Holding Out For Heroes
Series one of Heroes was, for those who took to Tim Kring’s televised comic book, entertaining as hell. A charming, slow-burning display of burgeoning super-powers, packed with the ‘gotta see’ factor, and with huge promise for the future.
Series two is, unfortunately, infamous for failing to deliver on that promise.
Series three – sorry, Volume Three: Villains – is due in September, and the BBC are promising to broadcast hot on the heels of the US debut. Which gives me as flimsy an excuse as I need to talk about that bizarre second volume, Generations, and just what, exactly, went wrong. Spoilers, natch.
On a purely surface level, the second series really didn’t get much wrong. The visuals, dialogue, effects and performances were consistent with the first series – not much there to upset anyone. But in a series that’s all about story, story is where you really can’t afford to fall down.
There’s something of a myth that part of the mistake was introducing new, uninteresting characters to the mix, but that’s a bit of a simplification. Some of the new incumbents were great ideas – particularly Kristin Bell as electro-girl Elle – but were utilised badly.
Let’s start with the unmitigated disaster of Maya and her twin brother Alejandro. On the run after a South American wedding massacre caused by Maya’s unique power of making everybody’s eyes fill with black gunk until they die, their story was the most tedious aspect of Generations. God did it go on.
These two could have been the new Hiro and Ando – bravely subtitled in a culture that finds reading ‘too much hassle’, they could have been charismatic partners on the run. Instead, they quickly fulfil a tedious pattern of getting separated, accidentally hurting (or killing) a few people, then getting back together.
Who are these two? Twins that need each other, sure – he is the only one who can control her power, at least until the episode where suddenly he isn’t – but we have no clue about their lives save for some soap opera wedding nonsense where the bride screws her ex during the reception. What did they do for a living? Who were their friends? What was their upbringing, and what are their non-super skills? The show doesn’t posit these as questions, it just…forgets to include them.
Compare this to how we met Hiro – cubicle-dwelling nerd, well-versed in SF, scared to be noticed, but possessed of a strong sense of right and wrong. His expertly handled introduction led to the character who barely spoke any English becoming the warm, beating heart of the series. It’s a model for how to do the job properly.
Maya’s biggest problem, though, is that she’s awfully, awfully wet. Stupid, in fact, would not be too far from the mark. Picking up über-villain-turned-hitchhiker Sylar she doesn’t notice anything weird or creepy about the guy. She’s the horror movie cliché, never realising there’s a corpse behind the door the killer’s holding conspicuously closed, never questioning the disappearance of an accomplice, and later her brother, and all the time staring wistfully into the eyes of a man who’d blatantly cut off the top of your head as soon as look at you.
Towards the end of the series, Sylar sneaks into Mohinder’s home and bullies the babysitter out of the way. As Mohinder returns home, there’s palpable threat in the air…and Maya’s cooking dinner in the kitchen with an ‘aww shucks’ grin on her face. For crying out loud.
If all this weren’t enough, the sheer nature of Maya’s power means the stupid woman should have killed herself long ago, or at very least she could move out to the desert. The number of people murdered accidentally – but with complete awareness that it was likely to happen – make her a moronic Typhoid Mary. She feels guilty enough to blub every couple of minutes, but not enough to stop. So she’s selfish as well as stupid. Christ, even Thandie Newton would have thrown herself off a cliff rather than kill hundreds of innocents, and that was in Mission Im-cocking-possible II. What does Maya do? She heads for New York, the most densely populated area on the planet.
In fact female characters in general are ill-served by Volume Two. Niki Sanders checks herself into crazy-super-human rehab, dumping her son days after his father is killed. (No follow-up on the killer, by the way; she seems to take this action rather than attempt to catch the murderer.) Matt Parkman’s wife is said to have buggered off just as they were on the brink of reconciliation. And Claire Bennett allows her car to be stolen after having it for three minutes, then does her best to stay undercover by dating a guy her father abducted and deliberately ‘dying’ in front of her cheerleading squad leader.
At first things seemed to be going better with series newcomer Monica, who can physically mimic anything she sees. (Useful after a Bruce Lee marathon, presumably even better after Jesse Jane DVD.) Monica’s power is nifty, and Dana Davis has a real presence on screen, but in the end her story goes frustratingly nowhere. Initially heading in a pleasingly ‘humble hero’ direction – stopping a hold-up in the fast food joint where she works – it all falls apart when she gets captured by some local hoods who decide to burn her alive. And why? Instead of putting all at risk for something important, she was…retrieving Micah’s rucksack. A bag containing a few classic comics and his late father’s medal of commendation. Emotionally important, yes. But far from worth the risks she’s shown to take.
Monica is my big hope for Volume Three. I like the actress, she’s brimming with Hiro-esque compassion and has a strong moral compass. But right now – as her mistakes lead Niki Sanders to almost-certain death at the end of the series, robbing Micah of his other parent – she’s being ill-served by the story. She’s also scuppered by the show’s attempts to be over-noble about New Orleans. When the only ground-level crime we see in the series is in New Orleans, and all committed by black men, you’re really not doing much to claw things back with a few pat “after all this city has been through” lines. Having smartly refused to be sentimental about potential destruction in New York, this was the wrong way to go, and an even worse way to handle it.
Thank goodness, then for Elle, the electric daddy’s girl with S&M tendencies and heavily-implied virginity. Kristin Bell – apparently only coming back for a brief spell in Volume Three – has a ball with the part, making Peter her own private puppy. She’s a great little character, but is once again undermined by the story beats, which – for the sake of what needs to happen next – leave her portrayed as ill-thinking and borderline incompetent by the end.
As with Monica, though, there’s oodles of potential. As there is with Bob Bishop, season two’s Company man and alchemist. Stephen Tobolowsky is a world-class character actor, and it’s a joy to see his put-upon nerd schtick reworked into something sinister and uncertain. You’re never quite sure if Bob’s going to be revealed to be good (there’s a great, goofy photo on his desk of him on a successful fishing trip) or bastardly (stories of how he allowed his daughter to be tested in her childhood are chilling). As a counterpoint to Noah “HRG” Bennett, whose fatherly love seems ‘cleaner’, but whose murderous side is cold and frightening, he works a treat.
So much for the characters, then – it’s really the narrative that’s to blame. Generations spent entirely too much time on situations that regular viewers found to be mere diversions. Hiro’s time in feudal Japan was charming – allowing man to clash with myth – but went on too long. As for Peter’s little sideline – was anyone really concerned about the fate of a few Irish iPod thieves? And did the Bennetts have to be taken quite so far back to square one?
That’s the killer, really – the amount of redux we had to deal with over the 11-episode run. Another jump into the future. Another devastated New York. Another Bennett death predicted by painting. Another ill-fated love story for Hiro. Another flashback episode to explain things. (Though on this last we won’t complain too much – they are very good at these. Discovering how D.L. really died, and following Peter’s journey since he went nuclear, was all good, strong stuff.)
Too many old beats, too many recycled ideas. Bad enough that whole groups of characters who’d finally met up by the end of season one were once again split up. Badder still to remove your key villain, replacing imminent threat with vague dilemma. Even badderer that the Company’s role was allowed to become murkier without becoming any more interesting. I’m all for moral complexity, but the ‘good Company/bad Company’ stuff played out by Mohinder and Noah just got treacle-thick. They both swap sides, and still they’re both right. It takes a deft hand to pull this off, and too often it felt like quick strokes that would get tidied up in a rewrite that never happened.
But there are pleasures. Interesting new characters aside, by the end we were starting to see more glimpses of the ’Neo’ version of Peter, something I can’t wait to see in full action a couple of series down the line. Matt, Molly and Mohinder are such a cute family unit you almost want to hand them their own sitcom. And the reveal of Adam as villain, 400 years after Hiro knew him as Takezo Kensei, was a proper shout-out-loud surprise, and carried heavily implications not only for the characters that knew him during his extended histroy, but also for Claire Bennett – will her power ultimately mirror his, leaving her almost immortal?
The problem with Generations has been in finding moments that stick out. Where the first season had a buckletload of strong ‘remember that?!’ bits, season two’s were few and far between. Arguably some of this has to do with the loss of Isaac Mendez and his constant paintings, which generated almost forced iconography; and certainly demoting Sylar to regular human, then leaving him only the flimsiest characters to pray upon, meant that there was nowhere near the sense of impending doom that there used to be.
But the show is left in pretty good shape for the coming third season. The 11-episode journey might have contained as many misses as hits, but we got a few more answers – particularly about the founders of the Company, and Adam’s role in their choices. Some of the flab has been shed, with Matt and Nathan’s respective families given a back seat, and removing Hiro to the seventeenth century neatly sidestepped the issue of having a hero powerful enough to prevent 90 percent of the big problems. Best of all there’s plenty of good, meaty stuff to pick up in coming episodes - Sylar’s return to full nastiness, the attempt on Nathan’s life, Matt’s burgeoning powers (and currently-incarcerated father, ‘The Nightmare Man’), Mohinder’s curious status with the Company, Bob and Elle, Monica…plus what the hell ever happened to Caitlin, Peter’s Irish hottie?
The writers’ strike that caused Generations to be cut short may have prevented us from getting to the real meat of the season – a half-season arc dealing with a viral outbreak in Odessa, Texas that, according to the DVD, would have gone hell-for-leather with the expensive and iconic – but it has forced the show’s makers to have a serious rethink about pace and structure. It’s no bad thing that that rethink is happening after what is, essentially, only half a duff season rather than a full one.
The advance word on Volume Three: Villains – thanks to a crowd-pleasing Comic-Con screening – is very good. There’s no need to spoil what’s been appearing, suffice to say that the show seems to have recovered its momentum. Of course you’d expect that in a stall-setting first episode…
But I have my helixes crossed.