The return of Heroes this coming Monday marks a milestone in the new television season for a pair of reasons. First, even with its luster dimmed by a controversial and poorly received second season, Heroes remains the only scripted series on the NBC primetime schedule that combines both buzz and decent ratings. And second, its return will be the first test of just how well the shows brought to a halt by the writers' strike will fare after their long layoffs.
When the strike ended in February, the producers of Heroes and NBC faced a choice: rush ahead with "Villains," the episode cycle that was originally intended to finish up the second season, and cut a good deal of plot development in the process; or simply wrap things up until the fall by stating that there was no way to both resume production and deliver a satisfactory conclusion.
The latter course was chosen, but while this might have been the wise thing to do artistically (some shows that came back and then rushed their season climaxes suffered for that decision), it represented a risk because Heroes had already lost much of its first season momentum, and would now be off the air for nine more months. The producers have said that they have taken note of the fan reaction to Season Two and have plotted the coming season to give people more of what originally worked. But audiences do not have endless patience, and it remains to be seen if Heroes can become a phenomenon all over again.
The problems on Heroes date back to the conclusion of the first season. The climactic battle between Hiro Nakamura (Masi Oka) and Sylar (Zachary Quinto) seemed hasty and didn't deliver the catharsis many had anticipated after months of being told that the fate of the world hung in the balance. A key voice left when original executive producer Bryan Fuller departed Heroes to take command of Pushing Daisies.
The first season told the story of how the various heroes living in different parts of the world had come to understand their powers, and traced the growing connections between them. But the second season began with the cast members again scattered, and to no apparent end. Why was Peter Petrelli (Milo Ventimiglia) in a shipping container in Ireland, and why, oh why was Hiro in medieval Japan? The bits of humor that lightened the first season were nearly gone.
Another issue dealt with the introduction of new cast members. Heroes brought new characters on the scene throughout its first season, and most were well received. Likewise, other characters that appeared as if they would be part of the show's permanent cast were killed off -- bold moves, but necessary ones if viewers were to buy into the life-and-death stakes. But the Season Two newbies mostly just bored people, especially Maya, who had the ability to give anyone an instantly fatal illness if they got her angry enough. The murder of Maya's even more boring brother was a highlight of the season, probably not the reaction the producers wanted considering he was supposed to be one of the good guys.
Heroes is pulling out all the promotional stops in an effort to remind people that it's not only still on the air, but that it's again the series people fell in love with two Septembers back. The "Villains" arc will run for 13 episodes, giving fans the promise of a quick resolution before Christmas. One of the hooks is the hint that some of the characters who have been unambiguously heroic to this point may become tempted by the dark side of the force. This duality was always present in the character of Niki/Jessica (Ali Larter), who seemed to perish in the final episode of Season Two. But we never saw a body, and lo and behold, Larter is back this season playing someone named Tracy Strauss. Is Tracy a third personality, or is this an entirely different person played by the same actress?
The Heroes cast will continue to expand, due primarily to the introduction of the various Villains who are sprung from a not-secure-enough prison in the season premiere. Jamie Hector, the quietly menacing Marlo on The Wire, gets to play a more otherworldly villain this time as Knox, a gang member who draws strength from the fear of others, a good quality for a bad guy to have.
Fans are likely to react well to the new characters as long as they are strongly integrated into the overall story right away. The major lesson that the producers should have learned from the reaction to the previous season is that the time for lengthy exposition is over: viewers want to see key characters interacting on a weekly basis.