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Saving the World
A Guide to Heroes
By Lynnette Porter, David Lavery, Hillary Robbon, Jennifer Hale
ECW PRESSCopyright © 2007 Lynnette Porter, David Lavery, and Hillary Robson
All rights reserved.
PART 1 Going Deep
ARE THESE HEROES LOST?
Heroes has frequently been compared to another highly successful television show, Lost. Although on the surface the two series seem worlds apart, Lost's success undoubtedly played a large part in a series such as Heroes being broadcast. Like Lost two years before, Heroes became a breakout hit (albeit on a smaller scale) during the mainly dull 2006–07 television season. Its audience steadily grew from September through late November 2006, when it reached an impressive 16 million viewers. The midseason finale also was aired on the (U.S.) Sci Fi Channel and as an encore on NBC in the week following its much watched Monday-night regular broadcast. Multiple broadcasts of episodes, including a regular Friday-night time slot and occasional marathons on the Sci Fi Channel, helped increase the Heroes fanbase. Like Lost and other popular serials, the midseason hiatuses led to lower ratings when the series returned; however, Heroes remained in the top twenty U.S. programs. It also received unofficial renewal long before the official notification came at the May upfronts in New York, where the cast was prominently featured.
Not only was Heroes renewed for a second season — with a full slate of twenty-four episodes — but a six-episode spin-off series, Heroes: Origins, was unveiled. This spin-off encourages fans to vote for the hero they want most to be added to the regular series, and the combined thirty episodes ensure that Heroes avoids one of Lost's problems in its first three years on air: the lack of a new episode each week during the regular TV season.
Although not yet the global phenomenon of Lost, Heroes appeals to a broader audience and has less of a cult image, which is surprising considering that it emerged as a hybrid of comic books and science fiction television, two genres that usually inspire cultdom. Its recent international release promises to make it a success around the world. Part of Heroes' popularity is its more hopeful look at the (super)human condition, whereas Lost often seems content to torture its characters as they seek redemption. Even when Heroes turns darker, it still offers as much character drama as ongoing mystery and makes use of humor in every episode. In spite of this important contrast, Heroes owes much to its famous predecessor. In fact, when NBC executives approached series creator Tim Kring in 2005, they were "desperate to match the success of serial dramas like Lost and 24." Heroes learned from the best, but added its own creative twists to become an audience-friendly, intriguing new series. (For more on the making of the series, see chapter 2: "The Creation of Heroes.")
Table 1 illustrates some of the many similarities between Heroes and Lost, which clearly indicate that the latter is an important "ancestor text" to the former. Although some points of comparison (the Greg Grunberg factor) are minor, the two also share important examples of character or plot development.
As indicated above, Heroes directly parallels Lost in two important areas: similar characters and themes of fate, destiny, faith, and hope.
FAMILIAR CHARACTERS: CLAIRE BENNET/CLAIRE LITTLETON, ISAAC/CHARLIE, HIRO/HURLEY, NATHAN/JACK, JESSICA/KATE
Common names often are repeated among popular series, but characters with similar traits or backgrounds may be more than coincidence. In both series, Claire is an important part of the ensemble, although Heroes' Claire Bennet has a much larger role in season 1 than Lost's Claire Littleton has had in recent seasons. During Lost's first season, pregnant Claire becomes involved with the Others' Ethan, a plot development that leads to many other arcs and subplots in seasons 2 and 3; however, she usually is relegated to the role of baby Aaron's mother. Claire Bennet gradually changes from a stereotypical high school cheerleader to a young woman who doesn't want the responsibility of her superpower to an increasingly mature and potentially powerful member of the Petrelli clan.
Both young, blonde characters are born out of wedlock and eventually meet their biological fathers, who have interesting connections with other characters. Claire Bennet's adoptive father, HRG (Horn Rimmed Glasses), develops into a complex character. He fiercely loves and protects his daughter but also spends the majority of his life as a loyal employee of The Company that hunts people with special powers. Claire is at first horrified by her father's real job but later is able to reconcile with him as he repeatedly offers to sacrifice himself to protect her. Nevertheless, she also is intrigued to learn that her biological father is secret superhero and newsworthy politico Nathan Petrelli. Claire Littleton meets her biological father but doesn't want to know his name; thus she doesn't realize she and castaway Jack are half-siblings. Claire Bennet becomes aware of her half-brothers and may someday become a recognized member of the Petrelli family.
Other characters share first names, although their real connection is with a different character. Lost's Charlie Pace shares a first name with Hiro's now-deceased girlfriend, and Heroes' Isaac Mendez shares a given name with Lost's guest-healer-from-Australia Isaac; however, the important connection is between Charlie Pace and Isaac Mendez. Charlie is a washed-up rocker and heroin addict when Lost begins; Isaac Mendez is a struggling painter and comic book artist who initially believes he can only "paint the future" while high on heroin.
Both characters come clean and want to stay that way, although they're tempted by drugs several times. Both become separated from the women they love because of their addiction: Claire banishes Charlie from her life when she thinks he's using heroin again; Simone leaves Isaac when he refuses to go into rehab. Charlie has limited success — about a year of international fame — with his band; similarly, although Simone sells some of Isaac's paintings (often to Linderman) and comic book fans know his work, he hasn't made it big. For both Charlie and Isaac, their talent drives them, even when they aren't commercially successful.
By the end of season 1, recovered addict Isaac provides Hiro with enough knowledge about Sylar to help stop him; Hiro confides to Isaac that he has seen the artist's future death. During the same TV season, Charlie hears Desmond's prophesy of his impending demise. Both characters accomplish heroic acts before their self-sacrificial deaths. Isaac smiles as Sylar approaches, content in the knowledge that he has become a true hero through his artwork, which provides key information for other heroes to save the world. Charlie makes the sign of the cross as he drowns, and makes communication with the outside world possible, in Lost's season 3 finale.
Although Lost is usually the darker of the two series (see, however, Steven Peacock's essay on page 141), it provides comic relief through more serious characters' interactions with Hugo "Hurley" Reyes, who reacts to the weirdness of island life like most viewers would. Hurley and his late pal Charlie have normal conversations about comic book heroes, music, and women; they're more likely to have fun adventures. Hurley's one-liners and droll comments break up the serious nature of island life; his geeky references to popular culture imply how much time he's spent watching television and reading comics. Heroes injects even more character-driven humor into its series with the bantering Hiro Nakamura and pal Ando. They also debate everyday concerns and often enjoy the "coolness" of Hiro's ability to bend space and time. Admittedly nerdy Hiro reads comic books and loves to compare his abilities to those of his favorite television or movie heroes. Hiro's enthusiasm for life matches Hurley's, although both also understand how dire life can sometimes become. Hiro keeps looking at the bright side and refuses to give up or give in to pessimism, which is one reason why he has become a Heroes' fan favorite.
Nathan Petrelli shares superficial characteristics with Jack Shephard. Both are professionals: Nathan, a politician and newly elected congressman; Jack, a talented spinal surgeon. Both have issues with their dead fathers and believe they haven't lived up to parental expectations. They are compelled to lead others, which often puts them into morally ambiguous areas. What they are asked to do for the greater good — which to Nathan includes allowing much of New York City to be demolished — tests their humanity and makes them seem like "good" bad characters, depending on the situation.
Heroes' Jessica, the bad-girl side of Niki Sanders, is harder-edged than freckle-faced tomboy Kate Austen of Lost, but their backgrounds include some striking similarities. Both have abusive, detestable fathers (Kate kills hers); both are fugitives who, so far, haven't served prison sentences for their crimes but have been incarcerated. Both are pragmatists who do whatever it takes to remain free, which often surprises those who think they know the women best.
Of course, many of these familiar characters are becoming television archetypes: geeky Everymen, strong women with shady pasts, troubled leaders who have to compromise their ideals, and so on. It's not surprising that two highly popular series with large ensemble casts share similar character development of these archetypes. What is most striking is the Isaac-Charlie connection, which doesn't reflect a common TV archetype: former druggie/artist as hero. Perhaps these series are forging a new "typical" character for an age in which celebrities, in and out of rehab, often are admired for the ways they overcome their addictions; building up celebrities (including musicians and artists) as role models is not new, but redeeming these characters as heroes on prominent TV series and turning them into another archetype brings celebrity worship to a new level in entertainment.
FATE, DESTINY, FAITH, AND HOPE
Just as Lost frequently has characters discuss their philosophical ideas about fate, destiny, faith, or hope or works these words into dialogue, Heroes finds way to emphasize these themes throughout its first season:
When Sylar (pretending to be Zane Taylor) accompanies Mohinder Suresh as he seeks out people with superhero abilities, he explains that he believes in fate and karma ("Unexpected"). Later in that episode, Sylar/Zane explains that finding other heroes is "our destiny."
Hiro's father reveals that their family's fate includes the "ascension" of one who learns to wield his power; the senior Nakamura is surprised when Hiro turns out to be the individual destined to save the world ("Landslide").
Hiro explains that getting the last Nissan from the rental agency is another sign of his destiny; in the futuristic 9th Wonders, Hiro and Ando travel by Nissan Versa to Las Vegas ("One Giant Leap").
During "Landslide," several heroes, including Claire, Hiro, and Nathan, question their destiny. The word comes up several times in several scenes.
With his mother's encouragement, Nathan agrees that he has faith in his destiny to become a political leader, even president; he can set the tone of the world after the destruction of New York City ("The Hard Part").
Part of Hiro's personal code of what it means to be a hero includes the need for hope, a caveat he shares with Ando just when their mission seems destined to fail ("Run!").
Such heavy themes are on the minds of characters as they deal with their emerging superpowers in a world that might consider them special but might also demonize them for being different. How each character finds a purpose in life and what he or she does with a special talent become an integral part of the story. Just as Lost invites audiences to think about how they, as much as the characters they watch, may be lost within themselves or the greater world, so, too, does Heroes encourage viewers to think about what makes a modern hero and how each person might be called upon to do something extraordinary. Because Heroes deals with life-or-death events and presents so many characters facing crisis points in their lives, it quite naturally provides a more philosophical framework for thinking — at least sometimes — about life's larger themes.
WHAT LOST TAUGHT
Heroes may not have been green-lighted a few years ago. According to Tim Kring, "a lot of these battles that [Heroes' creators and writers] would be fighting with the network or the studio — Lost made those battles go away." He openly admits that the creative team "certainly learned from Lost," although he also wanted to create a very different show. "They started with a central mystery. We didn't." Kring also noticed Lost was slow to pay off viewer patience with answers, so to avoid that problem with Heroes, he promised that "the apocalyptic event in Heroes will be resolved in season 1, and we'll move on to something else in season 2." The series' actors also acknowledge predecessors' success but emphasize the uniqueness of their own show. On Larry King Live, Adrian Pasdar (Nathan Petrelli) explained the series' unique appeal: by blending reality and fantasy, Heroes combines "the best of what television has to offer and it redefine[s] the landscape of what commercial and successful television can be."
Although fans may be well aware of what they like or dislike, not all network executives think like fans. Kring, unlike many a series creator, learns from the competition and pays attention to fans. He seems to have gleaned the following key points from Lost's ground-breaking success:
1. Serials, if done well and not dragged out ad infinitum, can be wildly popular.
Kring vows that Heroes' storylines will be self-contained, such as the "Save the cheerleader; save the world," "Are you on the list?" and "It's time to save the world" mini-arcs within season 1. By the season 1 finale, the New York City bomb dilemma is resolved. During season 2, a whole new set of adventures will be introduced, and they, too, will conclude quickly (in terms of serialized storytelling). Fans' questions should be answered within a season, if not a few episodes; the pace of the storytelling is accelerated, so that fans don't become frustrated waiting for plots to be resolved.
1. World turmoil is an excellent source for modern storytelling, as long as people, not just problems, carry the story.
During the 2006–07 television season, many series, including 24, Jericho, and Traveler, dealt with terrorism, especially the possibility of nuclear bombs. Few new series, however, did as well as expected; many once-faithful viewers seemed reluctant to stick with Jack Bauer during his latest twenty-four hours of destruction and death. Ratings for the highly touted Jericho declined, and the series was canceled. Perhaps because its end-of-season episodes once again provided some heart-wrenching family moments, fans fought for the series and finally succeeded in getting CBS to belatedly renew it for a few more episodes. Most series involving an apocalyptic event, however, failed to win fans' loyalty; the exception to this trend is ratings-winner Heroes.
Although the future nuclear demolition of New York City is the backdrop for season 1, it isn't the only story being told. The lives of interesting, intersecting characters who discover superpowers are the series' real emphasis; a calamity to avert provides the setting where these characters can come together.
Adrian Pasdar finds that "the reluctant hero who has to make a decision to trade in his own personal life" to make the world a better place is a perfect storyline for modern times. He adds, "In the times we're faced with, it's great to be a part of something that endeavors to explore that arena." The current geopolitical climate provides Heroes' writers with many topical possibilities, including political issues. Nathan Petrelli can't win election to Congress without the monetary support and vote tampering provided by shady character Linderman. Even Nathan's mother emphasizes that do-gooders can't save the world; only shrewd politicians, with the courage to make tough decisions (such as sacrificing a few million people to unite the world via a campaign of fear), are suitable leaders for the modern world.
The power of money plays a prominent role too. Niki Sanders finds it difficult to raise her son on her own, despite working more than one job and cutting corners as much as possible. The costs of private schools for her gifted son and computers to help him achieve his potential are out of her reach; the need for cash to pay the rent leads her to work for Linderman (through alter-ego Jessica) and (as Niki) to strip for online customers. Claire's biological mother, living in a trailer park, seems grateful to former lover Nathan when he gives her money after receiving information about their daughter. Even financially well-off Nathan lacks the kind of money needed to finance a winning political campaign; selling his soul to Linderman becomes a requirement for his future success.
Excerpted from Saving the World by Lynnette Porter, David Lavery, Hillary Robbon, Jennifer Hale. Copyright © 2007 Lynnette Porter, David Lavery, and Hillary Robson. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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