The accused: Heroes, “How to Stop an Exploding Man” (Season 1, Episode 23)
The crime: Failing to provide a satisfying conclusion to a much-hyped season of serialized drama
Television’s failures are supposed to be obvious. From the overhyped non-starters that flop from the very beginning (hello, FlashForward, Lone Star) to the much-discussed clumsy conclusions of series we were convinced had it all planned out (nice to see you again, Battlestar Galactica), the medium’s big busts are right there in front of us. Whether because of low Nielsen ratings, terrible critical and fan response or something else entirely, the reaction to one episode often defines a series’ long-term legacy. But while we are often left wondering what it all means for the medium and for the industry when a series like Lone Star stumbles out of the gate or a series like Battlestar Galactica presents a controversial ending, those discourses tend to focus on disastrous beginnings and ill-conceived endings. But what about those mishaps that are not so obvious, the catastrophes that happen somewhere in the middle? How much impact, both positive and negative, can one bad episode have on an entire series? How do long-running series continue onward in the aftermath of an episodic failure? Is it possible that individual, episodic failures of television’s most respected series tell us more than the failings of a much-hyped about pilot or series finale? And how do we really define “failure” anyway?
These are just a few of the questions that I hope to answer with TV Surveillance’s new bi-weekly feature, #TVFail. In each entry, I will be taking a look at an individual episode of television that is considered a disappointment in some way. Maybe it was panned by critics and audiences, maybe it was lowly rated or maybe it was initially neither but has retroactively lost its more positive reputation. No matter the reason, this is a place where I will talk about the quiet failures of some of television’s best series. Here, I will talk about how and why these individual episodes came to represent “failure” and also discuss whether or not those definitions still apply today. The hope is that this feature will weave textual analysis and contextual and intertextual discourse together to create a compelling space for the discussion of televisual failure.
With it being the middle of May and all, I figured it might be nice to tackle a failed season finale for the next entry of the still-young #TVFail feature.* Season finales, by their nature, are supposed to serve as the culmination of something, whether that’s a season’s worth of stories, two seasons worth of stories or a whole series’ worth of stories. With the promise of a conclusion, however big or small, comes expectations. Audiences want to be satisfied, confused and intrigued at the end of the season. The industry and the networks don’t help matters of course, as they hype finales as massive, must-see events that will leave the audience sufficiently breathless. From ridiculous “sweeps scorecards” and more, finales are a massively important part of the television machine, both creatively and economically.
*I hope you folks are enjoying it.
For better or for worse, finales are especially important for the serialized drama series. After unspooling countless disparate threads across countless episodes, we in the audience hope and expect that the series pulls them all together in a nice pattern come finale time. That might mean confusing developments or major deaths of likable characters, but that conclusion, if even a temporary one before the next season begins, is just so crucial these days. Even though finales are just another episode of a television series, they’re not treated that way. Mess up a finale, particularly a serialized drama finale, and audiences might never come back. We’ve seen the outrage fans of serialized drama have had over series finales in cases like Lost, BSG and The Sopranos, but supposedly “bad” season finales can have a similarly harmful impact on a series’ legacy. And as today’s entry probably makes you recall, sometimes awful season finales are the beginning of the end for a series, even when they come at the end of a first season.
Heroes was a legitimate cultural phenomenon there for a minute in 2006 and 2007. There were 14 million people watching the damn thing live each week. Let’s not kid ourselves, we were all in on Heroes at the beginning. A number of the characters were relatable and appealing, the writing was swift and oftentimes sharp and it combined so many of the things we love in our geek popular culture (superheroes, time travel, etc.). But Heroes‘ mainstream success also had a lot to do with the fact that it came along at the exact perfect, opportune time. The superhero genre hadn’t quite flooded and overwhelmed audiences (thus, no backlash) and it seemed particularly novel on television. Moreover, people had grown frustrated with Lost‘s inability to answer questions and move the narrative forward in proper ways, so Heroes fast-paced momentum seemed like a welcome respite from the glacier-like pace of ABC’s island drama. It didn’t hurt that the Heroes people had seen how Lost‘s team dealt with the media and audiences and were therefore able to say the perfect things about giving answers, solving mysteries, etc. Throw in a catchy tagline or two from the NBC promotions department and Heroes suddenly became the hottest and most appealing narrative on television.
And for most of its first season, the series actually backed up the hype that the producers and NBC were selling. I’m pretty sure that we didn’t completely read our frustrations with Lost and other failed serialized television into Heroes during that first season. I remember enjoying myself while catching up with a handful of episodes at once. The narrative wasn’t so complex that it required overtly meticulous viewing like Lost, but wasn’t absolutely stupid and insulting (you know, like it became in season two).
Yet from the very beginning, Heroes‘ first season was building to a very specific ending a the nuclear explosion. That time traveling goofball Hiro went to the future and saw said explosion in episode two, “Don’t Look Back”, and that vision basically powered his entire decision to travel across the country and all that nonsense. In episode 11, it was hinted at that Peter was the “exploding man.” The big boom in downtown New York City was the primary story engine of that first season. And if we were to pick out a second major story, it would be the Sylar character and his villainous journey. So much of the season’s second half is spent on building him up as this unstoppable force, and by the time he figures out that he can actually be the explosion in the penultimate episode, those two stories have dove-tailed together masterfully. The moment with Sylar standing on the bridge testing his nuke-like powers while saying “boom?” Probably the most chilling moment in Heroes‘ first season. That’s how you craft a penultimate episode cliffhanger.
As most of you know, the season one finale, “How to Stop an Exploding Man,” not only squanders that fantastic cliffhanger and the season’s worth of narrative momentum, but also destroyed Heroes so much that it could never, ever recover. Whereas any episode like Lost‘s “Stranger in a Strange Land” served as a terrible, but necessary nadir for that series, “Exploding Man” is not an episode that works in retrospect or deserves to be embraced using any sort of backwards logic. “Stranger in a Strange Land” might have inadvertently saved Lost. “How to Stop an Exploding Man” basically killed Heroes, even if it did limp along for another three seasons. This is an episode that not only deserves the vitriol spewed at it when it originally aired, but also probably deserves a little bit more four years later.
The problem with trying to build to a very specific ending is that you have to either stick the landing nearly perfectly with that landing or implement some sort of twist that’s so out-of-the-blue that the audience never, ever sees it coming. “How to Stop an Exploding Man” doesn’t really choose either one of those paths, and instead falls somewhere in the very unsatisfying middle. Heroes‘ first season was built so much on these questions of destiny and determination versus free will and it never really figured out how it ultimately wanted to answer those questions.
With time travelers and psychic painters driving so much of the narrative momentum, it was hard not to get caught up in the determinism of it all. Isaac painted something with NYC blowing up, so NYC is going to blow up. Peter and Sylar are going to fight, so they are going to fight. Heroes wanted to explore what happens when you don’t do what a FREAKING PAINTING says and tries to capture that with its finale, but the execution isn’t really there and it is all hard to swallow after 22 episodes of constantly telling the audience that one thing is going to happen.
And again, pulling the rug out from underneath the audience isn’t always a bad thing, especially in a series like this. After those said 22 episodes of determinism and the clear journey that story barely ever strayed from, it was actually probably smart to mix it up. But my idea of mixing it up in the resolution to your season-long story doesn’t involve the two most powerful people on earth having a 47 second conversation and then one of them getting flown off by their brother and the other getting stabbed in the gut by a time traveling nerd while like five other characters stand around watching. Heroes would have been better off actually blowing up NYC and embracing its determinism and fatalism than trying to rope in the audience with mostly unearned heartfelt moment between Peter and Nathan.
Here’s the thing, and this is coming from a person who really enjoys character dramas, intense moments between people, etc., when you create a superhero series (and call it Heroes no less) and you create this narrative where it appears the only true option is for your much-talked about villain and your supposed hero to throw down to SAVE THE WORLD, you kind of have to let that play out. I understand that Heroes is a broadcast television series, not Spider-Man 2. The budget isn’t going to be there for some all-time classic, epic sort of fight. But at that point in the series’ run, this was a major hit and the audience was rightfully expecting something as far as physical altercations go. This was especially true considering just a few weeks earlier in the flash-forward episode, “Five Years Gone,” they literally closed the door and portrayed a major Sylar-Peter fight behind closed doors off-screen. You cannot tease an audience for 22 episodes and rattle its cage like that without providing some kind of substantial pay-off. It’s just a slap in the face.
Budgetary restrictions aside, this episode basically proved that Heroes never knew how to conclude a story arc, whether we’re talking about character development or plot movement. In a first season, you can just keep piling things on, whether they be characters, plot developments, twists, really whatever. That makes the world seem larger and more alive and the narrative seem more expansive. But the implications with that sort of storytelling is that it’s all going to have purpose and there is hope for resolution, even if only temporary, at the end of a season. Heroes never, ever learned that lesson and the seeds of that ignorance are on display with “Exploding Man.”
Of the series’ 329 characters, only one of them says goodbye in this episode (Linderman). A few others get temporarily injured, but there’s no real suggestion that they’re in any mortal danger. Perhaps most egregiously, the way-too-powerful Sylar appears to be dead to the other characters, but we’re given all indications that he’s alive. The only real mysteries lie with Peter and Nathan. I’m not saying that the best part about serialized drama is how easily and/or well they kill off its characters, but the cast of Heroes had quickly bloated and some of the characters had worn out their welcomes. It was time. But Tim Kring repeatedly noted that the fans’ reaction to certain performers and characters such as Sylar meant that he couldn’t do what he originally planned: kill most of them off or at least stop highlighting them so that he could bring in brand new ones.
This of course would continue for the duration of Heroes, with characters constantly dying and then coming back to life or leaving and then quickly returning for really no reason outside of Kring’s inability to sack up and tell someone like Zachary Quinto that his services were no longer needed and it was cool for him to go off and be Spock. The second season saw Kring basically reboot the series only with the same exact characters and even though that didn’t work at all, he tried to do the same thing a few more times with the “Volumes” storytelling conceit, which should have worked much better than it did.
And plot-wise, the resolutions are really hard to vouch for. Sylar’s obviously dispatched of too quickly, as is the less important, but still compelling Linderman. HRG and Parkman don’t have much to do except get thrown against a wall during the episode’s hackneyed conclusion and the less said about Mohinder the better. The only real resolution is that final moment between Peter and Nathan, which intends to be an especially heartfelt conclusion to all their personal struggles and probably serve as a call back to the series’ pilot episode. “Exploding Man” wants us to believe that the Peter-Nathan relationship is the engine of this series and of this story, but because it added so many other elements and characters into the story since the pilot, it is a bit difficult to buy into the episode’s assertion.
Though not a fitting conclusion to the season, it is probably fitting that Heroes first finale ended with an overly sappy and somewhat terrible speech in place of an action-packed, but character-relevant sequence. I’m not saying this episode had to be full of explosions and BOOM, BAM, BANG nonsense, but needed some, especially if it also came with lines like “You saved the cheerleader so we could save the world.” Poor Adrian Pasdar. This sort of storytelling became Heroes M.O. over the years: Pile a bunch of characters and inane developments on top of one another, button it off with a few bits of dialogue about family and the bonds of man, rinse and repeat. Narrative satisfaction was replaced with narrative heft, and the issues of this episode were sort of the first indication that Kring and his team were buckling under all of that weight.
But when your characters aren’t really that interesting outside of the initial discovery of their abilities and you refuse to kill them off, where do you go? Heroes answers that question with a resounding “nowhere.” See, all the cool time travel and future versions of characters is appealing to the audience while you’re building up a world and a narrative. But there is an implicit agreement there that the series isn’t going to piss all that away in the conclusion. Once you prove that you cannot provide a satisfying conclusion to your world-building and narrative development, it is the characters that can save you — and that’s where Heroes was really screwed. We suffered through seasons two and three of Lost* precisely because we gave a crap about all those people on Oceanic 815. We cared about Hurley, Locke, Sawyer, Charlie, Claire, Jin, Sun, Sayid and (if you’re like me) Jack and Kate as well. The mysteries might hook you initially, but that can fade (like it did with Heroes) and the characters keep a series afloat. Heroes never, ever had that. It had “Save the Cheerleader, Save the World” and cool digital transmedia extension stories.
Of course, all of this is sort of obvious, especially to those of us who just love television. The characters are the most important thing in your story. Every single serialized drama “like” Lost has failed because it hasn’t been like Lost in the most important way: the characters. Heroes was the best of the Lost-clones and it deceived us for a little bit, but we eventually figured it out. Because when you build up a serialized drama, full of intrigue and mystery, you better have a damn good conclusion. If you don’t, the audience’s investment in the characters can save you in a lot of ways. Heroes did not have the benefit of either of those things and “How to Stop an Exploding Man” was the confirmation of those issues.
There are a lot of bad episodes of Heroes, ones that are much, much worse than “How to Stop an Exploding Man.” I couldn’t even watch the fourth season I was so disenchanted by the drivel that Kring and his team cranked out. But in reality, Heroes was basically dead in May 2007 when it aired this finale. Much like Isaac and his paintings, it proved to be something of a false prophet who promised so much and delivered so little.