Background: When I was growing up, most of my peers enjoyed comic books more than television, marveling at the exploits of superheroes such as Superman or The Flash (the Uncanny X-Men did not matter until the upgraded characters were released years later). They saved the world on endless occasions using their gifts to benefit mankind, evolving over time as the public grew increasingly restless for saviors they could identify with, flawed heroes such as those that Marvel Comics were the first to offer in mass quantities. As the comic book medium grew into a collector format though, sales waned significantly, resulting in all sorts of problems when the characters were converted into other formats including television and the movies, typically taking the camp route over serious drama that could have expanded the audience outside the geek-filled fandom I admit to being a part of long ago. In more recent years, books like the Wild Card series provided a more adult tone and less emphasis on caped crusaders fighting similarly garbed villains, television shows such as The 4400 providing a more humanistic look at meta-humans with super abilities in soap opera styled shows. Well, much to my surprise, another show appeared on NBC TV back in 2006, my review of the first season in the high definition blu-ray format here with Heroes: Season 1.
Heroes Season 1 is an ensemble cast show that became a very large success based on how well it translated the comic book to the small screen. I'll try to limit my spoilers but be forewarned that just as I went into the set with minimal knowledge (I missed it when it came out and waited until now to check it out), this one has been out in standard definition and HD-DVD for awhile now so I feel less obligated to dumb down the review completely. Set on present day Earth, the show details how a growing number of people are developing special abilities outside of government control with a variety of consequences to them and the population at large. Unlike the truncated second season, the first had a full 23 episodes to explore the concept, resulting in a number of smaller, multi-episode arcs that all built toward a bigger picture as the season progressed. Unlike the old style of comic books though, the cast is made up of all sorts of regular people that start to notice they are "special", some of whom learn to increase their abilities with concentration or training, stumbling at times but honing said powers in numerous ways.
In overall terms, the story uses the Human Genome Project as something of a starting point, using scientist Mohinder Suresh (Sendhil Ramamurthy) as a focal point for identifying gifted people as he follows a trail set forth by his father, a formerly distinguished geneticist that chased what were considered crazy ideas about human evolution until he was killed. Mohinder discovers that certain trace markers in human DNA predict people with abilities and having observed firsthand exactly how gifted some of these people are, he ends up trying to warn them of a serial killer named Sylar (Zachary Quinto) and what appears to be secret agents out to capture them. Needless to say, his efforts are not universally appreciated and he himself is cast into the mix as a pawn, forced to face both powered and mundane humans out to stop him. The show also uses a dozen or so other main characters that either have powers or interact heavily with them, many seemingly patterned after specific comic book characters in terms of abilities, though not so much in terms of their personalities.
Take Hiro Nakamura (Masi Oka) for example, he can bend the space time continuum if he concentrates hard enough, the Japanese office worker slaving away at his father's corporation while dreaming of his special destiny. The guy is a stereotypical science fiction/comic book nerd too, wanting more than anything to become a hero rather than follow the path laid out for him by his father Kaito (George Takei of Star Trek fame). His hit or miss attempts to control his powers provide some of the comic relief of the show but he also serves as someone genre fans can identify with as he tries to uncover his own future with the help of his best friend, the mundane Ando Masahashi (James Kyson Lee). Then there was Claire Bennet (hotty Hayden Panettiere), a gal with Wolverine-like healing powers who figures out she will regenerate no matter what happens to her, the gal finding out her adopted father Noah (Jack Coleman) is working for an agency with special plans for anyone with her kind of talents. The Texas high school cheerleader becomes an integral part of the main picture as she is stalked by Sylar, a man with the ability to take special powers by decapitating those he encounters, their showdown predicted long before by Isacc Mendez (Santiago Cabrera), a precognitive that draws the future while under the influence of heroin.
The cast also included internet stripper Niki Sanders (hotty Ali Larter) whose multiple personality disorder grants her alias Jessica super strength, Nathan Petrelli (Adrian Pasdar) a district attorney running for Congress that can fly, his brother Peter (Milo Ventimiglia) that finds out his ability is especially powerful as time moves forward, Matt Parkman (Greg Grunberg) a street cop that can read minds, and DL Hawkins (Leonard Roberts) who can become intangible at will. Some of them try to keep their secret, like Nathan since he is running for office, while others are on the run from the agency searching such folks out (their point man being Noah with the aid of a Haitian that can negate powers and erase minds played by Jimmy Jean Louis), the conspiracy something straight out of shows like The X-Files, Jericho, or Angel. The interactions of the cast make the show quite special too, capturing the spirit of modern comic books better than anything else I have seen to date.
Particularly appealing is the manner in which most of the powers are not overly flashy, the dramatic elements allowed to keep the science fiction elements present but downplayed so that a larger audience won't be alienated. Some of the episodes were gaudier than others in this respect but the exploration of human nature made this a wonderful show to appreciate, the sheer number of extras requiring me to take a lot longer to review this one but the quality of extras was such that I can see why so many fans found this show (in previous releases) to be such a winner, making it a high end Highly Recommended or better, reports of the second season being somewhat less inspiring but still interesting to me now that I've gotten a taste for the show. Also, fans of comic books and science fiction will likely find the great many references to other works interesting to find, things such as character names, addresses, license plates, or other minutia standing out to the dedicated few willing to pay stricter attention.
Picture: Heroes Season 1 was presented in a 1080p resolution picture with widescreen color using the VC-1 codec with an average video bitrate of around 18.7 Mbps when I paid attention to it (varying considerably but nothing really tying bitrate to picture quality). What really surprised me the most was how sharp and crisp the picture looked in some scenes but how the 1.78:1 ratio show could also look so grainy and soft focused in others, no specific episode without a mixture of both qualities. I saw a few minutes of the show when it aired on the Sci-Fi Channel awhile back and it looked better than that but the weaker moments were fraught with issues. Taking the first episode as a prime example, I could make out the specific beads of sweat on the heads of the cast in the light rain storm just as the fine hairs on Niki's stomach (during her wonderfully appealing internet show where her sweet ass was in the air) were individually identifiable but parts included tons of video noise in stark contrast. I can understand where various special effects, including lighting, CGI, and filters might have impacted the visual elements but none of those explained the grain/noise. Otherwise, the show was shot on 35mm film and per the IMDB converted to HDTV video (in 1080p/24 fps) so perhaps future seasons will look better. Update: a quick comparison of a few episodes at a friend's house proved that despite some edge enhancement and DNS, the blu-ray version did look better than the older HD-DVD version that came out awhile back).
Sound: The audio was presented with a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio in English with a 48 kHz sampling rate and a variable audio bitrate often hovering in the mid 3.5 Mbps area. The dialogue was always crisp and solid, the focal point of the aural experience, but it was not as directional as the ambient sounds or special effects in most cases. It definitely sounded better than the few HD-DVD episodes I got to compare it too, even to the naked ear rather than a geeky numerical comparison, but the soundstage and headspace it provided were limited, even the rear speakers and subwoofer barely used except in special circumstances. On the bright side, the score was much better than usual (thanks to former pop stars Wendy & Lisa of Prince fame) with each character getting a piece of their own that could (sometimes) telegraph who was involved in a scene whether they were present on screen or not, perhaps using the impact of their abilities to justify the pieces as played. The balance was nicely done if a bit vocal heavy too, every word clearly understood even during the action sequences, matching up with the English SDH subtitles (Spanish and French versions of the subtitles available for those that care).
Extras: If any aspect of the five disc release is outstanding other than the concept and execution of the story, it is the inclusion of so many wonderful extras. Each disc had numerous deleted scenes available, Universal's U-Control feature applied to give fans a means to access relationships of characters via a connecting grid to give a reminder of how the players interact. The deleted scenes often contained bits of information those of you watching the show will want to know about too, the kind of scenes I wish were included via branching technology in future endeavors. There were various commentaries and bonus features included from the main menu (using symbols for the kind of viewing experience you seek, such as the PIP commentaries) with the extended version of the pilot episode striking me as the best of them all (not just because series creator Tim Kring included an audio commentary that went into great detail explaining how the series was shaped and where it was going but for numerous other reasons as well; just make sure you listen to it last). The first disc also included a Making of Heroes featurette for new fans of the show, but a special effects reel, a stunt reel, an interview with Wendy & Lisa on the score, and how artist Tim Sale provided all the artwork attributed to character Issac Mendez as glimpses into the future. Fans may appreciate the quirky little BD Live downloads including a series trailer and test (where you can interact with other fans), but I'm still working on the great many commentaries (either straightforward audio only or the PIP additions that are on most of the later episodes) a week later. In all then, this was a great package of extras for a Blu-Ray release, arguably the best on the market that I've encountered in terms of adding to the official website's webisodes, additional content, and other gifts to generate public interest.
Final Thoughts: Heroes Season 1 may not have tread completely new territory in terms of vast conspiracies (the manner in which Micah manipulated the election seemed to come straight out of the Gore camp), super powered humans, or the way in which human nature deals so readily with conflict but it was the kind of comic book for TV that I have been waiting for all my life and despite a few writing quirks in this first season, it was most entertaining with the kind of replay value few TV-on-DVD sets provide these days. It dealt with numerous situations that non-fans could appreciate too (rape, alienation, "being different", and the balance between individual rights versus those of the public being only a few to speak of) and left the show open enough for following seasons to take the characters in all new directions. The use of a formulaic process in the episodes was proven to not impact the quality of the show too, my initial concern about the time travel arcs being a series of "do overs" covered well before the finale showed a healthy respect for making our own destiny instead of a predestined outcome as originally implied. Universal can count this reviewer as a newfound fan looking forward to the third season even as he looks for a price-discounted high definition version of the second season to watch to bring him up to speed. Good work!