Tim Kring and the Fall of ‘Heroes’
My brother asked me this week why I hadn’t yet commented (like Mo Ryan at the Chicago Tribune or James Poniewozik at Time) on the emerging story wherein Tim Kring, creator of NBC’s former-hit Heroes, referred to people who watch his show live weekly “dipsh**s” while discussing the show moving away from serialization in a recent appearance.
Now, clearly, this is hideously uncool and condescending coming from someone who runs a show that is only surviving due to these kinds of devoted fans, and who is being forced to dial back serialization as opposed to it happening naturally. But to be honest, my emotional attachment to Heroes is so low right now (five episodes behind and counting, I think) that it didn’t really affect me: I just shook my head, wondering whether the man seriously even understands his own show.
There was another element to my detachment, though, and that is an element of “I told you so.” Last March, only two months into the life of Cultural Learnings (aka when likely very few of you were reading), myself and Matt Elliott (formerly of BE Something, a TV-focused blog, and now writing very intelligent pieces on generational workplace scenarios at Y Working) got into a lengthy discussion about the state of the two big serial shows of the time, Lost and Heroes. Remember, this was at the point before Lost’s tremendous third season really hit its stride (and before the amazing twist of Through the Looking Glass, which led Matt to renew his faith in Lindelof/Cuse), so Matt’s original article discussing what Heroes could do to avoid “becoming like Lost” was not as crazy as it might sound today (in other words, don’t hate on his article, he meant well).
Matt made a tremendous number of fantastic suggestions for Heroes’ future that would have done some good, but in writing my response my point was simple: with Tim Kring at the helm and with an already overbloated cast, I did not foresee a scenario where they would, or even could, implement the things that could save the show. I was not, in fact, a believer.
I don’t repost this to toot my own horn, though, so much as I repost it to remind us of a time when Heroes could have been saved, where the man at the helm could have made decisions that would keep him from having to degrade his own audience in an attempt to make his show seem…I don’t even know what he was trying to do. And, as they again attempt to reboot the series to become more relevant, maybe some reminders of Matt’s suggestions could prove beneficial to Kring or, ideally, whoever they get to replace him.
What you’ll find below the fold is my original article with some inserted commentary (consider it to the Director’s Cut) – enjoy!
As some of you may be aware, I’ve been a tiny bit sketpical as to whether shows like Jericho or Heroes can seriously avoid the pitfalls which Lost has found itself dealing with in its second and third seasons. That post didn’t get a huge amount of attention (Although the Elder certainly took it to heart), but it did apparently have one reader who chose to analyze the situation from a different perspective. Matt over at BE Something, you see, has decided that there are six ways in which ‘Heroes’ can avoid becoming Lost and follow the fancy blue line instead of the red. It’s an interesting article, I think, although one that is clearly in direct opposition to my original thesis.
I was going to comment on the article over at BE Something, but I decided to do it here; it’s going to end up being quite extremely long, so I figure I might as well formalize things (Although, admitttedly, these are still relatively unorganized thoughts, I have a head cold). So, as a result, it’s time for the first ever Sci-Futility Challenge. Do Matt’s points hold up? Can they convince me that Heroes is, in fact, not on the same trajectory? Let’s find out.
Stick to the Core Group of Characters
So far, Heroes too has featured a large and rotating cast, with some characters not appearing for episodes at a time. However, they’ve managed to foster good will among their audience for (most of) these characters — some of us still hate Niki. As these characters find themselves continuously entangled with other characters and their back stories get fleshed out and their motivations explained, it’s easy to understand why a writer would rather simply introduce a new character rather than dwell on an ‘old’ one. But just because it’s easy to understand doesn’t make it good writing.
In debating, we like to avoid making purely logistical arguments, but I’m going to start with one of these. Because, in the end, there is absolutely no way that Heroes will be able to avoid falling into this trap for a variety of different reasons.
The creators of the show will want to have fun with new types of superheroes with new types of powers; the creators will run out of things to do with certain people’s powers; contract renegotiations for a cast this large will mean cutting some dead weight at some point, etc.
I think it’s idealistic to assume that the creators of the show will manage to overcome these logistical concerns, as they’re traps which are far too easy to fall into. However, really, Lost didn’t have this problem, outside of contract issues (Maggie Grace); they could have easily managed to continue with just these characters should they have pleased to do so. However, as I feel Matt ignores, characters are often introduced in order to bring new storylines into play.
For Lost, the Tailies may have added to the cast but they also brought tension and diverse experiences into the camp. Things were getting far too complacent for the castaways, and to move the storyline forward they had to introduce new characters.
Won’t Heroes have the same problem? When they go to change storylines, can they seriously expect this group of characters designed to fit this one to magically mould themselves into perfect fits for the new one? That would require a great deal of contrivance, and could in fact compromise those storylines. Whether Lost did a good job of it or not, the problem it faced will be shared by Heroes, and either its characters or its plot will fall as a result.
[11/08 – Who knew that this problem would be exacerbated by the show’s unwillingness to kill their characters? The fact that nobody ever dies on Heroes has meant that even when they had a perfectly good opportunity to get rid of some of the dead weight they just write around it. The third season did a better job of this, leaving the Katrina victim and some others behind, but the cast is still bloated.]
Continue with the ‘arc’ structure
One of the greatest advantages Heroes has over Lost right out of the gate is the current arc structure. While there isn’t a lot of functional division between story arcs — nearly all the plots continued between the “Save the Cheerleader” and “Are you on the List?” arcs — the division serves as a sign post for the viewer. Not only does it create markers for the ‘important’ episodes, it’s also given the viewer the illusion that things are actually planned out in advance when it comes to the future of these characters.
Really, this relate to the above; you can’t have it both ways, and character development and plot structure go hand in hand. You can’t possible develop new arcs constantly through three seasons while maintaining the exact same cast, it just isn’t going to work.
Matt’s argument here, however, is that Heroes is winning the advertising battle, and that with consistent arc structures such as ‘Save the Cheerleader’ and ‘Are You on the List?’ taglines are what is keeping people watching the show. Lost, clearly, lacks these types of taglines, and therefore is incapable of keeping viewers engaged.
While I will admit that Lost is more cryptic with its intentions (Which I personally don’t view as a bad thing, but in terms of casual viewers he is quite correct), I don’t really think that taglines are enough to keep people engaged with a show. While the Save the Cheerleader tagline kept people entertained for awhile, the bigger problem is that it’s been the only successful tagline thus far. ‘Are you on the List’ was a boring, lifeless storyline which wasn’t actually the driving force of the story. Other than providing something for the NBC promo department to do, these divisions were not nearly as evident with the episodes themselves.
I think that we’re overestimating the viewers’ ability to have faith in a TV show they’re only watching casually based solely on ads. Plus, should those ads start to manipulate and overstate things, the disgruntled viewer effect will be just as prevalent as it is for Lost.
[11/08 – The big problem with taglines was that the show had the same tagline: “Save the *Blank*, Save the World” or some other variation. Any illusion that things are planned out in advance fell apart in the second season, and the third season’s attempt to brand it as “Villains” has been somewhat disastrous considering that the show feels more random than ever.]
Keep it Simple, Stupid
While series like these do thrive on continuity and back story, so much so that things are destined to be complicated, the ‘KISS’ theory is still important in a broader sense. The cardinal rule of the serial drama is that speculation fuels viewership. The viewers need to be able to guess at how plots are going to resolve and how character interactions are going to play out.
Matt says that Lost is too cryptic, as opposed to clever; that, because there is no simple resolution to its problems, people don’t have an endgame to look forward to. And, really, he’s quite correct. The problem is that I don’t think it is nearly this simple to, well, keep things simple.
With a huge ensemble cast, complex characters and long-term storylines, simple resolutions will be entirely impossible for Heroes to achieve. We’re currently juggling Peter v. Sylar, the bomb in New York, Nathan and Linderman, Niki and her family, Claire and her Father, the inner workings of PrimaTech, and a whole host of other things. Can we seriously expect four episodes to manage to bring things to a conclusion that is easy to figure out?
I think that Heroes will always need to be somewhat cryptic, and I think that people will speculate about it, but there’s no way to ensure that this speculation just plain old stops when it becomes too strong. The hardcore fanbase of the show will analyze it to death, no matter how much the producers try to reign it in, and it will run into the exact same over-analysis which has ‘killed’ Lost. Plus, I am somewhat skeptical as to whether Heroes is capable of being clever and not horrible obvious and clunky in its execution.
[11/08 – It is telling that I wrote this piece, and Matt his own, before “Five Years Gone,” the first element of time travel in the Heroes universe. If there is anything keeping Heroes from being simple, it’s that time travel has utterly complicated the storyline to the point where any logical or predictable conclusion seems too far out of reach; in fact, the only thing predictable about Heroes is that its conclusion will be contrived and hackneyed. this was one piece of advice they should have followed back then, and one feels they might try to follow now (although my original sense that the writers aren’t smart enough to do it remains).]
Listen to the hardcore fanbase
With Heroes, it’s clear that Claire, her father and the characters surrounding their recurring plot are the audience favourites. Their recent episode, Company Man was ridiculously popular (and ridiculously good, by no coincidence). If the producers are smart, they’ll build their central season two plots around these characters, as opposed to taking a cue from Lost and suddenly deciding to focus on, say, Isaac or somebody like that.
Matt knows he’s in dangerous territory here, and he’s right. Because, while paying attention to this hardcore fan base is important, it is not something which can be done without an incredibly large helping of caution. Matt notes that Lost didn’t pay attention to its hardcore fans, focusing too much on hated characters like Kate and Ana Lucia. While I disagree that this is a bad thing, let’s just look at a harsh reality: Contracts.
Actors have contracts. Those contracts dictate how many episodes they need to be in, what they want in their trailer, and to an extent they guarantee certain characters will be seen on our screens on a regular basis. The way contracts work on Lost, we see Kate, Sawyer, and Jack most often, with Locke, Sayid, Hurley, Charlie at a different level altogether. Contracts dictate that they just can’t drop a group of characters out of dislike for them, but instead have to balance things out.
Heroes will run into the same problem. Considering she’s probably the biggest name in the cast, can the producers really marginalize Ali Larter’s ‘Niki’? If they haven’t done it yet, considering how boring her storyline became and how disinterested the writers seemed to be in writing it, it’s because her contracts dictates that they can’t. With such a large cast, they can’t just pick and choose who they include; while they can prioritize, that really isn’t any different than Lost, and they’ll piss off just as many people.
[11/08 – Well, Kring obviously doesn’t like his hardcore fanbase very much, so listening to them wasn’t an option. But after they brought Ali Larter’s character back to live by making her one of three TRIPLETS, I’d say that contracts are getting in the way of streamlining this show and ensuring that the characters people want to see are the ones they get to see more often.]
Don’t Mess with Scheduling
Don’t play games with the Heroes time slot, NBC. While the current hiatus is a bit on the long side, it’s short enough and came on the heels of some memorable episodes, making the delay tolerable. But never is the TV viewer’s fickle nature more evident than when a show isn’t even on their radar.
Heroes has survived its current hiatuses this season because it is a new show and is hyped by NBC’s promo department on a regular basis. What happens next year when NBC is busy promoting its new shows and Heroes is left to fend for itself? What happens during these five week breaks when the show isn’t the watercooler buzz champion, but rather just another popular Sci-Fi show? Looking to this year’s success for Heroes is a mistake when judging its ability to handle the next few years.
While I think that networks have learned their lessons after the failure of Lost’s 6-episode fall period and Jerichos’s similarly long break, I don’t think this will stop hiatuses (It’s entirely impossible, as I discussed earlier this month). And, as much as I think the show is more malleable than Lost in terms of contriving itself to gain momentum, I don’t think even the best cliffhanger will keep casual viewers when it comes to next season. It’s hard enough to keep a sophomore show on the radar when it’s off the air, but it can often be even tougher when it’s on against so many other shows.
[11/08 – This one, by no fault of Heroes itself, became an issue thanks to the Writers’ Strike; while I doubt that the show could have really bounced back in its second season on the path it was on, the strike put it into a lengthy hiatus that certainly didn’t help its return (which didn’t help itself, as the case may be).]
Don’t Cater to the Hardcore Fan Base (Too Much)
So, seriously, Heroes producers: I know you’re already producing comic books and things, but stay from things like the Lost guys have done with the internet. Your ultimate goal is to avoid your show becoming some niche-market-wonder. Pandering to that niche only encourages that reality.
Basically, this is the same as Keep it Simple, Stupid; Matt doesn’t want to see Heroes go crazy with the Hanso Foundation stuff. The only problem is that Heroes shouldn’t be worried about leaking the crazy viewers who spend all day on the internet, but rather those viewers who don’t even know what the internet is and yet are still watching the show. Pandering to the niche does not turn away these viewers who are watching Heroes purely out of peer pressure, but rather offers further involvement to those viewers who do want to fill in some gaps and take some time.
And really, Heroes has already broken your rule, as their online comics actually contain storyline and plot points which are not featured in the series. In order to get the full story, you absolutely must read the comics (They recently filled in where Wireless girl went, and also the situation where Bennet and Claude found Claire). The internet as a marketing tool is too juicy for them to avoid, and yet at the same time casual viewers won’t read it, won’t get it, and won’t have a reason to stick around.
[11/08 – Heroes has, if anything, upped the ante about trying to engage these kinds of viewers online, and right now they’re the only ones keeping them alive.]
Matt ends his article with the following passage of indecision:
I go back and forth between optimism and pessimism for Heroes. That it doesn’t have as much “This is the best-written show on television” hype as Lost did in its heyday is likely a good thing. People aren’t misrepresenting Heroes — it is schlocky and overwrought and relies on ridiculous coincidences to forward its conventions. It’s unlikely to win an Emmy, though it may take a Golden Globe. And that’s exactly how it should be — Lost was a victim of its own hubris, with first season hype pushing it toward further unconventional storytelling and philosophical cruft that sees ever new character named after a different philosopher (Seriously, David Hume? Are we supposed to think that’s cute?). When, really, what fans really liked wasn’t the out-of-the-box storytelling so much as the characters.
First off, I think that fans did like the out-of-the-box storytelling on Lost, and that it was the show’s basic foundation. I think that changing it in order to pander to its newly found casual success would have been going against its entire set of principles.
Moreover, I think that Heroes could get Emmy attention, but only based on ‘Company Man’. The problem is that, while there is no question that Heroes is not currently high-brow television, that episode showed a great deal of promise for the show’s ability to actually make great television. I would hate to see that potential lost purely in order to keep casual viewers who will eventually abandon the show in the end.
This is why I believe that Heroes shouldn’t feel obligated to ‘avoid Lost’s mistakes’ but rather to find its own voice. In my view, this does include many of Matt’s theories, such as focusing on the right characters and finding the right balance of plotlines to make things work. However, this should not be done simply because Lost ‘failed’; rather, it should be done because it’s in the best interest of the show creatively. No matter what they do, they’re still a Sci-Fi show that was never designed to be seen by 15 Million viewers. Even if it means losing some of those, I don’t think they should forget that fact from a creative perspective.
[11/08 – Who knew that the show’s most recent episode would get, believe it or not, HALF that many viewers only 20 months later?]
In the end, I’m not convinced that Heroes will remain the success it is now; I just don’t think it’s possible for it to maintain this level of cultural relevance and ratings success. However, there is still hope for it creatively, and I think that it should ignore the ratings for a second and really think about what’s best for its characters independent of other shows, other networks, or bloggers like Matt and I. Just do your thing, Tim Kring. And by thing, I mean let Bryan Fuller run the show. He’s far better than you.
[11/08 – Sure, it would have meant we never got to see Pushing Daisies, but wouldn’t that have been so much better? Now, with Pushing Daisies officially canceled, Kring should listen to this piece of advice more than ever]