The first season of NBC’s zeitgeist-seizing sci-fi hit Heroes made its name by ending with a bang. Virtually every episode concluded with a mind-bending cliffhanger or twist, redeeming the dullest hour and leaving even casual fans eagerly anticipating the next one. This tactic built the series’s reputation as the “anti-Lost.” Where the latter seemed to look further and further inwards, adding layers to its mystery without actually solving anything, Heroes satisfied its viewers week-to-week with answers, consistent excitement and twists that paid off. NBC’s series confounded its champions, however, by ending on a cataclysmically bum note. Last May’s first season finale was the whimper to end all whimpers, and left many critics disgruntled. It’s unfortunate, then, that season two began just as ponderously, doing little to allay fears that Heroes might have contracted “second season syndrome” earlier than expected.
The blame for this substandard though hardly awful premiere falls at the feet of Heroes creator and showrunner Tim Kring, who wrote this episode (Greg Beeman directed), helpfully titled “Four Months Later”. Unusually for a showrunner, Kring, the writer responsible for both the lackluster season-one finale and season-two opener, seems to be one of the Heroes writing staff’s weak links. He’s too interested in Heroes’ most ponderous, unappealing aspects—chiefly the vague, cumbersome narration by Mohinder Suresh, a character who opened “Four Months Later” addressing an appropriately disinterested Cairo audience about the many superheroes springing up across the world and the virus that afflicts them (this pandemic, an obvious lift of the X-Men’s “Legacy Virus”, is just the latest of many comic-book devices Heroes has lovingly borrowed).
Mohinder (Sendhil Ramamurthy, who invests even the most ridiculous dialogue with unerringly dull sincerity) has, since the pilot episode, epitomized Heroes’ major flaws. Between the vague grandiosity of his speeches, his constant stoic humorlessness and his seeming disinterest in romantic possibility, Mohinder takes himself far too seriously. Here he was paired with veteran character actor Steven Tobolowsky, who played, with his usual schlubby uneasiness, a mysterious agent of the hero-hunting ’Company’ that dominates much of the series’s unseen backstory. This unnamed agent revealed an exceedingly useful special ability, instant alchemy (Heroes has not nearly exhausted the reservoir of cool powers) and offered Mohinder a job within the Company. The episode mercifully spared us an excess of Mohinder, but from a brief telephone call we gleaned that he, Matt Parkman (Greg Grunberg) and Noah Bennett (the estimable Jack Coleman) are working to infiltrate the Company and bring it down from the inside.
The rest of “Four Months Later” shows what happened to the heroes after saving the world. So far the series has followed a rigid narrative formula, with episodes tending to focus two major characters from the show’s voluminous ensemble. There is sporadic intersection along with alliances and friendships; but for the most part, Heroes functions as a collection of mini-shows. The format is both help and hindrance: it tends to keep the better characters out of the lamer stories, but it gives lesser characters weaker material and forces them to struggle to grow.
Grunberg, who plays telepathic cop Parkman, was the biggest victim of this syndrome last season, trapped week-to-week in a cycle of unendingly dull domestic scenes with his cheatin’ wife. It took him forever to link up with the rest of the cast, but link up he did; he seems to have a slightly more exciting setup this year, guarding precocious hero-locator Molly Walker (Adair Tishler) and working to bring down the supposedly evil Company. Parkman is now a member of the NYPD, overseen by Barry Shabaka Henley (Miami Vice, Collateral). So far, he’s still more teddy bear than action man, swapping cute dialogue with Molly and trying to help her track down an evil ’bogeyman’ that appears in her nightmares. Hopefully Parkman’s new new setup will turn his character around and give the talented Grunberg more action.
The final member of this Company-skewering team is the recently-christened Noah Bennet (Coleman), known only as “Horn-Rimmed Glasses” (or “HRG”) among fans for his retro choice of eyewear (and lack of a proper name, in a Simpsons-esque recurring joke). In contrast to Matt Parkman, a credited cast member who failed to excite last year, Noah was a recurring role that became an out-of-nowhere fan favorite, at first intriguing audiences with his mysterious behavior as a member of the Company, then beguiling them as he renounced his ambiguously bad ways and strove to save his adopted daughter Claire (Hayden Panettiere, with whom Coleman has a convincing father-daughter rapport). After the excitement of last year, the Bennets have relocated from Texas to California, where Noah sternly instructs his daughter (who regenerates and heals wounds) to lay low on her first day of school.
One might think such is impossible on Heroes, but Claire managed to pull it off, hiding both her academic and supernatural talents, even from the bizarrely-monikered West (Nicholas D’Agosto), a somewhat smarmy new love interest who we spotted secretly floating by Claire’s window at the end of the episode. Whether this was because West is a super-powered Peeping Tom or a more sinister character remains unclear. Noah, meanwhile, has a similarly dull new life working at a copy shop governed by a tyrannical manager. The powerless Noah violated his own credo by breaking his boss’ fingers for breathing down his neck too hard. This slow start to the Bennet story essentially lifts Claire’s situation last year (misunderstood, lonely superhero at a catty high-school), the only difference being that her family is now aware of her abilities. When Claire called her real father, Nathan Petrelli (a former politician who can fly, and was presumed dead at the end of last season), to mope about her isolation, it drove home how little things have changed for Claire over the course of a year.
Nathan (Adrian Pasdar), who flew his literally unstable brother Peter (who can absorb and copy the abilities of others, and made the mistake of copying a radiation manipulator) into the stratosphere to let him detonate in the first season finale, is now bearded and drunk, having seemingly resigned his recently-achieved position as a congressman. Near the end of the episode, he has a bizarre vision of himself scarred by radiation poisoning, perhaps suggesting he brought something evil back with him after travelling to ’the other side’ with his brother. That’s mere speculation, but Nathan has always trod a fine line between simple sliminess and actual villainy; the loss of his brother might be enough to push him over the edge. His mother Angela (Cristine Rose), who is connected to the Company and manipulates her son’s political future a la Lady Macbeth, has more than a hint of malevolence.
The first season’s finale dubbed this new season (or “volume”) “Generations,” promising a focus on the characters’ ancestry. While it’s clear that the Machiavellian Angela will figure in future events, “Four Months Later” spotlighted Kaito Nakamura (George Takei), father to missing time-traveler Hiro (Masi Oka). Kaito, a stereotypical but nonetheless intimidating Japanese patriarch played with the right sense of the theatrical by Star Trek legend Takei, is a samurai sword-wielding superhero/CEO who appropriately scares the shit out of his kids. He also seems to have ties to the Company and Angela, and dropped many a mysterious hint about the Company’s other founders and its ultimate goals. However, before we could learn much, Kaito was offed by a shadowy figure, perhaps setting in motion the first key mystery of this new season; Kaito’s ever-cheerful son was stuck in 1671 Japan and unable to help his dad out. When this twist was unveiled in May, I groaned, but Oka is a fun actor, and his scenes with David Anders (playing a British rapscallion who poses as Kensei, the heroic Japanese warrior of Hiro’s childhood stories) were the episode’s best. Stranding Hiro in the past is a recipe for tedium, but bringing Kensei along into the 21st century might not be a bad idea, given the spark of their repartee so far.
A lot happened in “Four Months Later,” but rather than zippy action, we were subjected to a lot of slow-moving exposition and fuzzy hints about overarching mysteries that won’t be resolved for months to come. Even the episode’s cliffhanger, featuring the return of the supposedly detonated Peter (Milo Ventimiglia) as an amnesiac in Ireland, was both predictable and questionable (watching Peter re-learn his powers all over again is not something I look forward to). One hopes this is merely a slow start, and that Heroes will gain momentum. At this pace, it’s not going anywhere fast.
London-based writer David Sims is a contributor to South Dakota Dark. This is his first article for The House Next Door.