Most TV series don't exactly hit the ground running, they introduce themesleves with something from which they can build on. Perhaps it's the fault of Battlestar Galactica which had the kind of opener which left you in no doubt you were seeing something you had to watch. The opening episode of Heroes had this and turned the expectaion level up to eleven. It set up a series which was almost too perfect, an impossible act to follow.
Season 1 is a gripping story brilliantly established. The ingredients of a group of seemingly disparate characters on a collision course with each other, a spectacular villian exuding charm and pure evil, all chasing the prospect of saving the world. It was perfect fare for gripping television. The perfect entertainment: scary, captivating, addictive, and at times genuinely shocking and terrifying. The breakneck pace never really letting up throughout the entire series. At its climax there was a real sense of having seen something completely realised. Few seires have established anything better and delivered on every wish you ever wanted from it. So what next? Looking onwards to the subsequent seasons it seems the creators didn't really have the answer for that either.
Season 2 may well go down as one of the more spectacular casualties of the writers' strike but that doesn't hide the fact that it really didn't deliver anything like the invention of its all too perfect opening season. The premise seemed to be to establish a back story and then drive it forward, the trouble is that it doesn't really work. The initial reason for watching was the brilliant way it made you want to see the next episode immediately (something the boxset allows you to do). At times it manages to raise itself to a state of interesting but the contrast in the look and feel of the preceeding series leaves a sense of confusion and disappointment. Additionally it is quite silly in parts. Telling the story of how Hiro came to own his sword really doesn't seem credible nor does it warrant quite the ammount of time it is afforded. There is a prevailing sense throughout that the writers really don't quite know exactly how to recreate the magic they'd found. The most interesting facet is found on the bonus material where the creators talk about what was missed out due to the failure to complete the plans after the writers' strike forced the effective cancellation of the second half of the series. This appears to hint that they could well have found their original idea and put it back on track. It is worth watching to see yet another example of a wasted opportunity that permiates through the whole second season.
Series 3 suffers from the aftermath of that. Instead of simply carrying on where the strike would have left off the writers decide upon a completely new direction. It's a puzzling choice. What you get is not one but two big stories which divide the series into two parts. It is a considerable improvement on the unimpressive predecessor but there's still something rather unsatisfactory about it. By now the series settles into its merely interesting rut. There are moments where it raises its game - and just about enough to keep you watching - but it feels curiously disjointed and leaves a sense of not quite delivering all it could.
Season 4 does at least try to match the ambition of season 1 by attempting to liven up the brand with a slew of new characters (although seasoned TV watchers will know this is also usually a desperate attempt to stave off a network cancellation). It just about works. The story returns to the full arc throughout a season and manages to return a sense of anticipation for the next episode missing in too many of the prior episodes. Yet despite this some of the devices are frustrating. Too often two story threads develop and then one is explored in the following episode which then ignores the one from the previous episode. So you are consequently waiting longer than seems necessary to move the story arc forward effectively. As the season progresses it feels that someone hasn't grasped how to plot the season effectively. That said, it does build to a rather satisfying climax. It's other flaw is there are, by now almost too many characters to focus on, so most seem never to be fully realised.
Heroes is engaging (intermittently) but fatally flawed on two key areas of its characterisation. Harking back to season 4, as mentioned above, the new additions never quite come to life in the way others did. Most appear in the carnival where many of the misfits have gathered to feel they belong. This is brought into sharp focus with the return of the puppet master character who appeared first in season 2. Compared to most of the other periferal characters he seems quite well realised whereas others really seem like the two dimensional plot devices they really are. It's a shame but is clearly indicative of the problems the creators and writers cleary had in managing to decide what to do with the series as a whole.
The second problem concerns the series premise of being told using an arc structure - giving the viewer a single point of climax at the end of the story. Whereas something like the X-Files managed the difficult conceit of combining a Twilight Zone styled single story horror approach with a long running arc for the characters to grow and develop, Heroes sticks to its story arcs without the single episode thrill or a long running development of its characters. None of the central characters appear to grow and develop effectively as people. The traits of Peter Petrelli, Claire Bennett, and even Syler, for example, seem never to really grow as people. Each time they move their personalities forward, they seem to retreat back into the facets of their original selves. Hiro is glimpsed in one of the opening episodes from the perspective of a future version of himself from the future. He's depicted as something colder and more calculated yet that transformation never takes place throughout the series. By the climax he seems to be not far from the excitable man-child he begins as. Syler does develop better than most but all well developed baddies must remain true to their psychotic core. Compared to a series like Battlestar Galactica (an abject example of how to take your story, and its characters on a complete journey) Heroes never quite manages to deliver.
Heroes is a beautifully realised effects laiden show with plenty of thrills and spills througout its four seasons. There is much to enjoy here. Season 1 is perfect, and if they'd stopped it there it would probably be remembered as a truly perfect classic series. Like all series it does lose its way, and lose it at times quite dramatically, yet it is still watchable by the end of its climax in Season 4. That said viewers may well feel that being merely watchable has diminished the initial impact. A case of the sum not adding up to its initial considerable part.