We didn't get a fifth season of Heroes, but in some ways it feels as though we did. NBC has been giving us The Event and The Cape, two shows that feel like Tim Kring's deformed stepchildren, in the Heroes time slot.
Now that NBC has a new head honcho, is there a chance that the ghost of Heroes will be laid to rest at last? Maybe, if the network can finally learn these 10 lessons from its failed superhero soap.
10) Carnies are not the new ninjas.
At Comic Con 2009, NBC spent gazillions of dollars creating a carnival fairground right across the street from the Convention Center, with fairground attractions and stuff — because for some reason carnies are just automatically popular and awesome. Right? Uh, yeah. The "evil carnies" subplot on Heroes was like the dullest thing ever — and now The Cape is all carnies, all the time. Even though we love Keith David, and Rollo is pretty hilarious, it's still an odd choice. Who decided that carnies would rule television?
9) Creepy dads are not endlessly fascinating. Heroes scored early by making HRG into the ultimate fascinating creepy father figure — but you can only ride the "creepy daddy" train for so long before it derails. And once HRG turned back to the dark side for the tenth time, and we had Papa Petrelli, it was all over. And now The Cape is tormenting us with the creepiest father/son relationship in television history — Vince constantly staring at his demonic son Trog from a distance and having flashbacks to when he and Trog used to be dating.
8) Supervillains can be campy or crazy, but not both
Seriously. Just pick one. And supervillains with split personalities or weird mental projections of their alter egos are so over. Heroes burned through a lot of nutty supervillain cliches in its "Villains" storyline, and now The Cape is revisiting a lot of them, including the "supervillain identity crisis" thing.
7) Gitmo metaphors are over. Heroes fumbled towards relevance with a storyline in which all of the mutants get rounded up by the gummint, with orange jumpsuits and bags over their heads, and everybody yawned. So now of course the main plot of The Event has to do with quasi-aliens being rounded up and put into a secret facility in Alaska.
6) People reading comic books about their real-life superhero lives never works.
Heroes had the clairvoyant artist guy publish a billion issues of a superhero comic, 9th Wonders, that explained what was going to happen next to Hiro, Claire, and the others. And if that wasn't enough, Micah started encouraging his cousin Monica to model herself after a comic-book character, St. Joan. So there were comic books based on real people, and real people imitating comic books — it was so metatextual, man! Because superhero cliches are better when they're painfully self-aware. So of course, this becomes the whole premise of The Cape.
5) That blonde chick doesn't need saving any more.
"Save the Cheerleader, Save the World" was a cool slogan in Heroes' first season, but Claire never quite evolved beyond the "whiny victim" stage — even in her final episodes, she was being kidnapped by those carnies. And way, way too much of The Event's first batch of episodes were about Jason Ritter trying to save his perky blonde girlfriend, and then her sister.
4) Flashbacks to stuff that happened decades ago do not make your story more thrilling.
This is a big one — Heroes left us with a huge allergy to boring flashbacks, after every plot strand turned out to be connected to something that happened during the Kennedy administration. And now The Event is like Flashback Heaven. It's part of the idea that having endlessly complicated backstories is automatically interesting — and that conspiracies and wheels within wheels that have been turning for decades add up to a rich storyline.
3) That dude who's the only one who knows what dreadful things are really going on should really get a life.
At some point, it hit me that Sean Walker, Jason Ritter's character on The Event, reminds me of an even dopier version of Peter Petrelli. It's something about the way he's constantly gaping and looking like a dehydrated puppy as he tries to explain the latest gonzo conspiracy to people.
2) A soap opera needs characters we care about.
Both The Event and The Cape are following in the footsteps of Heroes, in the sense of having a soap opera structure that relies on plot rather than characters. And this is really the crux of the matter — you can't have a compelling soap opera without characters that we care about and want to follow. A set of ciphers running around in circles and spouting plot information and cliched dialogue at each other is not a real soap opera, no matter how many loopy twists you throw in. By contrast, some people have been grumbling about Fringe going soap-opera, but the truth is no matter what, we care about the Bishops and Olivia Dunham. We know them, and we want to know what happens to them.
1) Coherence really does matter.
In the end, stuff needs to make sense on a basic level — mystification and curveballs only get you so far. Even Lost would have a through-line, on an episode-by-episode level, even if the over-arching storyline was often a bit mystifying. If your audience can't buy into the storyline because it's not grounded in anything, or the stakes are entirely abstract, then that's a fundamental problem of storytelling.
Here's hoping that whatever show takes the "Heroes slot" next will manage to find a way to tell compelling stories about characters who feel relatable — and won't fall back on the same old meta-pulpy cliches. The newly greenlit show REM, about a cop who wakes up from an accident to find out he's shifting between two different realities, sounds at least promising. Or they could just bring back the gone-too-soon Journeyman.