Warning: If you haven't seen the Nov. 20 episode of "Heroes," stop reading now.
“Save the cheerleader, save the world,” balderdash! “Heroes” has some explaining to do.
For a week, and at practically every primetime commercial break, NBC taunted viewers with this earnestly whispered cheerleader-saving imperative, promoting “Homecoming,” the Nov. 20 episode of “Heroes,” in which both the audience and the super-powered characters finally learn their destiny. But when the episode was over, neither viewers nor the so-called heroes knew much more than they did in the episode a week before.
Spoiler alert: Yes, super-healing cheerleader Claire Bennet was saved from the mysterious brain-eating serial killer Sylar. But when her savior, power-mimicking male nurse Peter Petrelli asked if he also succeeded in saving the world, even Claire didn’t have an answer. “I’m just a cheerleader,” she responded.
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Video: Behind the scenes at 'Heroes' Blood-covered Claire was then whisked away by her secret-agent dad (who is more marginal that evil). And a confused Peter was left to pop his broken body into place (via Claire’s borrowed regeneration ability) before being arrested for the murder of a less-important cheerleader lying literally brainless in a high-school locker room. Hey, nobody said they had to save all the cheerleaders to save the world.
Never fear, Claire. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was just a cheerleader too when she began her heroic journey. TV loves to repeat itself, so you’ll probably do just as well, if not better. Meanwhile, it’s the audience that has to worry about its brains getting sucked out by the flawed-but-fascinating “Heroes.”
The show is based on a lousy understanding of genetics and adheres ambiguously to the science fiction trope it allegedly follows. And frankly, a lot of the characters in the ensemble cast are really annoying.
Yet “Heroes” totally works. What’s more, it’s successful science fiction on primetime network TV. That almost never happens.
We could be heroes
As any geek worth his or her eight-sided dice knows, science fiction is always a blatant metaphor for something human and real. For example: “Star Trek” (social morality), current “Battlestar Galactica” (current political climate) and “X-Men” (racism/bigotry).
Video: 'Heroes' speak So what’s “Heroes” about? You’ve got a bunch of regular Joes — some who are obviously connected, some not so much — who suddenly develop unique superpowers at roughly the same time. Some of these disparate characters figure out that they’re supposed to unite, like the Justice League of America (sans capes and tights, we hope), and prevent a nuclear catastrophe in New York City.
This tragedy is foretold by Isaac Mendez, a precognitive artist who paints the future when hopped up on smack. As for the rest of the heroes, their newfound abilities leave them mostly just annoyed. This is where the show starts to break down.
In the fantastic world of science-fiction comics, amazing things happen and no one blinks an eye. Of course there’s a Superman! Why shouldn’t Iron Man be able to fly in that heavy metal suit? With its post-9/11 metaphor of the threat of dirty bombs and a devastated New York, “Heroes” is set in a real-world universe, where the fantastic is still amazing. Still, politician Nathan Petrelli feels burdened by his ability to fly fast enough to break the sound barrier. His brother Peter’s incessant whining about the siblings' special destiny pushes Nathan to retort that his superpower is good only for rescuing cats from trees.
Now, c’mon! Who among us wouldn’t be thrilled to find out we can fly? When a story is set in reality, flubbing that reality is aggravating.
Extended puberty is a popular secondary theme in science fiction/fantasy — that explains regularly sold out Comic-Cons and Star Trek conventions across our great America. New powers not only make you special (just as you always suspected), you can now postpone the drudgery of being an adult.
Not so in “Heroes.” Take Webcam stripper Niki Sanders. She’s got a sociopathic, freakishly strong split personality “Jessica,” with whom she can chat with in the mirror. But she still couldn’t get enough cash to keep her technopath son Micah in genius school. And she can’t stop “Jessica” from taking over their shared body in Monday's episode and using a high-powered rifle to take out her phase-shifting escaped convict husband, D.L. Hawkins.
However, waiting until the next "Heroes"” episode to learn if D.L. phased Jessica’s bullet is a lot more engaging than waiting for Locke’s latest crisis of faith on “Lost,” or wondering who gets killed next on the mysterious island because the writers ran the character into the ground. Networks bombarded this season with myriad “Lost” rip-offs, where viewers are expected to invest in the serial storylines rather than neat episodes that resolve in an hour. If you missed one, and nobody taped it at work, you’re up a creek.
“Heroes” is in this category, but the show ups the game with its comic-book storytelling style of small story arcs which follow a larger story, but also resolve somewhat at the end of each episode. Further, even if most of the characters don’t get how cool their newfound abilities are, the audience sure does. And that’s part of the charm.
Hiro Nakamura is the one character who aptly channels the audience excitement about becoming “super.” Face pinched and glasses vibrating from his intense concentration, Hiro can bend that old “Star Trek” chestnut, the space-time continuum. That’s the term he uses (in Japanese, via subtitles) to describe his ability to freeze time, time travel and teleport. Thrilled with his gift, Hiro convinces his co-worker that theymust travel to America to save the world. As a comic-book geek who's properly schooled in Spider-Man, Hiro knows that with great power comes great responsibility.
A glimpse of future Hiro sporting a soul patch and toting a sword lets the audience know that wide-eyed Hiro is headed for a big time loss of innocence (and perhaps Lasik surgery). Being a hero ain’t always pretty.
Unfortunately, being a hero doesn’t mean you’re in every episode either. While Hiro is the fan favorite, he has only one small, unclimactic scene at the end of the allegedly hero-defining “Homecoming.” It seems Hiro overshot his attempt to travel back in time and save the waitress who recently developed the ability to memorize everything. But viewers knew that last week.
Meanwhile, “Homecoming” was chock-full of the only character whinier than male nurse Peter, genetics professor Mohinder, whose own superpower seems to be tedium. Actually, Mohinder is one of the few characters who hasn’t been genetically altered in the way his mysteriously deceased professor father predicted. He spends the majority of “Homecoming” in a Hamlet-inspired sulk, wondering if he should follow dad's (woefully misinformed) genetic work and fretting over the newfound knowledge that he has a deceased (and genetically special) older sister, Shanti. (Though you can bet your Vulcan ears she’s probably alive somewhere, hanging out with Fox Mulder’s sister.) Guided by a super-kid who shows up in his dreams, Mohinder hacks into his pop’s computer and finds an address for every “hero” on the planet.
As the one guy without superpowers, Mohinder is meant to represent the incredulous audience. But who wants to be that dull? Meta-character Hiro is the guy to whom audiences can relate. He already was living in the comic-book universe of his brain pre-abilities. Now that he’s got the power, he’s ready to go. If only Hiro could use it to time-travel into “Homecoming” and give himself a better role in the overhyped episode. It would have made for a much better show.
Helen A.S. Popkin is a writer in New York.
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