Rethinking Heroes and Mea Culpas

16Nov07

I’m down in Cambridge for a few days, attending a double-decker of conferences. First up, Futures of Entertainment 2, a two-day meetings of the minds between media industry folks and scholars, and then Unboxing TV, a set of meetings among a small number of television scholars exploring the future of both the medium and the academic field. I’ll try to post some thoughts along the way here.

As an appetizer to the conferences, I attended an event tonight at MIT featuring Jesse Alexander and Mark Warshaw, two producers at Heroes. As my last post and the excellent conversation that followed in the comments attests, I’ve not been terribly impressed with Heroes this season, and have a general ambivalence to some aspects of the show as a whole. My blogging might make it seem like I really hate the show, but I’ll claim rhetorical excess for effect (yes, I have suffered no black eye goop). Instead, I’d say that Heroes frustrates me like no other show, because has the potential to be great quite often, and thus its failings seem even more irritating than a consistently mediocre show.

After hearing Jesse & Mark’s discussion, and a lengthy personal conversation with Jesse, I feel much more comfortable with the mea culpa that Tim Kring delivered to Entertainment Weekly – Jesse reiterated many of the same points, admitting the show’s mistakes this season. But Jesse’s explanations were more clear, pointing not to the writers just flying blind into walls, but really trying to figure out the best way to ramp up a new storyline and mistakenly following last year’s slow-burn model of character introduction and flashbacking for backstory, without providing the underlying narrative motivation. He made it clear that the show purposely tries to deliver at a range of different levels, from the hardcore mythology geek to the casual fan hooked into one character or storyline, and admits that the range of storytelling tones is designed to widen their fan base, not cater to any one type of fan. So they view me hating Suresh’s voiceovers as an acceptable cost, as there are other elements aimed at me, and there are those out there who find Suresh appealing.

But more impressive for me was the confidence with which they spoke about the creative process, which seemed very much aimed at experimentation while still rooted in genre norms, using a more improvisatory and ‘jam band’ style of writing than typical on serialized programs. They write the show collaboratively, breaking multiple episodes in the writers’ room and then individual writers or teams drafting one storyline or character arc across episodes. Then one writer or team will be in charge of stitching together each episode, incorporating arcs from other writers. The commitment to transmedia storytelling runs throughout the entire creative team, leading to an unprecedented cooperation & coordinated vision across media platforms, much more successfully than other innovators like Lost and The Office. A great example was the excellent episode “Five Years Gone,” which spun into an alternate future designed in part to enable a more action-oriented Heroes videogame currently in development.

Some other interesting tidbits: The online content (which I don’t follow, but Mark said there are over 10,000 pages of Heroes content on NBC.com!) can often foreshadow & preview upcoming stories to build anticipation, or deepen backstories or fill-in gaps, all possible because the creative processes are intertwined, not ancillary. The global success of the show is definitely intertwined with the globalized storyworld, with the now-shelved Heroes: Origins designed to highlight even more international characters. And getting Kristen Bell created good buzz in the popular press (People, EW), which seems quite influential to TV executives!

All in all, a great start to my conference going. And while I’m not ready to praise season 2 of Heroes fully, I can say that my confidence and faith in the creators has been increased, which is crucial to enjoying long-form serialized storytelling.



9 Responses to “Rethinking Heroes and Mea Culpas”

  1. It’s amazing the effect that meeting the individuals can have, eh? Like you, Jason, after chatting with Jesse Alexander, albeit briefly, I’m much more willing to chill out and give them the benefit of the doubt. Seeing that the creators behind something aren’t just paint-by-number robots makes a big difference. It makes me think about how important faith is in viewing

  2. 2 Tim Kring

    Glad you got to talk to Jesse. He’s one of the smartest, most passionate people I’ve ever known. And interesting to read how a little knowledge about how a show is made can make the viewing experience less frustrating. I haven’t read any of your other thoughts about the show, but from just the few comments you have here I can sense what kind of viewer you are and what kind of show you wish Heroes was. Unfortunately, we can’t be that show for you all the time. Not even half the time. Comments like hating Suresh’s voiceover, or being a big fan of the episode “Five Years Gone” signify a certain kind of Heroes viewer. For every one of you, there are literally millions of other viewers who both love Suresh’s voiceover (to the point of adulation) and were terribly upset and confused by “Five Years Gone”. Therein lies the problem for a show like ours and why the old adage about why god made chocolate and vanilla is so at the heart of our quest to make a show that reaches a mass audience. If we had to rely on the Suresh voiceover haters/”Five Years Gone” lovers we’d have 4 or 5 million viewers and we would be struggling to convince our network to keep us on the air. So we instead attempt to provide as wide a platform as we can. This, in turn, creates unrest with literally EVERYONE, as they toggle from episode to episode waxing and waning in their appreciation of the show. A show like ours, for most of the hardcore “genre” fans, would be better served on cable somewhere with a couple million viewers at best. But the show, like all of us making it, is on a hero’s journey of its own, attmpting to put a deeper message out to the world about interconnectivity and global consciousness and so we have chosen, rightly or wrongly, to try to reach as wide an audience as we can. Chocolate and vanilla, my friend. Welcome to my world.

  3. Tim,

    Thanks so much for the comment – although it is quite odd for me to hear from the creator of a work I’m writing about!

    I certainly agree that the show’s more ‘geek appeal’ segments could alienate some of the broader audience that Heroes has reached. And I personally watch the show with dual mindsets – the fan perspective who loves Hiro/Ando, HRG, and the like, and the TV scholar seeking examples of narrative innovation & genre experimentation, as well as ‘teachable moments’ – I used the clip where Claire’s father gives her the Nissan Rogue to demonstrate product integration to my students this fall.

    One thing that I find interesting is that you & your team have chosen to incorporate such a range of storytelling strategies and styles (and thus different appeals to viewers) within each episode, more than having most episodes with a unified tone & style. In any given episode, we might get heavy melodrama with the Petrellis, conspiracy narrative with the Company, and meta-geek humor with Hiro. The danger is that this variety can be perceived as inconsistency – and my favorite episodes are often the most tonally consistent, like “Five Years Gone” or “Company Man.”

    In any case, I can’t express enough how much I appreciate creators like you, Jesse & Mark reaching out to media studies scholars and engaging in such conversations. Many of us media scholars would love to have more interaction with media creators, but don’t know how to approach people within the industry (and doubt that they would want to listen to what we have to say). I hope that we can find ways to interact productively, and hopefully we can all learn from each other.

    Best of luck with the strike, and I look forward to see what’s in store when Heroes returns.

  4. 4 Mike Roberts

    Jason:

    Glad to see that you got to address your concerns to the “source”, as it were. Always a pleasure reading this blog and you guys rock, quite frankly, and it’s always an education reading not only the posts, but the commentary that often follows.
    A google of the commentators usually links me to some pretty high powered thinkers in the Media scholarship ‘biz’ and gives me some more reading to add to the ever growing pile of articles to read when I should be doing my “real” work.

  5. Tim (in case you’re still checking in),

    First, for the record, tonight’s show was really good, and as faith-restoring as meeting such lovely, dedicated, and smart individuals as Jesse and Mark. And I’d also like to echo Jason’s thanks to you for turning up on his blog here.

    Second, using your chocolate and vanilla analogy, I guess the real struggle is to make a perfect twist cone, right?😉 My problem with the show this season was that it seemed to no longer be addressing me. I’m perfectly willing to accept that all shows will have bits or characters or actors, etc. that I don’t like. So, for instance, the Surinder voiceovers are things I don’t like personally (Hiro’s this evening was way cooler, especially nice as a change-up), but I lived through last season quite happily with them. I’m interested, then, in clarification on your recently quoted EW comments about what you’d like to change about the show — they suggested that you feel you might’ve gotten away from what worked. Your comment above, though, suggests that it’s a more delicate balancing act of doing what you’ve done this season that some fans have disliked, yet also doing what really worked last year. Or maybe that’s a dumb question, since it’s a bit of both? Anyway, write more episodes like tonight’s and I’ll be watching … and please keep talking to us


  1. 1 link roundup « ephemeral traces
  2. 2 Understanding vidding « Just TV
  3. 3 Collaborative Authorship, Fandom, and New Media « ephemeral traces
  4. 4 links for 2008-01-03

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