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June 6, 2007

Filed under: movies»television»heroes

Who watches...

I'm late to the Heroes party because I didn't particularly care for the first episode. Not that it was bad, it just didn't grab me. Because I wasn't hooked from the start, I didn't add it to our TiVo list. Because I didn't add it to our TiVo list, we got halfway through the season before everyone started talking about how great the show was. And because Heroes is serial television, Belle and I didn't want to jump in halfway, so we didn't watch it. We figured we'd just Netflix the DVDs or (as it turns out) record the episodes when SciFi ran a marathon.

I like the show. I think it's got weak points, mainly in the characterization and plotting--people do things sometimes just because if they didn't, there wouldn't be much of a story left over. I'm willing to put up with that because the cast is very good, the writing is often funny, and the overarching story is enjoyably sinister.

Some people have compared Heroes to Alan Moore's Watchmen in its plotline, even to the point of saying that the former "borrows" heavily from the latter. In both cases, a cabal/evil genius plots to unite the world in a utopia of fear by destroying New York City with a superhuman bomb/genetically-created monster. It's not implausible that the writers could have picked up the plotline from Moore's work, which is one of the most well-known works in the genre. Maybe they did. I haven't read any interviews, I don't know.

On the other hand, the big elephant in the room for Heroes is September 11, even though the event itself goes conspicuously absent. There's talk of terrorism in New York, but nobody discusses the obvious connection. And the Bush administration may not exist in Heroes, but there's something familiar about the plan to exploit an easily-prevented tragedy for goodwill, only to squander it by turning the country into a terrified fascist state (as the jumps to five years "in the future" demonstrate).

It's obvious that Tim Kring and the other writers tiptoed around the issue a bit. I almost get the feeling that they were unsure whether or not to take the comparison to a more obvious level, or if they're backing away from it. I doubt NBC would be terribly happy if they came outright to say that the show's about Bush's failed war on terror.

But here's the thing: it's almost painful--like, actually cringe-inducing--to watch the writers of Heroes contort and twist to try to avoid 9/11. They're not fooling anyone, except maybe the network, into thinking that this isn't political. The sad thing is that it would be a better show if it just came out and said what it wants to say. Or, even better, if they were really willing to use their fictional platform to explore the issue in a slightly different light.

Superheroes are a fine place to start looking at political issues. That's part of Watchmen's legacy--it was one of the first attempts to critically examine what those caped vigilantes really represent. A superhero isn't a cop, honestly. They're an army. They "fight crime." A policeman "keeps the peace." And there's a very serious difference there, not the least of which is the outlook: a superhero basically exists on the assumption that there are bad people out there that must be stopped, preferably with mind-bullets.

I don't think that Heroes really aspires to explore the issue, but it is worthy of more ambiguity than it credits to itself. It demonstrates sympathy toward some of its villains, and puts its protagonists in awkward situations. It plays with the idea that New York might actually be demolished by its most empathic and good-hearted character.

But the writers don't go quite far enough in either direction. They clearly want us to understand that using the bomb as motivation for the public will lead to disaster. We never believe that the Linderman conspiracy might actually work, or that the world might actually need it. The conspirators are monsters--well-meaning monsters, but still unambiguously so. Between that and the show's touchy relationship with real-life terrorism, it has to walk a middle ground: not playful enough with its premise to be really thought-provoking, but not bold enough with its plotlines to go for the gut. I guess that leaves it at about the lungs, a little conspicuously airy as the first season wraps up.

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