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'Heroes'
Santiago Cabrera as Isaac Mendez in NBC's "Heroes." (Paul Drinkwater/NBC)
TELEVISION REVIEW

The strength of 'Heroes' is its psychological nuance

Spandex, my friends, does not rock. And that's one reason to love ``Heroes," in which a handful of humans inexplicably develop superpowers.

This excellent new NBC series finds ordinary people -- a Texas cheerleader, a New York painter, a Las Vegas stripper -- evolving beyond the rest of the race. One is indestructible, one glimpses the future, one can fly -- and none is choking in that shiny, fibrous, synthetic material. You know, the one we wear at the gym to bulk up like the Hulk.

That lack of spandex is what makes ``Heroes" stand out. The show, which premieres tonight at 9 on Channel 7, isn't a comic-book series with an alien-based mythology and exaggerated facial expressions. It will certainly appeal to superhero fanboys, but ``Heroes" has a reality-tinged adult tone more akin to ``The Twilight Zone." You can almost hear Rod Serling's quizzical voice introducing the characters, musing about Isaac Mendez , a struggling artist with a vision, a vision so acute he can paint disastrous events before they even happen . . .

The series creator, Tim Kring , comes to this project from the non-sci-fi realm of ``Crossing Jordan" and ``Providence," and with an emphasis on character over action. Even the title, ``Heroes" instead of ``Superheroes," leans in that direction. Most of Kring's extraordinary people are desolate about their new ability, as it sets them apart from mankind. Claire the cheerleader (Hayden Panettiere ) dives from a tower, cracks her bones, then shimmies herself back to shape. ``I'm a freak show," she complains, sad she's not exactly the jock-magnet she's hoped to be.

Tonight's premiere cleverly -- and in one case, quite surprisingly -- introduces the heroes as they discover their powers. (Greg Grunberg was cast late and will first appear next week as a cop who hears others' thoughts). The cheeriest scenes are of a Japanese office worker with the punny name of Hiro (Masi Oka ). When the Mr. Spock-obsessed Hiro concentrates so hard that he stops time, he runs squealing with glee through the corporate hallway. Oka's voice is so sweetly high-pitched, and so perfectly geeky, he's a delight. The glummest intro belongs to Isaac the artist (Santiago Cabrera ), a heroin addict tormented by prescience.

The heroes don't know one another, but Mohinder (Sendhil Ramamurthy ), a genetics professor from India, has just arrived in New York and will probably provide the series with cohesion. Mohinder wants to know who murdered his father, a geneticist obsessed with a ``global event," and his search may pull our heroes together to form some kind of low-key ``X-Men"-like force. There's a shady man trailing Mohinder, too, which adds a hint of ``X-Files"-like conspiracy to the show.

The acting is distinctive and good enough all around, from newcomers such as Ramamurthy to the most recognizable cast members, Adrian Pasdar and Milo Ventimiglia , who play brothers. And Kring and co-executive producer Dennis Hammer have designed and cast even the smaller roles with flair -- Claire's mother, for example, who is a dog nut played with kooky affection by Ashley Crow.

``Heroes" will move toward viewer wish fulfillment, as the heroes save the world; text at the opening of the show promises as much. But let's hope the series can stay rooted in small moments and psychological nuance, rather than expanding into cartoon fireworks. Like ``Lost," it has the potential to grow into a cross-genre drama that reaches beyond cultiness to all kinds of TV viewers, not least of all those who suffer from spandex-phobia.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

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