Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A few lessons from Heroes

NBC made it official - Heroes has been canceled. What happened?

The first season was far and away the best. We spent most of it meeting the various heroes and learning about their powers and lives. At the same time, the show had an urgency. First, there was the mass-killer Sylar who kept becoming more powerful. At first, Sylar was a shadowy man in a ball cap who killed heroes in a gruesome fashion. There was also HRG and the group that employed him. Finally, there was a future event that would wipe out New York City and the need to stop it.

There were problems in the first season, especially with pacing, but it was worth watching through the end.

The second season had some real problems. The biggest was the writer's strike which caused things to be tied up in a couple of quick, messy episodes. This caused major pacing problems. The addition of some romantic subplots slowed things down even worse. Still, you could give it some slack because of the strike.

Things went very wrong in the third season. They tried too hard to recreate the first season and failed totally. Plot elements like an eclipse removing everyone's powers made no sense. The first half of the third season was called "Book 3 - Heroes and Villains". This meant constantly shuffling who was on which side. By the end of Book 3, the writing staff had been fired.

Book 4 was more promising. The government found out about the heroes and moved to imprison them. Several escaped and spent time on the run. While an improvement, it was not up to the original season.

Season four, aka Book 5 made some improvements. The regular cast was cut way back with the rest appearing just a few times. New characters were added. It was not enough to attract the viewers back.

So what went wrong? Sylar was the biggest problem. He started as a memorable villain. He killed people so that he could steal their powers. He was powerful and scary. Over the rest of the show he alternated between reforming and going back to merciless killer. Between inconsistent characterization and overexposure, he lost his edge. He was no longer scary. Other villains were introduced but none could match Sylar.

There was also too much Claire. A teenage girl who could heal from anything, she kept getting in over her head. Her powers made her a natural victim. And, her relationship with her father, HRG, took the edge off of him.

In fact, most of the cast should have been discarded after the first season. Part of the magic about the first season was meeting these people and seeing what they could do. We got to know them too well. The constant shuffling in Book 3 hurt the characters a lot, too. It might seem like an interesting literary device to make people heroes one week and villains the next but it ruins long-term characterization.

The biggest problem was the need to keep the show fresh. Lost did this by having a plot arc that contained all six seasons but also allowed for seasons that were totally different from each other. Characters were added or killed. Only about half of the cast from the first season made it to the sixth season but new characters have been added along the way.

Lost started dragging when the producers decided where the show was going but were not sure how long they had to stretch it out. Heroes never looked forward any further than the end of the season so it could not build on itself to a conclusion.

That's probably the big lesson here. Continuity dramas need a goal. It is not enough to remember where you have been, you have to have a destination. Characters should grow, not simply change and be discarded when they start to drag down the series.

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