Heroes Reborn begins with an apology that comes too late. Noah Bennett (Jack Coleman) arrives in Odessa, Texas, for a unity summit between humans and the world’s teeming super-powered population. The show calls them “Evos.” That’s a terrible, terrible name. Noah is here specifically to seek reconciliation with his daughter. Apparently, he and she have become estranged since the end of Heroes, the former TV phenomenon that quickly captured a large audience in the early days of the Comic-Con takeover of pop culture, then betrayed the trust of its viewers with creative mismanagement. Estrangement? Heroes fans know the feeling. Heroes creator-turned-Heroes rebooter Tim Kring knows it, too. Here’s the voiceover he gives Noah as he scans the masses for his beloved “Claire Bear” through the lenses of his signature horned-rim glasses.
Do we accept the apology? Are lapsed fans ready to stop caring about who was right and who was wrong about what went awry and give this all-new, allegedly all-different Heroes a chance? While you decide, I’ll tell you what happens next. Something ginormous blots out the sun, and then Odessa explodes, and then HRG, that cockroach, wakes up at ground zero surrounded by corpses. We hear newscasters, pundits, politicians, even President Obama opine about terrorism and bigotry and other catastrophe-age themes that Heroes earnestly believes it can and should speak to. HRG starts screaming for daughter, who is, most likely, dead. Wait. No she’s not! She’s in Nashville! C’mon, Dad! Don’t you watch TV?
Anyway, apology accepted. But while I hate being the dark cloud that rains death upon a can’t-we-all-just-get-along lollapalooza, Heroes Reborn disappoints. Like the original series, but now even more so, the reboot is a slick, cynical recycling of familiar superhero tropes – most of them ripped from the pages of X-Men comics — that pompously strains for real-world resonance. (Racism! Police corruption! The impending VR revolution! North friggin’ Korea!) The two-hour premiere moves with enough verve and vigor that it got me hoping that the show, despite its flaws, can be as engrossing as its first season. But the second week outing is a clunker that left me convinced that Heroes is more likely to squander my interest all over again. It’s a scorpion, sleek but treacherous. But I don’t want to be that frog again.
Heroes Reborn does little to rebuke the charge that we need less from this genre and fewer reboots in general, not more. It should be dismissed out of hand for being a product of dispiriting trends that are cheating us out of bolder, more original entertainment. It participates in which pop culture is becoming a mirror maze prison of geekiness and nostalgia from which there seems to be no escape. As a fanboy myself, I loved watching pop culture discover my passions and cater to me, me, me. I’ve had my fill, though, and I’m ready to grow up. Maybe you’re not me, though. Maybe you’re the kind of person who can’t get enough fantasy about super-powered people, allegory for diversity, oppression and self-realization, and pulpy parables about grief and fury in the age of tragedy and injustice. Maybe you feel no responsibility to the project of redeeming television by reassessing and reconstructing your tastes and viewing habits. And if that’s the case, well, you should still avoid Heroes Reborn. It’s just not good enough.
Like the original series, Heroes Reborn is a bunch of different stories happening in a bunch of different places all at once. Some of them are intriguing to start. In Japan, Miko (Kiki Sukezane), the lonely daughter of a mysterious video-game designer, discovers a secret in the closed world of her strange home. In Chicago, a peculiar gentleman (Pruitt Taylor Vince) with a suitcase full of pennies watches over select Evos and collects the thoughts of people who know more than they should. The narrative pings between many nodes, moving with purpose, cultivating the expectation that eventually tales will intersect and characters will converge. Unlike the original series, there isn’t narration full of mystic mumbo jumbo about the secret synchronicities that govern and link human existence. But there’s a butterfly that flits through the world, signifying … something.
The saga proper begins one year after the Odessa dust-up. In the aftermath of genocidal terrorism, Evos are more demonized and oppressed than ever in most quarters of the globe. The prevailing rational among the haters is that Evos are unnatural and their very existence brings chaos and tragedy. Luke (Zachary Levi) and Joanne (Judi Shekioni) are a married couple that travels the country killing every meta-human they can find, motivated by a vengeance that’s can’t possibly be assuaged – they lost a child in Odessa.
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If they aren’t trying to seek asylum in less hostile countries, Evos in America live nomadically and incognito to avoid persecution. Tommy (Robbie Kay), a high school kid with a power (and a love interest) that’ll remind you of Heroes standout Hiro Nakamura* and a storyline that represents a counterpoint to season 1 Claire, is going on his third state in a year. He’s running on empty, and tired, so tired. But Evos aren’t unwanted everywhere. In the poor Hispanic neighborhoods of Los Angeles, a (suspected) Evo in a Mexican wrestler mask plays violent vigilante and calls himself El Vengador. Kids think he’s a real hero. Their parents don’t mind them thinking so. At least someone is policing their streets and helping them feel safe. Carlos (Ryan Guzman) – a former soldier with a shameful secret – learns the truth about El Vengador and finds himself with a chance at a redemption. Carlos has a priest who can turn into smoke. I like the smoky priest.
These story lines are buggy in different ways. Levi – in a mostly convincing change of page — finds the humanity in his character, but Skekioni does not, and after three hours of watching them murder up a storm, I’m ready to skip to the part where they see the horror, the horror of their ways, via the twist you can see coming hours before it arrives. The teen soap stuff in the Tommy arc is tedious. Carlos might be compelling, but his introductory scene is ridiculous. There’s another major story thread concerning an global conglomerate called Renautas that’s exploiting Evos for apps. Sorry, Renautas. I know Evil Corp. I spent the summer obsessing over Evil Corp. And you are no Evil Corp.! You are Silly Cliché Evil Corp.!
Noteworthy, though, is the dial-down of wish-fulfillment themes that marked the first season of Heroes. There’s nobody here delighting in their abilities before learning the with-great-power-come-great-responsibility lesson. Miko represents a small exception, though it’s interesting that her kick-ass empowerment is expressed in a virtual world. When she brings it into the real world, she’s quickly humbled. You wonder if there’s a point being made there. The El Vengador concept is equally interesting: It makes a lot of sense that a struggling underclass would venerate this barrio Batman. At the same time, the storytelling doesn’t romanticize his practice of violence at all. If Heroes Reborn digs deeper into these ideas, it could create a commendable point of difference for itself.
HRG is the engine that drives Heroes Reborn, and for now, the character that defines it. We pick up with him post-Odessa in a witty scene in which he’s intoning a variation on that “regret” speech once again – but this time, Noah, now a car salesman living a new life with a new wife, is using the lines to make a sale. Noah is also afflicted with amnesia. His story is all about trying to remember what he once knew and why he wanted to forget it. I will now pause for a moment so you can groan. Noah’s memory blanks are initially useful. His rediscovery of his past life allows Kring to refresh our memory of Heroes mythology. He’s also trying to remember stuff we don’t know, so at least we’re on the journey with him, not tapping our feet until he with us. Still, the device becomes exasperating in week two, especially after a poorly staged sequence in a hospital when he’s reviewing surveillance tape of himself from a year ago. Jack Coleman works hard to make his scenes work, although I harbor a fantasy that he’s secretly working against the show. There’s subversion in everything he does. The impish glint behind those glasses, the curl on his lips in even the most serious of moments. It’s in the way he gives shiny eyes at that symbolically loaded butterfly, takes a juicy chomp out of a symbolically loaded apple and slaps it down, or struts around the grounds of the Unity Festival with a cheerful smile that feels radiates creepily disingenuous. His performance is a walking, talking wink. I have no idea what it means, but I enjoy wondering about it. Maybe HRG knows more than he knows. Maybe Coleman is just messing with us. Maybe he, too, wants to escape the mirror maze and reach for something better. You’re my hero, HRG. But you’re also the face of a franchise that just can’t be trusted.
Heroes premieres Thursday at 8 p.m. ET on NBC.