ap photo/nbc, dean hendler
WARNING — GEEK ERUPTION: Heroes, which debuted Monday night on NBC, is one of the few new fall network shows that I’ve halfheartedly planned to watch since it was announced early in the summer.
The premise isn’t exactly novel in an age thick with comic-book adaptations on the big and small screen — a group of people around the world discover that they’re developing superpowers, much to their delight, confusion or horror.
The clincher was a teaser of a cheerleader (Hayden Panettiere) racing up the stairs to the top of some kind of bridge or gantry, then throwing herself to the ground below. Whoever’s supposed to be taping this apparent suicide on their videocam rushes up; the girl gets up, dusts herself off, resets her dislocated shoulder and introduces herself to the camera, stating that this was her sixth attempt. An old idea, but a nice new approach, I thought. Neat-friggin-o.
The show began a bit slowly, with a young professor at a university in India amusing his students by passionately arguing for some imminent new stage in human evolution. It’s pretty clear that the professor (Sendhil Ramamurthy) is going to be the Professor X of this mutant crew (shameless geek reference No. 1). Next we meet a male nurse (Milo Ventimiglia) who keeps dreaming that he can fly, and a Vegas stripper and single mom (Ali Larter) whose power remains unspecified, but considering the murderous loan sharks we see breaking into her house, she’d better discover it fast.
The best thing about Heroes is probably what will prevent it from crossing over big time; a self-awareness of its geek context, right down to the comic-book style framing when translated subtitles appear on the screen like word balloons on a comic-book page. Superhero comics inform the story as much as the freaky science of the professor — characters keep talking about their budding powers by referring to comics, and a few of them admit they’ve dreamed of having them since reading about them in the garish, pulp pages, none more so than the drolly-named Hiro (Masi Oka), a Japanese office drone who discovers he can control space and time.
Oka’s Hiro is the best character in the show, an awkward but earnest supergeek, pudgy and bespectacled, whose voice rises an octave to a girlish squeal when he’s excited, as he is when he teleports himself from a Tokyo subway car to Times Square. He tries to explain the nature of his budding powers to an office mate with an explanation of the curvature of time taken directly from an X-Men comic (shameless geek reference No. 2), and his first successful teleportation takes him to the ladies’ room in a bar.
Heroes has in spades what I hoped for in Jericho, CBS’ post-apocalyptic drama — a knowing approach to its subject that acknowledges every precedent, and gives the viewer the benefit of the doubt that they get it. I’ll watch it again, but I have this sneaky feeling that it would probably have done better on Sci-Fi or FX or some other cable satellite of the networks where ratings expectations aren’t so high. It has my recommendation, for what that’s worth, but we might end up having to file Heroes in the Brilliant But Cancelled folder.