"Heroes" writing: Stupid or Stylized?
July 10, 2009 9:42 PM   Subscribe

Cheesy writing in "Heroes" -- is it stupid or is it stylized?


I just finished watching Season 1 of "Heroes" (haven't seen any more yet, so please no spoilers).

I've enjoyed the show but I've had my share of cringes at the writing.

I'd be willing to entertain the notion that some/most/all of the "bad" writing was crafted this way intentionally to mimic a comic-book style -- but I've never been into comic books so I can't back this up.

Some examples (vague enough to avoid spoilers):

-Sappy, melodramatic scenes which don't "work" because the relationships don't support them
-Sudden, implausible changes of heart from many characters
-Scenes that may as well have a flashing neon sign that says "Exposition"
-Cliche after cliche along the lines of "what's in your heart is what counts" and trite "can destiny be changed or is it written in stone" fluff
-Powerful arch-villains with poorly explained motives/backgrounds (in a way that seems superficial, not intriguing in the tip-of-the-iceberg I-can't-wait-to-find-out-more way).
-Plot threads abruptly/too-neatly tied up or left dangling (not in an intriguing way, but seemingly careless or rushed)
-Dialogue discrepancies between a scene and its recap (this happened enough that I'm sure it was intentional)
-Deus ex Machina ad nauseum

The final episode was the worst offender -- someone randomly shows up just in time with no explanation for how they knew where to go, someone conveniently gets a shoulder injury and can't lift a gun, someone reveals their first name and *gasp* it's from the Bible and makes his whole story seem somewhat allegorical if you don't think too hard about it, someone gets called away from a crucial fight to sit and watch from the sidelines with family, someone with godlike powers stops using them for a few minutes in order to get beaten up by a few punches and kicks, etc....

Anyone care to weigh in? How much of this is cleverly stylized cheesiness that I'm too comic-ignorant to recognize? How much is simply poor writing?

I'm most interested in finding a convincing explanation from someone in-the-know, but I'd also welcome personal theories, opinions, and rants.

(also: should I watch seasons 2 and 3? Do they deepen/thicken the plot in an interesting way? I'm a huge "Lost" fan, no matter how weird it gets, but I'm not convinced yet that Heroes is quite so multi-layered).
posted by Alabaster to Media & Arts (30 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Eh, I think it's just how TV scripting goes these days. If you thought that was troubling, try getting through the whole of Alias. Don't get me wrong, I was always entertained and happy about it, good fun with some great acting along the way, but every thing you point out here was a terminal disease of the whole run (particularly after midways Season 3 or so). Nothing bad in enjoying cheesiness as long as you're honest with yourself, so don't beat yourself. (For the record, I liked Heroes Season 1. Haven't had a chance to see the follow-up, so can't help you there.)
posted by Iosephus at 10:06 PM on July 10, 2009

It's bad, both from a plot perspective and in writing, especially the quality of dialog.

The show has some cute ideas, and it's nice to see that kind of "comic book sci-fi" getting play, but it has suffered from some very heavy-handed Hollywood-izing that makes me cringe, too. Like Lost or the old X-Files, I spent a lot of time saying "Ohh.... that COULD have been great. So close."

I pushed through Season One, but I hit a corny wall in Season Two and never picked it up again. I might go back someday, but until someone chimes in and sells me on the rest, I don't feel like I am missing much if I don't.
posted by rokusan at 10:12 PM on July 10, 2009

Heroes does have the occasional comic-bookish line ("Save the cheerleader..."), but I think most of what you've just listed is par for the course for "action" genre TV these days. The other three I've watched recently are Lost, Prison Break, and Battlestar Galactica, and they suffer from many of the same problems.

And: Heroes season 1 is definitely the best. It really loses focus after that.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 10:15 PM on July 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

From wikipedia: "the second season of Heroes was criticized by commentators and fans for a much slower pace, less engaging storyline and lack of focus compared to the first season".

I really have to agree. I loved the first season (although I hated all the Nikki subplots, and hated everything involving Micah and hated some aspects of the cop's character as well.) I thought the episodes centering around Hiro were fantastic and I really liked Noah's character.

The second season was just so bleh. Less compelling story, less focus, a not-evil-enough villain. If you were already having problems with the first season, quit while you're ahead. (Though I hear it gets better halfway through season 3. I didn't want to invest the time to find out.)

Oh, and for me, I was able to gloss over the bad writing in the first season simply by focusing on the soundtrack. I really think the music draws that show together nicely and holds together the dramatic tension.
posted by Happydaz at 10:18 PM on July 10, 2009

I am a huge Lost fan too. Also, I can stand, and even enjoy pretty cheesy dialog AND I've read a decent number of comics and I enjoyed them.

When I watched Heroes I had the same reaction as you though. I put up with little annoyances for a while, just to see how the first season ended. I was incredibly disappointed. I am willing to suspend my disbelief for a show, but I really didn't even understand how the first season finale made sense within the Heroes universe.

I started watching the second season to give it a chance at redemption, but is was even worse. I stopped watching about half way through and wish now that I had stopped earlier. There are many shows that I thought were OK and have put in the time to watch the entire series, but I could not do it with Heroes, despite all the hope I had for it after the first few episodes.

Obviously I don't know exactly what you like, but I'd suggest cutting your losses and moving on to one of the many shows on the air that is worth your time.
posted by Midnight Rambler at 10:21 PM on July 10, 2009

Seasons 2 and 3 are flat out poorly written. Characters do things without any rational reason, they say things that are insanely melodramatic, and the plotting is messy. I still watch it, though, because it has a certain charm that I can't resist. But I think it's 20% stylized and 80& nonsense.
posted by ORthey at 10:22 PM on July 10, 2009

I don't think it has much to do with comic styling. Lost and to a lesser extent, Battlestar Galactica, too display the same traits. and both those aren't adaptations of comics, AFAIK.

I think it has more to do with the realities of American network programming i.e. 1)trying to keep the show going as long as it can, and at the same time, being unsure of how long you have till the network pulls the plug. So this affects the pacing and fleshing out of the plot
2)the writers may only have a loose (or no) idea of the story arc and aren't very good at fleshing out a comprehensive, organic body to connect the dots, hence all the contrivances needed to move the plot forward
3)actors may decide to leave in between, so you have to write them out, which may not be originally planned in the story.
4)some of your other complaints are symptomatic of most network television. (dons flame-retardent suit) The main reason The Wire is held in such high esteem is because it avoids the cheese. It only stood out because of the background it was up against, rather than any exceptional qualities in and of itself.
posted by Gyan at 10:22 PM on July 10, 2009

It's a combination of stupid and stylized. It's stupid stylization. Or stylized stupidity.

I've been reading comics for 35 years. I've loved science fiction nearly as long. I can put up with cheesy and dumb, but Heroes really goes over the top. I know some people love it, but the first eight or ten episodes are the only ones I enjoyed. After that (the homecoming night or whatever it was), things went downhill fast. I stuck with it 'til the end of season two, but I'm not sure why.

As Gyan suggests, Battlestar Galactica suffers from some of the same lame writing quirks. I know people love the show and think it's great, but a lot of Battlestar's writing is cringe-worthy.

In particular, both Heroes and Battlestar suffer from a problem you already noted: ever-changing "alliances". Your phrase: "Sudden, implausible changes of heart from many characters." This drives me fucking nuts, and it's all over these two shows. I think the writers think it's drama and characterization. It's not. In fact I think it's a sign of poor writing, an inability to create sustainable plots without randomly shuffling alliances.

Oh, the earnest shouting matches and grudges. It's drama! (It doesn't help that for the first three seasons, Baltar is like nails on a chalkboard, and Tyrol isn't much better.)

I don't hate Heroes or Battlestar; I just find them highly overrated (especially the latter).
posted by jdroth at 10:48 PM on July 10, 2009 [4 favorites]

I'm a total "LOST" fanboy. But "Heroes" entertained me greatly... for the first two thirds of the first season. The last few episodes, and especially the finale, exasperated me... and most of my friends and I wrote the series off at that point.

I agree there was a lot of "in a world" dialogue and melodrama even during the show's best, brief, early period. But at that point I was rolling along enjoying it as a graphic novel come to life and didn't mind. It just didn't take long for the wheels to come off (and admittedly the writers' strike didn't help).
posted by pzarquon at 11:32 PM on July 10, 2009

Heroes' main problem is that the writers (at least showrunner Tim Kring is on record as saying this) don't read comic books themselves but are aiming for a comic book 'sensibility'. Hence, what they usually achieve is what we'd consider old hat, over-the-top and amateurish. This often happens in visual SF media. Some people think that having no experience with the source material will give them a 'fresh, unique perspective' whereas what it really brings them is a seemingly endless series of wheels they have to reinvent, many of which have long since been proven to be, in fact, square.
posted by Sparx at 12:58 AM on July 11, 2009 [4 favorites]

Also, I could be wrong, but I've heard that they basically "gang-banged" every episode, meaning that they broke a story and then handed random acts out to the staff: somebody different wrote every act. Trying to craft a script when you're writing act six and you haven't a clue what somebody did in one, two, three, four or five makes it very hard to come out with something cohesive, smooth and well-crafted.

Unfortunately, this is happening more and more in scripted shows. Don't ask me why: it doesn't work.
posted by OolooKitty at 1:04 AM on July 11, 2009

My vote is solidly in the "stupid" camp. I barely made it through Season 1 and what I've seen of later seasons made me retch. If the show's creators outright apologize for Season 2, then I think that pretty much speaks for itself.
posted by Scattercat at 2:11 AM on July 11, 2009

...they broke a story and then handed random acts out to the staff: somebody different wrote every act.

Wow, now that I hear that it totally makes sense. It has seemed to me from time to time that two contiguous scenes will be internally coherent and well-arranged but for no apparent reason have a noticeable break where they're spackled together, not by editing or anything but obviously everything in each scene was arranged independently.
posted by XMLicious at 2:37 AM on July 11, 2009

Another vote for "just stupid". I love the premise of heroes and dearly wanted to discover in that there's some backstory or unseen events that made the wildly inconsistent character behaviours and messy plotting of season 1 make any kind of sense. Unfortunately, season 2 doesn't have any of this and is even worse.

I've heard that there are some good episodes in the middle of Season 3. Apparently they brought in another lead writer who immediately threw out some junk plots, gave the characters consistent personalities and established a coherent story arc... for about five episodes. Then he left the show, frustrated at all the resistance he was getting, and it went back to sucking.
posted by metaBugs at 3:58 AM on July 11, 2009

I think this is just an argument trotted out by people who like watching television or movies with terrible dialogue.

Two mildly related points:
  • The dialogue in The Wire isn't bad because the characters are meant to be uneducated.
  • The dialogue in every Kevin Smith movie isn't meant to be bad because it's supposed to be like a comic book. (Though, I suppose Chasing Amy has a more convincing argument for this than others.)
I am curious if anyone has made an entire series with intentionally bad dialogue, though.
posted by pbh at 4:13 AM on July 11, 2009

I'm no expert, but I think that this problem is endemic to television scripts, even for the better shows.

Movies like the new Transformers installment are targeted to a narrow audience--in this case, testosterone-infused males. This strategem allows them to break box office records in spite of overwhelmingly negative reviews.

TV shows, on the other hand, are targeted to a time slot rather than audience demographic. They have to appeal to all viewers in this time slot--male, female, young, old. So heavy-handed emotional arcs are inserted in action dramas under the idea that they might be found appealing to genders and ages who might be less inclined to enjoy bombs and guns.

A shining example of this is the Dennis Haysbert vehicle "The Unit," which consists of two simultaneous story arcs--military missions and the career, economic and love-affair conundrums of military wives. This reflects many aspects of military life, of course, but the gender split seemed like a simplistic way to appeal to husbands and wives spending "quality time" in front of the TV at home.
posted by Gordion Knott at 4:18 AM on July 11, 2009

I pretty much wondered the same thing after Season 1. But Seasons 2 & 3 confirmed that it's really just abysmal writing that gets worse the further along they get.
posted by csimpkins at 5:49 AM on July 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Just to echo everyone else, I just about made it to the season finale in season 1. Was massively disappointed that the concept didn't get a better treatment.
posted by idb at 6:39 AM on July 11, 2009

Also echoing everyone else.

I watched through the first two seasons. I was probably the only person that didn't totally hate season 2--Hiro's plots were cute--but it was generally very, very poorly written. My mother and my SO still watch it; sometimes I ask them what's going on in the series, but it's ridiculous, just ridiculous. Pretty clear it's an incomprehensible mess, even from a non-viewer. They say things like "It's better than last season, which was just terrible."

The problem, I think, is largely the result of poor planning. The deeper you go into the series, the more horrifically transparent it becomes that the writers have absolutely no idea what's really going on in the story arcs--they haven't planned character or plot backgrounds, they don't know the answers either. Sure, there's other cliche cheesiness, but that's in pretty much all television at times. What makes a TV show good serial viewing isn't the absence of these tropes but the idea that the writers actually know what's going on, and that your viewership is going to lead to some sort of ultimate pay-off.

(And, though OP probably knows this, I want to say to Gyan that LOST has been infinitely better since the writers were given an end-date. They're no longer stalling but instead able to develop the show in the way they had initially planned. It's been satisfying viewing the last few seasons, even if it's sometimes still cheesy.)

Maybe some of that, in the case of Heroes, is because the writers are trying to emulate comic books, where story arcs are abandoned or left undeveloped, where things often just don't make sense. But accurate parody or emulation of shoddy writing just makes for more shoddy writing--I really, really don't think knowing shittiness is any better than ignorant shittiness.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:06 AM on July 11, 2009

You watched the finale of S1. The problems with the finale pretty much demonstrate the problems with the rest of the series. I suppose if you had hours to kill and were watching it for free, you might enjoy S2 and S3 but as every poster here has stated, you'd get more satisfaction organising your sock drawer.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 7:30 AM on July 11, 2009

Everyone's hating on Heroes, so I'll try to defend it. Yeah, Season 1 is stylized and a bit cheesy. Just like a 60s-era comic book. Everything's a bit improbable and larger than life and it's part of what makes the show fun. It's most explicit in the way Hiro treats Nathan, it's silly and goofy and hopefully makes you smile. For me a lot of what was fun in Season 1 is all these characters discovering their powers, figuring out they were different but that could be OK. Total coming of age story, and it worked for me.

For Season 2 I've got nothing. It's terrible, particularly the first half. Season 3 is acceptablebut not great. Overall I'd say Season 1 is somewhat innovative television, S2 and S3 are just dumb entertainment.

For another take on this genre-mining extremism, try True Blood. That show is great.
posted by Nelson at 7:42 AM on July 11, 2009

It's written poorly. However, there are fleeting moments of brilliance, and, more recently, a few episodes in a row were sinister, awesome, and satisfying. But, it's mostly written frustratingly poorly.

gave the characters consistent personalities and established a coherent story arc... for about five episodes

Oh, is this what happened? I think I know exactly where, without looking it up. I was so shocked and impressed, and I wondered if I'd been missing something all along. Guess not.
posted by zeek321 at 8:12 AM on July 11, 2009

If you think the first season was bad, you won't want to watch the subsequent ones. It only gets worse. There were a few episodes here and there that were a glimmer of hope, but after watching the entire first three seasons, I really can't bear to go on. If they wanted to make a comic book-like superhero TV show, they should have brought in some people with a lot of comic book experience.
posted by joshrholloway at 8:15 AM on July 11, 2009

I would point out, though, that the fact this question came up means they're doing something right. There's so much untapped potential in the ideas, themes, personalities, and characters' histories and relationships that it drives me crazy. So someone's doing a lot of thinking. But the execution could be so much better.
posted by zeek321 at 8:21 AM on July 11, 2009

As others have said, each season has gotten progressively worse. If you didn't like season 1, you may as well bail out now. I'm growing to hate the show myself, but I still watch every episode for some reason.

I've always assumed that the leaps in logic etc. come because different episodes are written by different writers, there probably isn't a whole lot of time to get it done, and the overall Heroes story & world is so insanely big and complicated, it would be impractical to keep it all straight from episode to episode. So they don't really try too hard to keep it logical -- the producers probably figure that any lapses in logic can be explained away with a combination of "hey, its science fiction!" and "hey, look at the cute cheerleader!"

And like I said.... I'm still watching.
posted by spilon at 8:25 AM on July 11, 2009

If it were clever, it would not have been green-lighted. Remember: this is American television.

It's stupid, like 99% of all TV dramas are today.

(The Japanese guy is named "Hiro". I mean, come on..)
posted by Zambrano at 8:25 AM on July 11, 2009

You say that like there's something inherently wrong with choosing a name like Hiro Protagonist for a character.
posted by jepler at 9:02 AM on July 11, 2009

If you had trouble with season one, QUIT WHILE YOU ARE AHEAD. The show becomes flat out asinine after that. I actually like the first season, mind you. But it doesn't just go downhill from there -- it steps into a precipice. I could rant about this stupid show for hours, but I'll spare you.

Also, I still watch it for some reason, I think I'm addicted to outrage.
posted by cj_ at 1:09 PM on July 11, 2009

I quite like the first season. It's cheesiness aside, I think it is a great show about heroes. The season finale is great.

The rest of the series is one big suck. It's all disappointment, again and again.
posted by chunking express at 7:49 AM on July 13, 2009

And I think the writing is probably on par with most comic books.
posted by chunking express at 7:50 AM on July 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

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