Saturday, December 4, 2010

Fantastic DVD Extras Knock Heroes - Season 1 Up A Notch (Barely!)

The Good: Interesting concept, Some good direction, Some of the acting, DVD EXTRAS!
The Bad: Very derivative, Most of the characters are "types," a lot of mediocre acting
The Basics: In a rare occasion, the DVD bonuses push a solidly average television series into a worthwhile buy for the DVD connoisseur.

It always amuses me what becomes a "phenomenon" on television and on DVD. I recall when the first season of Alias was the big thing and genre pundits were convinced it could go on indefinitely. By the fifth season, the episode orders were being continually cut back such that the show went out with so little fanfare as to be virtually unnoticed. Ally McBeal was at the top of the public imagination for a time and when it fell, it fell hard and FAST. For a while the public imagination of genre viewers was focused on a little breakout show called Heroes, which seems to have a following at least as large as that of Lost (click here for my review of that!). With its release on DVD, I found myself doing another Heroes marathon (my first one was before the season finale when one of the cable networks ran the entire first season back to back) and I was forced to conclude what I did after the first marathon.

Heroes is good, but it's not extraordinary television. It's not terribly original, it's not increasingly clever, and it's (sadly) obvious in the way it executes most of its storytelling. In fact, the only reason I can conceive for its popularity is that Heroes is tapping into an audience who has not done a lot of perusing of science fiction/fantasy/super hero genre programming. I mention this because Heroes is ludicrously derivative of the USA original series The 4400. USA and NBC are owned by the same parent company so while some celebrate Tim Kring's originality, I see it as frustratingly incestuous and unoriginal.

Why, then, do I rate this series so high? It's all about the DVDs. And we'll get to that in a moment. First, if you've never heard of or seen Heroes, here is what you may expect from Heroes Season 1 on DVD:

Mohinder Suresh, scientist and student, is dismayed when his father, philosopher and geneticist Chandra Suresh is murdered in New York City. Mohinder soon realizes that the murder is related to Chandra's theory that extraordinary abilities are manifesting in seemingly ordinary people around the world and his father was searching for those people. And Chandra was correct, pinpointing the locations of several individuals who do have superhuman abilities. They include a teenager who can regenerate from virtually any wound, a man who can fly, a cop who can read the thoughts of others, and a young man who can time travel and teleport. But in addition to those figuring out how to use their powers in vague, general terms they can cope with, there are others who are exploiting their powers for nefarious purposes.

Soon, there comes an ominous prophecy about New York City being virtually destroyed by an explosion only months away. The warning comes from Hiro Nakamura, or at least a future version of him, and is soon confirmed by works of a prophetic artist who seems to be able to paint the future. The race then becomes to save the regenerating cheerleader, find the individuals with the superpowers and ultimately to save New York City (and the world) from the destructive forces represented by those villainous enough to use their powers for evil!

The problem is, we've seen this before. Anyone who has seen X-Men understands the concept of mutants with powers and television audiences who were captivated by The 4400 have an even more recent example. This is The 4400 recast such that there is some excitement and intrigue in finding out who has the powers and what they are. But ultimately, at the end of the day, many of the powers possessed by the Heroes are even strikingly similar to those possessed by people on The 4400.

Part of the problem is that the show starts with the novelty of the heroes, but then soon becomes increasingly plot intensive. The last seven episodes (from "Company Man" on) sacrifice almost any sense of character advance the convoluted plot and bring the various heroes from around the world together. The plot serves to advance the convergence of the plot lines and the heroes who become more embodiments of their super power than actually . . . actualized characters.

Still, it's worth it to see who the show is about because some of the characters are neat and the plot (it is heavily serialized, which I like quite a bit) is engaging, if not original. In the first season, the characters presented and explored in depth are:

Mohinder Suresh - A scholarly detective of sorts who is investigating his father's murder, legacy and work and soon discovers that his father was accurately assessing the locations and identities of individuals who had superhuman abilities,

Claire Bennet - The cheerleader who is a normal enough girl, yet is severely depressed. Her suicide attempts yield the understanding that she is virtually indestructible, possessing an ability to regenerate wounds to her body with extreme speed. Daughter of the mysterious Mr. Bennet, she comes to understand her ability is a gift but that she is a potential target to those who would exploit or harm her,

Hiro Nakamura - A young Japanese man who discovers that his geeky obsession with time travel has practical applications when he learns to focus and manipulate time and his position in space. Hiro soon translates himself to the United States where he seeks to fulfill a prophecy to save the cheerleader and the world,

Ando - Hiro's best friend, a sobering influence who has no superhuman powers save to put up with Hiro,

Mr. Bennet - A menacing man and father to Claire who works exceptionally hard to keep her safe. While Claire hides her abilities from him, Bennet works for a secret institution that is responsible for hunting down those with the abilities, an organization whose goals may not be entirely beneficial to humanity or the heroes,

Nathan Petrelli - Congressional candidate from New York City whose sudden ability to fly is kept a closely guarded secret. Working to win an election takes its toll on him, especially when it becomes clear that his part in the designs of the organization Bennet works for might lead to disaster for everyone,

Peter Petrelli - Disturbed by dreams that he can fly, Peter's control of his brother's campaign begins to slip until he comes to term with his own unique ability; he absorbs the powers of superhumans in his vicinity,

Niki/Jessica Sanders - A split personality whose power seems to be that she is a split personality (I know of several people who find this to be a mental illness, but here it's trumpeted as a great superhuman ability). Niki is submerged to a more aggressive Jessica personality who works to protect her son, Micah,

Micah Sanders - A child, son of Niki, who has the ability to manipulate electrical fields, notably computers and whose skills as a result bring him to the attention of people who would use his powers for their own gain,

Matt Parkman - A police officer who suddenly discovers he has the ability to read the thoughts of others, his problems with his wife and his dyslexia soon become sublimated to his problems with an organization that his hunting him and those like him,

Isaac Mendez - A talented artist who has disturbing incidents that result in his ability to paint future events whether he wants to or not,

D.L. Hawkins - Micah's father, a man who can pass through solid objects, he returns to Micah's life determined to keep Jessica from harming him,

and Sylar - A student of Chandra's work who believed he was touched by the same gift as others Chandra predicted. Unfortunately, his mental instability combined well with his ability to steal the superhuman abilities of others by killing them and removing their brains, making him a powerful villain, one set on a collision course with destiny in New York City.

It does not take long before it becomes clear that Sylar is the Alpha villain (at least for the first season), though there are others who arise and have a presence or agenda that is not beneficial either for the world or the lives of the individuals blessed (or cursed, depending on one's position) with the superhuman powers. Matt, Mr. Bennet and Peter all become interested in the existence of Sylar and obsessed with how to stop him. Indeed, one of the few true character journeys of the first season comes in the form of Hiro, who is led to the conclusion that Sylar is indisputably evil and must be stopped at any cost, even if it means killing him, something which the young man never considered himself capable of before.

Part of what makes Heroes remarkably average is the characters are very much "types" instead of actualized characters with their own genuinely distinct personalities. The other problem is that because the cast is so large, there are several characters that have very little airtime (I expected the series to feature Greg Grunberg as Matt quite a bit more than it does) and a lot of the acting is shaky at best. It is strangely easy for guest cast members like George Takei and Malcolm McDowell to sweep in and overwhelm the show even when they have limited screentime. Some of the actors who have the most time on screen like Hayden Panettiere (Claire) and Sendhil Ramamurthy (Mohinder) become overwhelmed by the end of the season by actors whose early performances clearly gave the creative staff more to work with, like Jack Coleman (Mr. Bennet).

What pushes the series up on DVD some, then, are the DVD bonus features. The DVD set features extensive commentaries from many members of the cast. Some of the episode are more engaging with the commentaries on! As well the boxed set features an extensive featurette on the first season which is informative and entertaining. There are fifty deleted scenes which flesh out the episodes nicely and the original cut of the pilot that frankly makes more of an event out of the beginning than the slightly more lackluster one that aired.

The bonus features are enough to push the average show up into an above-average DVD release that is bound to satisfy fans of science fiction and super hero stories, if not so much fans of drama in general.

For other first seasons of science fiction shows, please check out my reviews of:
V - The First Season
Star Trek: The Next Generation - Season 1


For other television reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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