The First Season Of ‘Heroes’ Was An Example Of Truly Perfect Television

What other show had us collectively screaming, “save the cheerleader, save the world”?

There are many shows that have suffered the fate of a run-time far too long.

I’m talking about series that end up getting progressively worse with each passing season, and eventually get so bad that they’re just no longer enjoyable to watch by the end. Think of shows like Lost, Pretty Little Liars and Game of Thrones, which initially seem new, fresh and creative, but ultimately end up falling victim to their own long, drawn-out storylines.

But even though there are many shows that fall into this category, there are some that suffer a fate far worse: A series being doomed after premiering with a genuinely perfect first season — and none encompass this idea more than NBC’s Heroes. 

Heroes was released in 2006, and was one of the first real ~superhero drama~ series to exist. Beyond Smallville, which came out five years prior, there were no shows that really focused on a plot about regular people with superhuman abilities. Really, Heroes was Umbrella Academy before Umbrella Academy was even a thing. The show was fresh, well-cast and, despite having a first season with 23, 45-minute episodes, never felt like it was dragging with all episodes being vital parts of the wider storyline.

Sadly, this can’t be said about the show’s following three seasons and subsequent spin-off, which were, simply put, absolute garbage.

*Obvious spoilers for a 16-year-old show ahead*

The Rise Of Heroes

Credit: NBC

When Heroes first aired, it was met with an average of 14.3 million US viewers, which was the highest rating NBC drama program in five years. Season 1 also gained the program eight Emmy nominations, and for good reason: it was fucking great.

For those who don’t remember, the first season of Heroes focused on 12 main characters discovering that they each had superhuman abilities, or were connected to someone who had these powers in some way. While each Evo (short for Evolved Human) had their own unique storyline and powers, they were ultimately all linked together by the Master of Time and Space, Hiro Nakamura (Masi Oka).

The main story of Heroes focused on these “superheroes” essentially having to work together to stop a devastating explosion threatening New York City — a truly bold move made by show-runner Tim Kring considering the city-destroying bomb storyline came only five years after 9/11.

But after seeing this explosion when teleporting into the future, Hiro then goes on a season-long journey to stop this explosion. While speaking to his future self, Future Hiro relays the message which becomes the basis of all the events in the first season: “Save the cheerleader, save the world”.

This cheerleader is, of course, Claire Bennet (Hayden Panettiere) who had the power of rapid cellular regeneration, which basically meant she couldn’t die or feel pain. This power was enticing to the series’ main antagonist Sylar (Zachary Quinto), a power-collecting Evo serial killer who stole superpowers by slicing open skulls with his finger, and inspecting the exposed brains.

While it all sounds quite silly, the Heroes writers were actually able to make these events genuinely scary and almost feel realistic. To this day, I still think Sylar is still one of the scariest villains to grace TV screens, and he was so terrifying because he was able to blend into society so seamlessly when he wasn’t on one of his brain-inspecting sprees.

Throughout Season 1, we eventually learn that Claire, not Hiro, was really the connection for everyone in the series. Her adoptive father, Noah Bennet (Jack Coleman) was revealed to be the lead agent of “The Company”, a secret organisation that focused on “bagging and tagging” Evos to keep the world safe.

But we also learned that Claire gained her powers because her biological parents, Nathan Petrelli (Adrian Pasdar) and Meredith Gordon (Jessalyn Gilsig), both had their own superhuman abilities of flight and fire. Most importantly, however, at the end of Season 1 it was revealed that it wasn’t Sylar who was responsible for the city-destroying explosion, but rather Claire’s uncle, Peter Petrelli (Milo Ventimiglia).

Peter, who had the power of mimicking others abilities, accidentally absorbed Sylar’s multitude of powers and couldn’t control the radioactivity, which essentially turned him into a bomb. In an attempt to save the city, Nathan sacrificed himself by grabbing Peter and flying them off into the sky so that the explosion could take place away from the people of New York. At the same time, Hiro fulfilled his destiny by stabbing Sylar with his sword.

In an ideal world, the Heroes story would’ve ended here with Nathan and Peter becoming ~heroes~, and the rest of the world now safe thanks to their sacrifice.

Instead, this was sadly just the start of the very sad descent into bad TV.

The Giant Fall From Greatness

All the things that happened over the first season’s 23 episodes were wild and farfetched, and yet, Heroes writers still somehow managed to tie the storyline into a nice little bow by the end.

But instead of just ending a good thing while it was still great, we were subject to the most piss-poor attempt at dragging the completed storyline out. Really, Season 2, 3 and 4 of Heroes basically undid that beautiful bow the original season left us with.

After giving audiences everything they could in Season 1, the Heroes writers decided to take it all back with convoluted storylines that became too hard to understand and follow. For example, throwing Hiro into the world of ancient Japan with samurai legend, Takezo Kensei (David Anders) boringly consumed the majority of the second season, without adding much to the wider storyline.

Also, the decision to make it that neither Peter or Nathan died after Season 1’s explosion made very little sense. As did the choice to keep Sylar alive, and suddenly turn a wonderfully-crafted villain into a “hero” by having him join forces with Noah Bennet at The Company. But it became crystal clear that the writers on Heroes had no idea what they were doing when they decided to suddenly kill off Niki Sanders (Ari Larter), only to replace her, not once but twice, with a complicated storyline that randomly made the character a triplet with “synthetic abilities”.

Basically it was a giant mess, that could’ve easily been avoided by just ending the show after Season 1 — but it was clear that show runners didn’t have any clear direction or vision beyond that initial concept.

The easiest explanation for why Heroes had such a terrible fall from grace was the infamous Writer’s Guild of America strike of 2007-08.

When these writers for Heroes stopped after Season 1, it left viewers with an incomplete 11-episode second season instead of the planned 24. This is because Season 2 was originally meant to be broken into three volumes (Generations, Exodus and Villains) before the middle story was cut completely, and volume three became Season 3 after the strike.

And for anyone who struggled through Season 2, you could tell something went awry: It felt rushed with no real cohesive storyline, and total lacked the perfected element of suspense and surprise that Season 1 had.

But beyond the shift in writing, Heroes Season 1 really backed the series into a corner. The powers that Peter, Sylar and Hiro possessed made them far more powerful than the rest of the Evos on the show, making most events that happened in the following seasons feel unrealistic and very easily solvable.

So, because of their God-like powers, the show’s writers kept having to come up with ways to thwart their abilities in outlandish ways — like Hiro getting distracted while stuck in the past, Sylar losing his memory, and Peter being restricted to using only one power  at a time– to give other characters a chance to shine, which reversed the great character development that took place in Season 1.

Moreover, even the decisions to constantly kill off then bring back notable characters, or turn bad characters good then back to bad again, really desensitised viewers to the climaxes in the show, meaning people watching were no longer invested in the storylines of these Evos they once loved

A Failed Reboot, But Still A Show Before It’s Time

Credit: NBC

Tim Kring shared that Heroes was actually originally designed to be an anthology series with all new characters each season, similar to American Horror Story, which explains why Season 1 managed to tell and finish its story so well. But after the insane success of the Season 1 characters, Kring’s decision to undo the completed storylines of the Season 1 Evos explained the show’s horrible downfall.

“The networks fall in love with certain characters, the audience falls in love with certain characters, the press falls in love with certain characters, they don’t want to see those characters go,” he explained at the 2008 Screenwriter’s Expo.

Similarly, when we were given the Heroes: Reborn mini-series in 2015 it flopped, too. While Reborn’s storyline was a little all over the place, there could’ve been hope for the show. The problem is Reborn suffered through the same issues as Heroes, where the new series brought back some of the original cast to link the two together.

Dealing with another catastrophic event, this time through a world-destroying solar flare, Reborn relies on Claire Bennet’s twin children to save the world. But to assist them, not only does Noah Bennet return, but so does Hiro Nakamura, Matt Parkman (Greg Grunberg) and Angela Petrelli (Cristine Rose).

But because of the return of these old favourites, and a number of essential characters not being involved in the reboot, Reborn was absolutely riddled with plot holes that are never explained.

However, while Reborn flopped in a modern setting, Heroes as a show concept was a truly way before its time. Since Heroes, a slew of superhero series have flooded the market, and this can’t just be attributed to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as Iron Man, the first film in the MCU universe, didn’t come out until 2008.

One can’t help but wonder what levels of success Heroes may have achieved if it followed its original anthology style, or if the Writer’s Strike never took place, or if it had the type of reach modern streaming platforms have today.

This leads me to my main point: I am of the firm belief that if Heroes were released as a Netflix Original today, it would be one of the platform’s most successful series. Heroes had the entire world screaming “save the cheerleader, save the world” in 2006, and left 14 million viewers (in the US alone) captivated and desperate to find out whether Sylar would succeed in his plights of destroying the world each week.

While the show may have seriously unraveled after Season 1, one positive to come out of keeping the same cast did mean that Heroes jump-started a lot of careers for the actors involved due to the amount of screen time they got.

Zachary Quinto went from slicing open heads to becoming Star Trek’s Spock, Hayden Panettiere started as an invincible cheerleader before transforming into Nashville’s new Queen of Country, and Kristen Bell went on to become Frozen’s Anna and Gossip Girl’s Gossip Girl after Heroes.

So I think we can all agree, that, at the very least, Season 1 of Heroes was the epitome of perfect TV — even with all its lost potential.

You can stream ‘Heroes’ Seasons 1 to 4 on Amazon Prime Video. 

Michelle Rennex is a senior writer at Junkee. She stans Sylar and tweets at @michellerennex.