Thursday, March 08, 2007


Why I don't watch Heroes

I’ve just written a long-winded, self-important rant in email to Lou Anders and Sean Williams, and figured I might as well inflict a version of it on you nice people, as well.

It began innocently enough with Sean asking me and Lou what we thought of an element of the most recent episode of Heroes.

Now, what you may not know about me is that I don’t watch Heroes. I watched the first episode, and quickly decided it was Not For Me. I thought the writing was sloppy, the ideas half-baked, and the plot extremely poorly worked out, among other sins. (I’ll give just one example: Just what time is it, anyway, when a mother in America is getting her kid ready for school in the morning, and the Japanese office worker who’s paying her online to take her clothes off in front of a webcam is at work with the sun shining outside? Hmm?) Other people liked it? Fair enough. To each their own.

But it didn’t stop there. See, everybody on the planet is watching this show, it seems. Everyone in my family. All of my friends. It sometimes seems that everyone whose blog I read is following it, too, posting comments and reviews about the most recent episodes every week. And lots of people I know have been after me to watch it (Finn, I’m looking at you), pointing out that the pilot wasn’t all that great but that the show got better as it went along.

Back to my email. In this innocent exchange, Lou happens to mention this fact, and reminds me that I’ve watched other shows that had not-so-great pilots but went on to be watchable. To which I responded with this long-winded, self-important rant about Heroes and Lost and television series in general.

And, because I’m convinced that everyone simply has to know about my every stray thought, I’m quoting the relevant sections of the mail here.
Enterprise had much more than just a stinky pilot. It sucked for a *long* time until it got good. The difference there was that I stopped watching it after the first few episodes for the same reason you did, but years later happened to watch the *last* episode, just to see the franchise put to bed, and it was AMAZING. [NOTE: I'm actually referring to the next to last episode here. I like to pretend the last episode didn't happen.] So there I knew that despite a rocky beginning, the show found its feet and ended up terrific. We went back and watched from the beginning, knowing there'd be a pay off at the end.

Now, we did something similar with Babylon 5. Both Allison and I had watched early episodes and stopped watching quickly, though she held out much longer than me (this was before we met). Years later, after hearing everyone bang on about how great it was for so long, we decided to give it a shot, and watched through to the end. Now, again, that's a show that was pretty damned rocky at the beginning, had some consistent flaws throughout, but got better, only to end on kind of a shaky note. It was a show where the *point* of us watching was the over all arc, not the individual moments. And the first few seasons were not so great, the middle seasons were good, and the last season was not so great.

When JJ Abram's Alias started a few years ago, I said at the time that it was either genius or a pile of shit, but I couldn't tell until I saw how things worked out. As it happens, it was a pile of shit, but it took all the way to the LAST episode to find out. It was a show driven by the big, underlying secrets, and in the end, it turned out that the show runners didn't have a fucking clue.

I'm still watching Lost, because so far the series gives every indication that the runners know exactly what's going on. A lot of viewers are complaining that the secrets are being revealed too slowly, but I think on the level of the individual episode it's one of the best things on, in terms of character and writing, and when the secrets *are* gradually revealed, they're internally consistent.

Now, if someone had told me years ago that they'd peeked into the future and seen that Alias *was* a pile of shit after all, I'd have happily stopped watching it. I wasted hundreds of hours on that tripe, thinking it would all make sense in the end. Similarly, after watching at least two or three seasons of Smallville past the point I should have stopped, I'd love to be able to go back and save myself the trouble.

X-Files is famous for being a show that hinted a deep, big mysteries that its show runners weren't equipped to deliver on. Again, show that I didn't watch at first, got dragged into by everyone banging on about how great it was, then gave up in disgust when it became clear it was a pile of shit. Hundreds of hours wasted.

Here's my current philosophy on such things. If a show that appears to trade on big mysteries doesn't, from the first episode onwards, have a) terrific writing, b) great characters, and c) clear evidence of a well-thought out and internally consistent structure, I'm likely going to give it a pass. BSG is a show that trades on big mysteries, and met all of those criteria at the beginning; if the (c) category had been as shaky when the show originally aired as it is now, I might well have stopped watching, but as it stands (a) and (b) are still good enough to keep me watching. Lost hits all three marks, dead center, and so I keep tuning in. What soured me on Heroes immediately was that the writing in the first episode was embarrassingly bad, I didn't find any of the characters original or compelling, and the hints at the big mystery weren't enough to sell me on the idea. So I gave it a miss.

I'll make you Heroes viewers a deal, everybody I know that's been trying to get me to watch it. If, years from now, when Heroes finally wraps up and airs its final episode, the consensus among viewers is that the showrunners *did* know what they were doing all along, and the mysteries when revealed are internally consistent and clever, all along the way, then I'll get the DVDs and give it a shot. But at this point I'm hedging my bets, and taking it on faith that, like Alias, like X-Files, like Smallville, et cetera, et al, that when its said and done there'll have been some good episodes, maybe even good parts of seasons, but in the final summation the shows will have ended up closer to the shit end of the scale than genius. I'm happy and willing to be proved wrong, but I'm not going to invest the hundreds of hours to find out for myself. I'll let someone else be the canary in the coal mine!

it's ok I'm not watching heroes either

I've stopped watching BSG... it sucks now too.
Of course, these are subjective assessments; a person could have the same criteria as you, but disagree as to whether a show meets them or not.

I was a big fan of Alias for the first two seasons, but I think the show clearly went off the rails in the third season and I gave up on it (I'm amazed that you felt you had to keep watching to the last episode to make your judgement). I've already given up on BSG, and its seasons are much shorter. I gave up on Lost after one season. However, I find Heroes engaging enough for me to keep watching, even though I'm aware of its shortcomings.

Given the realities of network TV production, I think the best format for plot-heavy television is the one pioneered by Buffy the Vampire Slayer: each season is a separate arc. The show-runners don't have to gamble on the show lasting a certain number of years; the more seasons there are, the more opportunity for the characters to evolve, but the end of each season provides a certain amount of closure. Superhero comics have done this for a long time, and Heroes could work well with this format. (It's too early to say with any confidence whether it will or not.)
I'm not there yet on BSG, Swinebread, but I may be getting there.
Subjective, Ted? No! My opinions are incontrovertible facts. Didn't you know?

(Okay, fair enough. One man's trash, and such. Point well taken!)

And I was fairly convinced that Alias was poo by the third season, as well, but my wife was still enjoying it, and I felt like I'd invested so much time in it that I wanted to see how it all worked out. I'm still convinced that if they'd had a better resolution to the Rimbaldi subplot that the show could have been saved. That said, I'm *much* more gunshy about shows in the aftermath, and much less willing to give showrunners the benefit of the doubt.

I couldn't agree more about Buffy, by the way. And in fact, I think that Angel works even better on a season by season basis, with a complete arc from season opener to season close. I think that you're right in thinking that this is what the Heroes crew is trying, based on interviews I've read with the showrunner. But based on my admittedly small sampling of the show I don't have a lot of confidence that they'll be able to pull it off.
Not that I'm smarter than you or anything, but it only took me the first episode of season 3 to realize Alias was crap. And one episode of Lost to realize the showrunners had No Clue about they mysteries they're creating. :-)

Heroes, though (and this isn't a Finn-esque lobby for you to watch it) really is aping the comic-series-cum-graphic-novel format. I truly believe at this point that the overall storyline will wrap up five episodes from now to be collected in a self-contained story arc in a DVD boxed set. Is it flawed? Yeah. Deeply in some aspects (notably Tim Krieg's insistence that he's not influenced by comics, and the subsequent treatment of comics cliches as original strokes of inspiration. But I suspect the writers have gotten hip to this, and are loosening up on the outright four-color references and rip-offs, and having fun at it). And the first half of the season had a lot of filler episodes that did little to move the meta-arc along (not unlike the first season of B5, come to think of it). This situation has improved muchly of late.

Despite these problems, it's become my favorite show on TV right now, supplanting the increasingly morbid and self-important BSG, which is going more for navel-gazing these days while Heroes isn't afraid to have a little fun.
About two months ago, there was an article in Entertainment Weekly about how the writers of Heroes didn't know how things were going to end up. So that show is just a lot of plate spinning.
I think I'd largely agree about BSG these days, Jayme, though I still think it hits more often than it misses. And even their weakest episode has some good grist in there, somewhere.

Finn's opinion, though, was that they shouldn't let Krieg talk in public, which might have helped the show's case with me. It was after reading an interview with him the day the show aired, in which he defended not reading comics by saying, in essence, that he didn't read *anything* ("I'm not really much of a reader"), and then said that the genius idea of normal people with superheroes came to him right before he had a scheduled pitch session, just after he'd seen Being John Malkovich and The Incredibles. This he said, as though it were something to be proud of. He essentially scribbled down "normal people with superpowers" on a napkin, drawing on a couple of movies he'd just watched, and walked away with a television series. I think any show lives or dies on the strengths of its writing, and when the head writer on a show doesn't f*cking READ, they've lost me right there.

Ron Moore, by contrast, who I think is probably just as guilty as plate-spinning (to borrow Thomas's analogy) is able to list his favorite science fiction titles at the drop of a hat, so he's got some serious street cred with me. I'd much rather what a literate and clever writer spin plates than trust a self-avowed near-illiterate who ripped his idea off the shelves of the nearest Blockbuster, any day.
You and me on Heroes, brother. Although I gave it 3 or 4 episodes before I gave up. Everyone I know loves it, though. Like you, I'm willing to possibly check it out on DVD someday, if it really does follow through. In the meantime, 24 is on opposite, and there is NO contest there.
You and me and Allison, my wife hastens to point out. Of course, she wanted to turn off the first Heroes episode halfway through, so she's even less forgiving them I am (this from the woman who watched all of DS9, all of BSG--original and relaunch--all of B5, all of Angel, all of Buffy, et cetera, et al).
I had a love/hate relationship with Heroes during the first few episodes. It's gotten much better. It feels like things are happening on that show now (as opposed to, say, BSG). I don't care if Tim Kring knows where he's going - personally, I don't think he does - but as long as the ride is still fun, I'm on board.
I think shows and companies and films and a host of other entities often succeed or fail despite what the head guy thinks. I also think that what the head guy thinks (or reads or is aware of) often differs from what he says he thinks. I remember reading an early interview with Christopher Nolan where he said that before he would become Batman, "Bruce Wayne turns to crime." Naturally, this sounded like a horrible travesty but wasn't an accurate communication of the eventual film.
Actually he did in a way. Early in the film he tries to actually kill the guy that killed his parents but is stopped right before he does. Attempted murder is a crime.
This is a phenomenon that's familiar to viewers here in Britain, where several series that had notably crappy early seasons went on to be absolutely enormous hits, cultural icons indeed. Back in those days, the television companies would let a series bed down and give it a chance. I don't think that happens so often now, the ecosystem is becoming much more hostile.
Personally, my patience with `Lost' has pretty much run out.
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