Last night's episode of Heroes, the first in new chapter "Fugitives," was pretty damn good. Our characters are returning to normal just as the government is breaking down. Can this show return to form? Maybe.
Let's get some of the bad news out of the way first, and then talk about what this episode, "A Clear and Present Danger," got right.
First of all, the really bad news is that Heroes ratings didn't go up much compared to last season, so if you're hoping that there will be a rebound that convinces NBC to keep investing in Heroes - well, signs point to no. Last night, Heroes finished third in its time slot, with 8.5 million viewers (that's only about 700,000 more than the last episode). But if the show continues to get better, those numbers could grow.
Unfortunately the arc that's planned for this season doesn't bode well for a ratings boost, and here's why. Though I'm not usually one to complain about overused plot devices (I will confess a love of cheesy, overused plots), Heroes' creators made some strategic errors with a storyline about a presidential candidate (Nathan), who uses fear of terrorism to create a special Gitmo just for mutants.
In case you missed the political message in last night's episode, there's even a scene where an Iranian-American character talks about how Nathan's speeches about God-fearing patriotism and anti-terrorism are all about scapegoating people from the Middle East. Plus, the mutants that Nathan is rounding up are dressed in Gitmo-style prison uniforms. So there's a political edge here - but it's completely out of date. This is a great story for 2007, but not for 2009. Now it feels like an unfair liberal pile-on in the wake of Bush's departure, a kind of unnecessary nose-thumbing at a political regime that's already gone.
A less dire concern is that the Fugitives arc also borrows heavily from Marvel's 2006-07 "Civil War" series, about how the government is rounding up superheroes as part of a war on terror. I'm less concerned about that, simply because Heroes has always borrowed heavily from comic books (duh) and at least in this case they're borrowing from a relatively cool and interesting series. Still, if Marvel were publishing Civil War now, I'd have the same issues with it as I do with Fugitives. Why so anachronistic? Two years ago was the right time to tell that story. Today, not so much.
However, I may turn out to be wrong, and millions of viewers may identify very strongly with the tales told in Fugitives and boost those saggy ratings for a show that I believe still has the potential to blow us away. Especially now that Bryan "Pushing Daisies" Fuller is back in the writer's room where he was during Heroes' terrific first season. Which brings me to what was right and good about last night's episode.
Many fans of the show clawed and cried their way through the Villains chapter of Heroes, and not in a fun way. The show's pacing became frenetic just as the narrative arc went incoherent, and it made for a swillish brew. Last night, however, you could feel a tangible shift in pacing and flow. Characters started to feel human again, returning to their jobs and struggling with how to fit into normal society now that they've had so many superheroic experiences. Peter is working as a paramedic, Matt is trying to hold down a security guard job while dealing with endless drama from his live-in girlfriend Speedy. Even Claire is on the cusp of normalcy, with grandma Petrelli about to send her off to some exclusive college.
The writing in this Tim Kring-authored episode was good, and even funny. "What advice can I give you other than kiss my ass?" Peter asks his power-hungry brother Nathan at one point. There's even a good scene with Hiro and Ando, which hasn't happened in what feels like a year. Hiro may have lost his powers, but that doesn't stop him from buying a "lair," and giving Ando a special Andocycle to go with the latex uniform he tries to get his reluctant friend to don.
What made this episode work so well was that the "return to normal" theme in most of the characters' lives contrasts nicely with the escalating violence that's being done against them by Nathan's crew of Snake-Eyes-looking ninjas. During the course of the episode, everyone from Suresh and Hiro to Tracy and Peter gets rounded up and drugged with a cool-looking syringe that makes a weird "trrtrrtrr" noise. Then they're dressed in orange jumpers, chained up, and loaded onto military planes. In a slightly shocking reveal, we discover that HRG is Nathan's right-hand man in the whole Gitmo operation, and that both of them are trying to keep Claire out of the roundup.
Again, this is all good: It's great to see HRG enter the morally gray zone again. It's where he belongs, and makes him an interesting character with more than two dimensions. It's fun to see Nathan go totally evil, and more than anything it's nice to have a plot that brings our heroes together again to fight danger.
The only mutants who resist being rounded up are Claire and Sylar. While I'm a little sick of bad Sylar (his going-good arc was a standout success last season), it's hard not to love watching Zachary Quinto ham it up as he hunts for his birth father and his own mysterious origins. And Claire has got more than new pink lipstick: She's got a new sense of heroic purpose as she sneaks into a Mutant Gitmo-bound plane and quickly releases a bunch of the mutant prisoners so they can escape. Unfortunately, she didn't bargain on finding her father HRG in the cockpit.
Especially towards the end of the episode, we got a lot of great action. The mutants are revolting on the plane; the plane is about to crash; and we're still not sure what Nathan and his mother have planned for the country. Plus, Sylar is still on the loose and his daddy issues just won't stop. Also, for a reason that probably will never be adequately explained, Matt has developed the "prophetic comic book drawing" power, and is churning out images that look sort of like bad Frank Quitely. It's a great setup for next week.
My interest in this show is definitely re-awakened. Even if the plot arc feels a little dated, I'm willing to go with it because the characters are developing in intriguing ways again. If you left the show during Villains, but you miss the old days of saving the cheerleader, I'd say give this show a try again. You might like it.