Somewhere on the slippery slope between Twin Peaks and Coach, Heroes Reborn marked a turning point. Its revival announcement was the first to feel truly mystifying; anyone could understand why a cult hit that gradually built up a mass audience or a mainstream hit that managed to retain cult appeal made a reasonable candidate for resurrection, complete with members of the original cast. But a show that met its natural death just five years ago, after a perfectly respectable four seasons? That was a head-scratcher.
Now Heroes Reborn is upon us, airing its two-hour premiere tonight on NBC. Like Twin Peaks and The X-Files, Reborn isn’t intended to give the franchise new life — as a miniseries, it’s meant more as a nostalgic romp, attracting viewers by advertising itself as a Very Special Event. Except that Heroes went off the air in 2010, making it just a hair too old to be fresh in anyone’s mind, but not nearly old enough to qualify as nostalgic. And so Heroes creator Tim Kring, who returns to Reborn in the role of executive producer, faces the unenviable task of answering the question, Why does this exist?
Obviously, every television show needs to justify an investment of the viewer’s time, but with sequels, the burden of proof is much higher. The first three episodes — or, in Heroes lingo, “chapters” — of Heroes Reborn never quite manage to meet it.
Reborn takes place in the same universe as the original Heroes, though it only shares a single major character: Noah Bennet (Jack Coleman), also known as the man with horn-rimmed glasses, also known as HRG. The premise is also the same — which isn’t saying much, considering it’s the same basic idea as every other superhero franchise, minus the decades-long record of bankability: a handful of people, known as evolved humans (or “Evos”), are born with special powers for reasons no one quite understands. Both they and regular humans respond in varying ways; chaos ensues.
Sometime after the end of the original Heroes, Noah’s former employer Primatech hosted a convention dedicated to peace between humans and Evos in Odessa, Texas. A vaguely depicted “terrorist attack” (all we see is a looming shadow and an explosion) leads to mass casualties, including Noah’s supposedly invulnerable daughter Claire. Her death may have to do with Hayden Panettiere’s reluctance to return while she’s still busy with Nashville, but it also gives Noah a nice mystery to look into one year later, when conspiracy theorist Quentin (Henry Zebrowski) interrupts Noah’s memory-wiped life as a used car salesman — another mystery! — to tell him something’s up.
That something is Renautas, a big, shadowy corporation that conveniently arises to take Primatech’s place. There’s no apparent connection between them, which makes Renautas simply come off as a failure of imagination on the part of the Heroes team. What does one do when Zachary Quinto doesn’t want to come back and Primatech is out of the picture? Invent a Primatech-shaped threat to Evos — albeit one intended as a take on Obama-era, pseudo-utopian tech giants rather than Bush-era government agencies — to replace it.
At least the Evos targeted by Renautas’ scheme make up a new cast of characters. There’s Tommy (Robbie Clarke), an all-American teen who can teleport objects by touching them; Carlos (Ryan Guzman), a war veteran and normal human forced to take his brother’s place as a pro-Evo vigilante; and Miko (Kiki Sukezane), who can travel in and out of a video game crated by her father. Zachary Levi, Reborn‘s biggest name, and Judith Shekoni round out the cast as Luke and Joanne Collins, a husband-wife duo out to avenge their son, who died at Odessa, by murdering every Evo they can.
While none of them have actually shown up by the end of Chapter Three, a few old favorites float around Reborn‘s edges. Hiro Nakamura (Masi Oka) has been name-dropped a few times; Mohinder Suresh (Sendhil Ramamurthy) has supposedly claimed responsibility for the Odessa attack, though he probably didn’t do it. (We know this because an Evo literally yells “LIES! ALL OF IT!” at a television when Mohinder’s name comes up.) And newcomer Francesca Eastwood plays a grownup version of Molly Walker, the Evo with the dangerous ability to locate anyone else with powers.
The promise of Hiro and Mohinder’s return doesn’t entirely make up for the fact that none of the newcomers are charismatic enough to anchor the show in their place — particularly since we already know we’ll only have 13 episodes to get to know them, instead of multiple seasons. It’s one of many baffling things about Heroes Reborn: if Kring couldn’t get the original cast to commit, why did he assign himself the Herculean task of getting viewers to invest in an entirely new ensemble over such a limited run?
This isn’t to say Reborn is entirely without merit. It has a campy, technicolor feel that embraces its comic book influences and serves as a welcome antidote to the Nolan-noir of so many contemporary superhero stories. And with the exception of one Evo inexplicably hanging out in the Arctic Circle, it does a good job of wrapping all its disparate plot lines together by the end of Chapter Three; considering it’s set in Illinois, Los Angeles, Texas, and even Tokyo, that’s no mean feat. The effect is a more coherent version of the cosmopolitanism attempted by, say, Sense8, including a willingness to use subtitles where the Wachowkis opted for accented English.
Still, there are other shows that do comics well, and with better-loved franchises. Why should anyone tune in to Heroes: Reborn, the follow-up to a series whose viewership had dropped by more than half in its final season, when they could opt for The Flash, Agent Carter, or newcomer Supergirl instead? I don’t know, and I’m not sure NBC does either.