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Does hit show have too many ‘Heroes’?

Ever-enlarging cast threatens to overwhelm the program's success. By Marc Hirsh
/ Source: contributor

If you watched this year's , you probably noticed a new face among the cast of "Heroes." Right there in the front row, seated next to supporting-actor nominee Masi Oka, was Kristen Bell. The former star of the now-defunct "Veronica Mars" has been tapped for an upcoming arc as the superpowered Elle, whose gifts and loyalties are yet to be determined.

For those keeping track, that brings the character count for "Heroes" to approximately 923 (give or take). And there are, no doubt, more to come. For a show that has been reassuring latecomers that they could jump in at the start of the new season (which begins Sept. 24) without getting lost, the biggest potential source of confusion isn't the story itself. No, the biggest hurdle "Heroes" throws in front of new viewers is its sheer number of characters.

And "Heroes" has plenty. So many, in fact, that the show didn't even finish introducing the main cast until the second episode, when Greg Grunberg first appeared as psychic cop Matt Parkman. Leonard Roberts (ghost dad D.L.), meanwhile, cooled his heels until he phased through a wall in episode five. Since the deleted scenes for pilot episode "Genesis" on the DVD include several D.L. snippets, it's clear that Roberts was already on the roster from the start, but it was just so full that the show had to delay his entrance.

A cast this size isn't entirely unprecedented. "Lost," for example, began its life with a large cast of characters revolving around a core group of around a dozen castaways. And that was before Tailies, Others and flashbackers entered the mix. Large-cast comic books such as "X-Men" and "Legion Of Super-Heroes" were and still are capable of following many, many superpowered characters through multiple simultaneous threads that unfold over the course of years.

Of course, it's entirely possible that "Heroes," like "Lost," requires so many characters as a hedge against killing them off, a necessity during a freshman season that was built around serial-killer Sylar hunting down supers and stealing their powers. Future-predicting painter Isaac, radioactive man Sprague, persuader Eden and doomed girlfriend Simone, among others, all bit the dust. But while vital to the story, they were drops in the bucket as far as the lineup was concerned. For "Heroes," there's resilience in numbers.

Where are the bad guys?Even so, the large cast wouldn't necessarily be so overwhelming if most of the characters weren't the same overall type. Most of them are, as per the show's title, heroes. Despite the number of names on the late Chandra Suresh's list, viewers never really saw any genuinely bad supers during season one. Sylar was evil, but that stemmed in large part from the fact that he wasn't super, at least not in the same way as the others. It was precisely his frustration at having been born ordinary that led him on his power-absorbing killing spree.

But so far "Heroes" hasn't found room in its vast warehouse of characters to include any genuine, innately gifted supervillains. Las Vegas kingpin Linderman undoubtedly possessed the ruthlessness and viciousness to lead a life of organized crime, but his criminal activities seemed to be borne out of the same mundane money motivations as anybody on "The Sopranos." Besides, his power of healing by touch didn't exactly lend itself to villainy.

Others weren't evil so much as driven by self-preservation. Eden and illusion-thrower Candice both worked for the shadowy, super-hunting Organization, while invisible man Claude was a self-interested free agent without an affiliation one way or the other. Even the most morally suspect of the heroes, flying congressman Nathan Petrelli, is simply an opportunistic politician desperately trying to deny that he even has a power.

But possibly the bigger omission involves the relatively small number of characters without any powers whatsoever. They certainly exist, typically serving to flesh out the domestic lives of the supers. (It is perhaps no coincidence that indestructible cheerleader Claire's mother dotes on a Pomeranian named "Mr. Muggles," a possible tip of the hat to the magic-free in the world of "Harry Potter.")

Still, most are completely unaware that their friends, loved ones and colleagues have special powers (which means that they're blissfully ignorant of the very idea at the core of the show). There are exceptions, including good-guy geneticist Mohinder, steadfast Hiro sidekick Ando and Simone, all of whom knew of the supers. So did FBI agent Audrey and goth high schooler Zach, guest-star characters who were key to substantial arcs.

Then there's Noah Bennet, arguably the most compelling character on the show, despite having no powers beyond the ability to get away with wearing his trademark horn-rim glasses. He started out as a faceless Organization agent before realizing that adopted daughter Claire would soon fall into his crosshairs. Struggling with his conflicting loyalties, he eventually went rogue, killed his boss and set about trying to protect his daughter (who, Bennet seems to forget, is invulnerable). With enemies on more than one side and lacking any superpowers, Bennet is (unlike Claire) the single most vulnerable character on the show.

That tension — between the supers and the knowing but power-free everyday people — is ripe for exploration, and the new season offers ample opportunity to do so.

Season one served as the equivalent of a comic book's origin issue, establishing the foundation of the show as a bunch of seemingly unconnected storylines gradually converged. If the show can find the right mix of heroes, villains and civilians and move forward without splintering once again, then it shouldn't matter how many characters there are, "Heroes" will still be able to fly.

Marc Hirsh is a writer in Somerville, Mass.