Was that really it?
Episode 11 of Heroes’ second season aired on Monday night. Thanks to the still-continuing writers strike, it’s now likely to be the second season finale, rounding off “Volume 2 – Generations”, and raising the question of whether or not Tim Kring and co could have torpedoed the show more effectively than they already have. While some of the mistakes they’ve made are reminiscent of the errors in Lost’s sluggish second season (ironic, considering almost every single mainstream fan of the show trumpets “It’s not Lost, you know!”) – the wheel spinning, the avoidance of major explanations (what the hell is Mrs Petrelli’s power? Why did the whole ‘previous team fall apart’) and major characters disappearing for multiple episodes – what it’s actually reminded me of is the ridiculous gulf in enjoyment and quality between The Matrix and the hugely disappointing Reloaded/Revolutions sequels. It’s certainly hard to work out how, after the elements they did get right in Season 1, they could have messed everything up to such a degree. Surely, it can’t solely be down to Bryan Fuller not being there any more, can it?
(The Matrix comparisons are especially important considering the problems the Wachowskis had in furthering Neo’s story (After all, what the hell are you supposed to do after your lead character has acquired unstoppable, god-like powers?) are being mirrored in the Heroes writers not having the faintest idea of what to do with the now absurdly powerful Peter Petrelli. The only solution they seemed to have come up with is either giving him amnesia, or making him gormlessly trustworthy which, combined with Milo Ventigmilia’s three-facial-expressions method of acting (confused, shocked, and constipated) doesn’t exactly make for a very watchable combination.)
There have been occasional moments in Volume 2 where the writers actually pulled off some impressively creepy or atmospheric scenes, and they even (after weeks of waiting) managed a cliffhanger that equalled some of the genius episode-endings of the first season, but otherwise it’s felt like nobody on the writing staff has really known exactly what they were doing. Instead, we’ve had an aimless riff on themes from the first season (Claire’s friction with her father, a mysterious killer with an apocalypse in mind) and a whole selection of new material that’s utterly failed to cohere. The decision to go for a ‘slow-burn’ approach to the storytelling that’s arguably much slower than the opening of Volume 1 takes some beating, and it’s been obvious from the first few episodes that they could have fitted almost double the amount of storytelling into this volume that they’ve managed. It’s almost as if they’ve copied the evolution of The X-Files, but jumped straight from the sharp first season to the flabby eighth, and it’s perfectly understandable that the ratings have tumbled.
Episode 8, ‘Four Months Ago’, was a clear attempt to repeat the success of the flashback episode ‘Six Months Ago’ from Volume 1, but where the previous example managed to pull some interesting twists and throw information we’d learned in a new light, Volume 2’s flashback was little other than an exercise in fill-in-the-blanks storytelling that would have been much more effective if we’d only had to wait a couple of episodes for it. We even got an origin story for Alejandro and Maya that sets up their powers in a far more immediate and interesting way than the snail-crawl of the season’s opening episodes, while it’s worthwhile debating how Hiro’s unexciting adventures in Japan might have been livened up if we’d already known that Kenzo was befriending Peter Petrelli in the present day. The revelations that the flashback delivered simply weren’t important enough to warrant how long we’d been made to wait, while much of it- including the explanation of where Nathan’s mysterious ‘monster face’ came from- ended up as mostly irrelevant.
From there onwards, through ‘Cautionary Tales’, ‘Truth and Consequences’ and ‘Powerless’, the show did at least gain a little traction, with the vague sense that we might be actually heading for something rather than treading water. ‘Cautionary Tales’ got close to being the season’s strongest episode, despite it being a mixture of fabulously stylish moments (the deliberate Sergio Leonne-style deep focus shots, the applause-worthy cliffhanger) and some of the clunkiest moments Heroes had yet delivered (from Hiro and Kaito’s endless debate in the graveyard, to the discovery that Elle has somehow avoided finding out what happens when you mix water with electricity…). Heroes has always functioned best by using inventive storytelling tricks and a realism-based approach, giving the impression that it’s tackling its superpowered characters in a way that such characters might actually behave in reality. Unfortunately, as time has gone on, this has vanished to be replaced by storytelling choices that can only be described as complete nonsense, with characters either neglecting to use their powers or conveniently behaving out of character simply because it’s what the plot dictates.
It’s hardly ever been the most progressive show, but almost every female character in Volume 2 has either been a traditional princess/damsell in distress in need of rescuing, or absurdly easy to manipulate. About the only exception to this is Elle, who’s generally fallen into the “psycho-bitch” category, although the final episode showed a small hint at character evolution – however, there’s still not much opportunity for Kristen Bell to do anything with what really is a nothing part that could have been played by anybody. Heroes certainly seems to court the geek crowd without always giving their stars anything to do (Why exactly was Nichelle Nicolas there, other than for the “Cool! It’s Uhuru!” moment?), and most of Volume 2 seems to have existed as a long-form and terribly convoluted way of spending lots of time to get us back where we started. Claire and family are once again in hiding, Mr Bennet is back with the Company, Nathan’s been apparently killed once again, Mrs Petrelli is yet again being manipulative and evil for no defined reason (Her character seemed to swing from sympathetic to psychotic over the last few episodes depending on what mood the writers were in) and, in probably the least interesting twist of the entire series, Sylar has gotten his powers back.
One of the features of Volume 1’s finale that annoyed the hell out of me was that they went through all the build-up and didn’t actually kill Sylar off, and they still haven’t figured out a way of making him anything but an exceptionally boring one-note villain who wore out his welcome around episode 18 of Season 1. Zachary Quinto’s limitations as an actor hardly help (I’m a little worried about his casting as Spock- it’s the kind of thing that might seem like a natural fit, but Leonard Nimoy’s work as the legendary Vulcan is actually a lot more sophisticated than it looks, and I suspect Quinto doesn’t have the chops for it) but the writers didn’t give Sylar anything different or interesting to do other than (shock) kill people and (shock) be nasty and evil and manipulative. Instead of playing around with Sylar’s reaction to having no powers, and the character’s occasional conviction that he’s actually the good guy, we instead get thrown straight back into traditional psycho territory, and end up with a character who nobody seems able to properly kill (Elle conveniently managing to make a hash of things despite her powers vs Sylar’s lack). The scene at the end of ‘Powerless’ was obviously supposed to feel major and significant, and yet all it summonned up for me was the desperate urge to yawn.
So, we’ve gone on a major quality rollercoaster since the beginning of Season 1, and it feels unfortunately like Heroes has evolved into the show I feared it would be when I watched the pilot episode- a series that plays with comic book conventions but doesn’t really know how to make the best of them. At its finest, Heroes has been absurd fun that captured the ‘anything can happen’ feel of a comic book crossed with the multi-layered textures of a Robert Altman movie- but it needs a much higher proportion of funky twists and adrenaline if it’s going to distract away from the massive weaknesses in the writing and performances. Without the cool inventive moments, it’s simply a pale pastiche of better and more entertaining comics and movies. It might reward its viewers with quick fixes of answers rather than Lost’s ever-increasing tally of enigmas, but the sugar rush of discovery doesn’t last, and what was fresh and surprising in Season 1 is now looking like lazy storytelling that’s purely dependent on outrageous coincidences or extreme lapses of reality.
Right at the point when Heroes has crossed over and become the kind of cult show it’s alright for the mainstream to like, it feels like the bubble has already burst. I’d like to hope that the massive negative reaction to the second season, and the fact that Tim Kring has at least come out and admitted they messed up (combined with the writers strike making a reboot for the next season more feasible) might mean that when Heroes does finally return, it’ll be firing on all cylinders and have returned to being the show that unexpectedly won me over – but frankly, I was hoping the same thing after the Season 1 finale, and look where that got me…