should be), and the picture is as you would expect sharp as a pin, but there are also some encoding problems, odd bits of noise which crop up now and again, while darker scenes sometimes blur and those in bright sunshine occasionally give up the ghost entirely, as can be seen in the following example in which Hiro's hand just disappears:
Grain is present but I didn’t find it distracting - I’ve seen a couple of online complaints about it, but it was fine for me, but overall the transfer is, surprisingly, a bit disappointing.
The Audio suffers only in comparison to its big screen equivalents: while you expect a Spider-Man 3 to get your five speakers in a tizzy, the Heroes is more often your standard decent but not embellished affair. Judged by its small screen equivalents, though, it’s very good, the music in particular coming across well with a resonance you wouldn’t expect from its shrill notes.
All episodes from Chapter 12 Godsend on have commentaries, none before with the exception of the Unaired Pilot. There’s a goodly mixture of cast and crew involved, and while there are some tracks more interesting than others to listen to, there’s usually at least one person per episode who has enough to contribute to make the commentary worthwhile.
The majority of episodes come with missing scenes, although usually they are only minor trimmings which won’t enhance your viewing of the episodes. There’s the odd bit which is vaguely interesting, such as Claire’s extended attempt to calm her brother down when he discovers the truth about her, but for the most part these are disposable.
There are a number of differences between this version of the Pilot and the first aired episode, most notably an extra character. He is a terrorist in a subplot that was dropped, at the studio’s insistence, and while it would have made an interesting - and more complex - series to have included him in the series, it would have made the tone even heavier than it already was, and so dropping him was probably the right decision. Other than that, there are a couple of recast characters and Matt appears far earlier (in pursuit of said terrorist) but a lot of the material is the same as was eventually screened. Comes with an optional intelligent, informative commentary from Kring.
Mind Reader Game
A bit of fluff, a variation on one of those old “Pick a number, then do x, y and z to it” gags involving the heroes. Matt Parkman will read your mind and decide which hero you were thinking of - hardly surprising when the person it turns out to be has been on nearly every magazine cover on either side of the Atlantic over the last few months. Astounding to anyone without a basic grasp of algebra.
Making Of (9:59)
No, sorry, this isn’t a Making Of worthy of a set such as this, this is a promotional fluff piece in which everyone voices controversial opinions such as Heroes is an amazing show and everyone’s really nice. More than most this is a show that demanded an in-depth look at its creation from Day One through to the filming of the finale, with all the decisions that went into making it what it is, which this isn't. As such, it's a waste of disc space.
Special Effects (8:44)
Better than the above in that there is some substance here, as we look at some of the processes used to bring Hiro’s time freezes to life. However, once again I feel the need to note the brief running time, not nearly enough to look at all the complexities for the SFX crew on a show like this. There are many more superpowers being visualised than just Hiro’s, and many more sequences than this - one obvious example comes at the end of this featurette when we see the Bennet house blowing up, the climax of a particularly effects-heavy set piece. So why don’t we get more?
There’s not a huge lot that can be said about stunts so this is a perfectly acceptable length for this featurette, and makes for an entertaining ten minutes.
Profile of Artist Tim Sale (11:25)
Sale is the “real” Isaac Mendez, being responsible for all of Isaac’s artwork seen throughout the series. Here he talks about his contribution, while Cabrera shows us around the set of Isaac’s studio. Decent.
The Score (8:57)
Heroes’s music is one of its most distinctive features, one which heavily emphasises the mystical nature of what’s happening, and here composers Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman, together with audio engineer Michael Perfitt, discuss their inspirations. Good.
The first season of Heroes has been one of the most trumpeted in recent memory, but this set mildly disappoints. The transfer isn't splendid while the featurettes are short and not especially satisfying - the commentaries make up for this to a certain degree but one can't help feeling that something is missing. Which, of course, it is, given the HD-DVD version has more stuff. Still, if you haven't upgraded yet, this will certainly do but, like the series itself, this set isn't quite as brilliant as you'd hoped.