Over the course of four seasons, from 2006-2010, Heroes went from fantastically entertaining and massively popular to dropping in both quality and audience. To those who even give it a thought five years later, the show is synonymous with squandered potential—a punchline more than anything. Part of the problem is inherent in this kind of sprawling storytelling: Heroes built a massive world and mythology (borrowing heavily from X-Men, of course, but still), and frequently seemed to be flying by the seat of its pants, especially toward the end, when things went off the rails pretty much completely. Creator Tim Kring painted himself into a corner by introducing powers and plotlines that didn’t have a clear purpose, and was unable to teleport out of that corner. Or time-travel. Or turn invisible.

But no idea that ever attracted a solid viewership will be completely abandoned nowadays, so NBC has brought the show back for a 13-episode limited return called Heroes Reborn. (Heroes Resurrected was probably too on the nose.) So what do you do about expectations for a new version of a show that experienced the range of quality that the original Heroes did? Unsurprisingly, the network’s stated intention was to “reconnect with the basic elements of the show’s first season,” i.e., the one that people really watched and liked—the one that took comic-book and science-fiction elements to clever, engrossing places.

And based on the first three episodes of Heroes Reborn, it’s clear that they’ve done it: It’s once again smart, clever, slightly silly, a bit overstuffed, and fun as hell. Hopefully, without the need to fill 23 episodes with twists and turns and double-crosses, this Heroes can stick the landing, too.

Reborn picks up about five years after the regular series, with the relationship between humans and “evos”—those with powers—both moving forward and meeting roadblocks. The parallels to current civil and human-rights movements is foregrounded, naturally, with placards bearing the words “GOD HATES EVOS” at a rally. Noah Bennet—a.k.a. HRG, named for his horn-rimmed glasses—is the only major character that’s a regular here, which was a smart choice. At the show’s outset, he’s headed to a huge event that’s supposed to be a breakthrough in human-evo relations, and he’s estranged from his evo daughter Claire, the cheerleader who inspired the action in the first series. (“Save the cheerleader, save the world.”)

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But a massive explosion—a terrorist attack—at the gathering becomes a 9/11-like moment for the country, further driving a wedge between those with powers and those without. Bennet, a former secret agent who hunted and then helped evos, ends up a year later with his memory completely wiped (hmm, who could’ve done that?) and suburban life sprawled out in front of him. But a geeky dude—a “hero truther”—starts to wake him from his slumber and sets him on a quest to find out what really happened on June 13, 2014.

With Bennet as its grounded central mystery (and likely mystery solver), Heroes Reborn is free to spin off in a dozen different ways, quickly and effectively introducing the evos who will undoubtedly converge to save the world at the end of this season, as well as the bad guys who’ll try to exploit and/or kill them. (There’s no sorrow in knowing what will happen—it’s the journey that’s fun here.)

Without revealing too much: There’s a teenager who can teleport objects to unknown places, a pair of Japanese teens with a deep relationship with video games, a mysterious helper with a briefcase full of pennies, a priest who runs an underground railroad for evos, a local masked superhero, and hints at a handful more whose powers aren’t quite clear yet. On the bad-guy side: a couple with a grudge who are murdering evos for sport and an evil corporation whose new invention could tip the balance of power. Allegiances, presumably, are subject to change.

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As was always the case with Heroes, there’s a little bit too much going on at any one time—a few too many characters, powers, and storylines to keep track of. But that’s a small quibble with a story and vibe that’s this strong so far. Maybe this run will be powerful enough to go back in time and erase season four entirely; these three episodes have already gone a long way toward that.

Reviews by Kate Kulzick will run weekly.