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“You have no idea what’s really going on, do you?”

Well, I do now.

When I sat down with “Under The Mask,” I wondered if this would finally be the hour where Heroes Reborn started making any sense. In its efforts to perform its complexity, the two-hour premiere had resisted any form of convergent storytelling. It showed us numerous threads, and connected them with some very vague worldbuilding, but there was a strong resistance to doing what a traditional TV pilot would do: tell us why any of this matters.

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As someone who didn’t finish Heroes’ initial run, but who was interested in the idea of rebooting the show and its themes for the anthology era where serialized short-form stories like this are more viable in a broadcast context, the premiere was frustrating. Even if we look past some atrocious effects work—which manifests here primarily through some distractingly bad composition work during the driving sequences—the premiere sold a show where everyone is constantly on-the-move, and yet in different directions with nothing but doomsayer gobbledygook to suggest any shared stakes amongst them (especially if you don’t know, or don’t particularly care about, what happened in the series proper).

“Under The Mask” offers clarity on this front, and it is technically speaking a stronger effort for it. However, it also reveals that Tim Kring’s idea of a complex television show is one where information is actively withheld from the audience, and where a show becomes three-dimensional by first appearing as two-dimensional—or, being less generous, one-dimensional—and then peeling back the mask to reveal a third dimension was (allegedly) there all along. Noah’s selective amnesia reinforces that this show is written in a way that wants to turn even its basic premise into a mystery, a choice that reveals very little trust in its ability to develop characters or piece together meaningful dramatic TV outside of such cheap parlor tricks.

At least we finally have a sense of that premise. The writers’ vision sees the Evos’ powers used as the “processors” for technology devices that help police and government hunt down Evos—Renautus, who took over Primatech’s mission of rounding up the Evos, is using Molly Walker to construct a machine that takes the blatant ripoff of Cerebro to the next level and be able to hunt down each and every Evo in the world before they commit an act of terrorism. And it is through Renautus that we have our first meaningful point of convergence: Noah’s searching for Molly, Renautus CEO Erica Kravid’s daughter was the one who abducted Molly, and the show’s journey into the virtual Tokyo led our video game heroine and her pal right into the heart of Renautus, and then off to Colorado to get back the sword that was stolen from them.

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But as much as I appreciate both the convergence and the thematic clarity it offered, it shouldn’t feel as procedural as it does. Convergence is supposed to make stories more dynamic and engaging, but all this seemed to do was offer exposition. The video game story was particularly bizarre: while we got some hints at who Miko’s “father” really is, and the fact that she herself might be some kind of clone and/or robot like her captor Harris, most of what we saw unfold existed to justify the explanation of Renautus’ goals. Miko and Ren remain more or less non-entities to me, given how quickly they got swept up in something bigger than themselves (and hampered by the failure of the video game aesthetics). There has been no time to see characters reacting to things, and living their daily lives adapting to these new scenarios—Heroes Reborn has no time for such storytelling, and instead must keep pressing forward at a breakneck pace.

I find it all to be almost remarkably incoherent, despite an episode that was designed to offer clarity. On the one hand, nothing is happening—there’s never a moment that feels like we’ve landed somewhere meaningful, with even the E.P.I.C. launch hampered by some cheesy graphics work and the bizarrely inert staging of Noah and Quentin watching from a spatially bizarre location (was it the projector room?). However, at the same time there is also way too much happening, as no single story has had enough time for the climactic moments—Luke having his Evo power meltdown in the sun, Molly getting plugged into E.P.I.C.—to feel like they mean anything. When we get a big—cheesy—action sequence as when Carlos takes on his brother’s secret identity and gets his ass kicked, it lacks any of the weight of similar sequences in television’s now proliferate comic book shows, since all of those shows—Arrow, The Flash—had simple, straightforward storytelling structures that put character before conspiracy, and allowed complexity to grow over time.

Technically, given the way “Under The Mask” unfolds, you could argue that Heroes Reborn also put character before conspiracy, as the conspiracy remained shrouded in mystery before this third episode while much of the first two hours was devoted to what one could consider origin stories. However, even during very basic origin stories like Tommy’s, there have been leaden reminders that all of this is leading to something bigger, and that he—and everyone else—has a role to play in it. And while the show has used its pretentious “volumes” and “chapters” as a promise of complexity, I’ve been more apt to see it as a threat—a sign the show is inevitably falling back into the same patterns that doomed it the first time.

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Although the emergence of some semblance of plot clarity makes this episode productive, it does little to expand my confidence level in the storytelling strategies on display. For as much as Heroes has always wanted to be about something big and bold, this is still a show that ends an episode with a surprise car crash with a straight face. It’s a reminder that while Heroes Reborn might believe it has something to add to its own mythology, it—based on what is revealed here, and even considering what remains a mystery—has almost nothing to add to television storytelling more broadly.

Stray observations:

  • Kate will be back next week, and was more positive on the premiere than I was, so I’m curious to see how she responded to the reveals here.
  • I don’t have time to explore it here, but I’m really interested in this show’s particular view of complexity and convergence as compared with Sense8, which was similarly withholding with its premise but had sharper moments of convergence to drive the viewer forward. Something I’ll be thinking about as the series progresses.
  • No, but seriously, the compositing work in the car when Noah is for some reason repeating every single piece of information he learned in the hospital to Quentin was atrocious. None of the driving work was good, but that scene in particular was disastrous, and really shows how little NBC was willing to move on budget when the show clearly ran into post-production issues.
  • Not a huge fan of the non sequitur opening—the Arctic Circle eventually became relevant, and we got an embedded newscast out of it, but there are ways to introduce characters that don’t involve withholding any and all information about them.
  • I was really confused how Noah thought that the security guard he has at gunpoint in the camera room was going to get access to hospital medical records as he requested, so good thing the scene just ended without them discussing it further.
  • Anyone else distracted when the font for the character introduction chyrons was the same as the font for the on-screen credits? I like the chryons in a lot of ways (the “Harris (Prime)” and “Harris (Clone)” ones were fun), but it threw me early on.
  • Luke and Joanne have the most room to breathe of any of the stories, but the way their backstory—a dead child, by the looks of things—was fleshed out felt more like exposition, and more or less boiled down to Zachary Levi staring into space a lot.
  • If Tommy wanted to go to the party, and his mother was between him and the doorway, why wouldn’t he just touch himself and think about being in the driveway outside? Or at least the front entryway? Why would he just go out into the hallway? That seems pretty inefficient, no?

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