The Search for a Showsaver: Heroes, Bryan Fuller and NBC’s Big Little Problems

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The Search for a Showsaver

November 4th, 2008

In case you didn’t hear (I’ve been out of commission in terms of blogging due to a major presentation, so my Twitter feed has been the best source of information/reaction), NBC over the weekend let go Jesse Alexander and Jeph Loeb, the two head writers at their highest rated scripted series, Heroes. Note how I make the distinction: no longer a hit, the show has been relegated to simply being the highest rated amongst NBC’s anemic fall lineup.

This is a fact that NBC wants to fix, a purpose I find admirable if a tad bit idealistic. At this point, Heroes’ problems are that awful mix of inevitable (that some viewers would tire of the serialized narrative), creative (an admitted lack of quality and consistency ever since the first season finale), and logistical (budget overruns, an overabundance of cast members, etc.). Taken individually, the problems might be easy to handle: you offer more social networking integration to hook in what hardcore viewers you have, you bring in a new showrunner who is capable of bringing some quality writing the show’s solid foundation, and you cut some cast members and focus more on character than action or setpieces.

But, solving all three at once can’t be done: any creative or logistical changes could alienate the existing fanbase, and there is no guarantee that a showrunner will be able to balance the creative side of the series with the budget cuts that NBC is forcing on the series. Plus, at the same time, Tim Kring is still in charge of the series, and while Loeb and Alexander may be the scapegoats I’d tend to think the problem goes beyond them to the man truly in charge.

So while names like Bryan Fuller are bandied about, it begs the question: can NBC save Heroes?

Keep reading to find out.

The short answer is yes: say what you will about this season (I’m two episodes behind, personally, and it weighs not on my conscience), it does demonstrate that there is enough existing comic book mythology to rip off, and a few characters who have been created and established well enough to bring new perspective to that mythology, to support a dramatic television series. But NBC has a lot of problems that they have to deal with to get to that point.

There’s even some potential right out the gate: if a new showrunner transitions in quickly, they can be there for the launch of the show’s fourth volume, which has booked recent Emmy-winner Zeljko Ivanek for an extended guest spot. While in retrospect adding MORE cast members isn’t a solution, having someone of such dramatic pedigree available could give a new showrunner something to build on, as well as a chance (within a volume apparently focused on assassins/hunters) to kill off some of the show’s more useless characters.

But this creates two more problems: one is finding the right showrunner for the job, and the other is ensuring that such changes don’t alienate a large portion of the show’s viewership which, while shrinking, remains active in online communities and is quite alarmingly vocal (I, personally, can’t imagine caring that much about this show after the second season). The second task is a delicate balance, but at a certain point I think NBC will fall on the side of the bottom line and make some necessary sacrifices (the cast has to know that the buck doesn’t stop at Loeb and Alexander).

The question of finding the right showrunner, however, is entirely different. As noted, Kristin at E! is reporting that NBC is interested in Bryan Fuller, currently awaiting the fate of Pushing Daisies at ABC before making any career moves. It’s a logical fit in many ways: Fuller is widely regarded as a great writer, he worked on Heroes as a consulting producer in the first season, and wrote what is almost unanimously considered to be the show’s best episode, “Company Man,” which is often held up as an example of the ways that a more streamlined and character focused narrative benefits the show.

The problem is that Bryan Fuller is not, in fact, the greatest showrunner in the world: if NBC is concerned about budgets, especially, Fuller is not the right person for the job. Pushing Daisies has had similar overruns in the past, actually leading to directing Barry Sonnenfeld more or less being booted off the set, and even from a creative perspective Fuller can be a bit of a loose cannon. While his objections are understandable, he feuded with Showtime over Dead Like Me to the point of parting due to creative differences – while he might be a genius, he doesn’t tend to be one who (like, for example, Joss Whedon) is willing to self-edit to meet their standards.

In an ideal world, two things would happen: Bryan Fuller would magically have a twin with exactly the same writing skills, and then NBC would let one of the two Bryan Fullers take full, unfettered control of the series. But NBC isn’t looking for someone to make Heroes the best series it can be, but to present something that stabilizes its audience, pleases fans, and cuts budgets all at the same time. That’s not something that’s just going to pop in overnight: if you’ve got a lot of little problems, you need to prioritize which are the most important and start there.

Which is why I think Fuller would be a mistake: while you’d start with the creative side of things anywhere else, the logistical side of things is just as important to the show’s long-term stability at the network. NBC wants major change, yes, but they’d rather a major change in budget and a slight change in creativity than a similar budget concern while receiving a total revamp of the show. I’m convinced Fuller could alter the show’s trajectory, but there would be considerable costs involved.

As for where this will end up, no one knows – the show still has a writing staff, so they’re likely working their way through the end of Volume Three and then transitiong from there. For now, the real positive benefit could be very real: that ABC, worried about losing Fuller to the high-paying gig, takes the plunge and orders a Back Nine for Pushing Daisies. If that happens, I’ll forgive Tim Kring for Heroes’ problems: if it keeps a better show on the air, who am I to complain?

As more news breaks on this story, watch for my reactions (and the reactions of others) on Twitter!

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