Thursday, February 01, 2007

How to Save a Life: NBC's superpowered phenomenon Heroes has wings, but needs roots.

Charming and exciting, yes, comics-inspired Heroes hews too closely to its two-dimensional roots. Brightly colored and action-packed, the show entertains yet fails to delve deep or participate in narrative television's recent tendencies toward sophisticated dialogue about, generally, what the hell is going on around here (here being, of course, good old planet Earth).

Remember how Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer used teenage characters to address adult/human themes like grief, isolation, loyalty and love, not to mention the use of humor as humanity's last best prophylactic against insanity? Heroes goes in the opposite direction and uses adult characters to play really cool kid's games—cops and radioactive robbers, flying hopscotch, etc. Perhaps it's an intentional deviation from the sci-fi model of old, wherein the fantastic stood in for the prosaic and where oogedy-boogedy monsters represented the demons of our real lives, but sometimes it feels like the creators simply forgot to give the show a genuinely human (or even superhuman) context.

Now, no one has ever accused season one of Buffy of being Ovid's Metamorphoses, so perhaps this show, too, is still evolving, but as it exists in its current form, Heroes moves around at a dizzying pace, but rarely hits any particular mark.

Moreover, where Lost, another great epic serial of our time, is overwhelmingly about character (for better or for worse), Heroes appears to be overwhelmingly about plot (for better or for worse). Lost's creators talk incessantly about the Dickensian model of serial storytelling, but their show is less like one of Dickens' cluttered, yammering novels and more like the paintings of Rembrandt (evocative, carefully drawn character studies) backed by show-don't-tell psychological explorations in the vein of Henry James. Heroes, on the other hand, evokes nothing so much as the Bam! Pow! Crunch! effects of the 1960s Batman series. Where Lost remembers every other novel and film of the last 25 years, Heroes and Batman are moving comic books, but ones that troublingly take the visual shorthand and scurrying pace of an action-oriented comic book and leave behind the metaphorical substance.

As for the illustrative style native to comic books, movies like A History of Violence take full advantage of the built-in storyboard, and recreate it as a panel-by-panel visual style in which each of many tableaux force intense observation. Heroes reads like the motion lines of a running character, with a few talk bubbles thrown in for exposition—there's never a full-page visual, social or moral panorama on which to gaze.

The show's tendencies toward juvenilia are striking. Like Peanuts, it is an isolated world where the children live out their lives beneath the sight lines of babble-speaking grownups. The only true adults visible on Heroes are Greg Grunberg's Matt Parkman, Jack Coleman's Mr. Bennet and Ali Larter's Niki Sanders; everyone else just looks full-grown. Adrian Pasdar's charming Nathan Petrelli is a spoiled brat; and Milo Ventimiglia's Peter Petrelli is still finding himself. Mohinder Suresh is still learning to wear the mantle of his father's work; Simone and Isaac are so absent as to seem developmentally disabled; and D.L. is a dead-beat dad with good intentions, but he has yet to be the man his family needs him to be. Hiro Nakamura grows graver by the episode, and his transformation from boy-man to man-boy is, at least, in progress, but his appeal relies overmuch on childish joie de vivre.

Perhaps the metaphor of this show, murky as yet, is that growing up is, in fact, a matter of growing into your powers. Accepting your identity, coming out of the closet, knowing who you are and who you are not, loving yourself, and then marketing yourself to the world, etc.

Still, these characters are not teens at Buffy's Sunnydale High School—they are, for the most part, full-grown, and their growing pains seem less heroic than fitful and confused. They seem to be in the stage of a growth spurt where limbs are not just akimbo, but different proportions—too-big feet at odds with little legs. It's awkward to observe, and at times frustrating.

Nathan Petrelli, who by all rights ought to be this show's alpha male, has all but abdicated responsibility, and instead clings to greed and ambition as if they were coequal with mastery. Mohinder's path is so hog-tied to exposition that the story tells him, he never tells the story. Eden, even more than her counterpart Claire, is a daughter under the thumb of a stern father—she knows what she wants and certainly how to get it, but prefers to keep the safety (of another's control) on at all times, afraid to claim her own destiny.

What's the cure? Slow the heck down. The game afoot need not be croquet or horseshoes, but the frenetic plot-plot-reveal-cliffhang pace threatens to exhaust all parties involved. Growing up takes time—sometimes the duration seems interminable, but the destination usually turns out to be worth the travails of the grueling, brutalizing journey.

Dedicate a few moments to pointless canoodling. Have the good guys save some totally uninvolved bystanders. Connect the characters by friendship and love, not just magickal destiny and eclipse voodoo. Show our Heroes at the workaday business of creating a family life, building a career and finding a genuine identity.

If becoming your true self is, in fact, the thematic intention of the show, don't allow viewers to believe that happens when mystical mojo take hold of you and puts your fears and anxieties in abeyance. That's faith-based self-medication at its worst, and it's not the true work of life. Even as it celebrates extraordinary people with extraordinary powers, Heroes would do well to credit the heroism of the everyday, because the latter might just be more astounding than the former.

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