Before we go any further, I should probably take a moment to explain the controversial grading system I've been using to assign those troublesome little letters you see after all my miles of prattling prose. See, when I first started this thing, I had no idea how to properly quantify my appreciation or utter, utter disdain for an episode of Heroes. I knew I couldn't grade it against so-called "quality" television; comparing it to The Wire or Mad Men or any other show that actually rewards close study or provokes further reflection throughout the week would be unfair. Even when it's firing all cylinders, Heroes is little more than a pulpy, plot-driven exercise–a decent diversion, but not something that measures up against the best of the medium. After all this time its characters are still only sketchily drawn at best, and as we've seen again and again, often hastily rewritten to suit the narrative. You can see it in the show's tendency to shake up its flimsy framework like an Etch-A-Sketch that its writers frequently confuse toying with audience expectations with creating compelling drama–and when a show views itself as so much dust in the wind, how seriously should you take it, really?
So that's why I've been grading on a curve so far, judging the show solely against itself and the evidence of its highest and lowest creative points. Of course, that was a lot easier when it only had a couple dozen episodes; we're in so deep now that it's not such an effective system anymore, as many of you commenters have pointed out. So I think it's time to grow up a little. I've devised a new scale. Allow me to illustrate:
- An 'A' grade would mean that Heroes actually told a compelling story that had a satisfying beginning, middle, and end. Its characters remained true to who they were, no supporting actors were showily introduced just so they could be dispatched moments later, and some question about the overall mythology was answered in a way that was not insulting to the intelligence. (These episodes will obviously be very rare.)
- A 'B' grade would indicate that Heroes managed to get through an entire episode without changing something fundamental about a character just to drive the plot. Furthermore, this installment was light on Hiro-related slapstick, romantic subplots, and ridiculously convenient revelations that make absolutely no sense if you really think about them.
- A 'C' grade would indicate that Heroes mostly wandered around for an hour, moving its various pawns into contrived positions for some anticlimactic denouement way down the line. This episode probably featured a lot of shots of Milo Ventimiglia looking deadly serious and yelling about the future and a ponderously metaphor-laden monologue from either Mohinder or Nathan. Also, Niki/Jessica/Tracy was in it a lot.
- A 'D' grade would indicate that the writers of Heroes briefly pretended they had no idea who their characters were and arbitrarily gave them new motives and personalities to better suit their needs (however they define them this week). This episode also probably featured lots of Hiro slapstick or Claire crying, and it almost definitely introduced a lame "game-changing" twist that even M. Night Shyamalan would be ashamed of.
- I'm still not sure what an F grade would look like. I hope to never find out.
Anyway, now that we've properly recalibrated our system, can you guess what grade this episode of Heroes will receive?
I mean seriously, is a little consistency too much to ask, even from what is ostensibly a fantasy show? I'm all for shaking things up, and there's nothing wrong with a character evolving. But by its very definition, evolution is a process. It takes time. It also takes purpose–developing eyes on either side of the head to better spot predators, for example. It cannot and should not be as simple as finding out you were adopted and then putting on a nice suit.
Yet that's the ridiculous "path to redemption" that Sylar was set on tonight after discovering that he, too, came out of Ma Petrelli's magical vagina, which has apparently given birth to more superpowered people than Stan Lee. Ma Petrelli laments that she never should have given Sylar up for adoption–without explaining why she did, of course, because having a proper back-story is so boring–and says something along the lines of, "You didn't really think you were the son of a watchmaker and a woman who collects Hummel figurines?" Actually, he did, and so did we, because that was the whole point, wasn't it? Sylar wanted to be special so badly that he started stealing powers from other people. Wasn't that supposed to be the tragic flaw that made his character interesting in the first place? Instead Angela insists that it's not his fault: Sylar just has an innate "hunger" for powers, and it's in his Petrelli DNA to seek them out. (Meanwhile, his brother Peter is walking around collecting them like he does cool jackets. No wonder those two tussle all the time.)
Unfortunately the scribbling outside the lines doesn't end here, with Sylar and Bennet inexplicably pairing up for a wacky buddy-cop comedy ("One's got the brains… The other likes to poke around in them a bit") to go out and catch the rootin' tootin' Level 5 Gang. As usual, the motivation for such a huge shift in character is dispensed with in glib shorthand: Sylar is willing to be nice because he wants to "see how it all plays out," whatever that means. Meanwhile, we're supposed to be pulling for Sylar and his chance for redemption—as Mohinder's typically on-the-nose narration puts it, "Does the hero or the villain inside us win the day?" But instead these scenes only drive home how little we actually know these characters, even after spending all this time with them. Does Sylar even want a chance at redemption? Is he really a natural born killer, or is it something he could stop doing if only he found his true purpose in life?
Odds are that the answer is no, even with the second chance afforded to him tonight after he blows his first one and dispatches with Jesse (better luck on your next show, Francis Capra), leaving Angela to pack him off back to his cell with a fresh set of clothes and some consoling words. But still, if Sylar isn't secretly yearning to be a hero, and he also isn't the kind of guy who would take the first chance he had to kill Bennet and escape–say, when Bennet handed him his gun–then who's to say what we actually know about him or his motivations, if indeed those things are even set in stone somewhere.
As for Bennet, he initially goes along with it under the threat of having Sylar running loose and unsupervised, but then puts a remarkable amount of trust in Sylar to save his ass during the bank robbery. Then he reveals to a conveniently returned Haitian at the end that he's just playing along so he can study Sylar for weaknesses and eventually kill him. So once again, everyone's still "playing" each other. Then, of course, there's the possibility that Angela is lying yet again about the whole "I'm your mother" thing… All of this is why it's become increasingly frustrating trying to care about anyone on this show. Why bother when they'll most likely be revealed to be someone completely different in the very next episode?
You know, twists can be great for keeping things lively–even if they lose some of their effectiveness the third or fourth or even thirty-fourth time–but jeezum crow, eventually the mythology needs to coalesce into something structurally sound, otherwise you're just making shit up as you go along. (Surely not!) Is it too much to ask that the show stay consistent when it comes to at least one character? Sylar wasn't exactly a "classic" villain, but he had an established, even slightly empathetic origin story, and he could always be counted on to counterbalance the show's querulous "heroes" with a healthy dose of evil one-track-mindedness. Now that that's out the window, he's on track to becoming just as morally conflicted–read: fucking boring–as the rest of them.
By contrast, tonight's other big revelation–that Tracy was "created" by the same doctor who came up with Niki/Jessica, and who knows how many other ballsy blondes–is actually a thread I don't mind following, because Niki's identity crisis has been at the root of her character since episode one. By all means, resolve it we can stop paying attention to her forever. Not so sure what we're supposed to glean from Parkman meeting up with African Isaac out in the desert, who's painting those little vignettes from Parkman's past–other than it looks like if he had only been nicer to his wife he could have ended up starring in Family Circus. And oh yeah, Parkman apparently has a nebulous quest involving yet another girl he has to save; ask me how excited I am.
In other news: Nathan is still getting in touch with God, Hiro and Ando continue to trainwreck the show's tone with their lightly comic adventures–after my crack about Alain Romans last week, this one is even soundtracked to one of those jazzy Buster Keaton scores to drive home how clunky and out-of-place it is–and fighting/flirting with Speedy Hot Topic, whose sass is already starting to wear thin. ("You're 0 for 2 against me, Pikachu!") Somehow after chasing her all around the world it still hasn't occurred to Hiro to go back in time to before he opened the safe with the formula and NOT OPEN THE FUCKING SAFE. Meanwhile, Claire gets some tough love from her human torch biological mother, who nearly suffocates her until she admits that she wants to "stop bad guys" because she wants revenge on Sylar. (I'm starting to feel a little suffocated myself.) Finally, Future Peter superpokes Present Peter out of Jesse's body and whisks him away so he can see what grim consequences lie in store a scant few years from now if things don't change soon… Sound familiar? But hey, if it seems like the show's repeating itself, just look at the preview for next week: There's Sylar playing happy homemaker and baking cookies or what-the-fuck-ever. What a twist!
- Francis Capra (who looks like he has definitely seen better days) joins Joanna Cassidy in the show's graveyard of interesting character actors who were introduced and dispensed with immediately.
- Luckily, Super Marlo (The Wire's Jamie Hector) lives to swagger another day. Still no sign of Bubbles, though.
- I have to admit that Jesse's "sound manipulation" power was pretty cool. What are the odds we'll ever see it again?
- Ando and Hiro are imprisoned in Level 5! How will they ever get out of there??! I can only hope this is resolved quickly!!!!
- In a show bereft of dialogue that wasn't almost exclusively expository, I have to admit I did like both Ando's "I'm being awesome!" response and this brief exchange between Claire's human torch mom and her useless brother Lyle:
Torchy McButt-In: "Your Dad asked me to stick around for a few days and help protect you."
Lyle: "With fire?"
- Speaking of Torchy, between this and Friday Night Lights, Jessalyn Gilsig has just about cornered the market on coming between mothers and their teenage daughters. I guess it's because she has that natural "need to get my shit together" look about her.
- Again speaking of Torchy, how exactly could she burn enough oxygen out of the air to suffocate Claire, but have no problem breathing herself? Or should we just stop caring altogether about these little leaps in logic, considering all the bigger, dumber things we have to contend with?
- For example, who's looking after Micah, and exactly how long has he been sitting there alone with his mother's corpse? Where's Monica The Mimic and Aunt Uhura?
- What could be on those headphones that makes both Parkman and his personal portrait artist go all Isaac in the eyes? The Velvet Underground's "Heroin"? Because you see… Isaac used heroin when he… Oh forget it.