It’s 2006. The modern superhero scene is still in its infancy, and it will be two years before Iron Man And The black Knight release and signal the change of gender into a global phenomenon. The Last Two Marvel Movies Were Averagely Received The Fantastic Four and the widely hated X-Men: The Last Stand. In this ecosystem, a new superhero show is coming out of NBC, aptly named, Hero. The show is not only good, it is exceptional, so good that it could join the ranks of Lost at the beginning of the “golden age of prestige television”.
Flash forward to the present day, superhero media has become the dominant cultural juggernaut; while Marvel was once blessed with one movie a year, in 2022 they’ve managed three – and that’s not even counting the many shows and specials. Hero, However, it is not fondly remembered, the show synonymous with high hopes and low returns, an excellent series cut so low that fans were almost happy when it was finally canceled. This fate raises two main questions: what happened to such a promising show to sink it so low? And more intriguingly, could this fate have been avoided had it been released into the modern superhero landscape?
The spectacular debut of the “heroes”
To recognize where Hero went wrong, you first have to recognize where the show went right. While the show would eventually fall hugely out of favor, almost none of these later issues are present in the show’s first season. The show has commanded an incredible and well-used cast, including future heavyweights like Zachary Quinto as the series’ enigmatic villain. As Lost (to which the show was often compared favorably) Hero feels incredibly ahead of its time using long, interconnecting storylines that converge in unexpected ways. The show was “binge-able” before it was a marketable word anyone used, the episodes couldn’t be extracted from each other, it was a tightly-knit serialized tale, and the fact that it hasn’t been done on a paid subscription service like HBO but on network TV is just amazing.
There is considerable momentum in the first season of Hero who feels absent from other projects of his time; even Lost, despite all he has going for him, feels almost languid in his plot compared to Hero. Powers are constantly being revealed, big plot beats and thrilling scenes are frequent enough to keep the audience engaged, and all the while the show slowly builds tension. Our characters go through compelling, well-paced arcs of learning how to use their powers, eventually using them with divine ability. There’s a palpable sense of excitement and rising stakes that the show would try and fail to recapture in later seasons (more on that later). The show’s marketing was also quite impressive, working well thanks to the show’s growing success. The series’ plot of keeping the invulnerable Claire Bennet (Hayden Panettiere) away from the power-stealer, Sylar was elegantly “mistrusted” in the memorable catchphrase “Save the cheerleader, save the world.”
The first season does a great job of juggling its huge cast with considerable ease, slowly building up to an explosive finale that leaves the show feeling almost entirely self-contained. Good has triumphed, the villain and one of the heroes are dead, and the story seems to be coming to an end. Then came a second season, the beginning of the end of the series. Starting out strong, storylines eventually began to unravel and repeat themselves. The show began a pattern of expectation, unable to properly match the characters’ now-godlike abilities with real threats and storylines that made sense. Why did this happen, how could such a good show go wrong so quickly?
“Heroes” was too precious with its cast
One of the biggest myths surrounding the demise of Heroes has to do with how close the second season was to the Writers Guild of America strike of 2007. The strike naturally left its mark on many shows (fun fact, breaking bad’s Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) was to be killed off in the first season before the strike cut the first season by two episodes), but he is often blamed wholeheartedly for the show’s shocking decline, a legend that may turn out to be more of a fiction just a fact. That’s not to say the strike didn’t change the show at all; the show had only produced 11 of that season’s 24 episodes and the rest had to go by the writers and creators on the other side of the picket line. The second season, however, wasn’t magically “good” until the final episodes ruined it. What Hero fell in was set in motion long before the strike happened, it happened before the second season even started development.
To find the answer, you have to go back to the original plans the creators had for the series. Unlike other shows like lost and The Sopranos, who had built casts intended to persist through the seasons, Hero’ the cast was meant to be one and done. It was originally planned that after the first season, the story of the characters we met would be over, and a whole new cast would be introduced with different powers, and a new storyline would begin. Rather than a fully serialized format, the show would instead adopt a seasonal anthology setting more in common with something like American Horror Story. However, this did not happen; the audience, the network, and even the creators fell too much in love with the cast and characters to say goodbye to them after one season, and so the show was changed. However, this decision was made without changing anything to the way the first season was written, it was always made with a story in mind. Forcing it to now have to go through multiple seasons of ongoing storyline, which the original concept was not designed to do. Rather than starting with a new cast, he instead has to invent new reasons why his overwhelmingly powerful cast can’t just solve all of the story’s problems.
Sylar, who originally died in the first season, is instead brought back in the second; Quinto had proven too marketable to be cut from the show, so the story was designed to accommodate that. The story needs to keep investing time and plot to give Sylar reason to stick around despite the character arc feeling rudderless. This is one of the first decisions that leads to a huge problem with later Hero, the cast is too valuable to lose. One of the most tragic characters and storylines of the first season is that of Charlie Andrews (Jayma can) a waitress who falls in love with the show’s best character, Hiro Nakamura (Masi Oka). Yet, in a tragic twist of fate, she dies from a blood clot and Hiro is unable to use his powers to save her, the heartbreaking scene of realization being one of the most tragic moments of the first season. However, in Season 4, she is brought back to life, undoing almost all the tragedy of her death. While the character ends up dying once again, the fact that they brought her back at all speaks to a deep insecurity the writers had when crafting new storylines. Eventually, the show even makes the first season almost completely irrelevant by having Sylar take Claire’s powers anyway in a later episode. All that chanting of “save the cheerleader, save the world” ultimately came to nothing. It was not the screenwriters’ strike that condemned Hero. It was the decision to fundamentally change what the show was about that doomed it.
Could the “heroes” have been saved if they had been created today?
The media landscape today is very different than it was in 2006. Most people no longer consume TV shows by watching them week-to-week on a network, but rather by consuming them on a service streaming. It’s no longer uncommon for a TV series to have a long, ongoing story that fandoms can trace. It’s pretty much standard at this point. Network interference is still an issue, but not to the same extent. Lost ran into a similar problem that Hero did it when it wanted to end after four seasons with a full story, but that wasn’t how TV worked back then; the way the network saw it, a TV series went on until no one watched it anymore. While Lost could somehow roll with the punches and deliver good TV despite an eventual mediocre ending, Hero couldn’t do that. Many more shows these days have been able to have conclusive and satisfying endings, not to mention the success of tight, well-written miniseries like Chernobyl And The Haunting of Hill House. If the series had debuted around this time, the idea of a story-based anthology series would have been more reasonable, and the series might have had a chance of ending with the one season that everyone everyone loved. Should they decide to make another season, the original cast and plot would remain intact and free from any missteps that a bad sequel might accomplish.
Not to mention the explosion of blockbuster superhero media since 2006. Marvel and DC have been keeping audiences engaged with a well-received big-budget TV series for some time now. However, the two have almost had a complete monopoly on the format, and those who want to engage in a standalone superhero universe (this is not a parody/intentional inversion like The boys, and even that is starting to have fallout) find themselves without a port to call at. If you want to sit and watch a show like Wanda Vision Or Loki, you have to watch a bunch of extra material to understand what’s going on, and people start to get lost or disinterested. It is this untapped market that Hero could have flourished, providing a full and free viewing experience for those not much into intense “cinematic universes”.
Had Hero been allowed to be just one season with a standalone story, maybe we’ll talk about it in the same breath as the new watchmen series, but instead it stuck around and is now forever cursed by lackluster seasons that unraveled the messy show. Its failure is now a legend, a campfire story told by the showrunners in low voices. It wasn’t meant to be like this, a few changes and it could have been perfect. Sometimes it’s good to be “ahead of the times”, but sometimes it’s more of a curse than a blessing.
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