Barely two weeks into the new fall television season, and already the networks are distinguishing themselves with some rather daring narrative dramas. The success of shows like “Lost,” “24” and “Prison Break” has emboldened the networks, giving them an excuse to push the envelope. Of course, it remains to be seen whether or not audiences respond, viewing these shows in large enough numbers to justify their continued existence or simply retreating back to the numbskull comfort of sitcoms like “Two and a Half Men.”
I have a distinct feeling that NBC’s Monday night drama “Heroes” is one of those shows that I will be lamenting the loss of later on in the season. It’s smartly written, well-cast and markedly different than most other shows on television. Which probably means no one will watch, leaving discriminating viewers like me to the cold comfort of our “Arrested Development” box sets.
“Heroes” is a modern-day, real-world variation on the standard, comic book issue superhero myth. In the show, a group of seemingly unconnected people scattered across the globe come to the slowly dawning realization that they may have extraordinary powers. The brother (Milo Ventimiglia from “Gilmore Girls”) of an up-and-coming political candidate (Adrian Pasdar from “Profit”--another long-lost show nobody listened to the critics about) believes he can fly. A small town Texas cheerleader (Hayden Panettiere) discovers she is invulnerable to harm. A Japanese office worker (Masi Oka) experiments with the power to manipulate time and space. A drug-addicted New York artist (Santiago Cabrera) paints visions of the future. A single mother (Final Destination’s Ali Larter) has some freaky connection with mirrors. What relationship do these people have? Who’s the creepy dude in the glasses hunting them down? And what does a genetics professor from India (Sendhil Ramamurthy) know about all of this?
Like “Lost” and “24,” the narrative of “Heroes” does require a certain weekly attention span. It doesn’t seem as if the show’s creators are trying to string along viewers with an unduly complicated mystery, however. Despite its large ensemble cast, the narrative is fairly straightforward, and it looks like the storylines will start coalescing fairly soon. Plus, if you miss an ep, NBC is kindly rebroadcasting them on its website (www.nbc.com/heroes).
The show does owe a lot to today’s trendy graphic novels, to the “Smallville” TV series and to M. Night Shyamalan’s underrated flick Unbreakable. It tries its best to recast superheroes in a more realistic (read: capeless, tightless) environment. The story has a great hook to it, and the cast is quite engaging. So far, Oka’s character, an utterly enthusiastic computer nerd who learned all his superhero science from reading X-Men, is the standout. Even though all his dialogue is delivered in Japanese, his giddy thrill over developing superpowers is infectious. Here’s hoping the adventurous “Heroes” proves equally infectious. It’s gonna need all the help it can get. After all, its opposite “Two and a Half Man.”