The approximate formula for Heroes (NBC, Mondays at 8 p.m. ET) is X-Men times The X-Files times the F/X channel. To Stan Lee’s band of mutants, the show owes its basic premise of superhuman genetic freaks who will valorize young-adult angst and teen grandiosity. From the ghoulish adventures of Mulder and Scully, it has learned how to brood with sex appeal and how to exploit shadows, exotic gore, and alienation for maximum creepiness. And by Kevin Reilly—the NBC executive who made his name turning out similarly cinematic fare on News Corp.’s racy cable channel—was it green-lit. On the basis of the numbers for last night’s debut, this equation will yield fine ratings, and to judge by the show’s first three episodes, it’s a recipe for fanboy catnip.
Heroes is a weekly anthology of stories that will inexorably coalesce. (At least that’s what I caught myself hoping; what I think I know for sure is that a mushroom cloud will sprout over Manhattan unless one or all of the many protagonists swoop in.) It’s an attention-deficit epic dripping in comic-strip style. Being omnivorous, it also owes its tone to Scooby-Doo sleuthing, James Bond fistfights, Stephen King riffs on obsession, and shoujo manga girl power. It also seems worth mentioning that creator Tim Kring earned writing credits on the staffs of Misfits of Science, which co-starred Courtney Cox as a telekinetic hellcat, and Knight Rider, which co-starred what any 9-year-old would have told you was an exceptionally desirable automobile.
Kring has developed a knack for artfully fooling around with clichés and chestnuts. Is he afraid of lingering on images of passionate kisses in the pouring rain? No, he is not. What superpowers has he granted and to whom? Matt, a pudgy lug of a cop who will never make detective because he’s “not a good test-taker” can read your mind. Claire, a high-school cheerleader from Texas not infrequently glimpsed in uniform, has discovered herself to be indestructible. Hiro Nakamura, a repressed Japanese salaryman, can control “the space-time continuum.” Isaac Mendez, a misunderstood artist, can see the future adventures of these and other heroes—most of whom make Bruce Wayne appear to be well-adjusted—even through his glamorously skuzzy fringe of hair. Kring has photocopied each character’s modus operandi from Ye Olde Joseph Campbell Playbook.
The economics of producing a new show like this (flashy visual effects, nonstop mood lighting) dictate that you can’t go splurging on talent, and the nonstars who populate Heroes fall into two groups—the character actors who ground the show with their encouraging air of solidity, and the approachable kids who enliven it with eyes as fresh and fragile as eggs. You catch them looking ready to crack at every wonderfully off-balance cliffhanger, begging you to continue.