Heroes is back — but it won’t be the same. The original run of the NBC series was one of a first shows to pioneer modern serialized genre storytelling, along with other hits like ABC’s Lost and Syfy’s Battlestar Galactica. Heroes got a lot right, but also made some moves that alienated fans as the show — along with the entire TV industry — struggled to figure out how to tell epic stories in primetime. For the upcoming revival Heroes: Reborn, creator Tim Kring and NBC are looking to avoid the first version’s viewership drain by doing some things differently. “To have a second chance to launch, to relaunch a franchise that I created that I was very committed to for many years of my life and believed in is a fantastic opportunity,” Kring says. “Wanting to get it right and wanting to do something different enough that feels like it’s worthy of a reboot is very important to me.”
1. Make it shorter: The biggest factor in Heroes‘ struggle the first time around, say those who worked on the show, were NBC’s heavy production demands that put stress on the writers and actors to generate enormous amount of high-stakes compelling storytelling on a series that didn’t have a case-of-the-week procedural element to fall back on. A hit out of the gate, NBC tried to squeeze Heroes for every hour it could get — the third season was a whopping 25 episodes. “We were just trying to keep our heads above water,” recalls Sendhill Ramamurthy, who played geneticist Mohinder Suresh and returns in the revival. “I can’t imagine how the writers room can come up with that much story. And as an actor you’re like, ‘Please, not another 16 hour day.’ Those conditions are not conducive to a good TV show. We were the walking dead before there was The Walking Dead.”
Since, networks and producers have come to realize that when it comes to intensely serialized stories like Heroes — or Game of Thrones, or Walking Dead — shorter seasons are better (though there are some like-minded shows, like ABC’s Once Upon a Time, that continue to produce a full season). “There is an optimum length for these things,” Kring says. “An audience knows a show is not 15 minutes long, and a book is not 2,000 pages, and a movie is not 6 hours. And when a show goes on for too long — and I think now especially people have gotten so used to these shorter orders— it’s like the audience has spoken as to what they want. The optimum length of a season is not 25 episodes like we did the last time. And so I do think that will allow us to aggressively tell a story in a short amount of time which keeps that momentum going.”
2. Give fans an ending: Unlike the usual broadcast TV Neverending Story format of the original series, Heroes: Reborn will be a self-contained tale with a beginning, middle and end. “You will get an ending,” Kring says. “I think a lot of people who log on to serialized shows are very skeptical that they’re never going to get an ending. Here you have a beginning, middle, and end to your experience.” A caveat: This is NBC we’re talking about, not BBC, so while Reborn will have an ending to this year’s story, there is a very real chance of another series order — “limited” or otherwise— if Heroes should once again prove to be a ratings draw.
3. Kill off characters: One of Kring’s original ideas for Heroes was to have a different cast each season. Back when Heroes launched in 2006, before shows like American Horror Story and True Detective proved the anthology format, this idea was considered too radical. But the original Heroes also couldn’t get away with killing off any of its main cast, either. Once characters like the villainous Sylar became popular, NBC was reluctant to let them go. So while characters were constantly in mortal peril, they always survived — or were just seemingly killed off, and then brought back. In other words, it become tougher for viewers to believe the show’s story had any real consequence.
This time, however, Kring says the gloves are off. “If you’re going to have life-and-death stakes the audience needs to understand it, and they need to painfully accept it by having certain characters killed off — and that’s exactly how we felt the first time around,” Kring says. “Also, as you are racing toward the end of a story, you need less people sort at the end to pull off the ending — it helps to have fewer characters than what you started with.” Another benefit of the current schedule, Kring notes, is nearly the whole series will be shot before an episode has aired. “We won’t be really subject to the idea of ‘fan favorites’ and all that,” he said. “We’re gonna be in the can and committed to the story that we’re telling.”
4. Boost the spectacle: Trying to do 20-plus hours of globe-trotting storytelling and special-effects filled TV was rough sledding several years ago. Kring’s plan for a major climactic battle at for the season 1 finale had to be disappointingly curtailed to keep the show’s budget in line. Nowadays special effects that used to take days to create in an effects lab now can be done on a crew member’s laptop right on the set. And after NBC got its first look at the Heroes: Reborn pilot, the broadcast coughed up roughly $2 million extra to make the opening episode more spectacular. “We’re all trying to play catch-up to the bigger spectacle that is television right now on shows like Game of Thrones,” Kring says “And I also think it’s a great vote of confidence for the show that NBC is asking for us to go bigger.”
5. Add more realistic tension. This wasn’t something Heroes necessarily needed the first time around, but it’s something Kring feels the show requires for 2015. “There is a more realistic view of the world now; the world is a little scarier,” he said. “And the new show reflects that a bit … there is a kind of heightened anxiety that hovers over the top of it. Since the powers are now out in the open, they are being persecuted, so there is a bit of a tension that rests on top of the show that we didn’t have before.”
Jack Coleman, who plays Heroes lynchpin character H.R.G., perhaps sums it all up best:
“Some of the criticism was fair,” Coleman says. “I think there was also a great deal of piling on. We like to build things up and tear them down with equal ferocity. There were episodes in the third and fourth seasons that were really strong and still got criticized. I don’t think the show needs redemption. I don’t think we have anything to apologize for. Having said that, given a second chance, with limited episodes, and more time to prepare them, I think this is going to be really strong.”