Just like FlashForward, it should surprise no one that NBC has finally canceled Heroes. In four years, the sci-fi drama had a meteoric rise and fall and it’s been lambasted mightily ever since its season one finale. But what will we really remember about Heroes?Why don’t we start off with a word about the series from someone else who goes a long away in proving my point for me. Entertainment Weekly’s Darren Franich had this to say about Heroes in a post he wrote after the cancellation announcement:
“The first season of Heroes might be the best season of broadcast TV ever.”
I cannot believe EW would let that kind of cavalier television criticism be printed, even online. Look at it again. BEST SEASON OF BROADCAST TV. EVER. I don’t want to sound hyperbolic, even though Mr. Franich has already overdone me there, but I can probably think of at least 50 series that have had multiple individual seasons that were better than Heroes season one — and that’s just off the top of my head. This guy didn’t even contextualize his ridiculous statement by saying it’s the best season of broadcast sci-fi, or even best season of broadcast drama. Nope, throughout all of television history.
But like I said, this kind of reverence paid to the series’ first season and all the articles written in seasons 2-4 about how it was finally turning around — Bryan Fuller’s back! Shorter seasons! Cool guest star villains! — or why it should stay on the air, despite horrible ratings — International success! DVD sales! Illegal downloads! — is what has driven me nuts about Heroes from the beginning. Rarely in my time following television have fans — and sometimes even critics — been blinded by a series that’s so obviously not very good.
If we backtrack to 2006-2007, during the first season of Heroes, all sorts of people were rightfully excited. The series’ pilot is still one of its best episodes, and as the series got going, it showed it could set up mysteries and then at least partially answer them fairly soon after that. For reference, here is what the best television critic alive, Alan Sepinwall, said about the Heroes pilot:
“‘Heroes’ has the kind of ambitious narrative and visual style you wouldn’t expect from producer Tim Kring, the man who brought the world ‘Teen Wolf II’ and ‘Crossing Jordan.’ But as if possessed by a super power of his own, Kring has created a big, colorful, messy, involving, funny explosion of a show. If it’s not the best new series of the season, it’s definitely the most memorable.”
Not to knock Sepinwall, because he is the best, but I went through most of his recaps of season one and he seemed generally satisfied with its development. One more line of note, which comes from his recap of “Company Man,” the episode most people consider to be the highpoint of Heroes:
“Well that was pretty darned good, wasn’t it? An hour that took on the form of a ‘Lost’ episode (single-focus A-story supplemented by the main character’s flashback) and made everything ‘Lost’ has done this year seem like the shiny con job that it is.”
And that my friends, is the other crux of my whole point about Heroes. I believe that all of the praise heaped upon it during season one, of which there was much, from far more people than just Alan Sepinwall, had little to do with the actual quality of the series itself. Instead, it was all more of a response to the frustrations many folks had with the other major serialized sci-fi-tinged broadcast drama: Lost.
Heroes came along right as the anger with Lost was reaching its apex. This was season three of the island drama, the season with the polar bear cages, the six-episode pod, Jack’s tattoos, Claire’s messenger birds and more. Total stalling in many spots, leading fans to question whether or not anyone involved with Lost had any idea what they were doing. Enter Heroes, with its cool advertising campaigns, pretty faces and a whole lot of rapid moving storylines. Thus, began “Heroes vs. Lost” as an internet conversation meme. I remember being on the message boards in the spring of 2007, with the line drawn in the sand. And it seemed like more people were headed towards Heroes‘ side of the line, willing to give up on Lost due to its stalling, pretentious nature. Heroes had a faster pace, it wasn’t ultra confusing and there was promise for super-powered action.
That promise was never fulfilled. Excuses came, viewers left and here we are. But we still have people looking fondly back at the halcyon days of season one. The thing is, season one of the show was never that good.The season one finale derailed a lot of the Heroes hype that the seriously terrible second season completely destroyed. Meanwhile, Lost delivered an end-date, an amazing final third to its third season and of course, the insane flashforward conclusion. Freed from the usual constraints of network television, Lost has gone on to produce three more damn solid seasons of television, while Heroes as never been the same — or as it good — as it was in “Company Man.” What does it say about the two series that the best moment of Heroes was really just them stealing an idea from their most direct competition? Isn’t it at least partially odd that people loved that specific episode so much? Yes, it was very good television. But was also because it reminded those disenfranchised with Lost of how good that storytelling approach could be. And then when the Lost folks turned that approach on its head, everybody was back on-board — especially when season two revealed that the Heroes team had no idea how to execute a different story.
Therefore, I believe that Heroes‘ initial success and praise was mostly because so many people were frustrated with Lost. It was a welcome change with enough familiar elements to convince people it was “better.” Heroes was like the attractive co-worker that is a little more fun than the spouse, so you flirt and maybe even wonder what it would be like if you totally jumped their bones. Then you get to know them a little bit more and they’re kind of dumb and not interesting to talk to for more than five minutes; it turns out you were just a little bored at home, so you passed the time another way and convinced yourself it was something more. And if we take it one step further, in Heroes‘s case, then the co-worker would gain 55 pounds, start chain smoking and eventually only want to talk about her stuffed cat collection.
I’d love to read the thoughts of someone who went back and watched season one of Heroes now and see their response. I watched it right before season two back in the fall of 2007 and was much less impressed than I was during the original run, even with the ability to blow through them at an even faster rate. Because in the end, it was all about the context in which those episodes aired that pumped people up for Heroes as a whole, not the quality.
So, then, what is the legacy of Heroes? For me, it’s the most overrated series on broadcast television in recent memory. Its bad moments were really, really bad and even the so-called great moments felt like that only because it was giving us something we weren’t sure Lost could. It was given the benefit of the doubt about its potential to turn things around for far too long, and probably should have been canceled before it actually was. When a good portion of your success can be attributed to a reaction to another series, that’s not good. We all can remember how bad it has been over the past few years, but let’s not forget how mediocre (at best) it was before that.