Tim Kring was the creator of crime drama Crossing Jordan which aired on NBC from 2001 to 2007. He came up with the idea for Heroes and pitched it to NBC in 2006. The development of an ensemble action drama owed something to the success of Lost. Kring consulted Lost showrunner and former Crossing Jordan writer Damon Lindelof about pitching the show and how it might develop.
Although the similarities with Lost are clear, the show also attempted to capture the style and aesthetic of American comic books. The style of Heroes was often built around short sharp scenes which built multi episode story arcs. These in turn fed into the larger season arc.
Heroes debuted to over 14 million viewers and became an instant hit. The critical reception was very positive too. To this day most viewers remember the first season as being very strong. However, that is an oversimplification and the way viewers fled once the second season began suggested that viewers allegiance to the show is not as strong as was thought.
As with Lost there was a large ensemble to enjoy and so if one character didn't interest you, another might. The discovery of different powers functioned well to keep viewers interested and the story arcs built well surrounding a mysterious serial killer and an upcoming nuclear explosion.
However logical cracks began to appear early on that would only ever widen. The definition of character's powers was weak and the definition of their personalities could be too. Claire died twice in the first few episodes which was dramatic overkill and Hiro's time travelling became needlessly complex. For an action series based around super heroes there was also a baffling lack of fight scenes.
The first season remained pretty intriguing until the end but there was little payoff to the story. The writers backed out of providing closure and instead kept all of their characters alive and safe for season two. This was an abandonment of the original concept of constantly introducing new characters which would have made for a drastically different show.
Understandably though the producers didn't want to tamper with a formula that had brought them so much success. Unfortunately they didn't understand which part of the formula had succeeded. When season two debuted in September 2007 it became clear that the show had changed into something else. The intrigue and mystery was gone and it was now just assumed that viewers were in love with Peter, Hiro, Claire and the others and would follow them anywhere.
The second season was structured identically to the first and the characters hadn't developed at all. The Writers' Strike of 2007-08 didn't help the show's momentum as the second season had to be wrapped up prematurely. However viewers had swiftly lost faith in the show and when it reappeared for season three in 2008 almost half the original viewership had disappeared. The ratings continued to sink during season three as the plot holes and appalling attention to detail began to bite. Season four debuted to less than six million viewers and continued its gentle decline until the show was cancelled in May 2010.
I watched season one of Heroes shortly after it had finished airing in the States. As a science fiction fan I was immediately hooked on the search for the mysterious Sylar but I was wary of the show.
I felt that immediately after the pilot the characters began to lose connection to the real world. Their day jobs or education were quickly forgotten as they concentrated on the drama surrounding their new powers. It might sound like a silly complaint but slowly each character became just a sketch. There was nothing grounding them anymore, showing us their development. That emotional connection to the lives they were leaving behind was never recovered and it became increasingly difficult for the show to make me care about the plight of the heroes.
There were also tonal problems with some stories feeling quite adult and then Hiro and Ando playing for laughs in an almost childlike way.
Once season two began it became clear that the connection with reality had been severed entirely. Now we were being asked to accept that these characters had no lives and were just super heroes. Hiro and Peter were sent away on consequence-free story arcs just to prevent them from running into Sylar again too soon. The second season also mimicked the structure of the first with a stunning lack of imagination.
In terms of logic and attention to detail season three is one of the most disgraceful things I have ever sat through. Characters would switch their moral positions with no plausible explanation, their powers would morph and change when it suited the story and the plot twists were sometimes as baffling as they were stupid. The most egregious example of the show's lack of reality saw Eric Doyle, a man with the power to control people like puppets escape the prison for super-villains set up by the Company. Doyle, so thrilled to have escaped naturally runs back to his home where he used to run a puppet theatre. Mrs Bennett comes in to see him and offers him money to perform at a birthday party and he accepts. That's right, an escaped convict on the run spends his first day out of prison accepting work at his old job, the first place the Company will come looking for him at any moment. It was writing of such stupidity that it brings me a sad delight to recount it here.
Yet despite abandoning reality to become X-Men without the costumes, there were still no fight scenes. Nor did the morality of the characters ever maintain the simplicity that would have at least satisfied hardcore viewers. Season four was a tamer and more sensible version of the show but it never for one second made you believe anything of consequence was going to happen.
Heroes was a sad waste of an idea that has massive potential. Another super hero show will surely come along one day that can generate the same level of interest but not squander the concept.
The story of Heroes rise and fall is actually unusual in my experience of American television. So many average shows have found their audience and stuck around while an equal number of promising shows have failed to grab enough viewers and were prematurely cancelled. Heroes got exactly what it deserved. Viewers followed the critical response almost identically and when the show was cancelled there was far less complaint than surrounded the axing of far less popular shows like Chuck or Firefly.