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How far has "Heroes" fallen? I fell asleep during the episode last night. Sure, I held off on starting it until after the Portland-New Orleans game was over (free Jerryd Bayless!), but I never would have nodded off during "Lost" or "House." "Heroes" has been in precipitous free-fall ever since the penultimate episode of its first season, which set up a massive payoff that they've still, halfway through the third year, resisted delivering.
The logic of the show (and I remember writing about this right after viewing the pilot for the first time) demands that the people with powers who are good form one team, and the people with powers who are bad form another. This isn't just ripping off "X-Men," it's standard mythological storytelling. Instead, for a year and a half Tim Kring and his team of comic book and genre TV writers have been jerking us around, finding every imaginable excuse to postpone the inevitable. This began with the decidedly underwhelming first-season finale, where nobody of consequence died, no new alliances were formed, and ultimately everything went back to the way it was. Then the strike-shortened second season really killed the show's momentum. Much like the second year of "Lost," a bunch of new characters were introduced, but none of them had any impact and again like "Lost" all of them were dead by the halfway point of Season 3. You can see from watching the first few episodes again what they had planned (there was, long ago, a point to Maya, I swear) but the lost hours crippled "Heroes," leading to an unsatisfactory ending to a useless season. At least "Lost" Season 2 brought us Desmond.
I would speculate that the first half of Season 3, which the producers have elected to present as two separate chapters (the second of which began last night), was intended to have been folded into the storyline from the truncated Season 2. That's probably why Chapter 3, "Villains," seemed kind of like a retread of Chapter 2 ("Generations"). With time travel and an annoying rabbit holes-within-rabbit holes approach to revealing the chain of command among the show's baddies moving the plot backwards rather than forwards, "Villains" finally seemed to complete the torturous rollout of backstory. Unfortunately, while doing so the producers seemed to run out of legitimate things for the established characters to do, so we went through a series of doofy Saturday morning cartoon plots. Mohinder becomes The Fly! Hiro thinks he's a little boy! Peter loses his powers! Parkman meets a very dark-skinned guy with an accent who Knows Stuff, since one dark-skinned guy with an accent who Knows Stuff (The Haitian) simply wasn't enough!
Most foolishly, the writers gave the show's signature bogeyman, Zachary Quinto's coolly effective Sylar, a shot at redemption. This was silly. It didn't play even for a minute, and even the actors seemed incredulous at the lines they had to read. The episode where Good Sylar briefly became Bennet's partner was a series low point, with Jack Coleman's eye-rolling and Quinto's impossible attempt to make a born predator play sympathetic and conflicted. For "Fugitives," which is the fourth "chapter" of the series, Sylar is presumed dead but really back to stalking people so he can slice their heads open -- exactly like the beginning of the second season. So what have we accomplished, exactly?
If I'm interpreting it right, the new chapter rolls out with an effort to put all of the time travel and sudden arbitrary shifts in character behavior behind "Heroes." While the "Villains" chapter ought to have done the same thing, it missed the mark with Mohinder's ludicrous transformation and Sylar's dithering. If they don't screw it up, "Fugitives" could get the show back on the gravy train. There's a clear villain, finally -- Adrian Pasdar's Nathan, following his destiny -- and a setup that all but forces the good characters we still care about together. Although a few things need to be fixed -- Hiro is without powers, and Mohinder still has them. Brea Grant's hugely obnoxious Daphne is still alive and running around, and somehow Cristine Rose's Lady MacBeth-like Mrs. Petrelli has been allowed to survive. If I were the good team I'd send Bennet to put two bullets in the back of her head, like, right now.
So my hopes are up for the new chapter. The episode itself was kind of dull, scenes of various good heroes being bagged and tagged by anonymous Brazil-ish commando dudes led by the skeletal Zeljko Ivanek. Bennet's on Nathan's team, for the moment, but he switches allegiances more than anyone else on the show (hey, it could be his superpower). Peter, Parkman, and Mohinder seem committed to leading normal lives while Hiro and Claire want to fight the good fight. That's tricky, because Hiro is currently powerless and Claire doesn't have any offensive abilities. They're trying to work a Homeland Security, state terrorism in the name of counter-terrorism thread into the show but I doubt it will play any better than Season 2's garbled immigration message. This is a show that works best when it stays true to the characters first and lets the plot and themes follow from their behavior rather than the other way around. Let's see if Kring and the prodigal Bryan Fuller ("Wonderfalls," "Pushing Daisies") can make the show hum again.