Why Heroes Failed

One of the most striking revelations I keep having, as I move forward through Lost, is just how much Heroes wanted to be this show when it was on the air. Being pretty familiar with the first two seasons of Heroes, it’s hard to shake the sensation that they were the little kids on the playground, pretending to play whatever game the big kids were playing across the field.

The first season of Heroes was really great. (Hmm… well, I’d have to re-watch it in order to know for sure whether “great” is appropriate or not. For now, let’s just say “tentatively great”.) It had a lot of likable characters, some interesting, inter-woven story arcs and enough plot twists to keep you guessing from episode to episode. The show had an internal structure… a set of rules it followed, and knew not to break. There were a few episodes that appeared to break this structure, but it only looked that way because it had tricked you into believing the rules were something they weren’t.

Early on, for example, we are introduced to the man with the horn-rimmed glasses. This man represents “The Company” and is very clearly up to no good. He shadows the various heroes for a while, smiling with his evil grin and flashing his business cards. This man was our villain. And then the twist hit: he’s Claire’s father.

Holy shit! Claire’s in way, way more trouble than we ever imagined! If he ever finds out she’s a superhero…!!

And that was the twist? Wasn’t it? Now that we knew how close our boogeyman was to one of the show’s most vulnerable characters, the tension could be ratcheted up and we could move on in the storyline. That’s obviously what Mr. Horn-Rimmed-Glasses’s job was in the show.

But it was a trap. Once we, as viewers, settled back into the “new” role of Mr. Horn-Rimmed-Glasses, we were totally unprepared later when his role was twisted yet again. Once we learned what his motivations were, what he really knew about the various characters and what his ultimate goals entailed… well, it turns out he’s probably the most heroic character in that entire season. Despite not possessing a single superpower himself.

It worked because there was no point in the season when it was clearly established, “This is the villain.” You never see Horn-Rimmed-Glasses do anything bad; you just see the reactions of other characters to him. You see their perception of him, and extrapolate from that. And let’s be honest, you’re expecting a twist, when you watch a show like Heroes. You know, when Horn-Rimmed-Glasses first walks onto the screen, that there’s something to him the show is hiding. Upon learning he’s Claire’s father, you think, yeah, that’s it. That’s the other shoe dropping.

The second twist doesn’t break the rules, just your pre-conceptions of what the rules were.

The season finale, though, did break the rules. Heroes was like a puzzle, see, and every character was a piece within it. Remember “Save the Cheerleader, Save the World”? That was just the first half of the season. The reason the cheerleader needed saving, it turns out, is because the real villain was going around collecting superpowers. If he’d killed Claire, he would have absorbed her ability to regenerate, and nobody would have been able to stop him. That was only part of the puzzle, though; the little girl who can “find people”, the power leech losing control of his abilities, the time traveler at the end of his quest for a magic sword… they all came together for one precise moment: Hiro’s face-off with Sylar.

Sylar was the big danger. Remember Sylar? He’s the one who wanted to break everything. And he would have been invincible, had nobody saved the cheerleader. She was saved, though, so while Sylar was god-like in nature he was still ultimately mortal. That was the whole point. That was why Hiro’s sword was able to kill him. Hiro spent so much time struggling with the idea that he would really have to kill someone, and what that meant. It was the culmination of his story arc.

It was his place in the structure, just like Claire’s place was to potentially make Sylar invincible.

So here’s where Heroes broke the rules: the season doesn’t end with Sylar dying. It ends with Sylar crawling off into a sewer, leaving a trail of blood behind.

Saving the cheerleader didn’t matter, because the villain was going to survive anyway.

And Hiro’s journey of soul-searching didn’t matter, because the blow he struck wasn’t fatal.

You, the viewer, never got to solve the puzzle, nor see it in its completed state. Because in the end none of the pieces mattered; the bad guy got away. They tried to distract us with a touching brotherly reunion and/or a spectacular explosion, but that’s just fluff. The story was, “The heroes did everything right, then the bad guy got away.”

In the end, the plot hook for season two was more important to the cast and crew of Heroes than was the integrity of its storyline. This is trend the series continued as it went into future seasons.

That’s really where Lost pulls ahead of its competition. I don’t believe for a moment the writers actually had a completed plot graph when they signed on for season one, and I won’t argue that every character, twist and plot thread in the show is a shade of brilliance. It’s clear, though, that they knew what their structure was. No matter how crazy this series gets, or how many times people switch sides, or how far from left field the sci-fi elements start coming… it knows where its boundaries are. It knows it can’t spend ten episodes playing up a plot point, only to have that plot point turn out to be meaningless.

Er, aside from Nikki and Paolo, that is.

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2 comments to Why Heroes Failed

  • Rosencrantz

    It was amusing when Heroes first started, because that was at the same time as the start of Lost season 3, the first half of which is probably the worst part of the entire series. So a few weeks into the season, I was reading people say “OMG Heroes actually solves its mysteries, Lost is dead, long live Heroes”. (I had to read about it, because at the time I was deployed overseas and couldn’t watch any episodes of either show until February.) But as we all know, by the next season, Lost was at its peak and Heroes sank downhill fast.

  • Issun

    Heroes should have been the season one story spread out over two seasons, and than that should have been it. However, we can’t go back in time and tell Tim Kring that, so whatever.

    And yeah, if Lost had a plotline that couldn’t be integrated into the overarching structure, the writers knew enough to drop it fairly quickly (i.e. Jack and Ana Lucia’s “army”). Even Walt got to have some influence after his exit.

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