How a miniseries could save Heroes ... and what other shows could learn

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Feb 28, 2014, 2:11 PM EST (Updated)

Five years removed from its merciful cancellation after its final two, critically awful, seasons, NBC’s one-time hit Heroes is coming back to life in 2015. On the surface, that kind of sounds like a terrible idea. But it doesn’t have to be. 

For its debut season, which followed average folks discovering they have superpowers, the series was absolutely awesome. Most of the world agreed, too, and the first season averaged a whopping 14.3 million viewers in the United States. For the sake of comparison, Walking Dead currently averages over 15 million per week (on cable, admittedly, which is a bit different), and it's considered a bona fide sensation. For an all-too-brief moment, Heroes was on that same level of cultural zeitgeist.

NBC Entertainment President Jennifer Salke said as much following the surprise announcement about the Heroes Reborn miniseries during the Winter Olympics, while confirming that series creator Tim Kring is back on board to tie it all together. NBC knows that, critically tainted or not, Heroes is still a bankable brand name:

“The enormous impact Heroes had on the television landscape when it first launched in 2006 was eye-opening. Shows with that kind of resonance don’t come around often and we thought it was time for another installment. We’re thrilled that visionary creator Tim Kring was as excited about jumping back into this show as we were and we look forward to all the new textures and layers Tim plans to add to his original concept. Until we get closer to air in 2015, the show will be appropriately shrouded in secrecy, but we won’t rule out the possibility of some of the show’s original cast members popping back in.”

It usually takes about six years for a show to go from great to awful, but Heroes managed to hit every end of the quality spectrum in just four. Most fans blame the 2007 Writer’s Guild of America strike for the drop in quality, and it did play a part by cutting short the second season. But the cracks were already starting to appear, regardless.

The first season of Heroes was a taut, tight, focused piece of exceptional sci-fi storytelling. Everything that came after that? Not so much. It was obvious Kring came to season one with a well-conceived origin story, and he knew exactly how he wanted to tell it. But he didn’t seem to put quite as much thought into what came next. From apocalyptic futures to time travel, random characters and side-switching bad guys, the final three years could never find that particular narrative arc that made the first season so compelling. Heck, even Kring himself apologized back in 2007, midway through season two, telling Entertainment Weekly:

''We assumed the audience wanted season 1 — a buildup of intrigue about these characters and the discovery of their powers. We taught [them] to expect a certain kind of storytelling. They wanted adrenaline. We made a mistake.’'

Sure, season two did start off at a glacial pace, but the fans didn’t just want “adrenaline.” Slow is okay, so long as it's done well. Just ask Walking Dead fans, who held on through the maddeningly slow search for Sophia, just because the show as a whole was still good. There’s a difference between “buildup” and wheel-spinning, and Heroes never found it. Of course, things got even worse after that. The writers' room overcorrected and turned the fun, twisty sci-fi show into one of the stupidest, most ridiculous series to ever grace the small screen. Seriously, just look at where some of these characters started their narratives and where they ended by the time NBC pulled the plug. That wasn’t growth, it was mindless plot twists buried on top of contrivances and bad ideas.

So it begs the question — how on earth could a Heroes miniseries be a good idea? Simple. Focus on the keyword there: “mini.” Heroes was at its worst when it had too much room to run, and not nearly enough good stories to fill the space. Reborn rides the wave of those popular event series that are all the rage these days (see: 24 Live Another Day), and is being pitched as a self-contained, 13-episode run. No muss, no fuss, and, most importantly, no filler.

As his mea culpa showed back in 2007, Kring is willing to admit when he’s made a mistake. In four seasons with Heroes, he made more than a few. Maybe he’s learned something from them. Kring spent his downtime in the wake of Heroes working on the intriguing (but ultimately boring) sci-fi series Touch, which was axed after two seasons. Touch was by no means high art, but it at least made sense — which is a lot more than you could say for the latter run of Heroes. So that's encouraging.

With equal parts X-Men and Lost, Heroes was an addictive slice of smart sci-fi fun when it worked. If Kring can take advantage of the shorter run and craft a story to actually fit it, this could be the Heroes revival fans have been waiting for ever since things went WTF and a carnival came to town. 

But in a broader sense, Reborn could also open the door for more event series around fan-favorite franchises that are past their prime. Studios and networks are always looking for new ways to exploit (err, capitalize on?) intellectual property with some name recognition. The results are obviously mixed, from the short-lived Knight Rider reboot to the acclaimed Battlestar Galactica revival. What these event series represent is a way to generate some buzz while taking a calculated risk on a franchise you know has at least some cachet.

If Heroes fans show up en masse for this semi-reboot (and if it doesn’t suck, of course), some other fan-favorite shows could potentially rise from the dead. Think about it: The limited commitment represents a way to attract bigger star power, or busy former stars who have since moved on, and could simultaneously sate some fan dreams and help the bottom line. For fans, it could be a win-win. Shorter runs have worked wonders for shows like Doctor Who and Sleepy Hollow in recent history, and that rule may ring true for Heroes

Instead of “Save the cheerleader, save the world,” let’s see if we can save Heroes and potentially save a lot more shows we love. Here's hoping.