Heroes Reborn, at least if the first three hours (two of which debuted Thursday, September 24) are any indication, learned absolutely nothing from the collapse of the original series into a largely incomprehensible mess.
The superhero series — which showed early promise but was already falling apart by the end of its first season — has always felt like it was governed by rules that were being made up on the fly. That hasn't changed in the slightest in a revival that assumes you watched all four seasons of the original — probably a bad idea, given how badly the ratings decayed by the end.
But there's more. Heroes Reborn appears to have left behind many of the most central, important rules of storytelling. That's fine if you have a larger artistic purpose, but it seems safe to say Heroes Reborn has the exact opposite of that. Here are five quick lessons we can learn from this series' strange storytelling decisions.
1) Don't assume your viewers will care about the story
In discussing the premiere with a friend, he admitted he was utterly baffled as to what was going on. As we talked about it, though, we both realized we were following the events of the plot perfectly well — we just hadn't been given any reason to care.
The dramatic stakes (something bad might happen at some point!) were flimsy. The characters spoke mostly in long reams of exposition. And the central idea of humans and "evos" (what the show calls superheroes) being on the brink of perpetual war assumed we would be instantly drawn to the show's large number of new characters.
Say what you will about early Heroes. It, too, had its problems with undefined mysticism and over-expository dialogue. But that show worked to make you care. It built up the bonds and relationships between the characters (who were all separated but usually had at least a few other compelling figures to hang out with). It moved the story forward almost recklessly. And in "save the cheerleader, save the world" (its original marketing hook), it had dead simple dramatic stakes.
Heroes Reborn has none of that — just a big, swirly black hole thingy in the sky that will presumably be a problem at some point.
This is one of the biggest problems affecting Hollywood reboots, remakes, and even sequels — the assumption that the audience will care just because it did at some point in the past. Every story, even one that brings back beloved characters, needs a moment or two to get the audience invested. Heroes Reborn, filled with brand new characters, simply jumps right past that, and falters because of it.
2) Don't make the sole motivation be filling in blanks
Our main character is Noah Bennett (Jack Coleman), the sole returning regular from the original show. This isn't a bad idea. Noah used to track down and catalog superpowered individuals, which makes him a natural fit for a story where such a task is being used toward murderous ends.
But Noah doesn't really have a motivation in these early episodes. He has some vague notion of trying to figure out who killed his daughter (who is almost certainly alive — he just hasn't realized it yet), but he's primarily trying to fill in the blanks of a day he didn't remember and, indeed, wanted erased from his brain.
That's a compelling notion for a mystery, probably, but there's nothing driving the character beyond filling in those blanks. His emotional goal is unclear, which leaves him feeling a little adrift. That's not a great thing for the central character in a story. Or, put another way, you usually want the audience asking, "What happens next?" or "What will the character do next?" not, "What happened a year ago?"
3) Don't open with several different flashbacks set at different points in the past timeline
Unless there's a hugely compelling reason, just don't. It only muddies up the timeline.
4) Don't assume the viewers are up to date on the entirety of the past series
Actually, it's possible only Heroes superfans will tune in to Reborn, which would make the liberal sprinkling of plot points from the original series — dropped largely without explanation — slightly more understandable in their out-of-nowhere-ness. (I watched all four seasons of the original show and still had to go scrambling to the Heroes Wiki a few times.)
But if this is a show that wants to attract any new viewers whatsoever, it makes the task harder for itself by not explaining who several of the characters are — up to and including Noah himself. Sure, we can all go look that up online, but what's wrong with a quick reminder or two?
This extends to the series' general setup, which is roughly a gender-flipped variation on the early going from season one (minus the cheerleader saving and a few other things). It's hard to tell if this is a wink and a nod to what came before — or just a blatant attempt to copy it.
5) Don't explain everything. Do explain some things.
Heroes Reborn is in a curious middle ground where it seems to be giving both too much and too little exposition. On the one hand, seemingly every other line out of the characters' mouths is filling in the audience on something that happened in the show's past. On the other, almost nothing about the characters' states of mind or larger goals is explained. It's as if the show followed several fan-fiction seasons that viewers were expected to have read to get caught up.
Heroes' biggest issue in its original run was in trapping the characters in go-nowhere stories that it nevertheless spent lots and lots of time explaining the rules of. The show often felt like a long string of video game cut-scenes, stuck together without the actual gameplay in between to make sense of them. (Fittingly, parts of the new series are set in a video game world. They are awful.)
At the root of almost every story is an interesting character with an easily comprehensible goal. At the root of Heroes Reborn is a bunch of people who might do something at some point, largely for reasons neither they nor we are aware of yet.
Heroes Reborn airs Thursdays on NBC at 8 pm Eastern. You can catch up on previous episodes at Hulu.