Background: When I reviewed Heroes S1 earlier this month, I found myself immersed in a whole universe of characters that I grew to appreciate, the slowly unfolding story about people gifted with abilities much to my liking. Having grown up on traditional comic books about super-powered heroes always saving the day, this was to be expected since I'm one of the target market for such shows (as a coworker suggested the other day "a geek") but television has a history of "getting it wrong" when it comes to the topic matter so I was pleasantly surprised to say the least. The show is not about organized groups of such heroes in spandex or from other worlds either, merely people trying to cope with their newfound circumstances and those that would exploit them, the writing somewhat inconsistent but displaying the kind of understanding I want in my science fiction shows. Thankfully, I was then given the chance to review Heroes Season 2 in the Blu-ray format as a follow up, my experience interrupted due to Hurricane Ike knocking out my power for 16 days. Here's my take on the box set with some background from my earlier review.
Heroes Season 1 was 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.
Heroes Season 2 picked up four months after the events of Season One with the characters having moved on from the explosive finish. The prophecy thwarted at great cost and Sylar stopped, the clock was reset in many ways for those that survived. Peter is missing, Nathan has become a recluse, Hiro is stuck in Medieval Japan, and the Bennett family is on the run from the Company. Some characters die off-screen or are greatly downplayed and new people are introduced, the major players added in being Maya and Alejandro from Central America. Maya has an uncontrollable ability to infect people with some form of fast acting disease and only her brother seems able to calm her down to reverse the effects. They are on the run for murder (the authorities are not really particular about "how" the deaths occurred so much as "who" was responsible) and head to New York City to meet Dr. Suresh in hopes of finding a cure, not knowing he was murdered. Along the way, they pick up a helpful hitchhiker named Gabriel (guess who) and trouble ensues but that is only one thread of many the show goes back to.
Of much greater interest to me was the Bennett family, particularly Noah in his efforts to destroy the Company, and Claire, as she struggles with her powers, puberty, and origins. Hiro's trip to Japan circa the Seventeenth century where he meets his childhood hero, Takezo Sensei, proves to be a disaster when he screws up the timeline and must repair it lest the fate of the world be irreparably altered. Sadly, the quirky journey he goes through was arguably the most impacted part of the WGA writer strike that shortened the season to a mere eleven episodes (less than half the original plan), Takezo finding out that he is "special" too, though no explanation given (leaving fans like me to wonder if it was due to something Hiro did or brought with him). How he deals with his father upon his return and his own shame at his betrayal of his hero provided some relief from the admittedly weak storyline but not nearly enough to compensate for some of the worst writing seen on the show that has just started season three.
Another new chapter in the saga revolved around a relative of Micah named Monica, the Katrina refugee with an uncanny ability to mimic anything she watches on television. This was a thread that had a bit of potential, largely because it contained Micah and (to a lesser extent) Niki, but felt the sting of the shortened season as well, the gal trying to become a heroine and falling short of the mark out of stupidity. Parkman has lost his wife and identity only to start over again in New York, having learned to keep quiet about his abilities and use them serendipitously to advance himself to detective. He and Suresh take in Molly but soon have to face a powerful telepath that is hurting her, the piece of the puzzle unveiled to the bigger picture of a long time conspiracy by the founders of the Company that include the parents of most of the players currently focused on in the series. Suresh ends up working directly for the company too, racing to uncover the secrets of the genetic component that gives the cast their powers but also an engineered virus (the Shanti Virus) that threatens not only the metahumans but the rest of the populace as well.
Perhaps most curious in the season for me, aside from the arcs starring Peter and Sylar of course, are those leading to Bob (the current head of the organization) and his daughter Elle, a gal with electrifying powers that shows what Claire would have become had Noah truly been unattached to her as he was supposed to have been. A psychopathic killer on a short leash, Elle does the dirty work to seek her father's approval, the contrast between her and Claire referred to time and again by those around them. The introduction of "Adam", the first person with powers and a founding member of the Company with a huge grudge against humanity, was also kind of abrupt and his use of Peter to try and destroy the world ("resetting the clock on humanity") had a lot of untapped potential too.
To me, the writers should have pared down the new characters and tied up things like the Hiro saga much sooner given the strike and shortened season. They should have also kept in mind the show has a devoted following so making the characters act outside of their established norms or contrary to what they would have done given the way they acted in the first season weakened it as well. That the major threads employed cheap plot devices used in the past certainly did not help either (from the Shanti Virus to the possibility of giving more people abilities; both of which have been done to death in The 4400, Wild Cards, and X-Men to name but a few) but this was indicative of the major problem of the season for me, the pacing. Every book, television show, and movie has an internal rhythm and pace that fans get used to. The WGA strike forced the slowly escalating pace of the show to be accelerated well beyond normal and leave off all the suspense of Season One behind it. The third season will focus on the darker side of many characters (per the advertising and cast interviews) and that might work better but the second season essentially tried to mimic the dynamic of the first in less than half the time, dropping the ball as a result. I still liked a lot about it and the extras helped fill in some of the gaps missing from the shows that aired so I rated the four disc set as Recommended but only for fans of the first season (particularly those that have their fingers crossed for the future episodes).
Picture: Heroes Season 2 (Blu-ray) was presented in a 1080p resolution picture with widescreen color using the VC-1 codec with an average video bitrate of around 17.9 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. It looked better than the random episode I caught as it aired on broadcast television but not markedly so, inspiring several friends to forgo this high definition version in favor of the far cheaper standard version, though I disagree with their sentiments for the most part (it does look better). The special effects looked about the same (not ready for movies but slightly better than syndicated shows made on the fly) as the first season but the uneven nature of the visuals was still present. 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. In essence, it looked better than the first scene overall but still not up to par for a current broadcast television series airing on a major network.
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 3.2 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 SD 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. There did seem to be an intent on using them more this season than the last one but only marginally so, relying on the main speakers to do the heavy work. On the bright side, the score was again 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: Fans that love the show have been fairly consistent in pointing out the wonderful amount of extras included in the first season set so it came as no surprise that this season was also given a lot of material for them to enjoy. In some cases, the deleted scenes were even more important to establishing lost plot points this time, be it the way a character interacted with another or how a situation would have been resolved if the season progressed as planned. Related to this extra was an alternate ending that showed a markedly different starting point for season three had it been allowed to stand. The down side to it was that it did not have all the special effects finished but the creators provided some thoughtful analysis in a separate section where they went over some of their reasoning for the ending and how it would have impacted the show in the future. Another short feature I appreciated was an Untold Stories bit that introduced additional characters that were thankfully cut back (some to appear in the future if it works out as planned) with the usual photogallery included as expected.
One of my favorite extras was the inclusion of video commentaries on each episode though, using a PIP approach to show a variety of the creators, technical staffers, and the cast all giving anecdotal information about specific episodes. I found the technical staff to provide a lot of reasoning why certain things happened or looked the way they did, the cast too congratulatory for my tastes and Tim Kring coming off as too apologetic for the failures of the season to suit me. True fans of the show will be able to gleam certain information from virtually all of them though, most of it what I would consider "cannon" to the future if that helps but don't skip any of them if you find one is not to your liking because they all have their own strengths (and weaknesses).
Those new to the show will appreciate the Heroes Connections extra that gives a brief glimpse into the characters and their abilities but for the life of me, skipping out on the first season strikes me as crazy given the relative strength it had by comparison (and like any good drama, the show builds on the past so missing so much of it kills your ability to truly follow the show). There were also the usual featurettes like the season overview called A New Beginning, a fluff piece to say the least, a mockumentary on Takezo Kensei, a fictional news account of a major player in the set up of the show, another breakdown of some scenes as to how they were shot (always interesting to see on such a show), and even a head's up on the new season ("I'm Back"). Some of the extras were presented in 1080i resolution this time for those that care, a step forward to the day when ALL the content is properly offered up in 1080p, so that was a nice change of pace too. The BD0Live material advertised was not working at this writing but I doubt NBC will make the most effective use of it when they get around to providing said content, though my fingers are crossed that I'm wrong. In all then, the extras added some serious value to the show for me.
Final Thoughts: Heroes Season 2 was not nearly as strong as Heroes S1 for me but there were still plenty of elements to enjoy for a guy raised on comic book heroes saving the day. The technical aspects were slightly better even if the writing took a bit of a dive, the pacing wrong as often as not but the show still enjoyable on several levels. The coming season (I just saw the season opener last night) appears to be back on track and while it is too soon to tell if it will restore my faith in the show completely, I can say that Heroes Season 2 was not as bad as some claim it was but it did not live up to the initial season for me. If you enjoy science fiction about humans with special abilities mixed with conspiracy theories and opposing groups trying to use them for personal gain, you may very well appreciate this one a lot but pick up a copy of the first season before delving into this one or the flaws will stand out much more readily.