When the fall season began, no one put much stock in NBC’s Heroes. The pilot was dour and slow-moving, following lots of different people through an unwieldy number of storylines. It had pretensions toward grandeur, but too much of it was filled with people moping about having superpowers, as if this were a normal reaction. It had a good action sequence (Claire the indestructible cheerleader (Hayden Panettiere) running into a fire), an interesting twist for a cliffhanger (the guy who thinks he can fly finds out that, actually, his BROTHER can fly) and, in Masi Oka’s Hiro, the only character who seemed at all interested in harnessing his powers to do the world some good. It didn’t help that the writing was often pedestrian and that the show’s cast, while good, couldn’t compare to the similarly huge ensemble on Lost.
But over the course of its first season, Heroes has matured immeasurably. Compared to timeslot companion 24 (which has worked overtime to spark a moribund plot about Russians and nuclear missiles), it looks even better. It’s not great television, by any means, but it’s TV that lets you turn off your brain without making you feel like you’ve wasted an hour of your life—no easy feat.
Where Heroes has most notably succeeded is in blatantly copying the model set forth by Buffy and 24 (both of which expand on the world of comics) instead of the Lost or Battlestar Galactica model (more akin to the serialized novels of the 19th century). Because the first season’s storyline is building toward a seemingly substantial season finale (all of the heroes, it appears, will team up in some sort of justice league to take on the possibly villainous Linderman (Malcolm McDowell, coasting, but doing so with flair)), the writers have to pay off stuff right now and advance the plot by substantial leaps every week. On Lost or Galactica, no one can find out much about the island or the location of Earth, simply because the show could run on ad infinitum (the producers of both series have made noise about setting an end date—something unprecedented for a hit series in American TV—simply so they can more readily plot out how the story will advance). On Heroes, if the show comes back for season after season after season, the writers need only come up with super-villain after super-villain after super-villain. At some point, this will start feeling old, but it allows the story to hurtle forward and dance past the show’s flaws. If you’re invested in the story and characters, an hour of Heroes flies by. It’s only until well after the show is over that you realize how bad some of it was.
Lost and Galactica have taken a lot of flak this season for their dragged-out storylines. Lost got bogged down in the world of The Others, while Galactica spent endless amounts of time inside the Cylon society. If you could get interested in these alternate societies, you might have found something to like in these episodes (and, to be honest, the Galactica Cylon scenes were unlike anything else that series has ever tried, and worked almost in spite of themselves), but most fans just wanted to spend time with the characters they knew and loved. Also, both Lost and Galactica tend to get mired in story construction because of their ambitions—both aim to be syntheses of a century’s worth of American genre tropes, with grimly relatable characters that are more than simple television stereotypes (it should be noted that Galactica has been much more successful at developing its characters than Lost has). The story only moves forward when the characters want it to and because of this, the audience is often frustrated.
Heroes avoids all of this because its characters aren’t horribly complex. The characters on Lost may be broad types, but everyone on Heroes can be summarized in one or two words (cheerleader! Japanese guy! Psychic cop!). Really, all we know about the characters consists of their superpowers and a few choice bits about their home life, which are almost always silly (Matt Parkman (Greg Grunberg, playing the aforementioned psychic cop) and his wife have endless marital squabbles about things that haven’t made good drama fodder in decades). The topper to all of this is Niki (Ali Larter), a stripper who finds herself at the mercy of a dead twin sister who is somehow her mirror image (the show has yet to expound on how this works exactly, though creator Tim Kring has suggested she’s similar to the Hulk). Since she’s a TV stripper, of course, she has a cute kid (with superpowers) and a doting ex-husband (with superpowers). Larter’s acting has gotten better as the season has gone on, but her storyline—detached as it is from all of the other characters—continues to drag the series down. Because the plot is the driving factor on Heroes, a bad episode of the show is as easily watchable as a good episode—you’re watching for the story, not the people in it. Compare this, again, to Lost and Galactica, which are both borderline unwatchable during bad episodes, simply because both aim so much higher and consequently fall so much farther.
But Heroes has done one thing right: It has brought the heroes together slowly, but surely. Initially, it seemed as though they might spend several seasons just narrowly missing each other on the subway, but the heroes are all curious about each other and often seek each other out. Of course, this being a genre TV show, it is gradually being revealed that all of the heroes are related. Right now, the plot is sort of mysterious (since couplings of two heroes seem to produce children with superpowers that have nothing to do with their parents’ powers), but it could quickly grow tiresome. Still, the show seems set to bring its characters together by the end of season one and this is probably the right decision, as they’re all more interesting when the plot is jerking them around together instead of separately.
The show stepped outside of its usual bounds in the last installment of February sweeps, “Company Man”, largely because it matched the show’s best writer with the show’s best actor. Jack Coleman, brought on to guest star as the show’s requisite government lackey Horn-Rimmed Glasses (or HRG) for the pilot, was made a regular rather quickly because his job of tracking down and tagging heroes conflicted so well with the fact that he was the adoptive father of Claire. Since HRG wasn’t a regular character in the pilot script, perhaps the writers didn’t instantly sense the compelling conflict at the heart of the character, but Coleman certainly did, and his scenes with Panettiere were especial highlights of the episode. “Company Man” featured a script by Bryan Fuller, a strong writer who can get too twee (his Wonderfalls entries walked the twee tightrope well; his work on Dead Like Me didn’t). Fuller, however, is one of those writers who can see through worn-out genre clichés to their emotional heart; his script for “Company Man” featured only three series regulars and delved into HRG’s history working to study heroes, before gradually coming to love the one living under his roof. The flashbacks paralleled a present-day story where HRG and Claire were threatened both by Parkman and by a man who can cause nuclear explosions. By putting HRG at the center of the episode, the show was able to create a storyline that didn’t center around a hero discovering his or her powers (indeed, HRG, knowing Parkman’s power, used it to have a psychic conversation with him). And the episode concluded with HRG forcing a lackey to shoot him and then erase his memories of Claire so she could escape to New York. It all could have been maudlin (and it was all pretty much reversed by the next week), but in Coleman and Fuller’s capable hands, the episode worked and stood as an example of what Heroes could be if it would free itself from its boilerplate characters and obvious dialogue.
Really, there’s a lot more that one could complain about in regard to Heroes (the stultifying voiceovers, for one), and it’s easy to see that the show is heavily influenced by comics (indeed, an upcoming episode will offer up a plot device taken from one of the most famous graphic novels). But the show itself has turned into an agreeable good time. It’s not as good as some would have it (indeed, the show followed only The Wire in the Television Critics Association’s winter “Best Of” poll), and the backlash next season should be huge, but for now, Heroes is solid popcorn TV.
The Riches, FX’s latest drama series, does so much so right that it’s kind of frustrating that it isn’t better than it is. What with its wacky tales of suburban dysfunction and setting among a group of people you probably didn’t know still existed (in this case, Irish travelers), you might think of it as an FX spin on HBO’s Big Love, but the show is both more conventional and tamer. Big Love examines the intersections of morality, religion and hypocrisy in the suburbs, but does so in a setting primed specifically to set the viewer on edge. Because so few of us are polygamists (I assume), we don’t know how to relate to the central family—just when you think you’ve got a handle on one marriage, the presence of another marriage throws the first into a new light. Plus, the characters are always doing things that may seem completely daft to the sorts of people who subscribe to HBO (Bill, the central character, decided to become a polygamist because God told him to—and that’s all the explanation we get). And yet, somehow, it’s not a freak show, and we’re invited to sympathize with the polygamists.
The Riches, by contrast, is just another satire about the two-faced nature of the suburbs. It’s better than Desperate Housewives, but it can’t quite match the heights of Weeds, even though it, too, has an appealing performance at its center. In The Riches, the moms pop pills, the little kid wears women’s clothing for no real reason, the children are smarter than the parents, there’s a bitchy homeowners association chief, and everyone’s got something to hide. The conceit is that the central family of con artists, who have assumed the identities of the titular family in an attempt to coast for the rest of their lives, is pulling no greater or lesser of a con than the people that surround them—everybody’s a liar in the suburbs because true emotion is repressed and ... you’ve read Cheever, right?
But all of this is buoyed along by some amusing writing (Minnie Driver’s Dahlia gets in a fight with the aforementioned bitch and ends up accidentally ripping off her previously unknown-to-us fake arm) and two strong central performances. Driver is fine (if a bit hammy) as Dahlia, the woman who’s simply too crazy to be a settled-down suburban housewife (stop me if you’ve heard this one), but Eddie Izzard as Wayne is something close to a revelation. Izzard commands every scene he’s in and makes palpable his character’s sheer desperation to hang on to (and then escape) the life he’s lucked into. Scenes where one character cons another into believing something untrue are everywhere on TV, but Izzard makes his cons interesting because of the wild look in his eyes—despite that fiery gaze, we know he’ll get caught someday. The joke is that this con man is going to become a lawyer, but the bigger joke is that Izzard, a stand-up comedian, gives this series enough ballast to keep it from floating off into quirk heaven.
What’s up with the ’70s cop show parodies? First, The Knights of Prosperity satirized the genre (and put the shoe on the other foot) before being quickly yanked, and now NBC is burying Andy Barker, P.I. on Thursdays at 9:30 EDT (it’s taking the place of 30 Rock, which somehow went from pretty good pilot to great series in the course of about eight episodes). NBC hasn’t heavily promoted the show, and the fact that only six episodes were ordered (and, it appears, only five will air) should give anyone pause, but Andy is probably worth a look. It’s better than Knights, and it feels like the sort of thing that would build into something significant given enough time, though it doesn’t quite get there in its short first season (which is all online at NBC.com).
The premise of Barker is that the titular character opens up an accounting office in a space that once belonged to a private eye. Now, people who think it’s still a detective’s agency come and drop off cases, and Barker goes off to solve them, often using accounting to get the job done. If this all sounds like a bad sketch on a late night show, that may be because it comes from the mind of Conan O’Brien and Jonathan Groff, a former writer for O’Brien’s show. Andy Richter, O’Brien’s former sidekick, plays the title character, and he manages to make the series work. Richter has an appealing presence on screen (his short-lived Andy Richter Controls the Universe continues to be missed), and his work here with Clea Lewis, Tony Hale and Harve Presnell gives the series a sort of sweetly dorky air that lets it glide along, even as the score is played too loud and the things being parodied were already parodied definitively 20 years ago on Police Squad!.
Still, there’s a lot here to like. Barker the character is a great creation—he feels like he should be one joke, but his dedication to punctuality and the finer points of accounting keep him amusing. While Hale and Lewis (fine comic actors both) are pretty much wasted as the video store guy who knows about solving mysteries from noir movies and the long-suffering wife respectively (though both do what they can with their scenes), Presnell is a lot of fun as an old private eye who’s entered his senile years. Andy Barker’s no 30 Rock, but it’s not as bad as the premise suggests it would be, and that’s no small feat.
House Next Door contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.