It could have been a contender.
This is likely what a lot of fans and critics of the NBC show Heroes said. For a while, it was one. When Heroes premiered on September 25, 2006, it was met with a lot of hype. The large ensemble, science fiction show, which promised to be full of mythology and rich character development, couldn’t helped but be compared to ABC’s Lost. Tim Kring, the creator of Heroes, took advantage of Lost’s declining ratings in its second season by promising a show that delivered answers instead of leaving its viewers guessing for seasons on end. It drew on a core fan base who not only liked science fiction shows like Lost, but also read comic books and could appreciate the comic book-like aesthetics of the show. With the first season finale around the corner, the hype grew. Then SPLAT! (try to picture this word in a graphic novel style speech balloon). The season 1 finale rolled in with lukewarm ratings. From there, it was all downhill. Season after season, Heroes failed to recapture the magic it had in its first season. Mistakes had been made that would eventually derail the show. Meanwhile, Lost overcame its season 2 blues and continued to pull in strong ratings.
Despite the shows’ initial similarities, ABC’s Lost and NBC’s Heroes went about their narratives in different ways. In the end, while Lost would retain its critical and commercial success and complete its full run, Heroes began its fall in ratings soon after its first season, eventually being canceled in 2010 (Schneider variety.com). A look at how the two shows told their tales could shed clues on the reasons why, by looking at the difference in the two narratives.
Narrative theory is a study of the narrative, its form and structure and how that story is conveyed to us, the audience. The effectiveness in how a story is told and responded to can be influenced by its narrative. Victoria O’Donnell states, “structure and systematic organization are extremely important in television narrative…familiar structure enables viewers to stay with the stories” (69). With serialized shows such as Lost and Heroes, viewers expect to see a returning cast of main characters, a defined story arc (whether it be a season long arc or series long arc), and a narrative that follows Aristotle’s key point that, “plot is the unified arrangement of incidents, which must have a clear beginning, middle, and end” (74).
Beyond the basics Aristotle lists, narratives between shows can widely differ. The two shows make use of narrative complexity to tell their story. “Narrative complexity is a redefinition of episodic forms under the influence of serial narration—not necessarily a complete merger of episodic and serial forms but a shifting balance” (Mittell 32). It rejects “the need for plot closure within every episode that typifies conventional episodic form. Additionally, narrative complexity moves serial form outside of the generic assumptions tied to soap operas” (Mittell 32). Both Lost and Heroes tell their stories in serialized story arcs. Lost is well known for its series long arc, yet it still manages to include more episodic episodes that, while containing vital information to the overall mythology of the show, diverges from the main story arc (e.g., “Tricia Tanaka is Dead” and “S.O.S.”). Heroes, drawing its inspiration from comic books, presents story arcs in shorter “volumes” that may encompass only half a typical television season, “wrapping up story lines each season instead of sinking too deeply into a meandering mythology” (Kushner wired.com).
Lost’s narrative includes multiple flashbacks detailing the lives of the characters prior to their fateful flight, flash-forwards focusing on the lives of a select group of characters once they’ve left the island, and flash sideways, which, “posits what would have happened if Oceanic flight 815 didn’t crash on the island but instead landed in Los Angeles” (abc.com). Heroes features multiple characters such as Peter Petrelli and Hiro Nakamura who can travel back and forth in time, giving us a narrative that isn’t straightforward and linear. Using narrative theory to look at how the two shows handled various aspects such as characterization, romance, and death, could give a clear picture of what Lost did right and what Heroes did wrong.
How characters interact with each other plays a key role in a story’s narrative. Romance has been featured in several television shows, from sitcoms to standard dramas. Heroes’ and Lost’s complex, serialized narratives differ from that seen in the most common television serial, the soap opera. “Many (although certainly not all) complex programs tell stories serially while rejecting or downplaying the melodramatic style and primary focus on relationships over plots of soap operas” (Mittell 32). While science fiction shows such as Lost may typically draw in a male demographic (Newcomb 2027), such shows may feature a romantic subplot between characters that can draw in a larger female audience. These subplots don’t overwhelm the main story arcs of the show, but hopefully add another element to them. In fandom, there can be disagreements in how much focus such shows should place on relationships. With Fox’s The X-Files, a segment of the fans became “shippers”. Shippers, derived from the word “relationship”, “hypothesize and campaign for the series to acknowledge a romance between its protagonists”(Scodari & Felder 238). Another segment, dubbed the “noromos” wanted the show to focus on its science fiction elements and stay away from such soap opera dynamics. Despite the division in the fan base, the two elements, romance and mythology, can coexist and feature prominently in a show.
Lost managed to balance the need to develop its complicated mythology and develop the relationships between various characters. The love triangle between Jack, Kate, and Sawyer was a major plot point that extended for many seasons, dividing the fan base into “Skaters” (portmanteau of Kate and Sawyer) who wanted to see Kate and Sawyer together, and “Jaters” (portmanteau of Jake and Kate) those who wanted Kate to end up with the good doctor. From Kate’s first interaction with Jack in “Pilot” to Kate and Sawyer’s passionate night in the Hydra Station’s cage in “I Do”, we could see how this subplot was heightened throughout the series, culminating in Kate and Sawyer making their choices in Season 4 and 5 respectively. The love triangle played a pivotal role in the narrative by providing the manipulative Ben, leader of the Others, leverage over the three as they were held captive. Kate is sent to a cage bound Jack to beg him to do whatever Ben asks of him. When Jack yells, “What did they do to you? How did they get you to ask me?” Kate breaks down and cries, “they’re going to kill Sawyer!” (Lindelof & Cuse, Gates “I Do”). Jack, hurt and angry, refuses at first, but then relents in hopes that doing Ben this favor will get him off of the Island.
Another key relationship in Lost was the one between Desmond and Penny. The story of Desmond, a man of low character trying to win the approval of his love and her wealthy father, and Penny, desperately looking for Des and awaiting his return (not unlike Penelope from The Odyssey) was a hit with fans from the beginning. One of Lost’s most critically lauded episodes, “The Constant” featured a masterful blend of the show’s mythology and this relationship arc. In the episode, Desmond, his consciousness jumping back and forth through time, makes an effort to contact Penny, his “constant”, “an anchor, something familiar in both times…something that he really, really cares about” (Lindelof & Cuse, Bender “The Constant”). The “tear jerking and mind blowing episode” (Poniewozik time.com) ended with a tearful Christmas telephone call. While dramatic, the episode manages to avoid the sort of melodrama typical of soap operas by staying rooted in its mythology.
Heroes wasn’t able to mesh the two as deftly as Lost. After a couple of ill plotted relationship arcs in Season 2 involving teen cheerleader Claire and stuck-in-feudal-Japan Hiro, Kring admitted that, “I’ve seen more convincing romances on TV…In retrospect, I don’t think romance is a natural fit for us” (Jensen ew.com). The relationships didn’t add much to the overall narratives to the story, which resulted in both subplots being dropped by that volume’s end and never mentioned again. The show largely avoided entangling romantic plots with its main story arc. The major exception was Season 1’s relationship between Hiro and waitress Charlie in “7 Minutes to Midnight”. Hiro meets Charlie at a diner in Texas and becomes intrigued with her when he learns that her power is perfect eidetic memory. However, that same night Charlie is killed by Sylar, a super-powered villain who kills others with powers to steal their abilities. Hiro decides to travel back in time to stop Charlie’s death and ends up spending several months bonding with her, as seen in “Six Months Ago”. His attempt fails, however, when he learns that Charlie has a clot in her brain and is dying.
Their relationship, though it initially only spanned two episodes, proved to be as heart wrenching as the Desmond and Penny relationship on Lost. It was popular enough to be revisited in “Once Upon a Time in Texas” in which Hiro goes back in time again to save Charlie from Sylar, and “Brave New World” in which Hiro finds an older Charlie dying in a hospital after she had been kidnapped by the season’s villain, Samuel, and sent back in time to 1944. “Once Upon a Time in Texas” became a popular episode in a season that saw the show facing harsh criticism and low ratings (French digitalspy.com). The success of this relationship arc and those featured on Lost showed that viewers wanted to see romance mixed in with their science fiction, but only Lost was able to truly capitalize on this, creating a legion of shippers to boast its ratings.
As prominent as romance is in television drama, death is featured just as much, in an effort “push the envelope and keep viewers off-guard, dramatic series have inflicted an unusual assortment of casualties” (Lowry “Death Becomes” variety.com). Character deaths aren’t uncommon in serialized shows, especially those with large ensemble casts like Lost and Heroes. A character’s death can greatly influence the narrative of a story. One of the first major deaths featured on Lost was Boone’s death in “Do No Harm”. He died after going off on a trek with Locke and sustaining fatal injuries when a small plane fell on him. The death of the popular character proved to be a major moment in the series as he was a character the audience “got to know…fairly well, and chances are you came to really like him” (Carabott et al, tv.ign.com). It occurred at the same time as the birth of Claire’s baby, Aaron, perfectly juxtaposing the themes of life and death prevalent in the series. His death also introduced the small Nigerian plane that would prove to have major connections between Charlie and Season 2‘s Mr. Eko. Locke’s statement that Boone’s death was a “sacrifice the Island demanded”(Lindelof & Cuse, Bender “Exodus: Part 2”) can also be construed as a death the story demanded.
Throughout the series, several major characters would die on Lost. The majority of these deaths, such as Libby’s and Ana Lucia’s deaths in “Two for the Road”, Charlie’s death in “Through the Looking Glass”, and Alex’s death in “The Shape of Things to Come” were jumping off points for major plot points: Michael’s betrayal and the release of the captive Ben, the identity of the people on the boat and the culmination of Desmond’s visions, and Ben’s ultimate breakdown, respectively. Without these deaths, the narrative of the show would have come to a halt, unable to continue without difficulty.
Heroes treats death in a different manner. Unlike Lost, which isn’t afraid to kill off fan favorites, Heroes generally shied away from it. In an interview with the A.V. Club, Kring states, “It becomes very hard to kill off certain characters. You get a big bump from the shock of that, but the fallout will be a lot harder to deal with. The network has a very strong say in this, because of actors who are under contract and do publicity for them. It’s not just up to the writers to decide” (Heisler avclub.com), and that, by Season 4, there was no plans to kill off any major characters as they were “down to a real core group right now” (Heisler avclub.com). This has had major implications for the narrative of the story. With such a blatant admission by the show’s creator, the life-and-death stakes was effectively neutered. In “Orientation”, Hiro learns that he is dying from a fatal illness, a fact that has little resonance on the viewers since, as a major character, it was unlikely Hiro would die, making that story arc void of tension (Heisler avclub.com).
While Heroes has many things in common with the comic books it derives its inspiration from, it also borrows an element from that genre that typically garners mixed results from viewers: the comic book death. A common trope in comic books and several daytime soap operas like The Bold and the Beautiful and Dallas, it’s described as “important characters will have a terrible tendency to die dramatically, but will not, under any circumstances, stay dead” (tvtropes.org). For example, in “Cautionary Tales”, Noah Bennett is shot dead, but he is revived after being given a transfusion of his daughter Claire’s blood. This “deus ex machina” of Claire’s blood (and, by extension, the blood of Adam Monroe who, like Claire, has the power of rapid cell regeneration) had the potential of making every death featured on the show trivial due to its power to reverse it. However, this point is conveniently dropped and never used again for the remainder of the series.
Then there is Nathan Petrelli, a character who seems to find himself at the verge of death at the end of every season. He is exposed to radiation at the end of “How to Stop an Exploding Man”, only to be healed by a transfusion of Adam Monroe’s blood in “Four Months Ago”. He is then shot and dies in “Powerless”, but is soon revived. Nathan is killed in “An Invisible Thread”, but his identity is assumed by Sylar, and his soul is trapped in Sylar’s body. It isn’t until “The Fifth Stage” that Nathan finally and permanently dies. This tip toeing around a major character’s fate can become tedious to the point of becoming a joke among Heroes fans (Wigler mtv.com).
Back from the Future
Heroes didn’t just borrow the idea of the temporary death from comic books; it also takes on time travel in a way that is highly reminiscent of graphic novels and comics. “Time travel in comics involves jumping or returning in time to change an event and therefore, altering history” (comicvine.com). In the show, Hiro Nakamura has the ability to travel through time and space. Throughout the series, he uses this power to travel as far back as feudal Japan and he is also able to travel into multiple futures where he often foresees some sort of apocalyptic event. Hiro is not the only one who can do this; Peter Petrelli’s empathic ability allows him to absorb the powers of other “specials” he touches and so he too can travel into the future.
While time travel can make for some interesting narratives, especially in a science fiction show like Heroes, it does pose some unique challenges. In Heroes’ case, due to the multiple, different futures seen on the show, we end up with multiple future versions of our main characters, which can be an issue for character development. The episode “Hiros” begins on a dark subway train as Peter is riding home. Everyone on the train stands still as time is frozen and we see a different version of Hiro Nakamura appear out of thin air. This “Future Hiro” has a soul patch, carries a katana sword, and speaks perfectly clear English. He is basically a more militant version of the goofy, bumbling, barely English speaking Hiro we know on the show. Future Hiro traveled back in time to give Peter a message: “be the one we need. Save the cheerleader, save the world” (Green, Shapiro, “Hiros”). As the season progresses and we see Hiro obtain the same katana sword his future version had, we, the audience, begin to hope that our present Hiro will eventually morph into Future Hiro. However, this never comes to pass.
Throughout the series, we see various future versions of our main characters. In the episode “Five Years Gone”, we see an alternate future where people with powers are being rounded up and Claire is in hiding, working under an alias at a Texas diner. This Future Claire is tired of running and hiding. In the episode, “The Second Coming”, we see another future version of Claire, this one an angry vigilante agent who is hunting down Future Peter. In a different example, uber-villain Sylar is shown in an alternate future as a caring, waffle making dad to a young son, a complete 180 degree change from his murderous, sociopathic present day self.
As a writer for this show, having so many uniquely different future versions of these characters could make it difficult to decide how to proceed with character development. Do you develop Claire Bennet to her future, angry vigilante version, or her more fearful, persecuted version? Do you keep the highly popular Sylar a brain-eating murderer or do you develop traits in his character to push him towards his kindler, gentler future self? It’s unknown if the writers themselves knew what the future held for these characters. In his interview with the AV club, Tim Kring states that he “was primarily fascinated by the origin story. Once the original story is over, and the character has no more questions about what’s happening or existential drama, then the questions become just about plot, and then it becomes harder for me personally to connect to” (Heisler, avclub.com). From these words and the way the characters fail to develop throughout the series, it seems as if neither Kring nor his writers could see a future for their characters. In the end, we never see Hiro turn into Future Hiro and we surely never see Sylar pick up a waffle iron. The characters remain stuck in the same underdeveloped personas throughout the series.
The same can’t be said for Lost. The show uses another mechanism of time travel, one that doesn’t include multiple alternate futures. On Lost, which begins in media res with the aftermath of the crash of Oceanic 815, flashbacks are used to show us the characters’ lives before boarding the plane. For the first three seasons, these flashbacks help us understand the decisions that made these characters who they are in the present. Starting with the season three finale, we begin to get flash-forwards, in which we see the post-Island lives of the “Oceanic 6”, the six survivors who managed to get off of the Island. Season four toggles between showing us the survivors in the present day dealing with the arrival of a suspicious freighter boat, and showing us the flash-forwards of the Oceanic 6 several months after they are picked up off of a remote island. When the season three finale, “Through the Looking Glass”, shows us a drunken, drug addled Jack trying to commit suicide, we are dumbfounded by how the good doctor got to this point.
When the first episode of season four, “The Beginning of the End” opens up and we see a crazed looking Hurley leading the LAPD on a police chase before crashing and screaming out “Don’t you know who I am? I’m one of the Oceanic Six!” (Lindelof & Cuse, Bender “The Beginning of the End”), you can’t help but wonder what has led Hurley to this point. In the fourth episode of the season, “Eggtown”, we see Kate in the future, off of the Island and dealing with her murder trial. We also see her come home to a opulent looking house where she is greeted by a sleepy child who calls her “mommy” (Sarnoff & Nations, Williams “Eggtown”), hear her call the boy “Aaron”, and ask how and why Kate is caring for Claire’s son. We see Kate and Jack happily together in the tenth episode of he season, “Something Nice Back Home” and question what happened to the Kate-Sawyer relationship hundreds of fans looked forward to.
Thankfully, we aren’t left to wonder for long. As the season progresses, we see the pieces fitting in together that sets the course for these future developments. Unlike Heroes, we get to see these Lost characters develop into their future selves. We see Kate grow closer to Claire and baby Aaron; we see Hurley experiencing hallucinations and thinking he is once again going crazy; we see the Jack-Kate-Sawyer love triangle come to a climax that leads to the ultimate conclusion of Kate ending up with Jack. By not having to juggle multiple versions of these characters’ future selves, the writers of Lost were able to fully develop these characters along a set course. In a show that deals heavily in time travel, having such a concrete course of action can enhance the narrative of the story. Critics generally applauded Lost’s handling of time travel, stating that, “Lost appears to have thought this out more rigorously than Heroes” (Lowry 2).
In the end, for these reasons and possibly more, Heroes lost the season one momentum it had gained and continued to lose the love of both viewers and critics until its cancellation. Looking at Heroes and studying how a show that premiered with such critical acclaim could flounder so much is useful for those currently in the television business or wanting to go into it.. All shows have an off season; even Lost had its bad season. But while some shows can regroup and come back from the occasional bad ratings, other shows aren’t able to rescue themselves from that nose-dive, eventually crashing like, well, like a transpacific flight onto a deserted island. By studying the narrative styles of these two similar shows and how they portrayed different narrative aspects like relationships, death, and characterization, future writers and show runners can hope to not make the same mistakes that Heroes made.
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