Heroes: Season 3 (DVD)

The second coming.

Heroes was the television phenomenon of the 2006-2007 television season. Then there was a season finale that disappointed may viewers, a second season that didn’t live up to the first, and a writers’ strike which halted production for several months.

Now along comes season three. The season premiere features an amazing sequence in which Mohinder, our narrator, recites the classic William Butler Yeats poem “The Second Coming” over footage of the new places the characters find themselves in their lives. It’s expertly filmed and acted, and yet it foreshadows what’s to come a little too well. Consider lines like, and how oddly prescient they are, considering the quality of this season.

“The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

Is this season the second coming of Heroes, or will things fall apart?

All around the world, a select group of individuals have developed superhuman powers. These people are tied into various conspiracies and schemes that may or may not lead to the end of the world. To save the day, they must become heroes.

• Peter Petrelli, (Milo Ventimiglia, Rocky Balboa) who has the powers of all the other heroes combined.

• Nathan Petrelli, (Adrian Pasdar, Profit) Peter’s brother, a former senator, who can fly.

• Claire Bennett, (Hayden Panettiere, I Love You Beth Cooper) a high school cheerleader, who is invulnerable.

• Noah Bennett, (Jack Coleman, Dynasty) Claire’s father, secret agent and expert strategist.

• Mohinder Suresh, (Sendhil Ramamurthy, Thanks to Gravity) a genius geneticist who this season goes all buggy.

• Hiro Nakamura, (Masi Oka, Get Smart) the nerdy Japanese master of time and space.

• Matt Parkman, (Greg Grunberg, Alias) the former cop with the power to read minds.

• And, finally, Sylar (Zachary Quinto, Star Trek (2009)), the villain, who robs the heroes of their powers by killing them and dissecting their brains.

At least that’s where things are at the start of the season. Be prepared for everything to change. And then change again. And again.

What happened behind the scenes this season? What were they thinking? Sure, the second season wasn’t as good as the first, but with the notorious writers’ strike behind them, the Heroes creators had a golden opportunity to regroup and take their show in exciting new directions, building off what had been so successful before.

What we got instead was…confusion, and lots of it.

I obviously wasn’t there in the Heroes writers’ room—do shows even have writers’ rooms anymore, is it all conference calls and online networking? I don’t even know—but I can theorize.

Heroes disaster theory number one: The “game changer”
Rival blockbuster series Lost made headlines and sent shockwaves through the Internet when it made the switch from flashbacks to flash forwards. This introduced a new buzz word to the world of television the—”game changer.” My guess is some of the Heroes saw this, and thought, “We should do a game changer. Even better, we should do a game changer…in every episode! The fans love our surprise plot twists, so let’s make them bigger and, um, bigger than they’ve ever been!” The problem with this is that all (OK, most) of those memorable season one twists moved the overall story forward, and felt like natural progressions of the plot and character development. In this third season, we’ve got a serious case of plot twists for the sake of plot twists. Major characters die, dead characters come back, romantic and familial relationships change in a heartbeat, good guys become evil, bad guys become heroes, people with powers lose them, people without powers gain them, alliances are made, alliances are broken, and none of this makes any sense. Characters make decisions not consistent with how they’ve acted in the past, with no reason except to end an episode or act break with yet another surprise twist.

Heroes disaster theory number two: Back to the well
If one half of the show’s creators are obsessed with creating game changers, then, in my own little speculations, the other half is obsessed with going back to what made the show so enormously popular during the first season. Remember when Hiro went back in time and saw an explosion alerting him to the potential end of the world? They do that again this season? Remember Isaac, who painted his visions of the future in the style of comic book megastar Tim Sale? They give that exact same power, complete with more Sale art, to two other characters this season. Remember all the mystery built up around “the company” and who’s side it might be on? This season gives us a new company, Pinehurst, that seems up no good at first, but might not be.

So season three is like a plot tug-of-war, with an emphasis on familiarity and safety pulling the story in one direction, and a rival emphasis on shock value and outrageous changes in the other. The result is characters we like acting uncharacteristically, way too many new characters and powers to keep track of, and elaborate changes that alter the nature of the show occurring a couple of times each episode. And yet, with all this happening, there’s a shadow of “same old, same old” cast over the proceedings. With an end-of-the-world explosion glimpsed in future, the heroes wander to and from various cities and countries, constantly running into each other by coincidence. It was fun and exciting once, but now it’s just “Are they going anywhere with this?”

Let’s get into the specifics, shall we? Peter, once the stalwart, does-the-right-thing hero, is in this season reintroduced as “future Peter” who is an opportunistic, violent psycho. After his powers (of course) go haywire, Peter gains Sylar’s desire for brains (don’t ask), but this doesn’t last because he loses his powers altogether and goes back to being the nice guy. That’s nothing compared to what they do to Nathan. After barely surviving the season two cliffhanger, Nathan believes a miracle has happened and turns into a religious zealot. This only lasts for a few episodes, though, because he gets a new love interest and the whole religion thing goes bye-bye. As for his love interest, remember Niki (Ali Larter, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back) who was also Jessica (Ali Larter again) who for a short while was Gina (Ali Larter once more)? Well, all those characters are gone and now we have Tracy (still Ali Larter) who is a different personality and has new powers, but more or less fills the same role as the previous characters. See what I mean above about the weird conflict between change and familiarity in the writing?

Then there’s Mohinder. In the first season, he was the science hero, whose incredible intellect made up for his lack of superhuman powers. So this season, the thoughtful scientist turns a lot less thoughtful by dangerously experimenting on himself, leaving him with “genetic monstrosity” powers, and the next thing you know, he’s Jeff Goldblum-ing all over everyone. He gets caught and kind of goes back to being his old self, but not entirely. And how about Matt Parkman, the telepathic former cop? He gains some new powers as well, and starts following his own visions of the future. And here I thought he was the “everyman” character the audience was supposed to identify with. Conversely, lightning-wielder Elle (Kristen Bell, Veronica Mars) drops the tough girl act when she also loses control of her powers and becomes more vulnerable, and even caring toward others.

All of the above changes are nothing—nothing—compared to what they’ve done to Sylar. Once one of TV’s most fascinating and memorable villains, Sylar becomes a whole new Sylar this year. To hell with “Save the cheerleader, save the world,” because one of the first things that happens this season is Sylar gaining Claire’s powers. This apparently gives him some sort of epiphany, because after that, Sylar is a good guy. Or a good guy of sorts. Then the series drops an enormous stunner about Sylar’s family history. Was this plot twist really necessary? It comes out of nowhere and it doesn’t seem to change things that much, except to create some forced tension with other characters that he already had a lot of tension with. If all this isn’t enough, we get occasional “buddy cop” episodes in which Sylar is paired up with HRG or Peter to confront some bad guys. Because, you know, Sylar’s working for the company and is a good guy now. At least until he turns evil again. After which he’ll probably turn good again, and then evil again, and so on. See how watching this season can get frustrating?

Does anything work this season? Claire goes from being a target to being a much more active character, even taking a leadership role at times. It’s exciting to see Panettiere play more of a confident take on the character, rather than the usual frightened and crying thing. Then, as she—wait for it—loses control of her powers, she gets to a point where not only can she heal, but she cannot feel pain. This takes the character into a surprisingly dark place, but Panettiere makes it work. Masi Oka continues to shine as Hiro, still bringing the humor to the show when needed, but also toughening up and seeming truly heroic at other times. A subplot where Hiro believes he’s 10 years old could have been astonishingly stupid, but Oka clearly had some fun with it, and that sense of fun comes across on screen. Claire’s father, Noah, still referred to as “HRG” in the commentaries and the discs’ subtitles, is still a slick secret agent type, but one that’s able to show his human side as needed. Unlike some of the other characters, though, he’s able to make this switch with it feeling natural and effortless.

After going through all of the above, Heroes season three still isn’t done with viewers. This season contains two “volumes,” a.k.a. story arcs. During the second “volume,” the show gets even crazier. The heroes are, improbably, rounded up into some sort of concentration camp-type setting. Then there’s all this business about “the Rebel” and “the Hunter,” the White House gets involved, there’s a hidden history about a secret government project from the 1960s, and more and more and more. It’s plot overload. More than that, it’s total plot bombardment. It’s as if the viewing audience is Tokyo and the Heroes plot is Godzilla, Mighty Peking Man and that thing from Cloverfield combined.

OK, the season isn’t all bad. There are a lot of great character actors and cameo players popping in and out of this season. Robert Forster (Jackie Brown) brings his usual cool professionalism to his supervillain character. Christine Rose (What Women Want) brings a lot of intensity to her recurring role as the Petrelli boys’ mother. And believe it or not, that’s the Greatest American Hero, William Katt, in a short but awesome cameo. The two-part “Eclipse” episode has all the characters temporarily losing their powers. This is another one of the seemingly unneeded surprise plot twists I mentioned above, but in this case it works because we get a lot of great character moments as our heroes end up way outside their comfort zones.

Production values remain top notch. The special effects are feature-film quality, as are the sets and cinematography. Universal has packed this six-disc set with more bonus features than Sylar has powers. Get this: Every episode has a commentary. Producers, directors, actors and more all contribute, for a nice mix of voices and personalities throughout. These do get too self-congratulatory at times, but they are fun listens nonetheless.

Heroes: Season 3 isn’t the total disaster some have called it. There are some diamonds in the rough. Unfortunately, it’s a lot of rough. Heroes has failed to live up the promise of its stellar first season. The real villains are the ones who let this once great show go so far off track.

The Verdict

Not the second coming.

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