2006 was a very different time for television. For one thing, there had never been a compelling superhero series realized on the small screen. But then came NBC’s Heroes, which filled a huge void on network TV with its sprawling ensemble, its story about superpowered people around the country, and its dense mythology. At the time, the show felt genuinely revolutionary, even if it was borrowing its storytelling tropes from the greatest hits of comic books.
Heroes lasted four seasons, but creatively fizzled by the end of its first, and was cancelled after four seasons because its ratings had collapsed. So why has NBC decided to bring it back five years later? More importantly, how can Heroes Reborn, debuting Thursday, compete in a TV landscape where the kinds of stories it wants to tell are now commonplace?
When the first (Emmy-nominated) season of Heroes debuted in 2006, its use of time travel and other tricky narrative structures was pretty cutting edge for a network show. (Usually studios insisted that each week’s episode be fairly accessible to new viewers.) Now, shows like the CW’s Arrow and The Flash deploy those kinds of storytelling tricks every week and have whole universes of interconnected spinoffs built around them. Heroes Reborn reintroduces a world clogged with new characters and conspiracies to unravel, but it’s so hell-bent on being convoluted that those mysteries quickly lose their appeal.
That self-seriousness, combined with a lack of narrative rigor, is precisely what brought down Heroes in the first place. Characters like the time-traveling Hiro, the brain-eating villain Sylar, and the indestructible cheerleader Claire were fun to follow along with at first, but the show quickly got bogged down in the uninteresting origins of their powers and in the larger web of shadowy government agencies. Heroes Reborn decides to lead with the latter, tossing several unfamiliar characters into an even denser mystery, and expecting the audience to remember plot details from a show that went off the air in 2010.
Set five years after the fourth season finale, Heroes Reborn sees people with superpowers (now dubbed “evos”) facing public scrutiny after a terrorist incident in Texas is blamed on one of their own. One returning character, Noah Bennet (Jack Coleman), seeks to unmask the real perpetrators of the attack, which leads him to cross paths with a slew of new characters. For a show with Heroes in the title, it’s shocking just how many are seemingly mundane human beings, like Noah, the angry vigilantes (Zachary Levi and Judith Shekoni) seeking revenge for the loss of their families in the attack, and Quentin (Henry Zebrowski), a conspiracy theorist who spurs Noah to come out of hiding.
But even the new superheroes often have baffling powers. There’s the awkward teen Tommy (Robbie Kay), who can teleport things ... to somewhere else. There’s Miko (Kiki Sukezane), who can, no kidding, transport herself inside video games. And there’s the promise of many returning favorites, from Hiro to the telepathic Matt Parkman (Greg Grunberg) to the clairvoyant Angela Petrelli (Cristine Rose). Unfortunately, they don’t pop up in the two-hour opener, which is devoted instead to a vast cast of newcomers, each involved in some tiny personal drama that might, at some point in the future, tie into a larger plot.
This was a problem with the original Heroes, too—the creator Tim Kring got so invested in his individual characters that he forgot to unite them into a team. You might recall the show’s first season motto, “Save the cheerleader, save the world,” but you’d probably be hard-pressed to remember just how the plot eventually played out. Kring would set a hundred threads in motion but then struggle to knot them all together, and considering the amount of time Heroes Reborn spends on introducing new characters, it’s fair to worry that his latest effort will struggle in the same way.
Ultimately, you can’t make many excuses for Heroes Reborn considering the evolutionary leaps its genre has made in recent years. The massive Marvel films took lessons from the television model; comic-book adaptations like The Walking Dead own the ratings game; the interconnected worlds of Arrow and The Flash, and ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter, juggle large ensembles and complicated serial storytelling with ease. Heroes Reborn would have to do something drastically different to distinguish itself in 2015, but all it seems to offer so far is more of the same.