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Can ‘Heroes’ defeat sophomore slump?

In Monday night’s season finale, the superpowered denizens of “Heroes” defeated an enemy with seemingly limitless destructive power. No, not Sylar, though they dispatched him well enough (but for how long?). Their foe was something far slipperier and far more difficult to capture: a satisfying first season.This year’s television landscape was littered with the sliced-open heads of other hi
/ Source: contributor

In Monday night’s season finale, the superpowered denizens of “Heroes” defeated an enemy with seemingly limitless destructive power. No, not Sylar, though they dispatched him well enough (but for how long?). Their foe was something far slipperier and far more difficult to capture: a satisfying first season.

This year’s television landscape was littered with the sliced-open heads of other high-profile shows: “Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip,” “Kidnapped” and “Jericho,” to name three. (In the latter’s case, perhaps the lesson is to end, not begin, the season with a nuclear explosion, because where do you go from there?) But “Heroes” not only built an early buzz, it continued to justify it throughout the season.

But just because one villain has been vanquished doesn’t mean that there’s not another, more insidious one lurking around the corner. It’s the Sophomore Slump (insert menacing music sting), and it has attacked recent buzzworthy shows such as “Lost,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Veronica Mars.” What can be done to defeat such a foe?

Streamline the roster

One of the driving forces of the entire first season was the desperate quest to prevent supers from being killed off. The thing is, maybe Sylar had the right idea. Sure, the whole telekinetically-sawing-people’s-heads-open-and-picking-out-their-brains thing was a little untidy, but the show added characters so steadily that the roster was bursting at the seams by the end. It was starting to look as though rogue trenchcoat Bennet was the only power-free person in the world of “Heroes.”

That leaves the question of which characters to drop. Anyone living in Las Vegas would be a good start. Despite the show’s subtheme of family, the Hawkins-Sanderses never quite gelled. No surprise there, since it’s hard to become a functional unit when Mom can’t decide if she’s an honest Internet stripper or a vicious mercenary. And despite a violently split personality, it was never entirely clear what Niki/Jessica’s power actually was. With the shot at the end of the finale where D.L., Niki, Micah and the newly adopted Molly became a warped Sears portrait, their story seemed complete, and therefore over.

Have a plan …

“Lost” fans (and anyone who sat through the slow, confusing burnout of “The X-Files”) know the fear that the show’s creators are flying by the seat of their pants. But one of the strengths of “Heroes” was in how it moved not just forward but towards something specific. In fact, the show gave itself countless ways of keeping its eyes on the road ahead: Peter’s prophetic dreams, Hiro’s time travel, Isaac’s ability to paint the future.

Those signposts left the writers little option but to stick to the grand design, lest they wreck continuity completely. When Sylar tasted Hiro’s sword and Peter started going irreversibly radioactive, it was the satisfying culmination of a plan that had been set in motion well ahead of time. With “Heroes” a hit out of the starting gate and a second season more or less a given for months now, there’s no excuse for the writers not to have mapped out season two by now.

… but be open to improvisation

Still, “Heroes” shouldn’t get so beholden to the overall plan that it misses opportunities that pop up along the way. Look at Bennet. When the season began, he was simply a cryptic man in bad glasses who stood around looking menacing. Heck, he didn’t even have a first name until the finale, when he got the portentous name of “Noah.”

But he quickly became the show’s most compelling character, torn between his mission of tracking and monitoring the supers and his devotion to indestructible adopted daughter Claire. Actor Jack Coleman eventually moved from the guest stars section of the credits to the cast list and anchored the season’s best episode, the answer-heavy “Company Man.” None of it would have happened if the show hadn’t adapted what seemed to be its original blueprint to accommodate discoveries made along the way.

Bring back Sylar… but not right away

Zachary Quinto had a hell of a job: to breathe life into Sylar after the serial super-killer had been built up in viewers’ imaginations for the first third of the season. Luckily for everyone, he did, in fact, do a hell of job, creating a compellingly amoral and covetous character that stands as one of the great television villains in recent memory. (By contrast, Vegas kingpin Linderman didn’t quite live up to his long buildup, even with Malcolm McDowell bringing his iconic “A Clockwork Orange” stature to the role.)

No wonder the show couldn’t quite bring itself to kill Sylar off, leaving a bloody trail from where his body fell to an open New York City manhole. But if he’s a great character for the show to keep in its back pocket, bringing him back too soon would muddle the impact of the finale. Better to let him cool off for a while and let other baddies take center stage before he returns to escalate his killing spree into an all-out war.

Deepen the mythology

Now that Sylar has been subdued and New York has been saved, “Heroes” is left without its main plot thrust so far. In that sense, it’s a lot like just-cancelled cult favorite “Veronica Mars.” That show’s first-season finale neatly tied up most of the threads that had drove not just the story but the characters from the beginning, leaving it struggling for purpose when season two began.

But that won’t happen to “Heroes” if the events of the first season are simply the tip of the iceberg. The hero-hunting Organization predates 15-year-old Claire’s birth by nobody knows how long, indicating that the supers are not remotely a new phenomenon. Entertainment Weekly recently revealed that the second season (off to a good start with Hiro’s cliffhanger visit to feudal Japan) will explore their history, with dynasties of superpowered families stretching into the past. That’s a super idea, one that makes the show about the story of the heroes, rather than just a collection of their adventures.

Be a second season

In many ways, the worst thing that “Heroes” can do in its second season (beyond throwing the characters in spandex and forming a live-action Superfriends) is attempt to copy the first. Things had changed dramatically from the premiere to the finale. Bennet has his own mission after leaving the shadowy Organization, which is now likely in shambles after he killed his former boss. Flying Congressman Nathan Petrelli and his power-duplicating brother Peter have been seemingly vaporized in a nuclear blast (the key word, of course, being “seemingly”), leaving Claire without the guardian angel she searched for all season. The surviving supers (whose ranks, in classic cliffhanger fashion, aren’t entirely clear at this point) now know that there are others like them.

The question then becomes, what do they do now? For all of the super-powered shenanigans, “Heroes” has been driven less by action than by character development, and it would be a huge step backwards to attempt to duplicate the lone-supervillain approach of season one. Instead, the show needs to deal with the implications of all that’s happened so far. If “Heroes” can do that, then season two could become indestructible.

Marc Hirsh is a writer in Somerville, Mass.