In advance of the 'Heroes: Reborn' finale, EW revisits the most critically panned season of its predecessor
It’s always interesting, in this age of Peak TV, to look back at shows from even just a few years ago and notice radical differences in the format. Heroes is particularly fascinating in that respect because it’s one of the few shows to have existed on both sides of the dividing line. The breakout first season debuted way back when a single show like Lost could still dominate pop culture, while the sequel series Heroes Reborn returned this fall amidst a veritable arms race of original content. Now that we’re mere hours away from the Heroes Reborn finale, an ending that looks set to stick after NBC declined to order another season, perhaps it’s time to look back at original series for anything missed the first time around.
The series’ general cultural arc is already pretty well-established: the first season enthralled viewers eager for more Lost-style sci-fi mythology, but the series never regained its momentum after the Writer’s Guild strike cut the all-important season 2 in half. By the fourth and final season of Heroes, barely anyone was watching the once-promising show. That’s a shame, because season 4 of Heroes was a fascinating, colorful carnival that actually came closest to reaching the first season’s heights.
Each season of Heroes doubled as a “volume,” part of the show’s attempt at connecting with its comic-book influences (a more palatable one than its infatuation with Comic Sans font). Season 4 was a two-parter, ending in “Volume Five: Redemption.” Just like Star Wars: The Force Awakens (whose first line “this will begin to make things right” reads like a coded apology for the prequels), season 4 of Heroes baked its meta-fictive ship-righting into the narrative itself. Previously villainous characters like Noah Bennet and Sylar searched for new meaning alongside the show.
Noah constantly hit barriers that threw him back into his old ways, but season 4 actually succeeded at fixing some of the show’s long-standing problems. For one thing, several of its main characters had simply gotten too powerful by the middle seasons. Hiro Nakamura could traverse all of time and space in the blink of an eye, and Claire Bennet became functionally immortal, while Sylar and Peter Petrelli became functional immortals who could also shapeshift, move objects, and shoot lightning. It’s hard to tell relatable stories when your characters are omnipotent; just ask anyone who’s ever written a Superman comic. Season 4 finally brought these characters down to earth again. No amount of rapid-healing could help Claire find new friends at college, Peter’s power-absorption was limited to one ability at a time, and Hiro was diagnosed with a deadly brain tumor, forcing him to race against time to undo his past mistakes. These fixes were far from perfect (Hiro’s journey broke the show’s previously-established time travel rules, and Claire’s newfound quasi-romance with a female peer was handled strangely), but they at least made the characters feel fresh again after seasons of stagnation.
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The Sylar fix in particular was the kind of genuinely interesting sci-fi storytelling that showed off the show’s unique abilities. At the end of season 3, a small group of heroes secretly wiped the serial killer’s mind and transformed him into a facsimile of the slain Nathan Petrelli. The Ship of Theseus paradox — if you replace every single part of a ship, is it still the same ship? — was simulated when Sylar’s powers began to emerge and conflict with Nathan’s memories. In a show that so often treated death as a pure shock-value plot device, the question of whether someone can still live on through just their memories was given tender exploration.
Some of this positive change is probably due to the return of Bryan Fuller. The celebrated creator of Hannibal was a major creative force on the show’s instrumental debut season, and superfans could probably connect his departure to the show’s quality decline. After Pushing Daisies went the way of his other canceled-too-soon projects, Fuller returned to his old stomping grounds for season 4. His time back was brief he soon left to pursue more of his own projects — and only has writing credit on one episode. However, his creative influence can be felt everywhere, particularly in the colorful aesthetic of the season’s villain.
In place of the incapacitated Sylar, Heroes season 4 finally found another worthy Big Bad in carnival ringleader Samuel Sullivan. The show constantly riffed on the X-Men but was always missing its own Magneto, a powerful villain who could challenge the heroes ideologically as well as physically. Samuel used his carnie charm to sell the heroes on the idea of a permanent home, free from prejudice or violence, while buildling up a violent supervillain plot against New York City. His mix of charisma and power created a much more dangerous villain than the cardboard cutouts of Adam Monroe and Arthur Petrelli, because it’s easy to see this guy’s point. Likening the superpowered characters to outsiders, artists, and freaks actually fixes one of the X-Men’s long-standing problems: its identification with the struggles of racial and sexual minorities. (In brief sum, real-life minorities are persecuted for no reason other than the color of their skin or the gender they find attractive, but Marvel mutants are persecuted because they can level cities; it’s quite a problematic equivalency).
In addition to arriving before the advent of Peak TV, Heroes also debuted before the one-two punch of Iron Man and The Dark Knight changed superhero narratives forever. Pop culture is dominated by superhero stories now, but they’re either “realistic” grinders in the Zack Snyder mold or factory-line Marvel spectacles where the heroes fight off endless hordes of indistinguishable robots. Season 4 of Heroes was far from perfect, but it would be nice to see more superhero stories emulate its colorful blend of unabashed superheroics and crazy sci-fi storytelling.