Of all the supernatural shows that have premiered in recent years, NBC's "Heroes" always had special promise: an epic feel, a comic-book knack for pacing, and a handful of standout characters, from the corrupt politician who could fly to the lovable nerd who could travel through time.
But while the show won a devoted following, it also quickly built a reputation for disappointment. "Heroes" routinely builds up to climaxes that fizzle, adds and drops characters with lightning speed, rewrites its own rules with abandon. NBC sent the first hour of tonight's two-hour season premiere to critics, and it's sprinkled with some of the original fun: inventive special effects, a twist or two, some nifty gore. That doesn't stop it from being the same, familiar mess.
The theme of this season is "Villains," which seems to refer to the notion of good people wrestling with bad motives. Of course, "Heroes" had a vessel for that sort of conflict: Jack Coleman's HRG, easily the show's most intriguing character. But he barely appears in tonight's episode, nor do many of the other regulars; we only get glimpses of bipolar Niki and mind-reading Matt.
Instead, "Heroes" follows its pattern of adding on, as we're introduced to Daphne, yet another young, hot heroine with yet another power. The show also retreads old ground, as Hiro zaps himself to yet another time period, where he sees yet another apocalypse he'll eventually have to avert. Here's where the art-design budget has limits, too; the dark cloud gathering looks exactly like the one that failed to destroy New York in season one.
We also spend some quality time with Sylar, the show's original ubervillain, who stalks self-healing Claire in a scene lifted straight from the horror-film playbook. (She spends most of the scene holding a butcher knife.) We get a more-than-necessary share of whiny Maya, last season's worst-conceived addition, whose eyes get gooey, black, and deadly whenever she gets mad. And we hang out with Mohinder, who has a new epiphany about how the superpowers came to be. Alas, it has little to do with the various theories posited so far: the parts of the brain we don't use, the next stage of human evolution. Perhaps there were others, too, but I've forgotten them all.
These aren't problems limited to "Heroes"; nearly every network sci-fi serial drama has struggled with the notion that the writers are making up the rules as they go. And when we know they can zap their way out of any new conflict by inventing some convenient superpower, all sense of dramatic tension disappears.
Fox's much-hyped new series "Fringe" has a similar problem: So far, every new plot has been resolved by a mad scientist who knows just the right high-tech gadget for the job. And while I'm willing to give up on that show fairly quickly, I still feel like I'm rooting for "Heroes" to succeed. At its best, "Heroes" has been unpretentious, pulpy fun. I still marvel at one masterfully cut sequence from last season, when a dream morphed into a real-life fight scene.
But when it fails, this show is worse than a muddle; it's a muddle that has already run out of fresh ideas. Tonight, the writers don't even bother crafting their standard self-serious narration for Mohinder. They just have him quote William Butler Yeats at length. What's coming next week? Shakespeare or Stephen King?