Heroes returns Monday for its fourth "volume," "Fugitives". Being viewed by many as a reboot of the series, it may be exactly what the show needs... or the excuse fans need to leave for good.
With the last couple of "volumes" of NBC's superhuman drama have demonstrating the law of diminishing returns, a lot is seemingly riding on the success of "Fugitives," both critically and in terms of ratings. Luckily, it may be as well placed to deliver as it has been since the first season, thanks to some of the creative upheaval behind the scenes over the last few months. Even before Jeph Loeb and Jesse Alexander were pushed out, Battlestar Galactica's Mark Verheiden was brought on as a writer and producer, and anyone who saw last night's BSG should know that he's no slouch when it comes to writing ensemble drama that excites and compels (Verheiden was in place by the second episode of "Fugitives," so his presence should hopefully be felt throughout the entire run). Bryan Fuller also rejoined the show in time to bring "Fugitives" to a conclusion, but although his return may have come too late to influence this volume, his sense of what's gone wrong with the show, and assurance that changes were being made to correct that before his arrival is a good sign that things may be about to get better.
However, there's still some sense of trepidation about what changes "Fugitives" may bring. We've been promised a change in tone and direction for the show, as things get darker following the uneven "Villains" arc, but we still don't know exactly what that means. I'd be the first to admit that Heroes needs a change in direction after two-and-a-half seasons of recycling the same "We Must Change The Future" plot, but that doesn't necessarily mean that any change would be a good thing. Color me nervous about the hints we've heard about the series including a "superpowered Gitmo" or all superpowered characters being treated as terrorists, for example; not only does it seem tonally wrong in this post-Bush era of self-conscious "change" and "hope" (Hey, the real Gitmo's being closed, after all!), but it sounds both like more ripping off of old X-Men plotlines and exactly the kind of blunt, forced heavy-handed plotting that the series should be trying to move away from.
This may just be me, but Heroes worked best when the characters were more relatable, contrasting with the fantasy element of their superpowers. When the situation they're in is more "They're terrorists on the run from the law" and they can fly, teleport, run at superspeed, etc., then there's even less reason for the audience to sympathize with them... or care about them at all. That's part of the problem with rebooting a series like this; in order to do so, the core concept must either be revisited or abandoned entirely, and doing either runs the risk of losing longterm fans who either don't want to see it all again or lose what brought them to the show in the first place. Every time a franchise gets reset, it's always a gamble for those involved that the "perfect jumping-on point" for new viewers (or readers, or whatever) is also going to be a perfect jumping-off point for old ones (Case in point; Marvel Comics' Amazing Spider-Man reboot last year, which angered as many fans as excited new ones and lead to the point where, a year later, sales are lower than they were prior to the reboot). By making Heroes over and trying to find a new angle on the concept, the creators run the risk of dooming the series all over again. Oh, the high stakes they are dealing with - just like the characters on the show itself! As above, so bel- oh, maybe not.
Ultimately, I'm left with the thought that Heroes maybe should never have continued past the first season... Or, at least, shouldn't have carried all of its characters with it into a second. What worked so well in the first season was the shock of the new - Not only the story of characters "just like us" discovering powers and what they would do with them (tapping directly into our fantasies and wish-fulfillment in a way that just can't be replicated with the same characters in later seasons on such a large scale), but the speed and recklessness of the storytelling in an era where a lot of genre storytelling was trying to match the glacial pace of Lost at the time. It stood out because it was different and unusual... but that was gone by the second season, and even moreso in what we've seen of the third so far. In order to regain its urgency and quality, the series does have to reinvent itself in the way they seem to be attempting... but the potential to fail, and ruin what the series still offers fans now, is so great that it may end up being better to pretend the show stopped after one season after all.
Heroes returns on Monday at 9pm on NBC.