I've got a writer friend I see once or twice a year in person, but we talk on the phone every couple of weeks, sharing war stories about our current jobs and where are careers are going. We also share recommendations about new TV dramas we've liked. I'm trying to persuade them to give Ugly Betty a try - it's camp nonsense, but it's also got a lot of heart and some clever twists in the writing. In return, I promised to watch the first two episodes of Heroes, another hit of the new TV season across the Atlantic. And I'm glad I did.
For anyone who hasn't heard about it yet, Heroes is a series about a diverse collection of people from across the world endowed with special powers and fated to save the planet from some as yet unspecified threat. Essentially, it's like a comic book brought to life, but played straight - no KAPOW! captions here, praise grud. If you saw the film Unbreakable, Heroes best resembles an ensemble version of that approach. I doubt this show would ever have gotten on the air if Lost hadn't been a big hit. That show's success has legitimised and made mainstream the sort of stories and storytelling that previously screamed cult appeal only.
But Heroes has been a ratings hit in the US and looks like going the distance, especially if the programme makers can keep up the quality seen on screen in the first two episodes. It uses a structural approach overtly borrowed from the old Saturday morning serials, with each episode called a chapter and ending on a twist or cliffhanger. To the show's credit, it acknowledges there is life beyond America, incorporating characters from Japan and India in the cast.
Of course, the kind of story and the way it's being told are not especially new or novel. There was a 24-issue comic called Rising Stars that ploughed some of the same furrows, and super-powered heroes have been around for 70 years. But it's a joy to see such fare tackled with a straight face and an intelligent brain. So far they've avoided costumes and capes. Yes, the sprawling conspiracy is present and correct, but that was kind of inevitable. I'd blame Lost, but I suspect it's the earlier success of The X Files that made such stories so familiar.
Anyways, I'm enjoying what I've seen of Heroes so far. Ugly Betty is going from strength to strength, and even the misfiring Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip showed a little life and depth this week. Plus there's the compelling Friday Night Lights, though it's ratings leave something to be desired. But, as US TV seasons go, this one isn't turning out too bad thus far - for drama. Comedy and sitcoms? That's another matter...