Last night's Heroes returned to a problem the show had in its first season — too many characters doing too many random things — without returning to that season's strengths. What was rewarding about that season was that we watched our main characters coming together and pulling the narrative threads of the show into an intricate but neat pattern. But with each new episode of season 3 (and last night's "I Am Become Death" was no exception) we are seeing the characters drift into aimless, unconnected scenarios tied to a future of even more pointless confusion. Why are we still watching this show? I've got a few reasons, with spoilers, so be warned.
First of all, jumping back and forth between the "four years from now" future plot and the present day is exciting even if irritatingly ill-conceived. We get to know all kinds of juicy things about our present-day characters. For example: *Future Peter has a cool scar. *Future Claire has awesome PVC-esque outfits and likes to kill people along with Speedy Daphne and present-day villain Knox (who escaped from prison and wanted to torture Claire's dad last episode). * Future Hiro totally sucks compared to the old future Hiro who had a sword and an adult personality. * Future Parkman is still has that brain-mulchingly cute belly, and now he's married to Speedy Daphne. They have a kid and are raising "I can find anybody with my mind" Molly. * Future Mohinder has turned into freaky-breathing, hoodie-wearing, claw-hand man. * Future Sylar has become a Mr. Rogers sweater fan who goes by his old name Gabriel and is the nicest single dad in the universe. But when his son is killed, he goes nuclear (literally). Which of course brings about the first scary future we saw in season 1, with Sylar nuking out. * Future Nathan is president and married Tracy, the neo-Niki who loves to look like a mutant Jackie Kennedy.
The problem here is that while there is an allure to knowing how all these characters' soapy lives turn out, the outcomes just bring more soapiness. This is like interpersonal drama time travel, where excitement is provided by "he slept with her?" moments rather than interesting revelations or spooky premonitions. Instead of coming together, the threads of this season's plot arc are already unraveling. Still, as I said earlier, we keep watching because there's something compelling about a story that flashes forward and gives us boredom-suspending glimpses at the ways our characters will change. We also keep watching because our brains evolved to find order in chaotic patterns, and so perhaps Heroes appeals to some primeval human drive to make sense out of Future Peter's weird speech about how "lines were drawn and sides were chosen." Randomness is amusing, especially when people can fly, or freeze things, or look sultry in the lab. Also, I suspect, there is a certain amount of compelling bitterness that keeps us tuning in at this point. I positively relish ignoring the plot with Hiro and Ando. I try to check my email when these two revoltingly childish guys fight about how they'll kill each other in the future — that way, I read spam instead of the subtitles and get nothing out of the Japanese dialogue. I wish Parkman and the magical African would speak in another language I don't understand too, or go to Burning Man and get leprosy from a batch of really bad drugs. I know it's terrible, but I guess I'm saying that a big part of the reason I stick around through this time travel goulash of a plot is that I'm beginning to love to hate this show. The writers can barely keep up with the story, and instead of going somewhere they just keep larding on more characters, splitting already-existing characters into present and future versions of themselves, and throwing long-lost genetically-engineered triplets into the mix. Again, I think the soap opera comparison is apt here. Heroes does not resolve narrative dilemmas — it simply creates sub-dilemmas. With fire. The fire is another reason we keep watching. I honestly wasn't sure if I was getting genuine or sarcastic pleasure out of the scene where Future Sylar/Gabriel "fights" present Peter with his mind. This climactic battle is represented with . . . camera angles! Lots of camera angles! On their faces! Kind of fast, but not too fast! Because, you know, if you could see mind control it would look like a bunch of jump cuts of two guys who are standing in "I karate chop you" positions while bulging out their eyes.
According to future Peter, the serum which makes ordinary humans gain special powers will completely destroy civilization. Why? Maybe because natural-born special people are fighting the serum-made special people. Or maybe because specials are using their powers as weapons. Again with the solving lack of clarity using opacity. While I've already admitted that the show's incoherence is part of its charm, I do resent the way Heroes has fallen into a common scifi failure mode — one we've seen before in shows like X-Files and Lost. The show is substituting bizarro complexity for genuine speculative ideas. Now the only difference between Heroes and other prime time soaps like Gray's Anatomy is that it makes less sense. I ask you, is it right that Meredith and McDreamy's face-mashing is easier to understand than an apocalyptic future of mutant powers?