Entertainment Weekly: May 9, 2007

The Bomb Squad

Duck for cover and try to survive as EW goes behind the scenes for ”Heroes”’ shocking (apocalyptic?) three-part season finale. But will everybody now in the cast picture be so lucky?
SUPER FRIENDS When the Heroes finally get together it’s ”like a $90 million movie,” says series creator Kling. ”It’s just…big.”
By Jeff Jensen

Here it is, folks — the battle royal we’ve been waiting for. In one corner: Hiro Nakamura, the time-stopping, samurai-sword-wielding comic-book nerd from Tokyo. In the other: Sylar, the watchmaker-turned-mutant serial killer destined to become the shape-shifting tyrant president of a genocidal dystopian America. It’s a titanic collision of good versus evil, hero versus villain, and, yes, geek versus geek, and it’s about to get under way on a Los Angeles soundstage…right after Sylar’s mommy gets done stabbing her son to death. Just another day in the land of Heroes, NBC’s cult-pop smash about an imperiled planet bursting at the genetic seams with superpowered peeps. Here, inside an ersatz New York apartment, work is proceeding on the three-part season finale, which begins airing on May 7. Looking more Beaver Cleaver than Hannibal Lecter with his severely parted hair and homely sweater, Zachary Quinto is rehearsing a scene in which Sylar confesses to his mother (Ellen Greene) that he has a nasty habit of murdering others of his freaky new ilk. (He spares her the part where he might be eating their brains, too.) Naturally, Mom is disappointed, so she grabs a knife and tries to gut him. The actors struggle — then they freeze. The physical universe has ground to a halt. It’s Hiro time.

Slipping into the scene, Masi Oka withdraws his sword from its sheath and prepares to bring it down on Quinto’s head. Does the noble hero have the stones to decapitate a defenseless, time-paused soul, even one as nasty as Sylar? ”I’m sorry,” says Oka. Then, breaking character: ”Don’t worry. It’s not sharp.” Quinto, steely brown eyes unflinching, doesn’t laugh. His response: ”Bring it.”

As for what happens next — well, Sylar advises us not to reveal. And since this reporter likes his brain where it is, he’ll comply. But it’s intense. In fact, judging from the three days (covering all three episodes) that EW spent on the Heroes set, it is safe to say that the whole season-ending sweep blazes with intensity — an appropriately urgent pitch to a marvelously madcap season that has seen the series nudge aside Lost and 24 as the standard for serialized storytelling. Here’s Hayden Panettiere, waving away offers of a stunt double as she runs and vaults through a fake window — the front end of a stunt that will send her indestructible cheerleader Claire out of a skyscraper and leave her splattered on the sidewalk. Here are Ali Larter (the schizoid superwoman Niki/Jessica) and Leonard Roberts (the walk-through-walls ex-con D.L.) flooded with emotion over being repeatedly manipulated by an underworld puppet master, Mr. Linderman (Malcolm McDowell). And here’s the behind-the-scenes ringleader of this fantastic flying circus, Heroes creator Tim Kring, sauntering onto the set just minutes after writing the final sentence of the season’s final episode, in which the show’s sprawling, far-flung cast of next-gen X-Men will finally come together Super Friends-style in an attempt to save New York from being torched by a human A-bomb. ”The fifth act is ridiculous,” chuckles the 49-year-old Kring. ”It’s like a $90 million movie. It’s just…big.”

Yep: Stakes are high. And not just in the budget-busting kind of way, either. The finale — right down to its eye-popping last scene — sets the stage for a second season designed to expand the show’s creative horizons and commercial potential even further. The cast of Heroes will proudly tell you that they feel like they’re riding a wave of change that is transforming television. Unfortunately for some, that wave is about to crash. There’s a wall in Heroes HQ dotted with photos of dead characters (Isaac, Simone, Eden…) under a banner that reads ”In loving memory.” Expect a face or two to be added soon. ”I thought I was signing up for a show called Heroes,” says Adrian Pasdar, whose morally shaky politico Nathan Petrelli will make a choice in the finale that will affect the destinies of every character on the show. ”I didn’t know I was going to wind up on Survivor.”

As fans well know, the heroes of Heroes all have engaging backstories, and the show itself is no exception. Tim Kring was a mild-mannered TV producer (Crossing Jordan, Providence) who two years ago found himself itching to make one of those newfangled serialized saga things. Struck by the number of superheroes popping up on the movie screens during these catastrophe-shaken times, the comic-book ignoramus wondered: Why? And then: Why not on TV? Ditching the stuff he didn’t get (costumes and code names) and embracing the stuff that he did (mythic archetypes, epic storytelling, gonzo twists), Kring concocted Heroes and sold it to NBC. He cast some hungry character actors and assembled a brain trust of cult-pop scribes, veterans of Alias, Smallville, and Wonderfalls. Boosted by some extremely clever marketing (”Save the Cheerleader. Save the World.”), Heroes joined Ugly Betty as one of the season’s few breakout hits. Along the way, it stared down 24 in a hotly contested Monday-night ratings battle and proved that there are some adversaries Jack Bauer can’t pistol-whip into submission. The show’s secret lay in finding that ever-elusive sweet spot between fanboy-friendly and widely accessible, while quickly answering mysteries and clarifying mythology before anyone got antsy enough to ask the dreaded question: Does this show really know what it’s doing? Most of the time, the answer is yes, and most of the time, it has worked — but not always.

Take the unplugging of Hiro, for example. Midway through the season, the writers stripped the quantum crusader of his truly showstopping abilities and sent him and his friend Ando (James Kyson Lee) on a series of comic misadventures in pursuit of an ancient samurai sword. The idea was to present a mettle-testing challenge for a near-omnipotent being and, sure, save some dough on special effects. But it also took the fun out of Heroes’ most endearing hero. Oka believes the show needed to ”buy some time” before prepping his character for the endgame. ”Even me, as a fan, was like, ‘Oh, come on! Get on with it!”’ he says. ”Hiro is a major source of comic relief, but a lot of that humor came from this enthusiasm he had for his powers. When you took that away, some of the comedy became more of the traditional sitcom variety. It was good for Hiro to lose his powers and deal with that, but it’s also good to have them back now.”

But the story line that elicited the most grumbles early on belonged to Niki/Jessica. The structure of Heroes’ first season — a litter of disparate characters, each on their own journey, gradually coming together en masse to save the day — was bound to have a runty arc or two. Too often, the dual character’s angst and imploding domestic situation with husband D.L. and ”I can fix anything!” son Micah (Noah Gray-Cabey) seemed irrelevant to the show’s core. Roberts says he sensed the audience’s frustration: ”It felt like they were going to vote us off, too.” Larter believes that Niki/Jessica have begun to meld into a single persona: ”We’re in a groove. I’ve had more of a complicated, cerebral story line. Now, I’m going to get to do some fun stuff.”

Kring admits he and his staff ”struggled” with Larter’s story line but insists ”we’re going to earn back a lot of goodwill when you see how she’s connected to everything.” Lessons have been learned, adjustments are being made. Next season, instead of one epic yarn stretched across an entire year, there are likely to be two tighter sagas, or ”volumes” in the Heroes parlance. There will be more episodes that burrow deep into a single character — outings like ”Company Man,” a benchmark February story that focused on Claire’s hero-hunting adoptive father, Mr. Bennet (Jack Coleman). ”We want to mix it up, so we’re not constantly on this freight train that has to keep barreling faster and faster,” says Kring. ”We want to be able to hop off and tell different kinds of stories.”

Before cries of ”Sellout!” fill the air, realize this does not mean Heroes is retreating from the virtues that have distinguished it from its forebears. But Kring does cop to some What have I wrought? angst. ”The problem is that if you do something totally unexpected one week, the expectation is that you’re going to have to do it again the next,” he says. ”You’re going to go crazy trying to be ‘the show that always defies expectations.”’ Kring feels Heroes’ self-generating premise (genetic outbreak of mutants = constant supply of new characters) and grounded, human approach are the keys to continued vitality. Yet he also wonders how much of this is even within his control. Considering the struggles Lost and Desperate Housewives have had after Next Cool Thing rookie seasons, Kring says: ”It’s scary. The shelf life of shows seems to be getting shorter and shorter. As long as the stories continue to be about these ordinary people who discover powers and find purpose in them, Heroes can go on. The danger is that some of these ideas may seem less interesting than the year before. We’ll see.”

Or, as Oka puts it: ”This is the TV generation. We’re all a little ADD.” And despite being shrewdly engineered to withstand such impatience, the show may have finally been on the receiving end of its first dent: After a seven-week break, Heroes returned on April 23 down 3 million viewers from the March 5 episode. However, the numbers should surge back up as Heroes enters May sweeps, and hopes are high that even more fans can be found online and over the summer. ”I don’t think anyone who’s ever watched a handful of these episodes ever felt dissatisfied, but one thing we’re going to try to improve upon next season is the air pattern,” says NBC Entertainment president Kevin Reilly, adding that a specific plan is already in the works — one that would amount to a ”big twist” for season 2. ”Fans who like serialized shows like this don’t like it to go off for big chunks of time. We have a big idea for next season, but by the third season we’ll move to a 24 model, where we’re on continuously.”

Then again, maybe it will: Instead of just a cheerleader or a city, ”Volume 2: Generations” will concern a plot to save the entire planet. ”All I know is that I’m going to be all over the world next year,” says Sendhil Ramamurthy, whose nonpowered (or is he?) scientist Suresh will learn crucial info about his Indian past and his dead (or is she?) sister in the finale that helps set up next season. Kring says the onscreen global expansion of Heroes is being undertaken in part to coincide with the show’s aggressive rollout into foreign TV markets. Indeed, from comic books to websites to possible videogames and movies, Heroes is emerging as a lucrative worldwide brand for NBC. Some TV producers might find all this rather oppressive, not to mention a tail-wagging-the-dog corruption of their creative process, but Kring is both very practical and very ambitious; he’s jazzed by the prospect that Heroes can be not just a TV show, but a boundless, viral form of entertainment. ”TV is changing. And it’s exciting to be at the forefront of that change,” says Kring, tipping his hat to Lost, Alias, and Smallville for blazing the geek-obsessed trail. ”I have people here who worked on those shows. They came here with a lot of knowledge of how it has worked and how it should work. This is their chance to swing for the bleachers.”

Of course, the cash-cow potential of Heroes only makes the creative question more urgent: Can it last? The cast believe the key is to stick with the strategy that got them here: sheer audacity. ”We can’t just make cookie-cutter replicas of this season,” says Milo Ventimiglia, who, as Peter Petrelli, may or may not be the human nuke set to obliterate New York City. ”We have to grow. We have to change.” Kring agrees — and then some. He doesn’t believe in deferring wild, paradigm-shifting moves for the sake of a long-range master plan. He thinks great ideas beget great ideas, so why hold back? ”My guess is that we’ll find the edge of the cliff at some point — and fall off of it,” Kring says with a laugh. ”But right now, it’s the wild, wild West. It feels like anything is possible.”