December 5, 2006
Wait a second. Heroes is actually good!
Since its premiere, Heroes has been an amusing diversion from more serious fare like Lost, Warplane, and Meerkat Manor. Due to its intrinsic corniness, frequent crappy dialog, and its (let's face it) 14-year-old target demographic, it has failed to impress as anything besides a bit of fluff on Monday nights. Sure, the final moments of most episodes involved entertaining twists, and it was fun to groan loudly at all the ridiculous moments, but I never felt comfortable calling it "a good show." I began thinking of it as the kind of show that doesn't exist anymore: the hour-long "popcorn" adventure show. Charlie's Angels, The A-Team, and MacGuyver all fit into that category. They were fun but they were meaningless. If you go back and watch them as an adult, they are almost unbearable in their campiness. But they are all appealing in their way. Heroes was like that (although I think it strived to be a little more than that, Lost-style). The show has has always had the ingredients of a good show -- some decent actors (including Adrian Pasdar, one of the best TV actors around), some characters that could practically write their own storylines, and a lots of opportunities for exciting plot developments. But then, in last night's episode ("Fallout"), all these ingredients came together and it became an actual "good show," but without turning its back on the tradition of its genre.
Let's start with the acting. In other shows with ambiguously moral characters, the writers don't reveal future plot developments to the actors, and so the actors have no idea how to play the character. (24 is notorious for this.) The resulting performances are unsatisfying because the actors tend to change the way they portray their character from scene to scene. When the scene has them taking some action that appears to be evil, they act all supervillains. When the scene has them do something that appears to be good, they act as if their character is noble. (Think of President Logan and his Chief of Staff in last year's season of 24.) The audience can never get a handle on who the character is and what makes him tick. This isn't suspenseful. It's annoying. Heroes has its share of ambiguous characters, too, most notably Adrian Pasdar's Nathan Petrelli and the cheerleader's father. But, Pasdar in particular, excels at consistently portraying his character right down the middle. What emerges is a character who is conflicted about his actions. Whether he is "purely good" or "purely evil," we don't really know, and it doesn't matter: it's not a professional wrestling match. Pasdar's performance gives us a character that is real -- even in the show's unreal world. This is an accomplishment that 24 has failed to match in all these years, despite taking place in a more realistic world.
The plot developments help out those actors who are not quite at Pasdar's level. Ali Larter has taken her lumps on various discussion boards for not being up to the task of portraying the split-personality of her character, but last night's episode made up for that by putting in her in an innately interesting position as she struggles for the first time to truly gain control of her more violent side. She could have played the moment of transformation better, certainly, but the scene with her confronting her alter ego in the woods worked because the show didn't try to make it into a heavy moment: In a scene straight out of an evil-twin episode of any early-80s B-drama, Ali's Nicki argued with an off-camera version of herself. The show did not even bother to use a stand-in for over-the-shoulder shots, let alone digital effects. Here's Ali with a mean face. Cut. Here's Ali with a nice face. Cut. Brilliantly simple.
Good writing makes up for mediocre casting. For me, last night's plot developments did something I thought was impossible: they got me interested in Peter Petrelli. Petrelli is the show's Luke Skywalker. Pivotal, but annoying. But, as with Star Wars, the writers have finally given him a compelling plot/character arc that is engaging despite his whininess. I want to know what happens next; I want to see him find bad love with the cheerleader; I want to see him get everybody out of a crisis by absorbing somebody else powers -- Can he absorb the already absorbed powers of Sylar? That would be interesting -- and then, yeah, I want to see him blow up The Day After-style.
The show is also bringing lots of disparate plot elements together in an entertaining, compelling way. By hinting at the future (rather than keeping us completely in the dark, like 24), Heroes creates a meaningful suspense that you know is going to get paid off (unlike Lost). Importantly, showing snippets of the future gives the audience the sense that the writers actually know where all of this is going, a feeling entirely lacking from 24 and Lost. (The writers of 24 have admitted that they make it up as they go along.)
Heroes still has its annoyances, but last night's episode showed that it can be entertaining and good at the same time.
ps. You can watch last night's episode for free over at NBC.com.
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