Test Pilot #10: Heroes
Debut date: September 25, 2006
Series legacy: A legitimate cultural phenomenon that flamed out within a year of its debut, now a major touch-point that critics point to when discussing both the failure of serialized television and NBC’s downfall.
Test Pilot is back! It’s a new year, but the historical pilot analysis continues! In case you have forgotten or are new to the site, here’s the general primer: In this bi-weekly feature, I will be joined by a rotating batch of guest writers in an analysis of, you guessed it, television pilots. In this space, we’re hoping to analyze pilot episodes in a number of ways in hopes of discussing its historical, cultural and industrial context. To get a well-rounded opinion, this feature will include two perspectives from individuals who have just watched the pilot, one coming from a writer with full knowledge of the series following the pilot develops, the other coming from a writer who is not as familiar with the series. I’m hoping that this can be a fun way to add some less time-sensitive material to the site, but also expand coverage back through history of the medium.
This is our third quartet of series and this go-around, things are a bit different. Instead of discussing the medium’s canon (like we did in the first four files) or a very specific genre (as we did with teen dramas in the most recent files), we are going to dive into the history of one television network: The National Broadcasting Company, or NBC.
Now feels like the perfect time to discuss NBC. The sale to Comcast has been completed, Zucker is finally gone and they have a brand-new, Peacock-less logo. NBC is obviously trying to signify this time as a new, fresh start so it makes sense to look back on this terrible era they’re just moving out of.
NBC has been discussed, derided and destroyed for nearly a decade, as what was once the most popular network in America that millions of people grew up loving has now been turned into the laughing-stock of the industry thanks to a regular dose of poor decision making.But it is really easy to pull up pictures of Ben Silverman and Jeff Zucker and use MS Paint to caption them with “FAIL” and perhaps even easier to point to YouTube clips of The Event and Outsourced as obvious reasons for why NBC sucks.
While I would certainly enjoy those activities, I’m hoping that discussing certain series and their development over the next few months will help in connecting NBC’s failures together into some sort of pattern. At this point, it is still fairly unclear as to why NBC continued to make the stupid decisions it has made. I’m looking for something more than “bad management” or simply “Jeff Zucker.” Of course, I might not find those answers, particularly in this admittedly limited scope of series and contextualization. But I do think a minor backtrack through the NBC archives will allow us to highlight why specific series are examples of NBC’s errant decision-making and perhaps even figure out if they were given a raw deal because of the stench NBC has been putting off for nearly a decade now.
With that in mind, it’s important to note that while these four entries will most certainly follow the familiar framework established from the beginning of this feature – the newbie/veteran perspective, discussion of various contexts – I have to imagine that there will be an increased focus on the historical and industrial contexts.
After our analysis into some of the beginnings of NBC’s problems in the aughts with Joey, we’re moving towards the middle of the decade to 2006 where it seemed like NBC had a lot of good ideas in the pot stirring around, but things didn’t work out as they had planned. Or you know, they just flat-out mishandled them. Heroes is one of the most-discussed examples when critics and scholars start ranting about the Peacock network’s disastrous state. It started out so (apparently) successful and quickly imploded. No one can deny that. But who is to blame? Tim Kring? NBC? Something else entirely? That’s what we’re here to figure out today. This is a slightly different case in that both I and today’s guest have seen a good deal of Heroes. Fortunately, I’ve only seen up through the mid-way season three, so I guess I’m taking the “newbie” role. More specifically though, I’ll be contextualizing things on NBC’s end whereas my guest is going to have a ball writing about the actual episode, “Genesis.” Here we go:
When I talked about Joey for the last Test Pilot, there was a lot of discussion about Jeff Zucker taking over a new job in 2004 and how he championed a number of new series that season that crashed and burned oh so quickly. While FOX and ABC were having really big seasons (with CBS doing its normal thing) in 2004-2005, NBC floundered with some high-profile misses. The schedule was barren. And although it doesn’t seem to be talked about in the same way, the next season of development was just as bad, if not worse. From my research, which again, might not be fully scientific, NBC aired somewhere around 18 new series in the 2005-2006 season. Guess how many of them survived for more than one season? Three: My Name Is Earl, Deal or No Deal and America’s Got Talent. I know that was five seasons ago, but only one of those series is still on the air.
Deal or No Deal covered up a lot of the problems with the 2005-2006 schedule because it was a fairly sizable hit when it debuted in the winter of 2005. Because NBC had so many holes in its schedule at the time Deal or No Deal came on the air, the network actually aired it in three different timeslots on three different nights: Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Fortunately for the Peacock, the multiple-day airings didn’t hurt at first, as the series averaged between almost 12-16 million viewers no matter the night. And of course, Deal or No Deal was a format owned by the international giant of formats, Endemol, which made it a cheap and easy series to buy, produce and air, fitting perfectly into Zucker’s (and later Silverman’s) desires to serve a massive media conglomerate’s overall bottom line before accomplishing anything important with the content.
But despite the success of Deal or No Deal and the moderate success of Earl, Medium and Talent when it aired in the summer, NBC was in even more trouble in 2005-2006. Not only did it strike out with 85 percent of its new series — some of them fairly high-profile failures like Surface, E-Ring and a Martha Stewart version of The Apprentice and two Dick Wolf series Conviction and Law & Order: Trial By Jury — but it also last two of the series that helped keep it afloat in the early part of the decade when Will & Grace and The West Wing both said goodbye in May 2006. Apart from The Office, which still wasn’t a massive hit yet, NBC had literally nothing to celebrate about in terms of scripted series. ER was on the way down, Joey ended up bombing out by the end of the season and Law & Order was Law & Order. If 2004-2005 was the tipping point to NBC’s massive and rapid decline, 2005-2006 expedited the process to a shockingly fast rate. At this point, NBC was fully at home in the fourth place ratings slot with little hope in sight.
But in the fall of 2006, there was promise. The network had a new drama from Aaron Sorkin in Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Peter Berg’s Friday Night Lights, Tina Fey’s 30 Rock and something from Crossing Jordan executive producer Tim Kring called Heroes. From my general memory, I can recall a lot of buzz about the NBC line-up in the fall of 2006. It seemed like the Peacock was on the way back.
Unfortunately, that didn’t come to pass because no matter how great your programming seems in a vacuum, if you’re in last place among the broadcast networks, it’s hard to get that stink off of you. And similarly, NBC also learned that hiring big-time talent doesn’t equal success (you know, except for the fact that they continued to make the same mistake throughout the decade) as both Sorkin’s Stuido 60 and the John Lithgow-Jeffrey Tambor multi-camera comedy 20 Good Years flamed out before the end of the season.30 Rock and Friday Night Lights were critically-acclaimed but still barely watched in those initial years.
That left Tim Kring’s Heroes as the shining beacon of prosperity and in the early going, the series seemed to be up for the task. In the wake of Lost, every network tried to develop it own sprawling, serialized drama. The 2005-2006 season brought audiences Invasion, Threshold and NBC’s own Surface, all of which couldn’t re-capture the Lost magic. But by the time the following season rolled around and audiences began to grow frustrated with Lost‘s glacier-like pacing and mysterious storytelling, Heroes appeared to be the answer. As this pilot episode “Genesis” presents, Heroes is not Lost. “Genesis” obviously has less scope than the first episode of Lost, but that’s not the only difference. Unlike the characters on Lost who were thrown together and had to grow to learn about one another, Heroes starts with its characters scattered around the world alone, trying to figure out this crazy world and their “abilities” (Heroes refused to use the word powers).
In the beginning, this seemed like a great plan. In that first run of episodes, critics and fans were all a-quiver about how Heroes figured out a better way to delve out answers and reveals, whereas Lost, caught in the middle of a terrible scheduling situation with ABC, had its main characters LITERALLY stuck in cages. The contrasts were obvious and staggering, Heroes was the new toy with cool tag lines like “Save The Cheerleader, Save The World” and it came along as the perfect mix of comic book mythology and presumably quality character dramas. Although there are some dead spots in this initial episode, the Heroes pilot still has its charms: Hiro discovering his powers, some of the scenes with Claire and even Peter and Nathan aren’t fully insufferable yet.* I never and still do not think that these characters were ever as appealing or likable or mysterious as those from Lost, but they’re certainly easier digested by the mainstream audiences.
But it’s that apparent ease at which the audience could relate to these characters that ultimately destroyed Heroes. NBC was so desperate for a hit that it more or less gave Tim Kring and his team carte blanche. This led to Kring going back on his original desire to change up the cast on a fairly regular basis and come up with some mediocre to terrible ideas to keep people around. Zachary Quinto became the breakout star and his villainous Sylar became the breakout character, but he was apparently supposed to go away after the first season. Unfortunately, when characters and actors are super-popular there is no real way to let them go, especially if you’re NBC and this is the biggest hour-long hit you’ve had in three or four years. Over the first season, Sylar was slowly humanized and highlighted more, and it only continued throughout the rest of the series. It’s probably fitting that Quinto doesn’t even appear in this pilot episode since his later emergence destroyed what was a slightly impressive string of episodes.
And when characters/actors can’t leave a series where the stakes should be high and people should be dying, there’s going to be a lot of soap opera-y plots where characters change sides, die and then come back to life, etc. and there is probably no primetime series to ever use those sort of tropes more than Heroes. Hiro became a horrendous laughing-stock, Claire died and re-emerged countless times and we probably don’t even need to discuss the number of times Peter changed powers or Nathan underwent some sort of character re/deconstruction. If there ever was an example of the “too much of a good thing” conceit, it’s probably Heroes. Well, if we consider “a good thing” as “a mediocre thing.”
One thing I wanted to discuss but actually isn’t part of the pilot episode is the product integration and the transmedia storytelling. NBC has been one of the pioneers in both, for better or for worse, and Heroes is certainly one of the most obvious examples of their work in these arenas. When I discussed Joey, I mentioned how Zucker and Silverman love pulling in these other financial benefits outside of the text, and Heroes worked as a great test case. Mid-way through the first season, the series introduced the Nissan Versa that Hiro and Ando drove around the country in and as far as I can remember, the Nissan product integration is always there throughout the series. I’m not a total hater of product integration, but that combined with Hiro’s annoying voice and Claire’s general awfulness in the second season, the Nissan stuff became insufferable before not too long. Unfortunately, this was happening at the height of NBC’s integration era — you know, when they did that horrid Knight Rider Ford commercial nonsense — and it probably made the network a slew of cash, no matter how annoying.
Moreover, despite its issues in this pilot and the series as a whole, Heroes was damn good at hooking in to the transmedia outlets and the internet culture. From early on in the first season, the network and producers came up with the innovative online graphic novel, the webisodes and all sorts of other things that both filled in the background on characters and directed consumers to more branded content. I believe the graphic novels included in a good amount of Nissan integration as well. Heroes might have been a creative disaster from nearly the beginning, but it was a financial blockbuster. Product integration, transmedia elements with their own integrations and worldwide distribution allowed Heroes to be one of the most financially successful television brands of recent memory, if not the most financially successful. There was talk when the series about was about to get canceled last spring that it could come back just to appease the foreign markets. That’s impressive. So in that respect, perhaps Zucker and Silverman’s decision to keep the series on the air a few years after it was locked in to “straight up terrible” wasn’t the worst decision in the world. Maybe.
And so, who is to blame for Heroes‘ rapid decline? The series’ initial success and NBC brass’ response to that might have forced Tim Kring’s hand, but they certainly didn’t make him come up with the terrible season two time-skewing framework. They also didn’t force him to continuously state how he hadn’t digested these seminal superhero texts even though it was obvious he was ripping them off. In that sense, it feels like the downfall of Heroes actually isn’t on NBC. The network was flailing at the time the series was on the air, and if it’s guilty of anything, it’s probably trying to hang on too long to something that’s most certainly dead. But if anything, it seems like Heroes issues lie at the feet of both Kring and his team and the inherent, unavoidable problems that come along with being a cultural phenomenon from the jump. Therefore, I think it’s great that we took a look at Heroes because sometimes, even when a network’s that apparently doing everything wrong actually gets it right. The problem is even the network can’t fully control terrible creative decisions or even audience responses. NBC tried their best with Heroes and it’s kind of unfortunate that this series gets thrown in with all the network’s biggest failures. But when you’re NBC and in a horrible state, every failure is going to be on you, no matter what. Heroes is one of those series.
Taking the role of veteran viewer is Chris Ryan, a member of my cohort here in the POPC department at BGSU. He’s unfortunately seen every single episode of Heroes and I think his often-funny description of re-watching this first episode shows his battle scars, Chris take it away:
The more thought I’ve given it, the more convinced I’ve become that “Genesis,” the pilot for NBC’s Heroes (brought to us near the middle of the “not gasping for breath and spewing blood from a thousand gut stabs brought on by hideous mismanagement and idiotic programming decisions” era of that august network), is a pretty solid representation of the series as a whole. Most of the problems that doomed the series to mediocrity and cancellation are present from day one, and most of the qualities that got people to stick with the series in the first place (especially when those mediocrity-dooms were piling up in later seasons) are there too.
What it boils down to is this: For being a show about exploring your personal potential, Heroes never did. In a pilot episode, this sort of thing is acceptable, if not expected; after all, an introductory outing is mostly setup by definition. Over four(ish) seasons, that lack of payoff turns fan blue balls into a serious medical concern. Speaking of intense abdominal pain, I turn now to discussing the pilot itself.
Comic books have a rich history of unnecessarily vague exposition, irrelevant epigraphs, and laughably moralistic, pseudo-spiritual codas. In its quest to ape a genre that defies translation to the small screen, Heroes gave us all these things every week. “Genesis” is no exception. I’ve had to suffer through the first lines of the series twice now, and so do you:
Where does it come from? This quest… this need to solve life’s mysteries for the simplest of questions can never be answered. Why are we here? What is the soul? Why do we dream? Perhaps we would be better off not looking at all. Not delving, not yearning. That’s not human nature, not the human heart. That is not why we are here.
Now imagine that being delivered in the buttery faux-Brit-Indian accent of one Sendhil Ramamurthy (dude was born in Chicago and grew up in Texas) and you’ve got a pretty good handle on what you’re in for in this series. And hopefully you don’t hate his blank stares and awkward blinking (once he steps out from behind the omniscience-curtain and into the main plot), because he’s around for the next three seasons in a big way.
I have nothing against Sendhil Ramamurthy, but he’s a perfect example of what’s wrong with 90% of the cast of this series: blandly attractive, can’t act. Here’s a fun game to play in the pilot and keep on going with for the rest of the series: Spot the facial expressions. I guarantee that most of the primary cast demonstrates two distinctly separate expressions, and attempts to weave a rich tapestry of human emotion by calling on one or the other. Examples for those of you willing to play the home game:
- Milo Ventimiglia: Confusion and disgust. The former is a blank stare with the hint of a tilted neck; the latter, that Bell’s-palsy-esque lip curl.
- Hayden Panettiere: Scared (big eyes!) and smug (big grin).
- Ali Larter: Angry (scowl) and seductive/maternal/default state (smirk, smaller scowl).
- Sendhil Ramamurthy: Bewildered and contemplative.
- Masi Oka: Surprised (he looks like this: * O * ) and satisfied (this: ^___^ )
So what actually happens in the pilot?
Okay, well let me ask you this: Have you ever read a comic book? Or seen a superhero movie? Or are you in any way tangentially familiar with the first half hour of the latter? Congratulations, you’ve seen “Genesis,” only once instead of four or five times. Claire demonstrates her powers (made of tissue paper and balsa wood, but is otherwise Wolverine) on camera. Something something new media generation reifying personal identity through the lens something. I would put effort into that analysis, but the show doesn’t, so. Nikki demonstrates her powers (fugue state super-strength and ill-defined psychosis) on the sort of random thugs that webcam strippers clearly get into debt with for some reason? Hiro gets so freaking bored at work that he stops time and teleports to Times Square, and demonstrates the inklings of a messiah complex (soon to be full-blown Protagonist Syndrome). And finally we can bother with Peter, not that anyone else on the show does.
Peter and his actor, Milo Ventimiglia, are the things that make me the saddest about this series, both in retrospect over the whole thing’s run and in just re-watching the pilot. Again, it’s all about unattained potential. Peter’s power, nebulously-defined and god-powerful as it is, never gets the credit it should. In “Genesis,” he vaguely maybe flies and has a very special dream. Throughout the course of the series, he gets blown up, amnesia’d, turned into a power cannibal, de-powered, re-powered, and marginalized throughout. He’s got the Superman in the Justice League problem: Why do you need everyone else around to solve the problem, when “I can do anything you can do better” man is on the case?
Tim Kring tries to do something with him in the pilot, opening the possibility that he’ll be the series’s ancillary sidekick starfucker (which we’ll get one of eventually anyway) constantly craving power, but we’ve all seen this story before, and we know metatextually that there’s no way the guy from Gilmore Girls isn’t going to get his mojo. As a result, delaying the inevitable feels like a cheat—it’s obvious what’s going on in the pilot, and the aforementioned series-long complications just belabor that point—he’s going to get his powers back and the situation is going to get fixed by “I can do anything you can do better” man.
Milo Ventimiglia, I have another problem with. I want to like the guy, I really do. I’ve seen interviews and blogs where he demonstrates significant amounts of nerd cred. He seems like a lovely gentleman. And he loves the genre. Observe a little viral video he cobbled together with friends.
His affection for the superhero drips out of his pores like sweat and Cheetoh dust would from other nerds. But the problem is twofold: like I said before, he can’t act. He lip-curls. But they never do anything with him. Entire franchises have risen and fallen on the backs of people who can’t act, so making Heroes the Ventimiglia Vehicle wouldn’t have been impossible. It just never happened, though, because the writers fail to recognize his limitations and insist on scenes of him trying to emote things other than confusion or disgust. This man is the ugliest crier since James Van Der Beek (and less effective). Like the show, I wanted to like Peter. I wanted to like Milo. But everything on this show conspires to make liking anything about it so damned hard.
And that’s “Genesis.” It was the beginning of something that could have been cool, but collapsed under the weight of its own self-importance and brand mismanagement. It was the beginning of something that could have been likable, but turned into 44 minutes of nerd masochism every Monday at 9 p.m.. But in keeping with the format of the standard Heroes episode, here’s my final-scene twist: It was probably the best superhero show we’re going to see on network TV, ever. And definitely the longest-lived.
Conclusions on legacy: The series should be rightfully criticized for its poor construction, but the failure of Heroes isn’t all on NBC.