Tuesday, September 26, 2006

TV Report: Heroes and Studio 60

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Heroes already has a cult following. The show premiered about 12 hours ago on NBC, but I’m sure there are already people setting up fansites. Why is that? Why are some people so into the concept of a genre show that they’ll just latch on to something before it’s even proven itself? It’s not like there aren’t already genre shows on TV like, say, Lost or House.

Heroes has a long way to go to prove itself, frankly. I was bored to the point of irritation with the premiere episode last night. I mean, I hate to get cynical, but I really felt like I’ve seen the whole thing before and Heroes doesn’t really do anything new. I can say this because I’ve been a comic book reader for the last 20-odd years, and one of the comics I’ve read was J. Michael Straczyinski’s Rising Stars. And Heroes is a lot like Rising Stars. It’s also a lot like a British series from the seventies called The Tomorrow People, but hey, if you’re going to steal, steal from people who actually know how to make compelling television.

So, what we have is a world where people are beginning to evolve into people with superpowers (or at least superpowers that can be represented visually). I don’t want to get into a whole theoretical science thing here, but why would people evolve different powers? Wouldn’t the human race all evolve in the same way, like, as psychics or something? It doesn’t make sense scientifically. But that’s not important to anyone, I guess. Science seems really unimportant to the writers, as evidenced by the silly scene of a total eclipse of the sun that is visible at the exact same moment in New York and Tokyo (which are 13 hours apart, so when it’s day in one it’s night in the other).

But silliness seems to be the order of the day for Heroes. The writers can’t decide if they should have a word crawl to set up the opening, or pretentious narration making the whole thing much more serious than it needs to be, so it gives us both. Then it also gives us a bunch of stock characters that should seem extremely familiar to comic book fans, especially those of us who grew up reading X-Men. It’s like they just combined character traits and powers from the comics in an attempt to hide how much they’re ripping off. Claire has Wolverine’s healing powers and Rogue’s scared personality. Niki has the whole second powerful personality Dark Phoenix thing going on. Isaac is like Cerebro crossed with the personality drama of Jean Grey. Peter and Nathan already have the Scott Summers/Alex Summers brother vs. brother clash going on, and frankly it’s already as tiresome as it was in the comic book (it turns out Peter can’t fly, but am I the only one who thinks they made him look like a low-rent Superman on purpose?). Professor Suresh is, of course, Professor X, trying to gather the children to him before the government finds him.

And then there’s Hiro, a character I both enjoyed and hated. I liked him because he was the only character who wasn’t self-important, wasn’t a boring loser wrapped up in how important his existential problems are, and seemed to genuinely enjoy having powers. (which is funny, because he keeps talking about wanting to be someone, wanting to be special but not in an arrogant, entitled, American sort of way). But I didn’t like him because he seemed like such a stereotype, both Japanese (have the writers not seen anything else with a Japanese person since Sixteen Candles?) and sci-fi geek. These days, even comic book geeks love seeing comic book geeks ridiculed, so I’m not sure if it’s an issue.

Another side note about the writers: just because you have one character reference an issue of X-Men doesn’t mean it’s any less of a rip-off. People are so confused about the meaning of the word homage these days. I used to share an apartment with a guy who would say: “Yeah, I’m an asshole, but at least I know I’m an asshole.” To which I replied: “Recognizing the behavior and refusing to change it is actually worse than not knowing you’re an asshole, asshole.” Just because Heroes is willing to admit it’s kind of a rip-off doesn’t make it okay. It’s still a rip-off, and last night’s episode didn’t do anything original, interesting, or innovative enough to make it anything more than just a cash-in. And besides that, it was cynical, precious, and self-important. Not looking good so far. Not looking good at all.

Everything’s an homage these days, isn’t it? Just like last week’s premiere of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip referencing Network repeatedly. I caught the second episode last night, and the sheer momentum of the show managed to carry it despite the fact that the lack of interesting characterization was much more evident. Aaron Sorkin continues to treat the creation of a comedy sketch show with the importance people used to reserve for complex military operations. If I had one piece of advice for him it would be to remember that he’s not writing a show about the Cuban Missile Crisis; or, as Becca put it during last night’s episode, these guys write for a comedy show, they probably crack a joke every once in a while.

The characters aren’t exactly evolving, so much as staying static. Bradley Whitford plays the only character I’ve found remotely likable so far; Matthew Perry’s relationship with Sarah Paulson has already entered the realm of uninteresting television cliché. With so much going on, the constant bickering doesn’t add anything to what is already an excessive amount of…well, not plotlines so much. I don’t know, stuff? Portentous mutterings? And Amanda Peet varied last week’s overly slick arrogance by, this week, playing it with her hair down.

But what really got to me last night was the comedy. This was going to be the real contest for Aaron Sorkin; he can be clever and he can be pretentious, but can he be funny? I mean, this is a show about a Saturday Night Live analogue (and by the way, in a twist on a recurrent theme in this post, constantly referencing SNL actually does make your show seem like less of a critical attack on how shows like SNL have dropped the ball on pop culture and political humor; quit apologizing and let Lorne Michaels deal with it, for chrissakes!), so eventually we were going to have to see sketch comedy on the show. But a lame Gilbert & Sullivan rip-off? Rewriting the lyrics to Gilbert & Sullivan is freshman year comedy writing. Everyone does it. Tom Lehrer did it, Animaniacs did it, Simpsons did it, even I’ve done it. And not well.

I would say that, so far, Studio 60’s comedy show is exactly as lame, self-referential, self-enamored, and tired as Saturday Night Live.


Sherry said...

I'm no where nearly as interested in comics (learning a lot here though) as you are and don't have all of the great references to fall back on or compare to, but even I was disappointed with Heroes. I was looking forward to this show and now all I can hope for is that it can get past it's own pretentiousness.

I swear that your blog just doesn't like me. It always gives me that "Page Cannot Be Displayed" at least once when I try to post a comment ... argh!

SamuraiFrog said...

Blogger just sucks ass, doesn't it? I had trouble with all freaking morning. Come on, Sherry, you know my blog loves you.

Kurt said...

I tuned into Heroes after People gave it a rave review, but it was a big nothing. It definitely tried to evoke a kind of Lost aura, but missed the mark. Hiro was the best part of the pilot.

Didn't bother to watch Studio 60 a second time.