Cover Story

TV's Brave Faces

By Marc D. Allan
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 26, 2006

Whenever you turn on television these days, it seems there's someone with superpowers. And, no, we're not talking about the "Supernanny," Jo Frost.

In prime time, "Heroes," one of the fall season's top-rated new shows, features characters who suddenly discover they're endowed with superpowers. "Ghost Whisperer" and the recently returned "Medium" each feature a main character who can contact the dead. Jared Padalecki's character in "Supernatural" foresees people's deaths. And "Smallville" tells the ongoing story of Clark Kent, the young Kryptonian who will become Superman.

Elsewhere, USA Network's "The 4400," returning next summer for its fourth season, features the story of people who disappeared and then returned to Earth with new powers. And "Veronica Mars" writer-producer Diane Ruggiero is creating an action-comedy for the CW about best friends who fight crime using superpowers they have only when they're together.

What's spurring this rash of extraordinary people? Ask "Heroes" creator Tim Kring and he'll say these shows give viewers reasons for optimism in troubled times.

"These large problems that we face in the world today seem so insurmountable -- global warming and terrorism and diminishing natural resources," he said. Only superheroes could fix all of those problems, he figured. So that's just what he created.

"Heroes" picked up early buzz from comic book aficionados who saw advance screenings, but it's earned a broader audience thanks to a combination of thriller elements and storylines resembling those you'd find in series such as "thirtysomething" (1987-91) and "My So-Called Life" (1994-95).

"Heroes," Kring said, "has a kind of hopeful message, ultimately -- that the world, while as complicated and confusing as it is, seems to be populating itself with people that will come along and do something about these larger problems."

Eric Kripke, creator of CW's "Supernatural," watched an episode of "Heroes" and said he loved what he saw -- at least in part because that series shares some characteristics with his. In "Supernatural," the character Sam Winchester discovers he can see people's deaths before they happen, and it's not always a power he wants.

"It's a metaphor for the human condition," Kripke said. "Who doesn't feel like a freak? Who doesn't have something about them that makes them odd or unusual or embarrassed or frightened?

"In 'Supernatural,' we don't play it as the elation and joy of having this power," he said. "We try to ground everything in human emotion. You're not telling procedurals about what a witness said. You're talking about the grand issues of faith and hope and evil and destiny."

Add death and afterlife to that list of grand issues and you could be talking about "Ghost Whisperer," John's Gray's CBS series that taps into the idea that death might not be the end.

"I don't know if it's a reaction to 9/11 or just the general shape of the world right now," Gray said, "but it seems to us that people are looking for some sense that there's more out there than we know about -- and hopefully it's good."

Gray said cast members have heard extraordinary reactions from viewers. For instance, one fan told star Jennifer Love Hewitt that she held hands with her husband as she watched the show. "And the longer she talked," Gray said, "the more Jennifer realized the husband is dead."

Cue the ghostly howls, or maybe just rattle the dishes a bit -- viewers appear to be taking out their metaphorical snack plates and piling on some TV comfort food.

"Television gives us the promise of things eventually working out," said Lynn Schofield Clark, assistant professor of mass communications at the University of Denver and author of "From Angels to Aliens: Teenagers, the Media and the Supernatural."

"I think we need that reassurance right now -- that there's a possibility that things will work out well and that we can find something in our own humanity that will help us to solve these problems that face us."

Television historian Tim Brooks, co-author of "The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows 1946-Present," said television has long alternated between eras of reality and fantasy.

"Television is very much a half step behind where the public is and where society is," Brooks said. "Remember the song 'Don't Worry, Be Happy'? That was the '80s -- the me, indulgent time. Now's a time when we need heroes, when there's trouble all around us. Television is reflecting that by providing us with fictional heroes where we don't have real ones."

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