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One Giant Leap

Rama Gottumukkala | Thursday, November 30, 2006

It begins the way any good superhero tale should. A solitary figure is perched on the ledge of a skyscraper. He’s a dreamer, unsure of his place in the world but intrigued by the growing thought that he might be far from ordinary. Convinced he can fly, the man steps off the ledge in a literal and figurative leap of faith.

Set amongst sweeping, cinematic imagery, the prologue to the pilot episode of NBC’s drama “Heroes” introduces us to Peter Petrelli (Milo Ventimiglia), the first of many remarkable protagonists in the show’s ensemble cast. With nearly a dozen principal characters, “Heroes” revolves around ordinary individuals who slowly discover they have uncanny abilities.

Fighting their own conflictions to either embrace or shelter these gifts, they find themselves colliding in the real world, drawn together in an attempt to stop an impending global catastrophe. But because the show navigates the lives of characters who are human first and saviors second, “Heroes” feels familiar and distinct in the same breath.

Origin stories

After all, the premise is nothing new. At first glance, it’s hard not to notice the glaring similarities “Heroes” shares in theme and tone to M. Night Shyamalan’s “Unbreakable,” a quiet, character-driven drama centering on the discovery of one man’s extraordinary abilities. Or cry wolf on the show’s ensemble cast and sprawling scope, both hallmarks of ABC’s “Lost,” the current standard by which all serialized dramas are judged. And how about those 40 years of X-Men comics?

Origin stories for superheroes – the heart of what makes “Heroes appealing – have been popular yarns for decades in comic books, one of America’s most treasured storytelling mediums. Whether it was Superman up in the sky in 1938 or Spider-Man’s first brush with great responsibility in 1962, comic books have become our culture’s equivalent of mythology.

The Greeks idolized Zeus, Hercules and Achilles for their power and their prestige. Americans have Superman, Spider-Man and Batman to reflect their hopes, their dreams, their fantasies.

“Heroes” creator Tim Kring knows this better than most, even if he won’t admit to it. The former creator-producer of “Crossing Jordan” – NBC’s entry into the television staple of murder mysteries – claims he’s a comics newbie.

“I was not a comic book nerd,” Kring said in an interview with The New York Times. “But the truth is that nowadays that world is so pervasive, especially when you have kids, that you go to movies in the summertime and that’s what you see. I didn’t really feel like I had to come from that world.”

Reality meets fantasy

Where “Heroes” differs from its comic book counterparts is in its execution. Awe-inspiring abilities and fantastical leaps of logic aside, Kring and the show’s writers have built a world that feels so real you can’t help but be swept away by its spectacle. There’s no fictional Metropolis, no prowling the dark streets of Gotham City.

Instead, the bright lights of New York City, Tokyo, Las Vegas and Los Angeles take center stage, with characters struggling through a fictional world that’s no simpler than the one seen on the news every day. Persecution, war, terror and the threat of a nuclear explosion loom on the horizon.

“Heroes” is a stark vision of a world where these champions are needed now more than ever, told in 44-minute installments that demand the attention of viewers week after week. In that respect, “Heroes” shares much in common with “Lost” and Fox’s “24,” its stylistic predecessors on network television. With audience demand for addictive serialized storytelling higher than ever, Kring seized his opportunity to build a show with its own unique mythos.

“I wanted to do a large, ensemble saga,” Kring said. “I was intrigued by these other shows that were working and this kind of Dickensian storytelling, with chapters unfolding one after another.”

Kring points to a Victorian-era novelist as the inspiration behind his first mainstream hit. But the most basic tenet of a good story applies to “Heroes” just as well as it does for 19th century literature – give audiences characters they can care for and they will come.

The chosen ones

With “Heroes,” viewers can take their pick from 11 such characters to inhabit, idolize and applaud – with more role players waiting in the wings for their chance to shine. Supported by relative unknowns eager to make the most of their first big break, the show’s casting choices have all been spot-on, with a few characters already stepping to the forefront.

The show’s lead is Peter, a compassionate everyman living in New York City. Plagued by vivid dreams of flight, he thinks he’s meant for some greater purpose, but hasn’t quite figured out what that purpose is. As he discovers, Peter’s powers allow him to temporarily mimic the powers of other heroes – sometimes better than they can.

Peter’s complicated relationship with his older brother, Nathan Petrelli (Adrian Pasdar), forms the emotional backbone of the show and, in many ways, knocks over the first domino in the race to save the world.

A pessimistic and driven politician running for election to Congress, Nathan is as ironic a hero as there’s ever been. Blessed with the textbook, Superhero 101 power – self-propelled flight – Nathan is the Superman who can scorch the sky at speeds that break the sound barrier. But he’d rather stay grounded in his political career, even publicly accusing Peter of mental illness to keep the press from unearthing the family secret. The tiff between the two brothers is the fulcrum that “Heroes” balances on – whether their abilities belong to themselves or to the world.

Arguably the show’s most popular character, Hiro Nakamura (Masi Oka) doesn’t even speak English. But the little guy’s ability to stop time and teleport from Tokyo to New York City in the blink of an eye makes him one of the most powerful beings on Earth. But even great leaders start from humble beginnings.

From the very start, it’s clear Hiro is the class clown, the character having the most fun with his powers. “I bend time and space,” he chortles gleefully in an early episode. A nerdish Japanese office worker, Hiro idolizes Spock and aligns his moral compass to choices made by the X-Men. While he begins as the most immature of the bunch, Hiro’s journey through the first eight episodes have already shown him the true potential of the vast powers he’s still learning to grasp – and the consequences if he does not.

In one of the most thrilling moments of the fledgling series, a future version of Hiro appears to Peter in a darkened subway car with time at a standstill. Complete with a samurai sword, closely cropped hair and Zen-like aura, future Hiro’s message for Peter – the instantly cult phrase, “Save the cheerleader, save the world.” – set the course for the rest of the show’s first season.

Friends and foes

While the super-powered beings in “Heroes” are numerous, the show’s human population plays just as vital a role in the narrative – and its emotional depth – as the telepaths, flyers and time-travelers. The most visible villain thus far has been a mysterious man in horn-rimmed glasses (affectionately dubbed “HRG” for short by the show’s creators).

Even with no powers of his own, HRG has been pulling the strings since the pilot episode, hunting down the heroes for his own purposes – including an attempted abduction of Nathan. He also happens to be a loving father to Claire Bennett, the quick-healing high school cheerleader in need of saving. Whether HRG becomes an important ally or a dangerous foe remains to be seen.

Similarly, every great hero needs a sidekick to pick up his morale and help guide his difficult journey. Frodo had Samwise, and Hiro has Ando (James Kyson Lee), a co-worker and friend he takes along for the ride. Ando’s friendship with Hiro, despite some rough patches, has been one of the great constants in the early episodes. Though the series has gotten progressively darker as the stakes have risen, every quirky scene with the dynamic duo is a treat, filled with laughter and genuine goodwill.

The future

Kring has hinted that characters will lose their powers, lose their lives and sacrifice themselves for the greater good – all in the pursuit of good drama. But in the meantime, the show has a seemingly endless supply of stories to mine and characters to explore. Exactly how long “Heroes” will remain on the air is a mystery. NBC is in no hurry to find out. The pilot episode attracted 14.3 million viewers, garnering the highest ratings for any NBC drama premiere in five years. And the number of viewers has continued to climb in recent weeks as the critical and popular acclaim for the show has snowballed.

Kring remains optimistic and he has a five-year plan in mind for his creation. The minds behind “Heroes” has already modeled the show after a well-known comic book convention – using short, multi-episode arcs with defined storylines to build upon a larger, season-encompassing arc. So far, these heroes have been anything but static – or dull.

“A show has a life of its own,” he said. “If you’re willing to listen to it, it will take you where it wants to be.”

The epilogue to the “Heroes” pilot ends the way the prologue begins. A man gathers himself, closes his eyes and steps off the edge. Like Peter, viewers are taking the leap by the millions. Where “Heroes” goes from here is anyone’s guess. Now it’s just up to Kring and his crew to decide how high it will soar.