Like its recent blockbuster movie predecessors, the new NBC drama Heroes is a popcorn-fueled look into the comic-book universe minus the usual slew of acrobatic fight scenes and plus some healthy doses of melodrama. The series opens with a roving eye on several different characters located in such unrelated locales as Madras, Las Vegas, Tokyo and Brooklyn. In each case, the characters are confronting the existence of inexplicable super powers: Claire Bennett (Hayden Panettiere), a high school cheerleader impervious to injury; Peter Petrelli (Milo Ventimiglia), a congressional candidate’s younger brother who believes he can fly; Niki Sanders (Ali Larter), a single mother whose reflection appears to have a life of its own; Matt Parkman (Greg Grunberg), a Los Angeles police officer with psychic abilities; and the pun-tastically named Hiro Nakamura (Masi Oka), a Japanese comic-book fan who can bend space and time.
Neat tricks to be sure, but where’s it all going? It takes the drug-driven hallucinations of a junkie painter named Isaac Mendez (Santiago Cabrera), who says he can see the future to bring them all together (his “fine art” looks suspiciously similar to comic-book panels). And what else does the future hold but the destruction of fair New York City. Boy, someone should make this into a movie. Of course, they already have. Replace “destruction of New York City” with “killer mutants on a rampage” and you’ve got Bryan Singer’s odious ode to comic books, X-Men. While there’s no mutant school in this show, at least not yet, there is Mohinder Suresh (Sendhil Ramamurthy), a genetics professor from India who has begun to follow in his late (read: murdered) father’s studies into super-people and the science to track them. The overarching storyline to Heroes then becomes clear: much like the X-Men movies, just how will our super-friends meet and join forces to defeat evil? An evil, in this case, that also includes a serial killer named Sylar who has a penchant for murdering the super-powered.
For all its inevitable comic-book zaniness, Heroes does get at the true nature of many classic superhero storylines better than some similarly-influenced films and does it with a fair balance of seriousness and humor. There’s great attention paid to the effects these super-abilities have on the personal lives of each character and they vary widely. Where it’s amusing to watch Peter’s unsuccessful attempts to fly as he slowly learns the true nature of his powers, it’s more heartfelt to hear Claire explain why she doesn’t want to reveal her abilities to anyone for fear of living, as she says, like a “freak or guinea pig—in most cases both.” Unlike other fantasy series such as Buffy or Charmed, which focused on silliness and sex appeal to garner an audience, Heroes works more like The X-Files in its willingness to take the unbelievable more seriously.
Part of the show’s success comes with eliminating the use of hokey costumes. In fact, when Hiro first suggests creating one, his friend instantly tells him: “You even mention tights and a cape, I’m going home.” In this, Heroes has found its magic ingredient. By taking the idea of superheroes and making them, as they have for years with comics, into real people in real-life situations they’ve supplied a tangible universe wherein the fantastic can occur. (The show also does a good job of depicting a bevy of backgrounds from which each character in the ensemble originates—thankfully avoiding a cookie-cutter landscape to the series.) Repeated discussions involving destiny also come into play and, though they land a bit heavy-handed, help entwine the cast eventually. In all, Heroes manages to successfully blend the far-fetched conceits of the comic book world with the weekly demands of an hourly drama—turning the multicolored panels of cartoon onomatopoeia into a slightly above-average, down-to-earth series surrounded in the otherworldly.