Ten Common-Sense Ways to Fix Heroes

So, Heroes. Volumes Three and Four. Pretty sloppy stuff.

Can Heroes be fixed? Sure, provided more time and care is spent with the scripts. Will this happen? I doubt it. Last season’s most promising behind-the-scenes development was the return of Volume One’s celebrated writer-producer Bryan Fuller to the fold. The first episode he penned after his return, “Cold Snap,” was the strongest episode of the season. However, two of Heroes’ worst-ever episodes, the filler-heavy “Into Asylum” and the execrable “1961,” also came after Fuller rejoined the staff. This does not bode well for the health and longevity of the series.

Here’s a list of my common-sense--one could say blatantly obvious--suggestions for cleaning up and improving the show. Much of this rehashes material covered elsewhere on this site, both in my episode recaps and the comments that follow them. This is a key point I’ve made before: while there’s no consensus of opinion as to what constitutes a good plot (if anyone’s interested in seeing what I would do with the new season plotwise, I direct you to my Heroes Volume Five spec script), there is a consensus on some general rules of effective writing. Heroes violated those rules, flagrantly and chronically, and the show suffered.

1. Make sure the characters take priority over the plot. If you’ve got a great plot idea, but you can’t make it work without forcing your characters to behave in uncharacteristic ways, you must abandon the idea. Let’s take a look at how Mohinder was established in Volume One: book-smart but gullible, idealistic and morally pure to the point of self-righteousness, mild-mannered but sometimes caustic and prone to the occasional hissyfit. All of Mohinder’s actions must fall within the parameters of these qualities, or his character won’t seem believable and the plot won’t seem plausible. Simple enough.

So you have this idea for a plotline: Mohinder develops a serum which gives him bug-like powers. He then uses these abilities to capture people, stash them in cocoons made from his own bodily excretions, and perform weird genetic experiments on them.

Wait, what?

Is there anything in Mohinder’s character description to suggest: a) he’s always secretly coveted powers to the extent of being willing to perform untested and dangerous genetic experiments on himself, and b) if given the opportunity, he’d kidnap and experiment upon innocent victims? It’s nonsensical from the standpoint of his character, and thus this plotline is doomed to fail (which it did, in a spectacular manner. Really, I don’t think you’ll find too many people willing to champion Volume Three’s “Mohinder turns himself into an evil bug-man” arc). You could adjust the story to better fit Mo’s personality (for example, you could establish that the serum affects Mo’s brain chemistry, thus forcing him to behave in an out-of-character manner entirely against his will), or you can jettison the whole idea and come up with some better use for Mohinder. I vote for the latter.

2. Knock it off with the death-o-rama. Noah Bennet gets shot in the eye, but Claire’s blood brings him back to life. Nathan gets riddled with bullets and dies on the operating table, then comes back to life for reasons which, a full season later, have not been explained. Sylar murders Nathan, but a combination of Matt’s Jedi Mind-Tricks™ and his own shapeshifting ability results in Sylar replacing Nathan. Producers drop hints about looming Major! Character! Deaths! with alarming regularity (there are already such hints emerging about the barely-in-production Volume Five, and frankly, I have no more patience for it). It reads like a cheap ratings grab, and it’s punching holes in the integrity of the show. Give it a rest.

Regular viewers, especially those who have hung in there through the onslaught of shaky scripts, are loyal to the show because of the characters and the actors who portray them. Understand the debt Heroes owes its cast (and its casting director) and ease up on the threats of imminent death, at least until viewer confidence is restored. Yes, Lost regularly kills off main characters to great effect, but Heroes has surrendered this privilege, thanks to too many teased threats and false starts. You won’t lose any viewers by keeping the cast intact, but you will lose them if they feel like they’re being jerked around.

(Television writers and producers often talk about having exhausted the dramatic possibilities of a character. This sounds good, but it’s a cheat: if you can’t think of anything interesting to do with a character, it means you have failed as a writer. Here’s an example of the hazards of offing series regulars. Look at how many characters inherited the late Isaac Mendez’s precognitive painting ability: Sylar, Peter, Usutu, Arthur Petrelli, Matt... This is ridiculous and, in Matt’s case, nonsensical. The show wants to keep incorporating Tim Sale’s iconic, series-defining artwork into the plot, and justly so, but you know what would have been a much better way to accomplish this? Not killing off Isaac in the first place.)

3. Find the right balance. Set clear goals for each major character and have them work toward those goals. Throw all the characters in the mix together and have them interact as much as possible. Get rid of single-character vanity plotlines (Hiro mucking about in feudal Japan, Peter mucking about in Cork, Sylar searching for his real father). Yes, Hiro and Peter and Sylar are among the show’s most popular characters. Yes, we all enjoy watching them. However, we especially enjoy them when they’re interacting with other characters we know, as opposed to farting around on their own solo adventures. Make an effort not to marginalize characters: Mohinder was absent for almost as many episodes as he was present in Volume Four, and even then his primary purpose was to get captured, repeatedly, by Danko’s goons. If you can’t think of something interesting to do with each and every character in each and every volume, keep thinking.

4. Commit to the plot. If you’re going to have Claire take a job at a comic book store, that job should last for more than one episode. If Matt is going to fall madly in love with Daphne, to the extent of trying to murder an innocent woman to avenge her death, he shouldn’t seek a reconciliation with his estranged wife in the very next episode. Take some care with the plot, and understand that some actions have lasting repercussions.

5. Ease up on the glut of backstory. Back in Volume One, we learned plenty about the family histories of our main characters. We learned that Peter and Nathan’s father was a shady lawyer who committed suicide while under federal investigation. We learned that Mohinder’s father was murdered by Sylar. We learned that Hiro had a domineering but secretly cool dad. We learned that Nikki’s older sister Jessica was murdered by their abusive father. We learned that Sylar was a vicious rat bastard who chafed against his ordinary upbringing and his ordinary parents and became a power-stealing serial killer solely out of a desire to be special.

The revelations continued: We learned that Matt’s absent father was super-powered and evil. We learned that Peter and Nathan’s father didn’t commit suicide after all: Angela tried to poison him, but, unbeknownst to her, he survived. Oh, and he’s super-powered and evil. We learned that Mohinder’s dad was involved in shady US government experiments with super-powers in the 1960s. We learned that Nikki was one of a set of genetically-engineered triplets, the others being Tracy and the still-unseen Barbara. As for Sylar… Oh, lordy. We learned that Sylar’s real father (who was, naturally, super-powered and evil) murdered his real mother, and that Sylar witnessed this as a child but repressed the memory.

When you pile shocking revelation upon shocking revelation like this, it dilutes and damages the characters: We had a solid, effective understanding of why Sylar turned out so rotten, but now all these additional junked-up layers of backstory have negated that understanding. Instead of making him a multi-faceted character, it’s made him a mess. Trotting out a series of shocking family revelations is not the best way to give your audience more information and understanding about a character. Keep building consistent, current character development, and leave the flashbacks in the past.

6. Don’t contradict established past events. Hey, Sylar and Elle are a couple of hot tamales, right? Seeing as they’re played by two of Heroes’ hottest commodities, Zachary Quinto and Kristen Bell, wouldn’t it be great to mix them up in a romantic relationship? Maybe their romantic history could pre-date the start of the series. And maybe Elle could be directly responsible for turning mild-mannered dweeb Gabriel Gray into psychotic killer Sylar, by goading him to use his ability and murder someone at the behest of Noah Bennet and the Company.

Wait. We’ve already seen the genesis of Sylar back in Volume One: after being spurned by Chandra Suresh for being insufficiently special, Sylar murdered Brian Davis and used his ability for the first time to steal his telekinetic power. Therefore, Elle can’t be responsible for turning him into a killer. Sylar did that already, all by himself.

Contradicting the past like this makes the audience lose faith in the series. Here’s a telling incident: In the (wretched) episode “1961,” Chandra Suresh is shown via flashbacks conducting experiments upon super-powered kids in the United States the 1960s. This seemed like a glaring example of altering past events, since we knew Sylar was the first super-powered individual to make contact with Chandra. The writers later explained that Charles Deveaux wiped Chandra’s memories of the events that took place at Coyote Sands in 1961. That’s a fair explanation, and if Heroes had been consistently smarter and less sloppy, and if huge contradictory blunders hadn’t been made in the past (and if we’d ever seen that Charles Deveaux had Haitian-esque powers of memory-wiping), maybe viewers could have naturally drawn this conclusion. But take a look at the discussion thread following my recap of “1961.” All of these commenters are Heroes’ ideal target audience: we watch the show actively, we analyze it, and we discuss it in depth. And not one of us raised the possibility that Chandra’s memories had been erased. We all assumed the writers once again rewrote established events to suit their latest plot idea. This is how much chronic carelessness has damaged the integrity of the show.

7. Own the past, warts and all. Cutting your losses might be a decent strategy in financial matters, but it’s disastrous in storytelling. Heroes has had plenty of bad ideas that it would like to forget. Claire’s blood was established as a magical, cure-everything, raise-the-dead substance in Volume Two. Yep, that’s really, really dumb, and yep, that’s the sort of too-convenient plot idea that’s going to raise problems down the road. But it must be dealt with, not ignored, and unfortunately, the show has chosen to ignore it. In his blog, Jack Coleman valiantly offers up an explanation as to why Claire’s blood wasn’t used to bring Nathan back to life at the end of Volume Four. Points for effort, but it’s not good enough: if you ignore the existence of Claire’s Magic Blood, every time a character dies (in particular, a Bennet or a Petrelli), the audience is going to wonder why Claire isn’t opening a vein. If you don’t want Magic Blood stinking up the place as a lingering plot device, find some way to eliminate it.

Incorporating past events into the current story is a far better way to make the characters seem realistic than just giving us a glut of backstory. At one time, Matt and Mohinder were raising a small child together. It’d be great if they’d sometimes refer to this--in fact, it seems downright odd that the subject of Molly never comes up. For a while, Sylar thought Peter was his brother. Mohinder shot Noah Bennet in the eyeball. Nathan slept with Tracy. An evil future version of Matt interrogated and beat Hiro, while a kind future version of Mohinder saved his life. These sort of events should define who the characters are in relation to each other, yet too often, the characters seem like ships passing in the night: they meet, they exchange impersonal chunks of dialogue, they battle each other, but they don’t really interact. (Seriously, why is Hiro always happy to see Matt?) It’d improve the show greatly if they did.

8. Weed out filler. So Matt paints a precognitive image of Hiro and Ando in India. Hiro, who is currently powerless, sees this painting and (somehow) deduces that this means he is destined to go to India and stop a wedding, which will (somehow) restore his powers. Hiro and Ando do exactly that, except Hiro doesn’t get his powers back. Hiro and Ando return to the United States and rejoin the main plot already in progress.

Does this plotline provide any character development or further the plot in any way? Is it anything more than a crude attempt to pad an episode out to full running length? Does it do anything other than waste the audience’s time? No? Then junk it. Volume Four was a scant twelve episodes long; there shouldn’t have been any time to waste on crappy filler like this. And yet Peter and Angela still found the time to hang out in a church and feel sorry for themselves for an entire episode…

9. Weed out lazy writing. Here’s another reason why the Indian wedding plotline should have been scrapped (and why a very clever individual has suggested that “stopped the Indian wedding” should replace “jumped the shark” as the catch phrase of choice to describe the phenomenon when a television show outstays its welcome): it was lazy. It featured a slew of stereotypes about Indian culture (arranged marriages and abusive husbands), it was paternalistic and condescending (silly women, always getting married to the wrong guys! Good thing those two strange men happened to be on hand to take the decision out of the bride’s pretty hands!), and it stunk up the episode. Ditto for:
a) any scene involving stereotypical mean cheerleaders, and
b) any scene involving stereotypical comic-book geeks.
If you’ve seen it before in a movie or on another television show--especially if you’ve only seen it in a movie or television show and have no experience with it happening in real life--it has no place on Heroes. Seek out fresher waters.

10. Exotic trumps pedestrian. Speaking of fresher waters… Let’s revisit some of Volume One’s main players: you had mixed-race couple Isaac (the smack-addicted artist) and Simone (the upper-crust art buyer). You had mixed-race couple Nikki (the stripper running afoul of organized crime) and D.L. (the ex-convict). You had Tokyo office drones Hiro and Ando, subtitled dialogue and all. You had Mohinder, fresh from Chennai, who chanted in Sanskrit at his father’s funeral and called Thompson a gunda. Why, what a refreshing batch of entirely atypical major characters on a prime-time American network television show! No wonder everyone latched on to Heroes in that first season. It was different.

And now… Isaac, Simone, Nikki, and D.L. are all long dead. Mohinder has been shuffled off to the sidelines, and in all of Volumes Three and Four, he had no opportunity to display any trace of his ethnic background (sheesh, we don’t even see him drinking chai anymore!). Other characters of diverse racial, economic, and ethnic backgrounds, like Maya, Alejandro, and Monica, were introduced, discarded, and never replaced. Even the Haitian was absent for all of Volume Four. The show now rotates around two interrelated white upper-middle-class American families: the Bennets and the Petrellis. If, as seems likely, Matt reconciles with Janice to raise their son together in Volume Five, that will make three white upper-middle-class families (Matt might be a working-class ex-cop, but Janice is a lawyer). Look, there’s never been a deficit of television programs about white upper-middle-class American families. The show voluntarily gave up the cool multi-culturalism that set it apart from the pack. Congratulations, Heroes. You just became every other prime-time network show. Want to get back some of the viewers who bailed after the first season? Work, aggressively, to pull the show back from the middle of the road.

Comments

Jason Gilman said…
Bravo Morgan! You've sliced and diced Heroes down to its bare, horribly flawed essence and it's even worse than I had realized. There is no hope for this show.
Jason Gilman said…
Short of storming the writers' room and staging a hostile takeover I suppose...
Ingrid Richter said…
Aw, man, now I really miss Isaac! Bring back the pretty!

Nicely done, Morgan... Very sobering post.
Morgan Richter said…
I like the idea of the hostile takeover of the writers' room, Jason. Or perhaps a gentler approach: maybe we could try sending them muffin baskets as a shameless bribe to get them to raise their game a bit? The writers are probably smart, talented people... but these are mistakes they shouldn't be making.
Dan said…
I dunno, Morgan.

They may take muffin baskets as a sign of gratitude for a job well done.

Maybe we could print out this post and attach it to the basket as well. Just to make sure everything's clear.
Morgan Richter said…
I'm a believer in incentives and positive reinforcement. Maybe we could take a picture of a muffin basket, attach it to a printout of this post, then include a Post-It note reading "THIS COULD BE YOURS!"

The entertainment industry runs on muffin baskets. True, all true!
Ingrid Richter said…
Or we could include a single, solitary muffin and say
"There's more where that came from."
levitatethis said…
This needs to be posted in the "Heroes" writers room and regarded as the 10 Commandments.

The show could and should be so much better than what it has devolved into and you've nailed the problems. How does so much promise get tossed out the window?

Amongst my biggest pet peeves are the yo-yoing characterizations (and your use of Mohinder in this regard is the perfect example) and lack of consequences for actions. How hard is it to keep track of this stuff or at least plan it out? I believe there was an interview Sendhil did where he said that when he got the first script(s) for Volume 3 he actually called Kring and expressed confusion and concern for what the hell was going on with Mohinder and was pretty much told that there was a plan in place and go with it...obviously we know there was no proper (re: intelligent) plan in place, but I think it speaks volumes that Sendhil was immediately red-flagging Mohinder's storyline as being OOC.

Between the stereotypes and then the shuffling off of characters of colour so that we can focus on the Bennets, Petrellis and now I guess the Parkman's (none of whom are all that interesting especially given the way they've been written) I'm finding myself holding on more and more to season 1 as the canon of this show and everything else as some wierd AU nightmare.

I'm still bitter about all the inexplicable retconning that happened in Volumes 3 and 4. They attempted to change what we knew from Volume 1 and I'm sure in their mind they thought they were adding layers, but all they did was pile confusion on top of confusion...Chandra, Sylar, Elle. The whole thing still makes me cringe.
Morgan Richter said…
It does make me wonder what the atmosphere in the writers' room is like. Because I would imagine the vast majority of the staff writers are easily able to identify these critical errors in writing, especially the nonsensical characterizations and the contradictions of established events... so how come so many mistakes are ending up in the finished product? What's going on -- or not going on -- to allow this to happen?

I remember that interview with Sendhil, levitatethis. Poor guy. I imagine it's darn near impossible for him to put any kind of positive spin on Mo's plotline in V3 & V4. And he's always been such a good cheerleader for the show.

Thing is, it wouldn't take much to get the show entirely 100% back on track. But the creative staff has to be aware of what needs to be done, and everyone has to be on the same page about it, and I don't think that will happen.
Dan said…
Hmmm... Apparently, Bryan Fuller's gone (again). So that's not a good sign, surely.
Morgan Richter said…
No. Not a good sign at all. I suppose there's a faint hope that Fuller whipped all the scripts for Season Four into shape, looked around, realized there was nothing left for him to do, and rode off into the sunset, satisfied with a job well done. But I doubt it.
levitatethis said…
I just found out this morning about Fuller leaving. My reaction was, "Nail meet coffin."

Barring a massive turnaround, methinks the writing is on the wall.
Morgan Richter said…
Yup. I think it's probably the death blow for the show. I'd love to be proven wrong about this.

BTW, it's probably obvious by now, but just in case anyone has been waiting for the next installment, after a long talk with Ingrid about Effort vs. Reward, I've decided not to continue on with my Heroes Experiment project. It's a hell of a lot of work for something I don't feel all that strongly about anymore. Rest assured that, had I written more speculative Volume Five scripts, they would have been chock full of snappy banter and gratuitous Mohinder nudity.
levitatethis said…
As sad as I am to hear you won't be continuing your Heroes experiment, I fully understand why your heart wouldn't be in it.

Maybe it's better this way. Considering your first installment my expectations for the show (unfairly?) went up. Had you continued I surely would have found myself getting angrier at the show for going in another (re: wrong) direction. But I am going to miss mentions of Mohinder and gratuitous nudity.
Morgan Richter said…
Thank you, levitatethis. I think with the Heroes Experiment, my personal issues -- with the show, with my own lack of success in the film/TV industry -- started taking over a bit and making it a chore instead of just a fun, interesting lark.

Maybe this season will favorably surprise us all. It's still possible, however unlikely, that it'll get back on track. (I'd feel better if I could just hear something -- anything -- about Mohinder in the next volume. Very worrisome, the complete lack of information.)
Ingrid Richter said…
/Start subliminal message
Hire my sister Morgan to write for Heroes next season!
/End subliminal message
levitatethis said…
I know a show is going down the drain for me when I actually want to read spoilers for it.

When I'm loving a show I don't want to know anythhing before and episode airs. I love the genuine surprise.

I've held out for a long time with "Heroes" but today was like the straw that broke the camel's back. I'm tempted to seek out any information. In a way I'd be fine if Mohinder got written off this show (and got to go out in a blaze of glory) so that Sendhil could try to pursue other things. If the show were still on its A game I'd want him to hang in there, but it's been a long time since that was the case.
Morgan Richter said…
I avoid spoilers of the "I've seen it already, and here's exactly what happens" variety, but I generally don't care too much about the less-specific "Adrian Pasdar says this season of Heroes will be the best ever!" type. I haven't been seeking out Volume Five spoilers, apart from keeping an eye on the Twitter feeds of the cast members/production staff and reading Kring interviews, and... there's been no mention of Mohinder. I'm not convinced that no news is good news. I think at this point I'm just looking for proof that Sendhil's, y'know, still on the show -- though, like you, I sort of think this would be a good time for him to get off the sinking ship and find something better to do with his time. Like painting teapots.
Ingrid Richter said…
Maybe Sendhil's leaving secret messages in his painted teapot?

All good things "...come to those who wait" if we're feeling chipper, "...come to an end" if we're feeling glum.

Pesky secret teapot messages...
Morgan Richter said…
I had no idea Sendhil was so artsy and craftsy. He could start a cottage industry.

I feel quite certain he'd be very interested in my rejection-letter coffee table.
Morgan Richter said…
Heh. I found a YouTube video of the Heroes cast picketing with the WGA at Universal during the strike in 2007. My big old head of hair appears prominently in the video from 1:00-1:15, hovering just behind Masi Oka. (Why am I not even looking at Masi? Probably because I'm looking at Sendhil.) Ingrid thoughtfully screencapped it, complete with helpful annotations.

Ingrid, thank you very much for your efforts, and rest assured I will be adding this photo to my old blog post about the event.
Ingrid Richter said…
It's amazing what can be done with print screen and paint these days, isn't it?

Is that you at the very start of the video (0:04 to 0:06), Morgan? The back could be you, but the person turns sideways later and I'm not so sure.
Morgan Richter said…
Nope, that wasn't me. I think the only part I'm in was the part with Masi (I took off when the whole walking-and-chanting started, seeing as I had to get back to work. Also possibly related: Sendhil had already left by that point).
levitatethis said…
Love the screencap (with annotations) of you at the WGA Strike. Your hair is shouting, "Sendhil!!!"

Vague spoilers are not something I avoid, but ones more critical to a character's storyline I stay away from...until a show has ticked me off enough that I feel the need to read specific spoilers so that I can prepare myself.

I agree that the lack of mention of Sendhil is what makes me nervous for Mohinder. What's sad is that if you look at the set up for the character in Season 1 there's so much potential for what could be done and it seems to have been totally tossed aside for all thinks Bennets/Petrellis/Sylar. Part of what bugs me is that Mohinder has interesting ties to all of these families/characters but he's now being treated as if he's absolutely nobody.

I had no idea he was so crafty with the teapots. He should start a side gig.
Morgan Richter said…
I've never understood why the creative staff has trouble coming up with interesting things to do with Mohinder. (This is not a recent problem, either. Yesterday I flipped through a review of the first few episodes in an old issue of Empire magazine, which pointed out that Mohinder spends far too much time sitting in dark rooms talking to himself. True enough.) He's a cool, interesting character with, as you point out, direct ties to many of the other characters. I thought it was an encouraging sign in the last few episodes of Volume Four, where they finally seemed to make it explicit that, yes, Mohinder and Matt are friends, and Mohinder and Peter are friends, or at least something approaching it. The more they get him into the mix with the other characters, the better chance they have of finally fulfilling his potential.
jenwhitt said…
Hi there. Came across your blog while trolling for Heroes commentary, and just wanted to say that I wholeheartedly agree with your 10 points for the writers! Hope you don't mind if I start following--you write some great, funny criticism.
Morgan Richter said…
Hi, jenwhitt, and welcome (and thanks very much for the link on your blog). Follow away, and please feel free to chime in on all the various Heroes-related discussions that go on around here -- we'd love to have you join us.
Simone said…
I found this post after reading your Heroes press release, and man, you just nailed everything that I felt was wrong with season 3. Thank you! I think I'd actually pay for the opportunity to sit all the writers down and make them read this.
Morgan Richter said…
Thanks, Simone! This is all stuff that the writers should -- and presumably do -- know, but for whatever reason, they ignored all the nice, sensible, well-established guidelines of good storytelling and went off on their own slipshod tangents last season. And the show suffered badly as a result. It's frustrating, because there was just no good reason for this kind of sloppiness.

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