NBC took a gamble with ''Heroes,'' a turbocharged series about ordinary humans with extraordinary powers. Now, with more than 14 million viewers onboard, TV's newest stars may be able to save the cheerleader -- and the entire network

By Jeff Jensen
Updated November 03, 2006 at 05:00 AM EST
Heroes Cast Photograph by Justin Stephens; Painting by Tim Sale

SPOILER ALERT! This story contains plot information about upcoming episodes of Heroes.

Behold the bespectacled face of the hottest new star on television! He’s young. He’s geeky. He’s Japanese. And when he uses his superpowers, he looks like he’s trying to pass a supersize kidney stone.

His name is Masi Oka, and here on the set of NBC’s breakout hit Heroes, the cherubic Superman-in-training he plays with infectious comic aplomb is trying to score with a young waitress. It’s a scene for the pivotal Nov. 27 installment, which reveals essential secrets about the show’s broad assemblage of potential avengers, each inexplicably afflicted (or blessed, depending on their POV) with some acute form of X-Men mutantitis. Oka’s Hiro Nakamura, for example, has the ability to stop time and travel through it; in this episode, he’s jumped six months into the past to become a busboy at a Texas diner as part of a knight’s errand too spoilerish to explain in detail. Hiro’s romantic MO involves three gifts — a book, some flowers, and a gesture so elaborate that it requires him to muster his signature expression. So, Masi, what are you thinking about when you squish your eyes and clench your teeth?

”Going to the bathroom,” jokes Oka. But then he reconsiders. ”Actually, I believe there’s a fifth dimensional fact that allows for parallel universes to exist at the same time, in the same location,” says the Brown-educated 31-year-old, who prior to becoming an actor (he had a recurring role as Franklyn the lab tech on Scrubs) was a full-time special-effects artist at George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic studio (he’s especially proud of his work on The Perfect Storm). He also has a 180-plus IQ, so he knows what he’s talking about when he uses terms like unique five-tuples to explain Hiro’s reality-warping ways. ”Basically,” he concludes, ”he puts himself in the sixth dimension and comes back into the current reality.” A beat. ”But I haven’t really thought about it too much.”

Like we said: geeky. But in the most appealing way possible, much like Heroes itself. This might be the most unabashedly fantastic enterprise on broadcast television, a sprawling, Smallville-times-10 saga about ordinary people who are mysteriously becoming extraordinary. New York artist Isaac Mendez (Empire‘s Santiago Cabrera) can paint the future when he’s on a heroin high. Texas cheerleader Claire Bennet (The Book of Daniel‘s Hayden Panettiere) can survive any injury — or death. L.A. cop Matt Parkman (Alias‘ Greg Grunberg) can read minds. There are shady guys with seemingly sinister agendas and ominously cool code names, like Claire’s smirking, hero-hunting father, ”Horn Rimmed Glasses” (Dynasty‘s Jack Coleman), a.k.a. H.R.G., and the as-yet-unseen Sylar, a serial killer prone to freezing flesh and sawing skulls open. The whole thing’s chockablock with comic-booky bits: apocalyptic prophecies, outrageous cliff-hangers, and deliciously ripe dialogue, like Hiro’s catchphrase-spawning line ”Save the cheerleader, save the world!”

Heroes is proof positive that what was once considered cult pop is now mainstream, thanks to a decade defined by the Spider-Man and Harry Potter film sagas, to say nothing of Lost. Or maybe, with its propulsive, surprising, and emotionally charged storytelling, Heroes has discovered the decoder ring that can translate fringe fun into mass-appeal entertainment. In a season filled with highly touted (and mostly ignored) serialized dramas, no one was expecting this concept-driven series to be the one to break big. But that’s just what it’s done, attracting more than 14 million viewers each week, making it one of the few shows of any genre to pop this season. ”Right now, TV has to be spectacular,” says Grunberg. ”People want escape. A grounded escape, but an escape nonetheless. The Nine, Friday Night Lights — they’re great, but maybe they’re too real, you know?”

Spend a week on the set and you see a show in a giddy state of new hitdom. Bounding off the stage after shooting a flashback in which Claire learns she can heal from cuts lickety-split, Panettiere — a multitasking 17-year-old who’s been acting since age 5 and plans to release a pop-rock album next year — discloses that she celebrated Heroes‘ full-season pickup by buying herself a Porsche: ”I almost ran over Kanye West this morning!”