The rise and fall of Heroes: What went wrong

On May 14th, NBC announced that one of their primetime dramas, Heroes, would no longer be airing on the network. To explain it in one word – axed. No one was really surprised that this had happened, as the show had been slowly dying since finale on the first season faded to black. If you had said back in 2007 that the series would be cancelled, people would have thought you were crazy.

So powerful, so multicultural

It started off well enough – a serial drama about ordinary people who one day find they’ve been bestowed with superpowers. There’s the single mom who has super-strength, her son who can communicate with electronics, a telepathic cop, a male nurse who absorbs other people’s powers, his brother, a Congressional candidate who can fly, a Japanese worker drone who can freeze, rewind and jump through time, and a cheerleader, the crux of the story, with regenerative powers. Kind of watching over them like Professor X is a powerless Indian geneticist.

The story was simple enough – “Save the cheerleader, save the world.” This was drilled into our skulls as the first season progressed, so much so that the phrase became a part of pop culture. The first season was brilliant storytelling – it teased details, and every 5 or 6 episodes, we’d have an explosion of information, an excellent episode that would give us some answers and have us begging for more. The characters were so identifiable to the point of them being simple archetypes, but they’d find ways to surprise us.
The timing for Heroes was also fortuitous – it was essentially NBC’s answer to Lost, a serial drama with an ensemble cast of characters and lots of mystery to keep people hooked in. However, when Heroes began its run, Lost had started to seriously lag. The first half of the third season is often referred to as the lowest point of the series, and that is where Heroes began picking up viewers that Lost had, well, lost. It was pretty common to hear someone that’s way into television saying something like “I like Heroes better than Lost because at least they answer stuff on Heroes” – this was even the basis of a joke on Robot Chicken.
The season progressed and got better and better. Characters grew, and we were introduced to the massive conspiracy that was the driving force behind the whole thing, and ambiguous characters like Noah Bennet who may or may not have been a good guy. They did a fantastic episode called “Company Man”, almost entirely in black and white, that I thought was one of the best television episodes I had ever seen. I thought the main villain, Sylar, was excellent and Zachary Quinto did a great job playing him. I was even a fan of what everyone thought was a dumb finale to the first season – I understood that the show had run out of money and so couldn’t do the big finale like they wanted so they went for something a bit more understated.

So what went wrong?

There were a few factors that contributed to the early death of the series. The first I could call “character decay”, and this would probably the best example of it. In the first season, almost all the characters were identifiable and relatable, but none so much as Hiro, the Japanese man who could control time and space. His utter frustration with his boring worker drone life and his childlike fascination with his newfound powers made him such an empathetic character. He personified exactly what the audience would think if they got some superpower – this is fucking awesome – with none of the angst that was associated with the other characters. Maybe this is why the writers gave him the most powerful ability of all – the ability to control space and time – that would essentially break the show. And this is where the decay comes in. The writers kept coming up with excuses to take away his power, or have him not use his power, or just have him forget to use his power at all. Why they did this is understandable, after all – they thought it’d be cool to have a little Japanese fellow squint really hard and be able to control time, but then the audience started asking why they just didn’t use Hiro as a 5 foot 5 inch undo button, so the writers needed some exits. Over the seasons, he went from a kind nerd to a petulant manchild who was barely on the functioning side of retarded. For a few episodes, he was reverted to his 10 year old self, and somehow him with the mind of a child was more tolerable than the idiot that he replaced.

In time you will grow to hate both of them

Sylar is another good example of this – he started off a ruthless killer with mother issues and delusions of grandeur, but ended up switching the side between good and evil so often that I stopped caring about who he was and what his motivations were. He goes from someone who brutally (but efficiently) kills people with abilities so that he can steal them to someone who simply slaughters scores of innocent people because they happened to be there, despite him saying once that he doesn’t kill regular humans because it serves no purpose. Sylar himself started out as kinda relatable as well – we learn in a flashback episode in the first season that he merely wanted to be special, and he took his first power away from someone who didn’t want it in the first place. Sometimes he seems completely disgusted with what he does, and then other times he’s fine with it.

You'll hate them too

Honestly, I could write a whole other article just on how each character in the series progressively got worse, but I’ll move on.

While we’re on the topic of Sylar, I think this is another factor to the downfall of the series – poor/weak villains, and an inability to move on from Sylar. The first season had Sylar as the main villain, and “The Company”, a nefarious, shadowy organization as the secondary villain. The Company wanted to blow up New York in order to bring about world peace (think of it as a dumbed down version of Watchmen), and Sylar was simply going around executing people with abilities one by one. His main target becomes Claire, because he needs her regenerating power so he can never die. Sylar eventually takes the power of a man with nuclear abilities, and it seems like he’s going to be the one who blows up New York. Well that doesn’t happen, because all the heroes band together and they have a kind of underwhelming fight that ends with Peter, the guy who absorbs powers, blowing up somewhere above New York. Fine. I’m ok with that.
Then came the second season, and we were introduced to a whole host of villains. A white samurai who is actually immortal and kind of insane and wants to eradicate the world? Sure, why not. The telepathic cop’s dad who has the exact same ability but can also project images and control people’s minds? OK. Kristen Bell as a crazy woman who has electric powers and acts like a child? What?
Volume (season) 3, dubbed “Villains” was actually worse. One by one, we’re introduced to these ineffectual bad guys who are supposed to be scary but get offed in a manner that would offend a monster-of-the-week in The X-Files. Put them in contrived situations with the regular cast – the villains have a hostage situation in a bank, and Peter is one of the robbers – and you can see the direction that the show is going. Eventually, we’re introduced to the main bad guy, who is the father of Peter and Nathan, and the writers expected everyone to go “Hmm… yes that makes sense.” Instead, most of the audience WTF’d and just went back to watching Lost, which by the end of it’s disastrous third season had picked up steam again and was back on top for serial dramas. I think my main reason for hating the villains is just because they could not kill Sylar off. The guy came back from the dead like 4 times! I get it, your entire show hinges on that character and Zachary Quinto is a good character, but face it, Sylar should have died at the end of season 1, full stop. Without an imposing villain at top, every new villain would have felt fresh and would have had a legitimate chance at being an interesting character. But because Sylar can’t leave, every new villain was just essentially cannon fodder for the heroes or for Sylar himself. Why would anyone even bother doing anything in this universe? YOU CAN’T KILL SYLAR!

I think I’m going to wrap this up soon, but I’m going to mention one more point that I think completely and utterly ruined Heroes. Quite simply, it’s time travel. Generally, I have no problem with time travel stories, and they can be done quite well on television (see: Lost, Quantum Leap) but Heroes was pretty fuckin’ awful at it. Because the time travel was handled so poorly, there would often be story threads that would just be left hanging, characters that would disappear completely, and alternate characters and timelines that would just keep confusing people. It seems like every character had a more badass version of themselves in the future, even the completely useless Claire – they all wear leather, they all have scars and they’re all amazing with their powers. They also seem to have completely different motivations than their present selves. Future Peter shoots his own brother, future Claire tries to kill Peter in the past – it seriously makes no fucking sense. This is all the more confusing when we see Sylar in the future, since he’s turned into some housefrau and is taking care of his son (what?). Essentially presented with a hundred different timelines to contend with and so many motivations and characters to keep track of, most of the audience said “screw this” and tuned out.

We get it, you're supposed to be badass

And so did I. I stopped watching the show when the 3rd season ended. I’ve considered watching the fourth season a few times but haven’t really bothered. Lost and Fringe have both fulfilled my serial drama quota. I’m relieved the show is over so I can stop hearing from people about how much it sucks, but at the same time I’m kind of disappointed and even sad. The show had so much potential in it’s first season that it being axed almost sucks. Almost.

Thanks to the magnificent TV Tropes and all their resources for their help in writing this article.

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  1. Well done. Reading about the first season and the sense of wonder you got from watching it unfold almost (almost) made up for the crappy followings.

    Almost.

  2. Indeed – the first season of Heroes is almost comparable to the first season of Lost. Storytelling at its finest.

    • InsubsImiff
    • May 24th, 2010

    Just want to say what a great blog you got here!
    I’ve been around for quite a lot of time, but finally decided to show my appreciation of your work!

    Thumbs up, and keep it going!

    Cheers
    Christian

  3. You’ve done it once again! Incredible article!

    • InsubsImiff
    • June 8th, 2010

    Just want to say what a great blog you got here!
    I’ve been around for quite a lot of time, but finally decided to show my appreciation of your work!

    Thumbs up, and keep it going!

    Cheers
    Christian,Earn Free Vouchers / Cash

    • mitchell
    • October 11th, 2010

    I disagree, While Hiro kept getting offed in some way Sylar was a villain once after that everything he did was about himself nothing more. the time travling was confusing but the point of it was to show that changing events changes the future and while you complain it dosn’t give answers you need to sit down and think watch each caracter as person not a point in the show. besides The Hior changinf while anoying was funny.

    • Captain obvious
    • January 17th, 2011

    The show runners were guilty of arrogance. Tim Kring has never read a comic book in his life & has no experience to draw on, yet decided he could sidestep common issues of superheroic characters. Many talented authors through the years have wrestled with characters who grew too powerful, increasingly unbalanced sides, dangling plot threads.
    Luckily there is a treasure trove of tactics which have been used to address these issues. Many solutions have been used, but the Heroes prouction team were incredibly arrogant and assumed they knew better than the combined intellects from 50 years of speculative fiction.
    Turns out they were wrong.
    Turns out they are idiots.

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