TV Rewind: Genre Fans Owe NBC's Heroes a Debt

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TV Rewind: Genre Fans Owe NBC's <i>Heroes</i> a Debt

Editor’s Note: Welcome to our TV Rewind column! The Paste writers are diving into the streaming catalogue to discuss some of our favorite classic series as well as great shows we’re watching for the first time. Come relive your TV past with us, or discover what should be your next binge watch below:

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Whether you want to admit to it now or not, you—like almost everyone else in the early 2000s—probably loved NBC’s Heroes. At least for a little while.

The high concept drama, which followed the story of a dozen ordinary people across the globe as they suddenly realized they had extraordinary abilities, was always as much character study as it was a comic book romp, slowly teasing out connections between its major players and pushing them all inexorably together throughout its first season, ostensibly so that they might prevent the destruction of New York City in the massive explosion that was teased in each episode. Part of the fun of Heroes was figuring out precisely how all these people were connected to one another, how their powers worked, and whether or not their abilities would ever be useful in any real way, let alone as part of saving New York.

The series boasted a positively massive number of central characters, which spanned almost all age ranges and multiple nationalities. Texas cheerleader Claire Bennett (Hayden Panettiere) was essentially indestructible and could regenerate, Wolverine-style. Japanese office drone Hiro Nakamura (Masi Oka) could teleport and travel in time. NYC paramedic Peter Petrelli (Milo Ventimiglia) could mimic the powers of others, while his brother Nathan (Adrian Pasdar), a state senator, could fly. Single mother Nikki (Ali Larter) had super strength that she could only access when her alternate personality was in control. LAPD cop Matt Parker (Greg Grunberg) was a telepath who could read minds and eventually project illusions. Other characters boasted abilities like electrokinesis, phasing, and precognition.

Oh, and the villain was essentially a superpowered serial killer, stalking other enhanced individuals so that he could literally cut open their brains and steal their powers. (Dexter could never!)

In short; Heroes was often a whole lot, but man that first season was truly great television. Its bonkers cliffhangers and surprise twists were the definition of must-see TV, true viral pop culture moments that existed long before social media made going viral passe. But while Heroes’ dramatic episode endings certainly provided buzzy watercooler moments, they also served larger, necessary in-narrative purposes in that first year, advancing the season’s primary story in some significant way or adding new layers to characters we thought we knew.

Yes, eventually the show lost interest in more than half of its main characters, forgot that Gabriel Sylar (Zachary Quinto) was supposed to be an irredeemable monster, and got way too invested in the internal mythology of the secret organization called The Company that tracked people with abilities for various shady and nefarious reasons. You can argue that maybe the show got too popular for its own good (it’s truly the only explanation for Nathan, Peter, and Sylar all surviving that first season finale), but its fall from grace was swift, messy, and merciless as it essentially self-destructed under the weight of its own directionless hubris.

At this point, it’s almost too easy to mock the meteoric rise and subsequent calamitous fall of a show that went from national must-see to tragic joke in what felt like the blink of an eye. But Heroes honestly deserves more credit than it gets: not just for that near-perfect first season, but also for the way it irrevocably changed the genre television landscape.

In the wake of everything that came after, it’s easy to forget that Heroes Season 1 was a bonafide smash hit, racking up eight Emmy nominations and a Golden Globe win for Best Television Drama. Seventeen million people tuned in to watch its Season 2 premiere. (Do you know what television execs would do today to get 17 million viewers to watch anything? Spoiler alert: a lot.) And there is no shortage of blame to go around when it comes to the reasons for Heroes’ eventual failure, ranging from the show’s shockingly ??laissez-faire attitude toward things like “a consistent internal mythology” or its inability to commit to basic concepts like which characters were meant to be good or evil during any given week. But genre fans are often too quick to forget that not only was Heroes actually really good once upon a time, its existence went a long way toward legitimizing the world of superhero stories on the small screen.

Mostly because when Heroes first premiered, all the way back in 2006, there basically weren’t any at the time. Sure, Lost was a science fiction juggernaut that had launched a couple of years prior and teen Superman prequel Smallville had been on the air for five years by that point. But there was truly nothing like Heroes, with its pulpy comic book feel, diverse array of interconnected characters with an intriguing variety of powers, and twisty season-long plot revolving around an easily memorable catchphrase. (“Save the cheerleader, save the world!”)

Basically, Heroes walked so the half-dozen superhero properties we all now watch each week could run. I mean, this series predates the first Iron Man movie. (Yes, really!) Love it or hate it, Heroes helped define what superhero TV was supposed to be and do. And it’s true that at its worst, it was an abomination. But at its best, it was truly something exceptional. And though it would eventually go on to become both a cautionary tale and an industry joke, its first season really does stand the test of time.

Why? Because Season 1 remembers why we all care so much about superhero stories in the first place: The people at their centers. The most memorable moments of the show have nothing to do with climatic battles or superpowered face-offs. It’s Claire’s morally gray father Noah Bennet (Jack Coleman) choosing to send his adopted daughter into hiding and giving up his memories to keep her safe. It’s the realization that dorky, awkward Hiro is going to somehow become the katana-wielding badass who goes back in time to warn Peter about Sylar in a New York City subway. It’s Peter’s bottomless love for his brother, whether Nathan deserves it or not. The powers are all just icing on the cake of these people’s stories, and Heroes, like all good superhero tales, knew that. It’s just a shame it forgot it so quickly.
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Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.

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