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.
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.