WARNING - THis is kind of a rambling, thesis-less piece of mental vomit about character, story and why American TV sucks. You are warned.
I deleted my Heroes Tivo Season Pass this week.
I realized while doing so that I actually stopped liking the show about midway through last season. And I realized the reason. They completely ran out of story, because their characters had peaked.
There is an old adage, that I believe comes from Plato, that story is character. It’s not plot, it’s not actions. It’s character. Think about the stories that have stuck a chord with you and have become iconic.
Star Wars. Indiana Jones. Die Hard. Wall Street. Titanic. Luke. Leia. Darth Vader. Indiana Jones. John McClane. Gordon Gecko. Jack & Rose.
Yes, you remember specific scenes and moments from those films. But you wanted to be John McClane, not some dude in a building held by terrorists. You hated Gordon Gecko, not what he did, but him. You ran through the backyard chasing, or being chased by, your brother waving cardboard tubes at each other making lightsaber sounds.
All those characters had one thing in common. Not that they were awesome, but that they were flawed.
Luke was a no confidence whiney punk.
John McClane was a mortal action hero, who bled and hurt.
Indy was afraid of Snakes.
And Gordon Gecko as villain, his flaw? He was cool. He was suave and likable.
Flaws are what make a character. And characters are story. Ergo flaws are story.
And for the first two seasons of Heroes, their characters were full of flaws. Peter Petrelli is idealistic to a fault. So is Hiro Nakamoto. Neither of their support structures, specifically Nathan Petrelli and Ando, are really there. They are reluctantly drawn into the adventure. This lack of faith is their flaws. Claire just wants to be normal. Even Sylar, who at first was painted as a single minded killing machine, turned out to have a hunger that drives him, similar to a drug addiction.
The characters were compelling and interesting. They were given interesting things to do. First, they had to save the cheerleader. They had to save the world. Done and done. And all was right with the world. They did some smart things at the end of Season One too. They killed Peter, or so I thought. They banished Hiro to Feudal Japan, and basically take away his power. And they sorta kinda get rid of Sylar. And they needed to do all of these things, because they were up against the Superman problem. That is the situation the comics and all the movies find themselves in, which is Superman, basically being un-killable, is boring. That’s why it’s always with the Kryptonite. Take away the powers, and it’s suddenly interesting. It just stops being interesting after the third time. Superman is boring, Clark Kent is interesting. And that’s what made Smallville work. It was about Clark, not Superman.
Peter is basically god by the end of Season One, and Syler his antithesis. Not necessarily the devil, because that has all sorts of other things that go along with it like temptation and the like, but basically it’s ultimate good vs. ultimate bad. In their powerfulness, their flaws became irrelevant, and therefore a story problem.
And Hiro poses just as much of a story problem. Time Travel is a pain in the ass for telling a good story. Few movies have done it well. Primer, Time Crimes, and Terminator ( 1 & 2 ) handle it well. You can never be “too late” to do anything. Ah, damn. Cheerleaders dead. Let’s go back in time 20 minutes and save her. A good example is in Harry Potter. Rowling is always throwing in little magically things as a throwaway to make the world seem more fantastic and whimsical. In one book, a teacher gives Hermoine a trinket to travel through time, and she tells Harry she’s been using it to take extra classes. At that point Harry should have punched her square in the face, taken it and traveled back in time to STOP HIS PARENTS FROM BEING MURDERED.
At the end of season one, a lot of these issues were resolved. One guy is dead, one is lost in time, and one is unknown, but he is the bad guy, so the heroes will have a nice big challenge to overcome. All’s good. Season two, bring on a whole new set of heroes. RIght? Wrong. No, those characters were popular, the actors who portrayed them hit it off with the audience, and in TV, you gotta not just make the audience happy, you gotta keep em coming back. Which means NOT making them angry.
And that is the problem with serialized television. The audience wants what it knows. The creators want to give it to them. And the networks just want to keep them coming back to hammer them with Nissan product placements. But you can’t create good characters with an arc if the endpoint is unknown. A story needs a good beginning, a meaty middle, and a satisfying ending. Season one gave me that. Season two, tried to recreate that same energy by focussing on some other characters like HRG and taking away Peter and Hiro’s powers, but it floundered. If it weren’t for a single episode ( “Company Man” HRG’s origin story that I consider one of the best hours of TV in the past decade ) I would say that season two was a wash.
If you are doing serialized TV, you need an exit strategy from day one. When Babylon 5 came on, J. Michael Straczynski planned it for five years of TV. Not four, not six. Five. And up until 3/4th of the way through season 4, it works well. But then, because the series was going to be cancelled, a whole bunch of story was crammed in to those last few episodes. And they were good. Dense, and felt a bit rushed, but good. THen the series got picked up for a 5th season, and it’s stories had been told. That’s why the fifth season kind of, well, sucks.
If more TV set out like this, which is more like how the British do it, serialized TV would be better. So this is a plea to show runners making serialized TV. Make a plan. Stick to it. Don’t just come up with a good idea for a pilot. Come up with a good Season One. And know what, if that goes well, goes on in season two.
And if that’s all you got, walk away and make something new.