Heroes continues to occupy my mind this week. I think that's another good sign that it's a show worth watching. The shows that I end up removing from my recording schedule are the ones that I don't care about, that I don't miss when they're gone.
Heroes, lurching monster that is is, is still compelling enough that it keeps me rehashing its convoluted story-lines around the metaphorical water-cooler we call the internet.
Accordingly, something that has been occupying my mind this week is the giant influence that Lost has had on network TV in general and Heroes in particular. Heroes is one of several shows that were created in the wake of the initial huge (and unexpected) success of Lost. Suddenly every network had its own ensemble show with complex story-lines, flashbacks, and the occasional hint of science-fictional doings. Most of these shows disappeared fairly quickly.
Off the top of my head, I'm pretty sure that Heroes is the only "post-Lost" show still on the air. I qualify it as a "post-Lost" show simply because its debt to Lost is right out there, front-and-center. However, rather than outgrowing its debts and influences over time and coming into its own, Heroes seems to be slowly collapsing under the weight of its creative debts. There are a few aspects of the show that seem particularly drawn from Lost, for better or worse, and I'll break them down after the jump.
1) A large ensemble cast.
Of all the story elements I'm going to discuss here, I think this aspect is the one that arguably works the best for the material. It makes sense that you would need a decent-sized cast of characters if your story is going to focus on competing sides in a battle between "heroes" and "villains" bent on saving or destroying the world, as appropriate. Where I think Heroes went wrong is that they also appropriated Lost's habit of constantly adding and removing characters from the cast. If the show had spent more time focusing on the core cast of characters instead of trying to constantly re-shape the ensemble, I think it would be on much firmer footing right now. Basically, imagine what the show might have been like if Robert Altman had gotten his hands on it when he was at the peak of his powers.
2) Character deaths.
This one ties pretty closely into #1. Part of what makes Lost's revolving-door cast work so well is that they don't hesitate to kill characters off for dramatic effect. Even when new characters are added to the cast, you can expect one or two of the long-timers to head right on out the door before too long. Fan favorite characters are not exempt from the toll of death on Lost, and there's no guarantee that characters like Jack, Kate, and Sawyer will manage to live until the series finale. It adds incredible tension to the show, and it's understandable that other producers would want to match that same level of intensity.
Unfortunately, the Heroes writers have completely missed the point of this particular plot device. With very few exceptions, no-one on Heroes ever really dies. I've lost count of the number of times that one of the main characters has "died" only to be revived or saved in some fashion. More than one of the characters on the show has powers that make them basically invincible and completely safe from death. It sucks the tension right out of every situation. It also means that there's nothing to balance out the new additions. Very few genuine deaths to write characters off the show completely.
It'd work much better if Heroes stopped "killing" characters unless the death is actually going to stick. We as audience members no longer believe them when they tell us that someone is dead, even when they are shot multiple times. This might be one reason why a recent character's death involved a graphic decapitation… no coming back from that one, hmm? It's clear that the writers don't really want to kill characters like Peter or Sylar, but the least they could do is stop faking us out and reminding us of their insincerity.
3) Flash-backs and flash-forwards.
Heroes and Lost both rely pretty heavily on flashbacks and flashforwards. To give the Heroes writers a bit of credit, they did try to make this plot element their own by introducing actual time travel as a regular plot point instead of positioning all of the time jumps as "things that have already happened". Unfortunately, much like many aspects of Heroes, this plot device has become a crutch. To make matters worse, the writers never seem to do the due diligence to make these jumps in time internally consistent.
Every time Peter or Hiro travel to the future, they see a new, wildly different apocalypse. It strains believability to the point that you no longer take these predictions seriously, simply because we know the world of the show will never get as bad as the characters think it will. So far, the writers don't seem to have the chutzpah necessary to make a change of that magnitude actually stick (See: character deaths).
Flashbacks are nearly as problematic, simply because the show is still correcting course after season two was shortened due to the writer's strike. In the most recent flashback episode, most of the scenes felt more like retcons as opposed to genuine moments of remembered past that were only now uncovered. I'm willing to believe that the Lost writers have at least a rough plan for most of their major story beats, but I get the impression that the Heroes writers are making it up as they go along to a much greater degree.
In conclusion, I hope that Heroes stays on the air long enough to fight its way through its current identity crisis. Although I don't think the writers need to remove all traces of Lost from their story engine, I do think that they should re-evaluate their more common plot devices to determine whether or not they are essential to the identity of Heroes as a show, or simply functioning as crutches that promote lazy writing. All they really need to do is find a good, solid Clark Kent for their schizophrenic Superman.