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Fall '06: "Heroes"

If the pilot for Heroes were the first issue of a new comic book series, I'm not sure I'd stick around for issue #2. As a comics fan since early childhood, I had moderately high hopes for NBC's new Lost-with-superheroes drama, premiering next Monday at 9 p.m. ET. Alas, Heroes' premiere episode offsets some genuinely compelling plotting with wretchedly inane dialogue and a largely inert crop of characters. When a series begins with a moronic credit scroll breathlessly declaring that this is "Volume One" of its heroes' epic journey, well, you can't say you haven't been warned.

Apparently, discovering you have impossible abilities previous unknown to mortal men just makes you want to whine a lot -- with some sulking and pouting thrown in for variety. That's what most of the budding superhumans in Heroes' pilot do, from the Texas teen played by Hayden Panettiere (Cheerleader Lass!), who mopes that her newfound invulnerability will somehow disqualify her from taking the SATs, to the hospice worker played by perpetually mumbly Milo Ventimiglia (The Sonambulist!), who spends so much time blathering on about dreams and destiny that his end-of-episode leap off a tall building had me openly cheering for him to go splat. (His power seems to be the ability to deliver long stretches of graceless, exposition-heavy dialogue without ever changing his facial expression.)

The thoroughly awesome exception to this rule is Masi Oka (Standout Boy!), as the aptly named Hiro, a Japanese office drone with the power to warp space and time. With his high, squeaky voice and roly-poly features, you'd expect him to be the most annoying one of them all -- but unlike his loser cohorts, Hiro gets it: Superpowers are awesome, and they should be used to help others. He's unabashedly sweet and credibly pure of heart, a welcome ray of sunshine among the series' slathered-on gloom. It doesn't hurt that he namedrops Kitty Pryde and Mr. Spock, either.

It's also cool that the series' apparent lead character is an Indian professor-turned-cab-driver played by Sendhil Ramamurthy (The Expositor!) who's smart, charismatic, and not even remotely stereotypical. Granted, he has little to do in the pilot but endlessly repeat the series' premise, but he's still a pretty neat character, and a welcome shot of diversity in the whitebread ranks of prime time.

Too bad the same evenhandedness doesn't seem to extend to Heroes' view of gender relations. Perhaps it's a side effect of creator Tim Kring's previous work on Crossing Jordan, a series that seems to believe that crimes can be solved entirely via the wearing of sexy halter tops, but the female members of Heroes' cast don't quite come across as well as the males. Besides the sulky cheerleader, there's Ali Larter (Captain Lingerie!), a single-mom Webcam stripper with a staggeringly poor grasp of personal finance; Tawny Cypress (Co-Dependa!) as the alternately blubbery and shrewish girlfriend of premonitory painter/heroin addict Santiago Cabrera (Junkieman!); and the mothers of Ventimiglia and Panettiere's characters, who are both sort of touching, but also obnoxiously and stupidly batty. (It's a good thing the cheerleader's mom gets a second scene in which to be sweet and sympathetic, because her first appearance has her baby-talking to a baffled-looking Pomeranian dog in a way that would be grounds for justifiable homicide in at least nine states.) The guys, meanwhile, are college professors, hospice workers, politicans... you know, people with actual skills and careers. Apparently, having both superpowers and ovaries disqualifies you from such things in Heroes' world.

Having seen the original version of the pilot (via means I'm not at liberty to discuss), I spotted some notable changes in the final version now screening online at Yahoo! TV. For one thing, where the tormented artist once hacked off his own hand to free himself from handcuffs before proceeding to paint a floor-covering portrait of impending apocalypse, he now merely overdoses on some delicious, delicious heroin his girlfriend thoughtfully left lying out for him. It's less gratuitously gory, but it also doesn't quite pack the spooky oomph of the original. There are also some improved special effects in the final scene between Ventimiglia and his semi-slimy politician brother, played by Profit's Adrian Pasdar (The Human Hairstyle!), and a tacked-on cliffhanger ending laudable only for the renewed hope it offers that Ventimiglia's character may, in fact, actually plunge to his death. (Oh please, oh please, oh please.)

Heroes isn't all bad. The producers at least had the good sense to recruit Tim Sale, one of comics' more stylish and distinctive artists, to provide paintings, fake comic book covers, and even the lettering for the credits. The peril our heroes are apparently meant to stop is certainly compelling enough, and there's a clever hint to its origins in a train-crash sequence earlier in the pilot. There's also an entirely welcome twist involving the true identity of the shadowy government agent following Ramamurthy's character around -- although I really could have done without said agent's utterly lame shout-out to The Matrix. And, like last-minute reinforcements swooping in to save the day, future episodes promise the arrival of TeeVee favorite Greg Grunberg (The Scene-Stealer!) as a psychic L.A. cop, and the presence of Wonderfalls and The Amazing Screw-On Head mastermind Bryan Fuller among the writing staff.

It's not improbable that Heroes could improve, and I'll tune in for the second episode on the promise of Grunberg and Oka alone. But if the largely plodding, unoriginal feeling of the pilot sticks around in subsequent episodes, I'll be neither surprised nor dismayed if Heroes fails to take flight in the ratings.


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