Save the Cheerleader, Save The World: The Rise and Fall of Heroes

For a brief, shining moment (well, a year) Heroes was one of the biggest shows on television. While Tim Kring’s serial about a group of people discovering they have superpowers ran for four seasons, it was its first year that many agree was the best.

In many respects the series represented the peak of something best described as ‘Serialised Event Television’ during the 2000’s, a period when American networks put their stock into big budgeted serials that demanded that audiences tune in every week, but which proved commercially successful, and which managed to ensnare not only a large viewership, but which also had cult appeal which meant these series proved profitable outside of their television broadcasts.

On top of advertising revenue, there was money to be made through DVDs, action figures, comic books, official magazines (many of which were published by Titan Magazines), companion guides, tie-in novels, anything you could attach the logo on to. There would also sometimes be specially shot mini-episodes that were available on the official websites (sometimes called webisodes), not to mention after show specials which would come with a plethora of behind the scenes footage and interviews with key cast and writers/executive producers.

This was also an era where the cast of a show like Lost weren’t the only ones doing promotion for the show, and you were just as likely to see co-creator Damon Lindelof and co-showrunner Carlton Cuse in front of the camera selling and talking about the show they were working on. Following on the heels of Chris Carter and Joss Whedon in the late 90’s and early 2000s, this was a decade that started to cement the idea of a showrunner as celebrity and it was their interviews and quotes that became just as important, if not more so, than what a member of the ensemble cast was saying.

By the time Heroes premiered on NBC in the autumn of 2006, 24 was a well established hit having just completed its fifth season, while Lost was about to enter its third (possibly its most divisive season at the time), the latter being a commercial juggernaut for ABC that had one of the most expensive pilot episodes in television history, but which helped make ABC a viable network again (along with Desperate Housewives) and which had the winning combination of being a cult favourite with a large audience.

Many networks were trying to launch their own versions that played along similar high concepts or approaches to the storytelling, including the same networks themselves that had launched those shows in an attempt to capture lightning a second time; Fox would follow up 24 with Prison Break which managed to last for four seasons and gained its own revival season several years later, while ABC would launch Flash Forward, a series which had a superb pilot but which failed to solidify its brilliant opening forty five minutes into something that could sustain a run of over twenty hours.

Amid all this was Tim Kring’s series which for one year managed to become the next big thing for legitimate reasons. Hindsight might dictate that it was another disappointment, and Heroes certainly had similar issues to Flash Forward and NBC’s 2010 series The Event in the sense that it could never fulfil that early promise, but the difference with Heroes was that it started with a genuinely brilliant season that suggested that we were in the presence of something really good that in the end ended up being a series that should have been a one and done season.

Arriving as it did in 2006, Heroes was a series that was both of its time and somewhat ahead of it. Superheroes were in the process of starting to proliferate in a more overt way into the pop cultural landscape, and while the decade so far had given audiences the initial batch of X-Men films, Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Man films, Wesley Snipes as Blade and the first of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, we were still two years away from the debut of Iron Man and with it the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the phenomenal success of The Dark Knight which are seen as the point when the genre and Hollywood’s adaptations of myriad comic book properties would become less of a sub-genre and more of a fully fledged genre in its own right.

The series is one that while not based on any particular comic book, is awash in references to the medium and revels in a narrative that plays around in storylines that had been helped concocted by comic book writer and future head of Marvel Television Jeph Loeb (who was coming off a writing stint on Smallville at this point) and the art work of Tim Sale which was part and parcel of the series’ world. Even that combination indicated a clear willingness of the series to acknowledge the comic book world what with Sale and Loeb having collaborated on Batman story The Long Halloween.

Essentially Heroes was a superhero series that was fuelling its themes and ideas through being inspired by the works of Loeb, Sale, Alan Moore, and Frank Miller but was doing so in the prism of a network television drama. While Smallville was still on the air at this stage, both the teen Superman prequel and Heroes were airing during the early period of live action comic book adaptations making a move towards being a genre in itself, and was also doing so a good few years before the onslaught of the Arrowverse on Smallville’s network The CW and its never ending roster of shows, Netflix’s Marvel universe (which Loeb would have a hand in as executive producer), as well as successful adaptations of other genre subversions such as The Boys and The Umbrella Academy.

At its heart, though, the series is very much one that has the feel of a well put together network show of the period and there’s honestly nothing wrong with that. The 2000’s sometimes feels like it was the last decade that had a large number of shows with the ability to have substantial audiences tuning in every week. While television ratings were lower that the previous decade for sure, with Friends and ER (also NBC series’) being amongst the last shows that could attract audiences that bordered on the astronomical, Heroes, Lost and 24 had pace, style and a storytelling drive that ensured that their captive audiences would come back to see what would happen next.

This was still a decade where the most watched shows on American television were procedural in nature. While we might look back and think of Heroes, Lost and 24 as era-defining series capable of genre subversions and mixture of captive cult audiences and mainstream appeal, this was still the decade where the most watched scripted drama on American television was CSI: Crime Scene Investigation with its two spin-offs also venturing highly in the Nielson ratings, along with the original Law and Order still on the air.

However, the success of Heroes in its first year and the ongoing high ratings performances of Lost and 24 was somewhat of a confirmation that audiences would stick the course for ongoing narratives, and besides, even if they weren’t the most watched shows in America (although close to it) they still were highly profitable on the side.

Heroes being comic book-inspired meant that inevitably the series had its own tie-in comic book. Initially published online, the inevitable hardback physical copy came in multiple editions with differing covers from the likes of Tim Sale and Alex Ross, with stories that actually crossed over with the events on the screen, filling in backstories and details that the series otherwise didn’t have time to do so in live action.

That first year was exemplary, a command and mastery of storytelling that made for enthralling viewing. The show’s secret weapon was no doubt having Bryan Fuller on the writing staff. His script for ‘Company Man’, a bottle episode that also functioned as a brilliant origin tale for its central man of mystery Noah (a scene stealing performance from Jack Coleman) is frequently cited as the series’ very best episode and rightfully so.

Fuller left at the end of the first season to create Pushing Daisies for ABC and it was clear as the second season began that the series was lost without his quirky, humanist touch that made Pushing Daisies and Wonderfalls such joys. Fuller, of course, would return to NBC and give the network the low rated but massively popular Hannibal, and while Fuller wasn’t the creator of Heroes, his voice suited it to a tee, and it was clear that that the series was lost without him in the second year.

Audiences expressed disappointment with the season finale of the first volume which basically built up to a conventional confrontation that seemed to bring closure but which left the defeat of resident villain Sylar (a star-making performance from Zachary Quinto) up in the air and a confrontation amongst the characters that didn’t quite live up to the build-up. Season two opened slowly and didn’t gain traction until a flashback episode seven episodes in. It was at that point the season felt as if it was starting to gain speed and direction, but unfortunately it was curtailed by the WGA strike of 2007-2008.

The cast photo for the third season of Heroes, a season that was meant to put the show back on track and which did anything but.

The final episode of that volume was supposed to lead into a virus outbreak storyline, but knowing that the pens were going to have to be put down, the writers gave the season an ending, albeit in the form of a cliff-hanger, and promised that they would come back to season three in top gear with pace, drive, and incident driving the series.

When the third season did begin, it did so with promises of ‘it will be better this time’, and initially it seemed as if they weren’t lying. The pace was faster, and the storytelling was filled with incident, but in trying to make up for audience frustrations with season two, the writers placed storytelling speed above cohesion and the season ended up going through stories way too fast with little to no regard as to whether or not everything was gelling together.

Things then took a dramatic turn behind the scenes when it was announced that Loeb and fellow executive producer and lead writer Jesse Alexander were to exit the series, such as it was that Kring and NBC were frustrated that what was initially looking like a golden goose had been run into the ground creatively.

Fuller returned for the second half of the season, and with it a third volume/story arc entitled ‘Fugitives’, and reactions were a tad more positive. There was a fourth season pick-up and Kring once again promised a return to basics and a story arc that would get the show back to where it was in season one.

The threat of a circus led by Prison Break’s Robert Knepper felt like a strange detour from the violence of Sylar in season one, or the characters being chased by an antagonistic Zeljko Ivanek in the second half of season three,  but it had a quirky air to it that felt Fuller-esque, but unfortunately the show didn’t have him around anymore to make the quirkier approach work and the series was officially cancelled three months after its finale aired despite promises from Kring that it was for sure coming back.

It was a sad end to a series that had begun with a flourish and high ratings, ironically being cancelled in 2010 just when the superhero genre was about to explode even further and become the dominant pop culture genre for the decade.

After the success of The X-Files revival in 2016, NBC brought the series back, but it came and went with little fanfare, the series now a forgotten hit that shone bright for one moment in the past but which in the end became something of a one-hit wonder, not to mention one that was incapable of finding that spark again.

Between season four and Heroes Reborn, Tim Kring went to Fox and delivered Touch, which did the thing of giving us a great pilot, but which unfortunately wouldn’t lead to a great series, despite having lovely central performances from Kiefer Sutherland and David Mazouz. It returned to Heroes’ central themes of connection amongst strangers, sometimes continents apart, but it couldn’t solidify them into an ongoing series, and which lost more points for casting Gugu Mbatha-Raw and wasting her talents on a nothing character.

With Heroes now returning to BBC via iPlayer and Sunday night repeats, it’s interesting to watch the series now as a historical piece of sorts. Rewatching the first season should do nothing but leave one frustrated at what a wasted opportunity it was, but that first year still somewhat holds up. Some of it is very much of its time, but other parts of it are still engrossing and draws you in so irrevocably.

It’s strange to think that the writers’ that made that first season so concise and entertaining could let it run away from them as spectacularly as they did in season three. Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman’s music has an intense dreaminess to it that works wonders, the use of comic book inspired art as a psychic means to hint at future plot developments is somewhat genius (and would remain one of its best plot components even as the series increasingly lost its way in later episodes), while the ensemble cast are wonderful.

This was a series that brought Milo Ventimiglia and Hayden Panettiere to many people’s attention, allowed Jack Coleman to be remembered for something other than Dynasty, while giving Greg Grunberg a chance to show he could be a brilliant performer in a series not created by JJ Abrams. Then there was Masi Oka as Hiro, the show’s resident nerd who could have taken a character with an obnoxious knowledge of the show’s tropes and turned them into the most lovable, popular part of the ensemble.

The subsequent failings of the series must surely rank as one of modern television’s greatest disappointments. It’s one thing to do a great pilot and then lose it, another to deliver a great first season filled with true creativity and then become increasingly messy in its later seasons.

Heroes was meant to be the next great television franchise, but instead it’s now something of an afterthought. Heroes was not a Flash Forward or The Event, but then it was never Lost either in the long run.

It now exists in some in-between place of being thought of as simultaneously brilliant and disappointing and now that it’s available for a new generation to binge watch, it will be interesting to see how the series will be perceived by those discovering it for the very first time.

Heroes Seasons 1-4 are available now on BBC iPlayer and airs Sunday nights on BBC 2 in the U.K, and is available to stream on Peacock in the U.S.

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