Tom Shales, Style Columnist

'Heroes': Less Than Super

Hayden Panettiere, above, as a superhero in
Hayden Panettiere, above, as a superhero in "Heroes." At right, Donnie Wahlberg in "Runaway." (By Dean Hendler -- Nbc)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 25, 2006

Superheroes used to be such happy souls, going about their business of rescuing people, or all of humanity, with a chipper, positive demeanor. Then Tim Burton's "Batman" -- and other dour, sour revisionist works -- unearthed their heroes' "dark" sides, with superness sometimes depicted as a curse, a burden, a big fat pain in the superneck.

Spider-Man, bless his sticky fingers, has tried to reverse the trend. When Spidey has a long puss, the cause is more likely to be unrequited love than the yoke of fame. Unfortunately, NBC is about to unleash a superhero horde intent on reversing the reversal: "Heroes," a largely dreary dirge whose dramatis personae seem plagued rather than pleased with the gifts they've been given.

Super strength, unbreakable bones, clairvoyance -- whatever the boon, it comes with a bane. One problem is that the show is so slow-moving that even by the end of the third episode, some of its far-flung superfolk still won't concede there's anything unusual about them. One guy seems pleased he can fly, but spends the first three chapters trying to convince his cynical politician brother of the ability. Not even a leap from the roof of a 15-story building seems to do the trick.

An early warning is called for: Despite the title and the implication that viewers are in for dazzling special effects and dashing derring-do, "Heroes" is not fit for young children. One of the lead characters makes her living by prancing around in her panties for perverts on the Internet. The trunk of a car contains a horribly mangled corpse, shown more than once during the first three chapters; another victim is seen lying on the floor with the top of his skull sawed off and his brain removed.

A high school girl gratuitously taunts a fellow student in Episode 2: "Hey, Zack, is it true you got an erection in the boys' locker room?" Writer and series creator Tim Kring must be so proud.

Except for an excitable young Japanese named Hiro (Masi Oka), most of the eponymous standouts look stylishly sullen or surly, like maybe they need a dose of Phillips Milk of Magnesia. Hiro, on the other hand, is running warily around the streets of Tokyo when suddenly, flash-bang-boom, he finds himself running merrily around the streets of Manhattan, Times Square visible in the background.

Hiro, as in "hero," also discovers he's traveled five weeks into the future -- arriving just in time to witness a nuclear attack that, when he's returned to Tokyo and his previous time, he vows to prevent.

Sendhil Ramamurthy plays a young man musically named Mohinder Suresh, living in Brooklyn, who gets a visit from an exterminator who tries to exterminate him. Suresh's father, now deceased (mysteriously, of course) wrote a history-making book on strange phenomena, and Mohinder declares, "I need to finish what he started." One of his colleagues, whom of course he has yet to meet, paints pictures of things that will happen in the future, but he doesn't know if his talent can be traced to a peculiar aptitude or the fact that he likes to inject heroin into his veins.

Still another superhero -- and yes, we are losing count and losing track -- can sort of reassemble herself even after having all her bones broken or dashing into a burning building. In one episode she pulls a Linda Blair, turning her seemingly broken neck 180 degrees or so. But why?

Why do these and other members of this strange involuntary cult have what a little boy calls, as if quoting the old opening to the "Superman" TV show, "powers beyond any mere mortal"?

A "Star Wars"-like crawl at the show's beginning informs us that the global array of wacko strangers we meet have "what can only be described as 'special abilities' " and that, "although unaware of it now, these individuals will not only save the world but change it forever." But how long are they going to be unaware of it? Until the November sweeps? And how many viewers will have the patience to tune in week after week while the unknowing superheroes scratch their heads and wonder how it is that a hippopotamus could sit on their head and they'd still feel peachy -- peachy but grouchy, of course.


People seem to get a charge out of watching other people run for their lives -- hence the success of the TV and movie versions of "The Fugitive," to cite one example. At the new CW network, formed from the charred remains of UPN and the WB, it's been reasoned that if one fugitive will attract an audience, imagine what a family of five can do!

The result is "Runaway," premiering on CW stations at 9 tonight and making a reasonably suspenseful impression, thanks in good measure to the scared-straight sobriety of Donnie Wahlberg as attorney Paul Rader, falsely accused of a capital crime. He packs his wife and three children into a car and, all of them armed with fake IDs, does what the title of the show suggests he does, except "Driveaway" would be more accurate.

Rader and wife, played by a very short-haired Leslie Hope, wind up in Bridgewater, Iowa, whose population of 23,827 is about to increase by five -- plus one cat, named Charlie. The Raders know they'll be living under hardship conditions when their computer is unable to detect a wi-fi signal nearby. Oh, the horror of it all!

The script, more intelligently than usual for this sort of thing, captures both the ordinariness of the Raders (mom to daughter: "You're not wearing that to school") and their uniquely nervous straits, generating the kind of suspense Hitchcock perfected in "Saboteur," "Young and Innocent" and "North by Northwest." Essentially it's the assumption of guilt by the innocent, something pounded into their heads by paranoia and fear.

A cop stops them as they enter Bridgewater, for instance. The entire family gets the chills, but Dad keeps his cool. It turns out they were stopped only because he went through a stop sign. But the next cop to stop them could have a different agenda altogether.

Minor but deftly done, "Runaway" (which does not employ the rock oldie of the same name in the credits, alas) keeps the screws of tension tightly wound but also finds time to give us believable portraits of the Raders and their justifiable sense of peril.

Heroes (one hour) premieres at 9 p.m. on Channel 4.

Runaway (one hour) debuts at 9 p.m. on Channel 50.

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