Somewhere between that heady moment in 2006 when Peter Petrelli took his first flight and today, Heroes has become a set text for television viewers. While other shows are roundly criticised for their failures, there’s constant fan and critical apology for Heroes’s frequent missteps, as though the whole of Seasons Two and Three were a bizarre hallucination that will finally, next week or possibly the one after that, give way to reveal the amazing show that lurks beneath.
Until very recently, I was taken in by all this media millenarianism. I may not have understood any of the plot lines, character motivations or where half of the cast had been banished to, but Claire Bennett could grow toes like a lizard and Hiro could manipulate space and time with his eyelids, two things so incredibly awesome that they negated every other instance of stupidity and confusion.
But, with the advent of Heroes: Fugitives, the fourth and most paltry attempt at reinvention the show has experienced, I have finally run out of excuses. Three and a half years on, Heroes is almost utterly unrecognisable from the show that began with such a clear purpose. ‘Save the Cheerleader; Save the World’ was a slogan that even the dimmest among us could understand, repeat, and print on t-shirts. But it’s anyone’s guess what’s going on at this stage of Season Three. The world will certainly blow up at some point, as predicted at the beginning of the season, but I’m lost as to how we’re going to get there from here. The newest episodes seem content to mess around with tacky prison escape plots and Sylar being good but evil but good but misunderstood but ultimately just hungry for brains and civilian torture.
In this newest incarnation, the characters have all suddenly decided to lead normal lives. It’s a confusing choice, since their utter shock at the turn events take shows that they weren’t afraid of any kind of retribution for their past actions. Apparently, they all just… felt like it. Peter has taken a job as a paramedic, Matt works as a security guard and Claire is taking the step to higher education, which for her means complaining about having to go to college rather than complaining about having to go to high school. However, all these boring intentions are crushed by Senator Nathan, who has decided to become evil (again, he just woke up one morning and felt like it) by starting a campaign to bag and tag his fellow superheroes with the help of tax dollars and a group of shaven-headed military men. As resets go, Fugitives manages, incredibly, to be both too vague and too puzzling to be credible. Creator Tim Kring’s assertion that a new viewer can come to Fugitives cold and still enjoy themselves is far from the truth.
But the real problem is that, while Heroes: Fugitives recycles many snippets of pop culture, its greatest inspiration comes from a source that’s extremely well known to most of Heroes’s core audience. A sinister, bald man with army affiliations and an inexplicable chip on his shoulder is recruited by a misguided, power-hungry superhero to hunt down rival heroes and eradicate their powers? That, quite simply, is not only the fourth volume of Heroes but the plot of X-Men 2, a vastly successful film released less than six years ago. While comparisons to the X-Men comics have always been obvious, Fugitives finally crosses the line between homage and outright borrowing in a way that’s incredibly tacky. The writers don’t even have the mental energy to steal an obscure plot, surely one of the cardinal rules of plagiarism.
Even more unfortunately, Heroes seems to miss the (not over-taxing) point made by the original film. X-Men 2’s links between the discrimination against gays and General Stryker’s efforts to control the mutant population become, in Fugitives, a nonsensical analogy for terrorism. Although the issue is certainly culturally relevant, calling the Heroes terrorists simply doesn’t work. Not only are terrorists not traditionally a sympathetic or tragically misunderstood minority group, but the word implies a degree of forethought and intent that the characters have never displayed. They may technically be dangerous, but they’re still a long way off deserving cells in Guantanamo Bay. But, unfortunately, in Fugitives rational thought has been exchanged for ridiculous crashy set-pieces where people are sucked out of airplanes and shot in the face just because it looks cool and the producers have some budget dollars to spend.
Even the feature that used to make Heroes stand out from its competitors has become ridiculous. The comic strips that seemed so innovative in Season One have by now become tiresome and overplayed, just as the prophetic power that was so interesting in Isaac is ridiculous when inexplicably transferred to Matt Parkman. It’s a given that nothing stays new for ever, but all of Heroes’s efforts to stay current have resulted in increasingly bizarre and irrelevant plots. It’s an unfortunate truth that the show that we’re watching in 2009 has lost almost everything that recommended it to viewers when it first began. When, in a show built out of black-and-white, no nonsense comic book tropes, characters flick between good and bad depending on the day of the week and even the most hardened of viewers would be hard pressed to say what happened three episodes ago, it might be time to give up the ghost.