Heroes Revisited

I was pointed at this interview earlier this morning, in which Bryan Fuller explains what he wanted to achieve with his return to Heroes:

I just really wanted to get everything back to a character base. I think character was shoved aside for plot. The second year with the virus was interesting, but then it got complicated and techno-babbly. With “Villains,” it started out interesting and then became about formula. When they started talking about how we were injected with our powers and it became sci-fi ghetto storytelling, I became disconnected. Mohinder went from a noble scientist to being a mad scientist with Jeff Goldblum hair and wardrobe. Claire became so strident and unlikable because she was just whining, bitching and holding a gun. I was just concerned the wheel had been jerked so sharply in the wrong direction with what had worked about the first season, which was ordinary people with extraordinary powers. Everything ordinary about their lives went out the window, and everything was extraordinary. That was my frustration.

Funnily enough, much as I would usually object to generalizations about “sci-fi ghetto storytelling”, in this case, if I assume Fuller is using the term in the sense I would use it in — to denote lurid, sensationalist storytelling, which goes for cheap manipulation and spectacle over character consistency or logic — then I actually agree with him. “It got complicated and techno-babbly”; “Everything ordinary about their lives went out the window”; these things are true, are they not? Heroes‘ third volume, “Villains”, was bad, and those are some of the big reasons why. Not that complicated, extraordinary stories are bad in themselves, but that Heroes didn’t manage to tell those stories well, ending up with dumb and/or outright offensive stories. Now, if Fuller’s using “sci-fi ghetto” to denote all science fiction, it’s annoying, but at face value, I’m OK with it. (If he’s got previous, and has said something silly like, I don’t know, Pushing Daisies isn’t really a fantasy, it’s a human story, then don’t tell me.)

But then, I’m very nearly at the point of being won back over by Heroes, so I’m inclined to cut Fuller some slack. Yesterday evening I got myself caught up to the most recent episode, “Into Asylum”, which is the most interesting the show has been for some time; but even the early episodes of this volume, before Fuller’s re-involvement, were a step up from “Villains”. You have to accept that Heroes is not the sort of global story it once pretended to aspire to be, that it is now just about one well-off white extended family with superpowers … but at least the show is now not pretending it’s anything else, and on those terms, I’m enjoying it. More than at any time since the peak of the first season, “Fugitives” finds Heroes telling more focused, controlled stories. They’re not trying to do too much in an episode; they’re not afraid to rotate characters out for an episode; and they are, slowly, getting the characters back to comprehensible relationships.

They fixed Peter! Narratively, I mean, though I’m also finding him somewhat less annoying than he used to be. And it’s a really good fix, too, that keeps the core of the character and his ability without letting him dominate the proceedings. It’s a shame they didn’t come up with it immediately after the end of the first season; it would even have made some sense as a reaction to going all ‘splodey. Similarly, Sylar is largely enjoyable to watch again, particularly now that he’s — at last — got past his family issues. (I assume the Smallville crossover fic has already been written, yes?) I’d be concerned that the latest power they’ve had him acquire makes him too powerful, if (a) he weren’t vain enough that it’s entirely plausible he won’t use it that much, (b) it’s not actually an easy power to use, and (c) the power itself, and the mutant of the week he acquired it from, weren’t such a perfect metaphor for what I take to be the recurring arc in this volume, which is redefinition.

That is to say: they keep giving characters really quite good scenes, or at least scenes whose heart is in the right place, in which they are asked who they really are, or what they stand for, or are given an opportunity to choose. Claire in the comic book store in “Cold Snap” (though that is otherwise a very weird scene which seems out of place in the larger arc), Claire talking to Nathan in “Into Asylum”, Sylar and his dad in “Shades of Gray”, Peter and Angela in the church in “Into Asylum”, to an extent powerless Hiro. I think Claire’s arc has probably been the standout in this volume so far, in that she’s actually getting to move on in ways the other volumes promised and then reset. There could be another reset coming, of course, but it’s hard to see how, particularly when it comes to, say, her relationship with her mother as it was developed in “Exposed” (and, I have to say, Mrs Bennett really got to shine in that episode). The character conflicts also make more sense: I thought “Cold Wars” was a very solid piece of television largely because I actually believed the arguments between Peter, Matt and Mohinder.

And they’re back to having actually cool and satisfying plot twists and set-pieces, ones that feel like integrated, natural developments, rather than throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. Tracy and the sprinklers was awesome. Rebel’s identity was double-awesome. Having the puppeteer turn up on Claire’s doorstep was a really good idea, and made me forgive the predictable nature of her plot in “Exposure”. Matt and Daphne’s final scenes, even, were pretty good. Hiro and Ando, sadly and frustratingly, remain the weak link. The introduction of baby touch-and-go had me rolling my eyes, because it was obvious where it was going, and yet another in a series of storylines that position Hiro and Ando as the comic relief, when all anybody wants to see is Hiro actually being a hero. But even within those scenes there were some good, solid character moments — Hiro telling Ando about his mother — and cute moments — Hiro talking to the baby won me over, particularly when he tried to teach it “Yatta!” — and I’m glad the baby’s power was only partially effective on Hiro. It’s also true that Ando’s development has been more successful than I feared; the India subplot in “Building 26” gave him some good material, and maybe eventually we’ll get something more like an equal partnership between the two of them.

There are, of course, still plenty of flaws; there’s inevitably something in each episode that I find unconvincing or poorly thought-through. It’s probably still more of a failure than a success, in fact, but at least now it’s an interesting failure again, and those fascinate me. It takes a lot to make me give up on a TV show — in recent times, only Lost has managed it that I can think of — but rarely do I feel that I’ve gained anything by sticking with a show that’s declined. Heroes may turn out to be one of the exceptions.

4 thoughts on “Heroes Revisited

  1. Actually, I thought “Into Asylum” was back to fairly sucky (although better than most of the last season), but “Cold Snap” was genuinely excellent. I still have some hope…

  2. What was it you particularly liked about “Cold Snap”? I thought it was fine — certainly no worse than the rest of the volume, but not obviously better. “Into Asylum”, on the other hand, even if not entirely successful, is an episode that in several ways says to me the talk about how they’re trying to change and re-focus the show is sincere.

  3. Looking back, I’m not entirely sure – I guess it was actually exciting; it was nice to see Micah back as the obvious Rebel, nice to see a bit of drama for Mama Petrelli… and perhaps in a way I thought the characters were acting in a reasonably believable fashion.

    I guess I didn’t realise dislike “Into Asylum” – Sylar was cool, although I don’t like him getting shape-changer power – seems a bit much – but his interaction with creepy hunter guy is nice. Claire & Nathan in Mexico, though, was just a bit lame, and I’m not convinced by Peter & Angela in church either. Why the random injections of Jesus (with Nathan before, too)? Just like Nathan’s random volte-face regarding the whole mutants thing, or like Matt & fast-girl’s chemistry-free relationship, there’s a complete lack of character motives.

    Anyway, on reflection, I suppose my problem with “Into Asylum” comes down to “too much Petrelli brothers” as much as anything else. Neither of them can act, but nor are either of them given much to chew on.
    That said, it wasn’t bad.

  4. Yeah, I think it has got a bit better recently. Sounds pretty reasonable (apart from I picked who Rebel was when he turned up, given being more than just a hacker).

    Sylar just needs some invisibility and some Hulk-out, now. :)

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