“Heroes Reborn” begins – as it all but certainly had to – with a philosophical monologue. Noah Bennett (Jack Coleman), aka HRG, aka the most popular “Heroes” character returning for a major role in this sequel miniseries, is considering all that's happened to the world since the original series ended, and the strained relationship he has with daughter Claire.
“When you look back at the things you've done, the decisions that you've made” Noah ponders, “the last thing you want to feel is regret. Am I right?”
I don't know how much regret “Heroes” creator Tim Kring feels over the way the show went from phenomenon to punchline in only a few years. But it's telling that the first hour of the two-hour “Heroes Reborn” premiere (it airs tomorrow night at 8 on NBC) is book-ended by musings – first by HRG, then by ponderous scientist Mohinder Suresh (Sendhil Ramamurthy) – about how much better things were in the past than in the future.
When it began back in 2006, “Heroes” was the hot new thing: a superhero show ahead of the recent wave of Marvel and DC movies and shows, and a kind of anti-“Lost” – at the exact moment (Sawyer and Kate in polar bear cages, Jack's tattoo flashback) when frustration with “Lost” was its highest – that made a point of resolving mysteries not long after introducing them.
And then everything fell apart.
The first season was building to what was sure to be a complicated and thrilling battle between Peter and Sylar, two characters who could each wield the powers of other heroes and villains. Instead, either Kring's imagination ran out, or his budget did, and the climactic fight was essentially just Peter whacking Sylar upside the head with a parking meter. While the first season certainly wasn't lacking in memorable moments before that (not to mention a couple of genuinely great episodes like the HRG spotlight “Company Man”), much of the enthusiasm about the show came out of the belief that it was all building to something much more impressive than what we got. Once that initial arc fizzled, it became harder to ignore the show's many flaws: thin and/or plain stupid characters(*), a lack of real narrative momentum, and, outside of the subplots involving time-bending comic book fan Hiro and best friend Ando, an irritating pretentiousness and lack of humor. The show tried rebooting itself several times (including the brief, unsuccessful return of Bryan Fuller, who wrote “Company Man”), before simply fading away, unmourned except by the most hardcore of fans.
(*) To keep Superman from being too powerful, and thus too hard to craft tense stories about, his writers introduce Kryptonite; to work around the same problem with Peter, the “Heroes” writers made him an incredible dunce.
Now, though, superhero shows are big on TV again, even if all the current ones would kill to draw the ratings “Heroes” did in its first couple of seasons. And NBC's Bob Greenblatt, who never met a catalog title he couldn't dust off and try to remake, has brought back Kring, Coleman, and anyone else without a day job (i.e., no Zachary Quinto or Hayden Panettiere) for “Reborn,” which ideally would replicate the parts of the show people liked while leaving out the parts that drove them away.
But with Kring back behind the controls of a ship he ran aground the last time, and with HRG surrounded by a bunch of new characters (plus the promise of future appearances of folks nobody missed like Greg Grunberg's telepathic ex-cop Matt Parkman), “Heroes Reborn” (I've seen the first three hours) seems like a show designed only to appease the die-hards who watched the original to the bitter end.
We pick up several years after the end of season 4, with the parallels to X-Men comics more overt/shameless than ever. People with powers – known as “evos” – have just started living out in public when a national tragedy turns the entire country mad with anti-evo hysteria, and sends all the teleporters, speedsters, and time stoppers into hiding. HRG has moved onto a more normal life when he gets wind of a conspiracy that stretches from Odessa to Tokyo, and all the way up to the North Pole.
Along the way, we meet lots of new characters, many of them designed to evoke the original cast. In suburban Illinois, for instance, we meet Tommy (Robbie Kay), a shy nerd learning about his new abilities with the help of a popular blonde – a near-complete inversion of the relationship between Claire and Zach in season 1. (To make sure we get it, there are cheerleaders walking in the background in almost every Tommy scene.) Hiro's not around at the moment (though Masi Oka's due to stop by eventually), but we still get to go to Japan to meet avid gamer Ren (Toru Uchikado), who becomes obsessed with Miko (Kiki Sukezane), a dead ringer for a character from his favorite game.
All of the newbies (including a luchador-styled vigilante and a pair of gun-toting assassins) are the broadest of types, often brought to life more by the originality of their powers than by the actors playing them. Miko and Ren barely even qualify as characters, but she at least turns out to have a fun gimmick, where Zachary Levi – who should be a natural fit in any sort of nerd-friendly show after five seasons on “Chuck” – is completely misused in a grim, angst-ridden role.
The action looks cheap and clumsy, especially compared to what's being done now on the likes of “Arrow” and “Daredevil,” and the central story arc gives HRG a convenient case of amnesia to keep things moving. (Let's just say he's lucky he didn't wake up naked and covered in tattoos like a certain fellow walking plot device on another NBC show.)
Back in the fall of '06, “Heroes” seemed fun in part because Kring didn't have much of a background in superheroics, and thus was approaching familiar tropes with fresh eyes. Eventually, though, that lack of knowledge turned out to be to the show's detriment, as it fell into narrative traps that anyone who'd written (or read) a handful of comic book stories would have known to step around. Now that the marketplace is saturated with these shows (with yet another, CBS' “Supergirl,” arriving in a month), “Heroes” feels like a relic of a time when filmed superhero stories still had to apologize for being superhero stories (though at least characters are now allowed to regularly say the word “powers” instead of “abilities”).
As a man who looks like a superhero but has never played one once said, nostalgia is delicate, but potent. I imagine there will be an audience for “Heroes Reborn,” just like there was for “24: Live Another Day” (which was a better approximation of peak “24” than this is of peak “Heroes,” even if it ran out of steam by the end). But if you're someone who fell out of love with “Heroes” before it ended and are hoping the time away has fixed what ailed it, get used to disappointment.
Though that feeling will also be familiar from the original run.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org