Monday, November 24, 2008

Losing Heroes

Current Reading: The Digging Leviathan, by James P. Blaylock

Inspirational Quote: "I made mistakes in drama. I thought drama was when actors cried. But drama is when the audience cries." -- Frank Capra
"What is drama but life with the dull bits cut out" -- Alfred Hitchcock

Today's quotes, which I chose solely because they relate to the content below, coincidentally come from two great American directors of drama. How convenient.

I don't watch much television. Sure sometimes I'll zone out in front of the tube and accidentally catch one episode of something or other, but I don't watch regularly. I haven't found anything that rewards any commitment to regular viewing. I thought that had changed a few years ago.

In 2006, NBC tried to climb out of the ratings basement by creating a nifty little show called "Heroes." The pitch was simple: what if ordinary people developed superpowers? The market research had already been done by blockbuster films like Batman Begins, X-Men and Spider-Man. The audience was there. On television, "Lost" was already proving that serial storytelling could work. That a serial story about superheroes would succeed seemed inevitable.

And it did succeed. Heroes was the only hit to break out of the crop of new series that made the airwaves in September 2006. It had flaws, of course, characters tended to suffer from "plot induced stupidity," and occasionally the budget just wasn't up to the effects demanded by the story (season one's final confrontation between two super-powered characters devolved into a disappointingly mundane fistfight). However, it also had its moments of brilliance ("Company Man").

Then season two hit the airwaves and everything fell apart. Old characters fell victim to wildly improbable plots (Peter gets amnesia and gets shipped to Ireland?) while new characters suffered from stories so melodramatic that they bordered on farce (Maya and Alejandro's storyline provoked ridicule from just about every critic). Many changes between the seasons went unexplained (why did Matt abandon his wife and child, move in with Mohinder and adopt Molly? What happened to Nathan's family?). And the similarities between season one and two seemed to be in all the wrong places. Once again, the story put the world in danger and it was up to the main characters to save it. The viewers had seen this before, though, and changed the channel in search of something new.

The season came to an abrupt end with the Hollywood writer's strike, leaving some plots unresolved and scores of questions unanswered. The strike was both a curse, for those of us who wanted those answers, and a blessing for those of us who suspected those answers wouldn't make sense. Season two was criticized for moving too slow, for resolving things too fast, for introducing too many new characters and crowding out old ones, and for giving us nothing new.

When the strike ended, the creators came back to Heroes "re-energized." They were ready to take the series in a new direction, to get back to the things that made the first season so great. Season three began with high hopes. The fans were psyched, ready to make Heroes a hit again. Then they saw the premiere. Again, the world was placed in danger. Again, characters took actions that left viewers scratching their heads. Again, viewers were left to wonder how characters got from where they were at the end of two to where they were at the beginning of season three. Some characters were abandoned (Caitlin, lost in a future, and Monica and Micah left staring at Niki's pyre), their stories left untold, and others were introduced. At least one was killed off during his first appearance, even though his story was more interesting than the larger stories going on around him. Wildly improbable plot twists (there's another Company! Mr. Petrelli Sr. isn't dead!) tried to up the dramatic tension but only succeeded in destroying the show's dramatic credibility.

Heroes has no qualms about rewriting, or at least reinterpreting, its past to serve the needs of the present episodes (Nathan's father arranged the attempt on Nathan's life, not Linderman as we had been led to believe). The only vision for its future seems to be rehashing the world-in-jeopardy trope season after season. Its present is consumed with shadowy organizations, super-serums, mad scientists and power-hungry villains. In these respects, it truly does emulate its comic-book roots. There, every new writer has the opportunity rewrite history ("Retroactive continuity," is the term used to explain away story contradictions), and the world is constantly threatened. Unfortunately, what a comic book audience accepts without question is something a television viewer looking for good drama is unable to tolerate.

The heroes of season one faced challenges that meant something personally, that affected them where they were vulnerable and forced them to make hard choices, to learn how to be strong. That's the kind of story that hooks audiences. Sure there can be shadowy organizations and super-serums, but I don't want to see stories about them. I want to see stories about the people they affect. If there's a mad scientist, I want him to know he's going mad and to see him fight it with all his resources. If there's a power-hungry villain, then I want him to have some believable reason for wanting power, a sensible goal that forces him to be a villain. I want to see him struggle with his choices. Put the world in jeopardy sometimes, sure, but remember that little dramas that will also hook the audience. A hero with the power to rip the door off a bank vault becomes much more interesting when she realizes she doesn't have enough money for the rent and has to choose between the right thing and the easy thing.

Heroes, a show about ordinary people with extraordinary powers, seems to have forgotten the "ordinary" part of the equation.

A show about ordinary people with extraordinary powers. I'd love to watch a show like that.

Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be one on the air right now.


slcard said...

I so needed this. It's a long story -- I know, that tends to be my way -- but I will spare you tonight and say only this show has been haunting me for a little over a month. I've needed to know what it was all about, but haven't had a chance to view it. You may have just saved me hours I do not have. Bless you. Oh, and I may someday have a book you just might like to read.

Ulysses said...

I'm always up for a good story.

As for Heroes, I still watch it despite my bellyaching. Perhaps in the hope it will improve, perhaps in despair that the superhero's representation in the television wasteland will never be better than this.

Steppe said...

Yes that was a good review.
I liked the analytical part you wrote where they dropped the connection between the ordinary and mundane and the supernatural. I became aware of the show by looking for a song "Second Chance" by Shinedown. There was no official video but a fan made one synched to "Heroes"

The clip caught my interest because of visual simularity to a good movie I could recommend called: "The Forgotten"

Supernatural beings experiment with humans to discover the nature of the emotional bonds between them. CIA and NSA play along because they have to.
Tight plot with a male and female partnered by circumstance to "try to remember." A movie I study for a rational structure to supernatural plotlines.

Ulysses said...

I remember "The Forgotten," although I haven't seen it. (The irony of that statement is not lost on me). It looked intriguing.