Heroes’ lack of self-awareness

31May07

I haven’t blogged about Heroes, a show that I watch regularly and enjoy only intermittently. When it’s on its game – episodes like “Six Months Ago,” “Company Man,” and “Five Years Gone” – it’s pretty engrossing, playing with dense mythology and engaging characters. But at its worst, the dialogue is horribly on-the-nose (especially every line Suresh says), the characters become wooden game board pieces, and the storyworld is treated sloppily. Oddly enough, I find that the show’s worst episodes are written by creator Tim Kring – he seems to take credit for episodes with the worst dialogue and plotting.

The season finale was a quintessential Kring episode. The shows leading to the finale had set-up both an inevitable scrum with Sylar and an intergenerational mythology about the parents of the current heroes. Beyond the annoyingly stilted dialogue and failed attempts to make us care about Niki and D.L., the episode completely dropped the ball about telling us anything (or setting up suspense) about Linderman’s partners. And then the fight with Sylar was clunky and didn’t take advantage the characters’ powers, along with a whole host of plot holes and “why didn’t they do this?” questions (for instance, with all the various powers available to be used, why do they try to take down Sylar with a conventional sword?). Underwhelming at best, and the online discussions have not been kind.

But after reading MediaMaven’s discussion of this brief explanation from Tim Kring, I’ve lost all faith in the showrunner’s understanding of his own show. When asked why Peter didn’t fly away himself, Kring first says “You know, theoretically you’re not supposed to be thinking about that.” He then gives a tepid rationalization of the action, but admits that it’s a stretch, saying “It requires the proverbial suspension of disbelief” to justify the heroic rescue from Nathan. That’s right – the climactic moment designed to be the emotional payoff & culmination of the season-long plot requires us to suspend our doubt and critical judgment.

It has been widely reported that Kring knows nothing about comic books, as he relies on his other writers to provide superhero conventions while Kring focuses on making a show appealing to the mainstream, non-comics viewers. But the show’s plotting and mythology encourages a mode of “forensic fandom” similar to many narratively complex programs, like Lost or Battlestar Galactica. Viewers are encouraged to think about how everything fits together, the mechanics of the superpowers, origin stories, and the backstory web of relationships – this is what makes the show distinct from the average primetime drama, fueling its best episodes and cementing its ties to both comic books and serialized television.

To say that we simply shouldn’t worry about continuity and allow ourselves to be swept up by the emotion of the fraternal rescue shows two aspects of Kring’s lack of understanding of his own show. First, such suspension of disbelief needs to be earned by creating emotional engagement so engrossing that we ignore logic and rationality – I can’t think of a single moment in the show’s first season that achieved such depth of involvement, and if Kring thinks that emotional investment in character is what’s driving the show’s popularity, I think he’s quite mistaken. Second, comic book narrative and its associated fanbase is all about filling in gaps in continuity and contemplating the rules of the storyworld, especially the distinctive elements of superpowers. To suggest that we shouldn’t be thinking about the heroes’ powers during a climactic battle would be like saying we shouldn’t be thinking about the medical abilities of the doctors on House when they’re working with patients – that’s only what the show’s all about!

MediaMaven thinks that this comment shows that Kring doesn’t respect his viewers; I’d say that it shows more of a complete lack of understanding of the narrative tradition and form he’s working in, and a disconnect between the creator and his own show. Given that, my hopes for the show’s future are dwindling fast.



9 Responses to “Heroes’ lack of self-awareness”

  1. 1 Media Maven

    Thanks for the link! I just wanted to clarify that you and I are on completely on the same page here. Perhaps my angry rhetorical questions (I can be a bit overzealous when I’m stickin it to the Man) on my post masked my point a bit too much, but my main idea was the same as yours: Kring has failed to recognize that Heroes’ popularity stems primarily from the fans who flood cyberspace with message boards and forums full of questions about every detail of the immense Heroes storyworld. To have the entire season(!) hinge on the ludicrous hope that fans would NOT question the action is inexcusable and downright puzzling. So not only does it show a lack of understanding as you mention, but it shows a great disrespect for the fans, whose intelligence and dedication Kring grossly underestimates.

    The utter failure of the finale and Tim Kring’s subsequent “explanation” have sadly pushed me to the point where I have to remind myself how much I enjoyed the rest of the season. Hopefully, there will be enough backlash ( and I’m certainly glad to be a part of it!) to ensure that Kring doesn’t make the same mistake twice.

  2. 2 shaunhuston

    It’s interesting reading this exchange as I not only thoroughly enjoyed season 1 of Heroes, and found myself compelled by the finale, but on both counts found myself enjoying the show for some of the very qualities being cited as flaws here (though certainly not for Suresh’s voiceovers, which are almost always cringe-inducing).

    I see the “clunkiness” and “illogic” of the finale as reflective of the series’ premise, which is to show us a world where “ordinary” people, unexpectedly and even reluctantly, find themsleves in possession of extraordinary abilities. Most of the “why didn’t they just”-type questions seem to be more or less answerable by pointing to the ambivalence and/or lack of confidence that all of the collected “heroes” have with their powers. While I certainly could have believed one or two people acting in a surefooted way to “stop” Sylar (and, certainly one of the show’s strengths lies in the ambiguities regarding its possible metanarratives), for the most part not maximizing their options seemed to be consistent with the arc of the first season. I would have found it to be especially worthy of eyerolling if everyone gathered at Kirby Plaza had come together as a unit to defeat Sylar, if for no othe reason than the fact that they are mostly strangers to each other. Most importantly, Peter was consistently shown to be not entirely in control of his abilities, particularly when confronted by Sylar. Similarly, Nathan was given enough moments of doubt during the season to make his final decision credible, even if it is hardly above questioning.

    If you haven’t read it yet, Juan Cole’s Salon article on Heroes and 24 might offer a reading of the newer show’s first season and finale that sits better with you than Tim Kring’s. Kring has certainly been far too quick to wave his “not a comic book-guy” credentials around this year, but I’m not sure how many scripted TV shows are truly reflective of a single voice and vision. 24, for example, has always struck me as being far more ambivalent about U.S. intelligence practices, including the use of torture, and the War on Terrorism writ large, than Joel Surnow would like to believe it is. I’ve also recently become aware that Shondra Rhimes is a true-believer in the mommy wars, and the proposition that women, inevitably, have to choose between wife and mother and career and independence. This explains much about the narrative absurdities that weigh down Grey’s Anatomy, but I am not convinced that the actresses on the show have interpreted their characters through the mommy wars lens. I think they see their characters as being more complicated, and having more options, than Rhimes thinks they do. I realize that I’m treading on territory more in the realm of others’ specialities here, but, while it is disappointing when the creators of art and entertainment that we watch and enjoy turn out to be stupid, or insane, or politically questionable, except in a few instances, maybe David Simon and The Wire, for example, I’m not sure that their readings of their own work need to be given determinative or even privileged value.

  3. Shaun – thanks for the comments. I agree that most shows are much more multi-vocal than the perspective of a single writer (save for a David Kelley or Aaron Sorkin workhorse), and are typically full of contradictions from a range of sources. What I find interesting is that the Kring-scripted episodes seem weaker than others, even though on most shows, the showrunner’s episodes are the peaks. It could be because when a showrunner scripts an episode, there may be less collaboration as the staff doesn’t want to feedback to the boss (although every show does work differently).

    I’m less frustrated with the plot holes in the show (which arguably could be attributed to character hesitancies) and more with the hyper-wooden dialogue and arch tone. The show at its best has fun, and at its worst takes itself way too seriously. It can deliver serious ideas, as Cole suggests, but it can’t do it through trying to offer these semi-profound statements about the human condition. Kring seems to play to the show’s worst qualities rather than its best, and that worries me…

  4. i think the folks over at entertainment weekly said it best about mohinder.

    still kring’s willingness to shrug off the minutia of a complex television show seems problematic in the long run.

    after all two of the biggest and more complex powers, hiro’s time traveling and peter’s power absorption went relatively unexplained from the beginning, in that there are clearly several theories by which to operate and they seemed reluctant to pick one.

    moreover, from the beginning kring has publicly placed importance on killing characters off. i know you have talked about this issue previously with regard to bsg, and it certainly has a place but kring seems to want to use it so that he doesn’t have to deal with the messes he creates, corners he backs himself into or any sort of long term investment. which of course is self fulfilling in that it doesn’t want to make me get invested in the long term either.

  5. 5 shaunhuston

    I didn’t really mean to dimiss the significance of having a showrunner on a series who doesn’t seem to know what s/he is doing. For me, the X-Files is a pretty good example of a show that a) survived a certain amount of cluelessness on the part of its creator, in that I think that Chris Carter was much more invested in the “Myth Arc”, consipracy aspect of the show’s narrative, while many of the fans were more invested in the characters; people cared about the conspiracies because Mulder and Scully cared, not because the underlying plot(ting) was intrinsically interesting (truthfully, it was a mess) and b) probably suffered over the course of its run because of this cluelessness. The show managed, I would say, 5 good seasons before falling apart, but when it started to go bad, it truly disintegrated. So, I do agree that if Kring is lost at sea on his own show, that doesn’t bode well for a healthy run over time, assuming that he retains creative control. However, if others on the show, actors, writers, other producers, do have more of a clue, it is possible to still produce good television, at least for awhile.

    The other issue is one related to interpretation, specifically of the Heroes finale, and this is the point I was more interested in my initial comment. Kring’s explanation/interpretation of the finale is one thing, but I don’t think that his perspective should limit or diminish other possible ways of understanding the final espisode to season 1 (or the significance of the season as a whole). It seems likely that Juan Cole, for example, is reading more into the series than perhaps Kring, or any individual on the show, intended, but the nexus of meaning lies in between author, audience, and context more than it does with any single source.

    My jumping off point was to note how interesting it was that others were finding fault with qualities of the finale that I found compelling. I think the ability of a TV show to prompt multiple readings, and passionate reactions – for and against its direction – is a sign of a series that is, at the least, interesting, if still flawed. For the moment, I think that Heroes flaws can be understood as matters of art, rather than as matters of the emporer having no clothes.

  6. Shaun – I think we agree mostly, although you seem more willing to embrace the flaws that drive me nuts. I don’t think the show is awful, but rather that its lack of consistency and questions about Kring’s own role are red flags. It definitely allows a range of engagements & interpretations – for another more harsh reading, check out this comparison between the Heroes & Lost finales.

  7. 7 Gary Blake

    The problem that I find with the show is this. We get right to the end then it goes flat on the obvious fight between pert and Gabriel. It should have been huge, we were waiting for it but it never happened.

    Perhaps they run out of money for the computer time to do the special effects? I have no idea. I did not care if they both died or both lived. It just had to happen after a whole season of build up!

  8. 8 THE MOVEMENT TO PUT TIM KRING IN JAIL

    Heroes doesn’t work because it’s stolen IP from two NYC underground artists called The Twins.
    tim kring is a hack and he’s going to jail.
    All of the Heroes fans( the few that are left) are going to be stunned when the truth comes out about NBC and tim kring.
    log on to: http://blog.the-eg.com/2007/12/04/tim-kring
    and read all about how tim kring “lied and cheated” to get Heroes on the air.


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