Update: I noticed you seem to like Heroes quite a bit! Did you know that Microsoft and NBC are talking about reviving the series? Check out my post about the possibility of Heroes Season 5!
Heroes Died On Its Own Sword
I remember when I began watching the first season of Heroes, a little nervous of this seeming X-Men Lite show from the very beginning. But over the course of that first season I found that very shortly I could scarcely wait to watch the next episode as the mystery of the villanous Sylar and his role in destroying New York City unfolded. The show seemed to have everything it needed: an engrossing plot, a frighteningly powerful villain with a plan, a cute girl, comic relief, political tension, the mysterious Mr. Linderman, and of course, a character with the proper soul of a Hero, Peter. I’ve talked about Heroes before, of course, and like the show itself my hopes and thoughts for its future have fluctuated from the positive to the abysmal. So goes the nature of a show that nobody had a clear vision for, and as much as I sort of wish I was, I’m not remotely surprised that it’s now officially been cancelled by NBC.
So now the question is, why was Heroes cancelled? This is a topic that could go on forever, and I’ve already reviewed a few other blogs and media outlets dishing ever so briefly on the topic, so now I think it’s time I had a bit of say, myself.
1. Let’s start with the obvious: following the first season, the show failed to ever execute a cohesive, well-planned plot or villain again. Sylar, in season one, was a masterpiece of a television villain, played to near perfection by Zachary Quinto. Season 2 didn’t really have a villain at all, Season 3′s “Villains” arc suffered a similar fate (Arthur Petrelli was OK, but really just a crusty, much less intimidating retread of Sylar), and while Season 4′s Samuel character was an interesting character, he was a useless villain with an ability so lame that all anyone had to do was run away from him in order to take it away. And while it was clear early on that the writing team on the show really tried to make the final season much better, and to a large part they succeeded, there were simply too many other problems, which we’ll get to.
2. Character development. Perhaps only a little less annoying than its plot issues was the show’s character development, specifically because, there pretty much wasn’t any. By the end of the final season, Claire was still the same whiny, self-flagellating brat she’d been since season one, only by then it had gone from being the endearing mark of a character going through something new and scary, to that place where you’re just sick and tired of hearing her whine about being different. Come on, Claire, get over it and move on, already! The same was true of One-Note-Nathan, who like any living politician stereotype, wobbled endlessly between the side of good and the side of evil. By the time he died, I was glad to see him go, and a lot of other people were too. There are only so many times you can watch the same character flip-flop back and forth. Pick a damn side and let’s get on with it.
3. Meaningless deaths. In the first season, we got some real deaths, and they were pretty damn sad. Charlie, Isaac, Simone, all were reasonably well developed (less so in Charlie’s case, but she was developed very well in a short space) and that worked out. Unfortunately, nobody ever died and stayed dead again after that. Charlie ended up being brought back during the fourth season, which really served no greater purpose than to ruin the original story’s sadness; Nathan, even after being killed in season 3′s finale, kept right on coming back to life via Sylar in season 4; Nikki, the show’s most annoying character from the very first episode, came back as a clone. Time after time, characters were shot, beaten, maimed and blown to smithereens, only to somehow return again. If there are no real death stakes, what’s the point of killing the character at all?
4. Stakes and consequences. The stakes rarely got any bigger on Heroes, either in the sense of devastating plots or in the sense of transformational character events. No, Arthur draining off Peter’s powers does not count. What characters needed were life-altering events like you’d find on better shows such as Angel or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which was unilaterally a superior Superhero show to Heroes. There, we watched the writers do horrific things to established, recurring characters, killing off some, utterly reshaping the character of others. No character on Heroes ever faced stakes where they would have no choice but to cut down the person they love the most in order to save the world. No character on Heroes ever fell in love only to have that loved one brutally murdered before their eyes. And when Heroes characters died and returned, there was no price to pay, no shift in the balance of the world’s power, no consequences. When Buffy died while saving the world and was (months later) resurrected, there were consequences first for her character, which was fundamentally transformed by the trauma of death and bliss of Heaven, and later for an entire season as her return had triggered a shift in the balance of the world’s power that ultimately lead to the deaths of several of her allies and goodness knows how many additional innocents. Heroes never played with stakes like that.
5. Lack of advance planning. Heroes creator Tim Kring has said publicly that they do not plan the series very far in advance, preferring to write by the seat of their pants so as to always introduce new story possibilities. I suppose as theories go, that’s all well and good, but it’s still no excuse for not establishing an overall framework for where your story will go. How can you possibly write a series that says something if you don’t have anything in mind you want to say? And therein lay perhaps the root of Heroes’ problems: it doesn’t really have a message. Buffy was about female empowerment; Angel was about the neverending battle between good and evil; Star Trek was about an optimistic view of the future and humankind’s ability to succeed in it; Veronica Mars was about both female empowerment and the ability to understand and deal with the world logically even when it wasn’t very logical; Battlestar Galactica (new version) was about how humankind is a screwed-up mess with no true direction, just a fantasy.
What is Heroes about? I have no idea, and really, neither do its creators. And that was ultimately its biggest failure, and the most prominent reason why not only did it fail, but it earned its failure.