Super, within reason
“Heroes” is “X-Men” in mufti, a TV series about super-powered people who dress like you. No costumes, no secret identities. No special equipment, hideaways or headquarters. No fur for skin, no scales, no prehensile tails. It’s not the first such show to do away with the tights and capes -- at least two others are running right now, “Smallville” and “The 4400" -- but there is very little new under the sci-fi sun, after all. There are special effects, but the series doesn’t rely on them, nor can it afford to on a television budget, and most of the protagonists have been given easy-to-suggest abilities -- telepathy, invulnerability, precognition, stopping time -- well within the creative reach of a fairly bright 14-year-old with a video cam and an iMac.
Premiering tonight on NBC, with Sci Fi Channel replays beginning Friday, this is one of the season’s several “Lost"-like shows, focusing on a group of heretofore unrelated individuals compelled to work out a mysterious common destiny -- and, like “Lost,” it gets to bend reality to its will. The challenge in such an open-ended situation is to keep from becoming preposterous, and “Heroes,” created by Tim Kring (“Crossing Jordan”), stays mostly on the right side of that line. It does get a little pretentious at times, especially during the opening and closing narrations, but its pretensions are very much comic-book pretensions, and therefore allowable in what is, fundamentally, a comic book. (This is made expressly clear by the comic-style lettering of the title cards, and implicitly by the participation of award-winning comics scribe Jeph Loeb -- also a veteran of “Smallville” and “Lost” -- as a writer and executive producer.)
We meet our several nascent superheroes just as they are waking up to their gifts -- this is happening all over the world, and all of a sudden, as near as I can figure -- much to their various confusion, delight or dismay. Just why this evolutionary tipping point has been reached is not yet clear, but, you know, whatever, it happened. Whatever explanation they eventually offer will just be made up. (Comic-book science is held to a low burden of proof.) What matters here, as in many such tales, is not so much the science or the mythology or the crime-fighting or the alien-repelling or evil-defeating, as the hero’s relationship to his or her powers, and how to keep them from taking over one’s life.
“Heroes” gets a lot of mileage from its players. There is the usual quorum of hot guys and girls, but additionally the actors seem to have been cast for a quality of soulfulness. Hayden Panettiere (“Ice Princess”) is a Texas high school cheerleader who cannot be crushed, mangled or burned, not that it’s any help at the pep rally. Ali Larter is a Las Vegas mom paying for her genius son’s schmancy school by doing Internet porn; she has a doppelganger taking care of her messier business, messily. Greg Grunberg (“Alias”) is a telepathic L.A. cop. Adrian Pasdar (“Judging Amy”) and Milo Ventimiglia (“Gilmore Girls”) play New York brothers who can fly, though as the younger, Ventimiglia is still a fledgling. (Pasdar’s character is running for office, which makes me think he’s going to turn bad.) Santiago Cabrera is a junkie who paints pictures and draws comics of the future -- actually drawn by real-world comics artist Tim Sale, a frequent collaborator of Loeb’s -- one of which happens uncannily to feature the clock-stopping, teleporting Japanese salaryman played by Masi Oka (“Scrubs”).
Then there is Sendhil Ramamurthy, whose cab-driving geneticist has no special powers, other than the power of being extraordinarily handsome -- I would settle for that. But as the son of a murdered professor who was ahead of the curve on the whole mutant thing, he has become the target of bad people after his father’s notes.
And as if there weren’t headaches enough just being super, there are also a shadowy mutant serial killer stealing mutant brains -- some icky stuff there, but not particularly lingered over -- and a Man in Glasses, something of a cousin to the Cigarette Smoking Man in “The X-Files,” who looks to be official trouble. (Unless we are being played.) And New York is about to blow up.
Not every thread is equally well realized, but the rest of the show could stink pretty bad (and it doesn’t stink at all) and I would still show up for Oka, its bumptious comic relief and old-fashioned pure heart. (Science fiction needs a little seltzer now and again, or it can disappear down its own wormhole. And some room has also wisely been left for romance.) As the one character who actually sees himself as a superhero, as answering a call, Oka turns in a performance of utter, unbridled joy quite unlike anything else on TV.
This is “Volume One” of their adventures, an opening title card hopefully states -- well, maybe. Some will find “Heroes” a little slow for a superhero yarn, I’d wager, and again, it being television, there is a lot of talking where expensive visual effects and punishing loud noises would ordinarily go. But why not, after all? Life is slow, people talk.
When: 9 to 10 tonight
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for young children under the age of 14)