[Hello, friends. Thanks to a bitter contract dispute between Time Warner Cable and Austin's local affiliate, I'm currently unable to watch any NBC programming, including Heroes. Yes, I suppose I could go out and retrofit my TV with a regular old antenna; granted, I could probably look into switching cable providers. But I'm optimistic this whole thing will resolve itself soon–and it damn well better before 30 Rock premieres–and that I'll be back to the grind before you know it. In the meantime, I'm handing the reins to my critical better Noel Murray, whose penetrating insights and elegant wordplay will throw all of my shortcomings into stark relief and immediately make you forget all about me. Hail to the usurper! –Sean O'Neal]

Usurper? I think not. More like Last Man Standing. The only reason I was tapped to fill in tonight is that I seem to be the only TV Clubber besides Sean who's still watching Heroes–and to be honest, after last week's episode, I was planning on dropping the show from my TiVo queue. At least I think I was. I mean… I wanted to quit. I really did. But there's something about Heroes' sublime silliness–and, I'll be honest, its often way-cool special effects–that keeps me watching, even though I spend half of each episode tearing my hair out.

The biggest problem plaguing Heroes since the start of Season Two has been the sense that Tim Kring and his writing staff only know one way to tell a Heroes story: Time travel, visions of an apocalyptic future, brother against brother, good guys becoming bad guys becoming good guys, critical wounds becoming mere flesh wounds, pointless new characters introduced and dispatched, Parkman worrying, Hiro bumbling, Sylar sneering, Suresh doing nothing, big finish, reboot. After the justified drubbing "Chapter Two: Generations" took, I'd hoped that Season Three would be a little more creative about its approach, but either Kring is stubbornly, admirably committed to repeating the same patterns for some higher purpose, or he really has no idea what the fuck he's doing.

Tonight's episode was such a mish-mash of standard Heroes themes and plot elements that it was practically an homage to itself. Jumping back and forth between Now and Four Years From Now, "I Am Become Death" continues the world-gone-topsy-turvy tomfoolery that Season Three has been pushing hard. Last week, Noah Bennett was partnering up with Sylar to capture the recently escaped supervillains; this week, Scar-Peter told Nice-Peter that he needed to seek out Sylar for help in preventing Suresh's superheromaker drug from sweeping the world, and destroying it. Also in Four Years From Now: Claire still has dark hair (and a serious mad-on for Peter, scar or no), Nathan is president (and married to Tracy), and Parkman has a kid with super-speedster Daphne (and is still looking after the now-tweenage Molly).

Meanwhile, back in the Now, Nathan is still receiving advice from Evangelical Ghost Linderman, Suresh is still playing at being Super-Suresh (and shedding skin in the process), Tracy is learning that she and her look-alike Niki were part of a genetic experiment (which drives her to try and commit suicide, until she's saved by Nathan, flying in to the rescue), Hiro and Ando are still imprisoned, and Parkman In Africa eats a bowl of yellow goo, puts some Enya on his Walkman, and takes a good old-fashioned John Locke style vision-quest.

Outside of the special effects–which hit their peak in a brief glimpse of an all-flying-all-the-time future world–most of the scant pleasures in "I Am Become Death" were kitschy ones, some intentional and some not so. Future Sylar wearing a "Hail To The Chef" apron? Intentionally kitschy. Present Parkman immediately discovering that his "spirit guide" is a turtle, and following it across the wilderness? Probably meant to be mildly funny, but not as ludicrous as it looked. Scar-Peter saying that he can't time travel anymore because he "stepped on too many butterflies?" Okay, kind of neat. Future Sylar crying over his dead Future Son, then blowing up a subdivision? I think even Brian De Palma might roll his eyes at that one.

Ordinarily, Sean would be here to ease the pain of watching Heroes with some corrosive wit, but I'm not the funny TV Club writer, I'm the guy who picks through the bones, searching for deeper meaning in cult TV shows. In a better show, I'd be pondering what this episode had to say about what a "villain" is, but frankly I couldn't be bothered to pick through all the non-stop pontificating, or the whole business with Nice Peter absorbing Sylar's evil when he takes his powers.

Really, at this point I might just tune in next week to see what characters Kring and the writers will throw together randomly. My money's on Ando and Super-Suresh… fightin' crime!

Grade: D+

Stray observations:

-Do you think the writers ever have trouble remembering what the future-characters recall about their present-lives? It damn sure baffles me. (For example, I'd all but forgotten that Claire is Nathan's daughter until her future-self brought it up.)

-More to the point, what do you think the Heroes cast thinks each week when they get their scripts?