ABW’s TV Corner – Heroes

Someone requested a post on Heroes and I had planned to do one way back at the season finale, just never got around to it. I am very excited about season 2 and hope that it’s even better than season 1. Though S1 was great, it had a few flaws. One major flaw was the end, which disappointed on several levels. Still, it was one of the few shows on television with a diverse ensemble cast that enhanced its best qualities.

Heroes Cast

Let’s start with a breakdown. The major players in Heroes included the following main characters of color:

Mohinder Suresh
Hiro Nakamura
Ando
Isaac Mendez
Micah Sanders
D.L. Hawkins
Simone Deveaux
(Bob) The Haitian

There were also some notable secondary/guest characters of color:

Charles Deveaux (Simone’s father)
Kaito Nakamura (Hiro’s father)
Chandra Suresh (Mohinder’s father)

NBC lists 11 or 12 characters as the main ensemble on their website. Out of these, 5 – 8 of them (depending on the definition of main) are of color. That’s pretty stunning for a show on NBC that isn’t about racial issues. On numbers alone, Heroes does better than 90% of television on casting. That’s definitely worth something.

But when you move on to the next level, which is how these characters are portrayed, we run into a few issues. Not so many as to make the show unwatchable, like Stargate: Atlantis. But enough to make loving the show a labor. It’s one of those situations where something is really good in many aspects and you can’t help but want it to be perfect.

So, portrayals. One of the biggest problems in this arena is how many of the CoC are first presented to us as negative stereotypes. D.L. is a gangster who has escaped from jail. Isaac is a brilliant junkie. The Haitian doesn’t even have a name, but is dark and scary in his muteness. Over time these characters flesh out and become fully realized people, but it’s frustrating that they had to start out from negative stereotypes and had to overcome them. It’s also telling that it’s American minorities that bear the brunt of this particular evil. Hiro, Ando and Mohinder are all foreigners and, probably not coincidentally, of the “model minority” stripe. Only Simone escapes this, but she’s a woman and will have her own badness to deal with later.

It could be that Tim Kring did this consciously in order to gradually ease white people into different thinking about these characters. After all, each of them becomes incredibly important in their own way. We’re meant to care about them as much as Peter, who subsumed Mohinder as the protagonist, or Nathan, or Matt, or Claire. Still, in the end it’s white boy against white boy and two upper class white men who make the ultimate sacrifice to save the world. Err….

A whole other post could be written about the female characters in Heroes and the various ways they are used and misused. Again, we start with several stereotypes and move toward the specific and deep. Yet did we really need the stereotypes to begin with? Was it crucial to Niki’s role that she start as a (semi) sex worker/beleaguered single mom? Or for Claire to be a blonde, popular girl cheerleader-type? Or for Simone’s only definition to be that of one guy’s girlfriend or another? She dies in the most annoying, pointless way. Literally swept aside by the hand of the writer as a bit of fluff for Isaac and Nathan to fight over and then be emo about because it’s their fault she died.

It feels like this show is written by someone who is aware of the issues surrounding the portrayal of women and minorities in media but is not deeply aware of them, or does not think deeply about them. But what’s good about the situation is that Tim Kring can probably be taught. He’s got the base ideas down, now he just has to move to the next level. And that needs to happen with the second season for several reasons. One of which would be to avoid the complete clusterfuck that was season 1’s finale.

All through the series we were driven to this one point in time — the day Manhattan is destroyed. Over the course of the series, we learn how each of the characters has a role, large or small, to play in creating or preventing this event. And the story leads you to believe that the outcome will depend on the actions of several people. But, in the end, we’re left with Peter and Sylar, two white men, facing off while everyone else just stands around. Sure, Hiro pops in to stab Sylar, but his act is so lame that it really means nothing. He doesn’t use his power to counter Sylar’s, he just runs at him like in some bad anime and goes poke poke. The only reason this works is because Kring wrote that it would, not that it makes sense. This is after Jessica kicks his ass and then is told to step back by Peter. Even Claire is robbed of her part in the deal by Nathan flying in and saving everyone by… flying Peter out. Which Peter should have been able to do on his own. So, essentially, the finale was a big let down.

It was supposed to be a massive battle, with everyone’s powers playing a part in defeating Sylar and keeping Peter from losing control. Instead, Sylar merely gets maimed, and Peter loses control anyway, and everything is lame, lame, lame.

Kring has to avoid that in season 2. He has to avoid the trap that Lost fell in to (though he’s done step one, which is wrap up a story while indicating that there are other stories to tell) and make a season that fixes the problems of the last one while topping all the good stuff that came before. And he must get over the crutch of starting with a negative stereotype when dealing with female and minority characters. I know that he can create awesome CoC. He needs to trust that his audience isn’t going to run away at the first glimpse of brown people who aren’t convicts on drugs.

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23 Responses

  1. That picture of the cast is very telling. Women stepped back, men towards the front, White man in the center, Black woman farthest out and seemingly in deepest shadow…

  2. Yeah. I don’t get why Nathan is standing in front of (and crowding out) Claire like that, since she’s a way more important character than him. But he’s standing in front of Peter, too. maybe they just wanted a tall, square-jawed guy in front because he looks good? (If they were going for looks, they should have put Isaac in front, or Mohinder in the center.) The picture gives the wrong impression of who you should be paying more attention to, definitely with the women.

  3. Glad you started a discussion about Heroes. It was definitely my favorite show last season. I didn’t know what to expect from it when it debuted, but it quickly got me hooked.

    I see your point about starting several characters in negative stereotype roles. IMO, there was really no reason for Isaac to be a junkie. That storyline did very little to develop the overall storyline. I also didn’t think that D.L. needed to be a gangster. Once again, the storyline could have still developed nicely without that little background element. Fortunately, both characters did redeem themselves, and became heroes in the end.

    I don’t really believe that the writers mean any harm by giving them background stories that are negative stereotypes (although they may still be causing subliminal harm in their audience by doing so). Rather, I think that they are just lazy. It is easier to draw upon an established stereotype than to actually put some thought into it and develop a character with depth.

    It was the same with D.L. (I don’t know the actor’s real name) when he played Charles Gunn on Angel. Once again, he started off as a street gangster (albeit a vampire killing gangster). On Angel, like on Heroes, his character redeemed himself and became a protagonist in the end. But nevertheless, why start off from such an intellectually lazy, stereotype position? Why not just take the time to create a characters who has depth right from the beginning, rather than starting them off as sterotypes? Like I said, it’s just lazy writing.

  4. The actor who plays D.L. is different from the actor who played Gunn. D.L. was actually on Buffy for a while, but not as Gunn.

  5. The only thing I am worried about for this coming season is I hear they cast David Anders to play the Warrior Kensei that Hiro has been telling stories about and whose sword he carries.

    Not that an ancient asian legend couldn’t be about a non-japanese person-but I am hoping they reconsider this casting. I would have loved to see another japanese character added.

  6. ABW,
    You’re right. It was Buffy that he was on, not Angel. He played Riley’s buddy in that military unit that fought monsters.

    I knew that I remembered his face from one of those shows. I haven’t watched either in years, so my recollections are somewhat fuzzy (as you’ve probably noticed).

  7. Wikipedia is your friend. Though it’s not a great place to go for a research paper, but it’s become a very good place to look up media information. I have no clue why, but on that front it’s extremely accurate. You can look up actor names, character names, tv shows, movies, etc.

  8. It feels like this show is written by someone who is aware of the issues surrounding the portrayal of women and minorities in media but is not deeply aware of them, or does not think deeply about them.

    You’ve probably nailed it here. The TV industry has serious institutionalized racism to deal with, in the form of supposedly innocent demographics (which, you know, could never be interpreted according to someone’s pre-existing bias – numbers don’t lie!). For anyone working in TV to think at all beyond the usual stereotypes is amazing. To go further, they absolutely have to start talking to people outside the industry.

    There’s also the issue that the TV industry assumes the audience thinks in stereotypes and will reject a show that doesn’t cater to them. I have a feeling the approach of “start with the bad stereotype, then show how awesome the character really is” is the only way a network thinks the audience could cope with it.

  9. I’m so with you on the season finale. I’m so into Mohinder and Claire and was disappointed that they just sort of… watched the season finale along with me.

    Mohinder’s won me over. At the start of the season I thought he was much too pretentious (but INSANELY DROP-DEAD GORGEOUS–sigh). He’s gotten more interesting, though, and I was argued with by a desi friend who is thrilled and moved to see a serious, sympathetic desi character on TV.

    I agree that the characters started out as stereotypes– I felt like that was part of the traditional-comic-book vibe that Kring sets up and then breaks down, though. Every character is a stereotype who becomes much more developed and complex– I mean, Claire the perfect little blond cheerleader? I read that as a critique of comic book archetypes.

  10. I read that as a critique of comic book archetypes.

    I could possibly get behind that, if that’s actually what was going on.

  11. i agree with most of what you’re saying except for claire. her being a cheerleader was essential. why? cause it’s “cool” to see that archetype bloodied and beaten. plus phrases like save the cheerleader, save the world would not as catchy as save that suburban girl save the world.

    i know that seems simple and sad but i think that’s part of the reason as to why she needed to be a teenager.

    as for the comic elements, everything that’s explored and deconstructed in heroes has been done in comics. which makes sense, considering alot of the creators of the show work in comics. most notably Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale (the artist who did Issaac’s paintings). Leob and Sale alone have done tons of comics that explore super-hero archetypes. For example their comic, Superman For All Seasons, is critically acclaimed. They have a series mini-series that is based around a color and character, for example Daredevil Yellow, Hulk Grey, and Spiderman Blue or Red, it’s been a while since it came out. All of which use the color as way to explore these characters at certain points in their careers.

    alot of elements of the plot are ripped straight from comics, getting past the obvious x-men elements, it’s kind of like what if there were no proffessor x or magneto to help mutant kind, the world would be very similar to the one in Heroes. The cabal of superhumans who secretly help the world has been done alot of comics, most notably Warren Ellis’ and John Cassady’s Planetary.

    And the idea to show supeheroes in a very real way has been done alot too. The best example being Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, which is the most critically praised example of sequential art.

    My point is I hear alot of people acting like Heroes is doing something that comics haven’t done, that’s why it’s so good. but the truth is all they’re doing is following the examples of some the best, but less popular, modern comics.

    And I too wish the last episode would have been more of team up, beatdown of Sylar, but I figure doing that many special effects may have been too much for their budget. I’m sure this season will deliver on the action.

  12. I’m with you on the season finale: Why did it have to be just the Petrellis vs. Sylar? That was just silly.

    re: positions in the photo
    I’ve been told that the billing order is often as much as which actor has a better agent than which character is more important in the story. Did Adrian Pasdar’s name receive slightly special treatment in the credits — “and with” or something?

  13. Sylar and Peter had the comics-y double-initial thing going: Gabriel Gray, Peter Petrelli, which none of the other characters had. (Except Shanti Suresh, Mohinder’s long-dead sister. & of course, we still don’t know Bob’s name.) This suggests they’d been singled out as special long in advance of the finale.

  14. Re: Wikipedia being good for entertainment info, but not research papers–we talked about this in a library school course I took, and thought that it’s because Wikipedia relies on average people to do its entries, and there are a lot more average people who care deeply about TV shows, movies, pop stars, etc., than there are who care deeply about ‘hard’ info such as you would want for a research paper.

    People love their entertainment, and are likely to write about it in great and accurate detail, and since there are lots of other people who share the love, mistakes will tend to be quickly caught and corrected.

    Whereas if someone writes a detailed article about particle physics, there really aren’t that many other people among the reading audience who both care about it and understand it well enough to catch and correct errors, so it’s riskier to rely on it for a research paper.

    So yeah, speaking as a future librarian, I’d second the suggestion to go to Wikipedia for pop culture stuff, because as you said, it’s often really thorough and it has accurate entries on tons of stuff that your standard encyclopedia doesn’t touch.

    OK, sorry, I’ll get out of off-topic librarian lecture mode.

    On-topic, I completely agree with this post. I enjoyed the show and liked a lot of things about it, but some of the race/gender depictions did seem lazy. I’m interested to see what they do with the second season.

  15. [...] Go here for a great post on Heroes. She sums up my dislike for the season finale so much better than I [...]

  16. ABW, I’ve been digging your blog for a while, but this is the first time I’ve posted. You sum up the “person of color watching Heroes” sentiment perfectly for me: “Not so many [annoying things] as to make the show unwatchable, like Stargate: Atlantis. But enough to make loving the show a labor.”

    To follow up on this. You say that the steretyped characters “flesh out and become fully realized people”. But not all of them:

    The Haitian (did that HAVE to be his ‘name’!?) stays silent and subservient to white people throughout. Does the guy have no motivations of his own?

    Something that no one seems to be talking about: WHY IS HIRO INFANTILIZED? Do you know how many women I’ve heard talking about how ‘cute’ he is? Why the Sam/’Master’ Frodo dynamic with him and Ando? Only “future Hiro” seems to be non-emascualted.

    D.L. is a cardboard Hollywood gangster and stays one, even if his “I’mma take care of my son” is on the ‘honorable side’ of cardboard Hollywood ganster.

    **SPOILERS AHEAD!!**
    ******************
    Why does simone have to get shot? Why does Issac have to die? D.L. (if he’s indeed dead)? The dispropotiante death rate of the nonwhite characters is annoying to me.
    *****************
    **END SPOILER**

    But here’s what I really find annoying: if this eclipse was a worldwide event WHY ARE ALL THE SUPER-PEOPLE IN AMERICA? I guess having an Indian (with no powers) and a Japanese guy were attempts at ‘globalism’ but it feels weak. Did Africa cease to exist? China? The Middle East? South America? And Hiro and Mojinder can’t be Heroes until they come to America. “Save New York, save the world” ought to have been the slogan — a subtle US-centric polticial message that has uncomfortable echoes in the real world. I know, I know, “it’s an American show, of course it’s about America” But even some hints about stuff going on other places would have been cool.

    All this griping aside, I’m looking forward to season 2. For those of us who remember Bill Bixby and The Greatest American Hero as the only superhero TV available, this show is a godsend.

  17. Saladin, you make excellent points, and when I wake up in the morning I will be able to think more coherently. But in terms of the American-ness of it all, one of the reasons Dr. Suresh was focused on America is that all of the people he identified as having special powers had their DNA in the Human Genome Project, which means they agreed to let someone take blood they’d donated and use it for that purpose. I got the feeling that this was an American effort, though I could be wrong/misremembering.

  18. I really love this blog, really really a lot.

    The reason I’m posting though is the Human Genome Project worked outside of the USA. As copied from their FAQ:
    What other countries participated in the HGP?
    At least 18 countries have established human genome research programs. Some of the larger programs are in Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Denmark, European Union, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Netherlands, Russia, Sweden, United Kingdom, and the United States. Some developing countries are participated through studies of molecular biology techniques for genome research and studies of organisms that are particularly interesting to their geographical regions. The Human Genome Organisation (HUGO) helped to coordinate international collaboration in the genome project.

  19. I have heard a rumor that the female black character, Monica Dawson (portrayed by Dana Davis), will be written out of the show, early this season.

    She will be the third African-American character and the second female African-American to be written off “HEROES”.

    Is it just me or does Tim Kring have a problem in creating black characters?

  20. [...] I’m sure there’s more to say on this issue, but for now I will leave you with this, which points out some of what I was talking about in the earlier [...]

  21. Hi there. I just found this blog via a general heroes search, since I missed the S3 premier, and had to watch 301 and 302 online. You raise a lot of good points, and they’re points that I’d not have thought of. Being a white male raised in the south, on what is commonly considered the stereotypical ‘white’ upbringing, my views on the subject and irritations with the show are obviously going to differ from yours. I’d like to offer my opinion with the understanding that I do so with no racism or preference towards the idea of cauco-centric television casting.

    Heroes, from a general storyline standpoint is extremely well-written, even if only to the point where, like Lost, no matter what’s going on, or how irritated you are with the story, you want to know just exactly what happens next. Every time an episode ends, the drama has been built up so greatly, and the R.L. Stine-esque plot twist hits, I always find myself hollering at the TV or making some sort of comment about it aloud. It’s that engaging of a show.

    However, the writing isn’t perfect. Sometimes, it gets way too emo for my taste, and there are far too many expendable characters. Now, from my personal point of view, I never noticed the extent of minority write-offs, but I did notice that a number of characters with promise kept getting ruined. Simone wasn’t one of my preferred characters, but her father was of interest. Isaac was an excellent character, and I personally found his dependancy on heroine to use his power an interesting take on the idea – because how many other artists, both of print and music, have done much the same? Marley, Hendrix, Guns ‘n Roses… many, many revered and honoured artists are very similar. I approved of it. If I saw a stereotype in it, it’d be the druggy artist, not the druggy minority. Honestly, I hate the Petrellis. I like it when Peter stops getting all whiney, and when Nathan stops being controlled. The mother can go fly a kite for all I care – but also understand that by today’s standards, they are white… but twenty, thirty years ago, they were not white. They were Italians. Much like many years ago, my own ancestors where not ‘white,’ we were the dirty, starving Irish. Yes, they portray a cliche rich and powerful white family, and that alone annoyed the snot out of me. The vast majority of the white majority is middle-class or below. Even with the majority of the rich being white, so are a great deal of the common man, including my whole family. Rich and powerful is a copout straight from the comic books.

    Maya and Allejandro crossing the border illegally made sense to me. America is commonly thought of, at least by the western world’s less developed countries, as the land of opportunity and progress. Given the circumstances of that pair, running to the US, with the Police after them, it made complete sense. It portrayed the Mexican people smugglers well, and the moronic border patrolling rednecks well also.

    On the topic of gang-banging minorities in the show. From my standpoint, it is more reasonable to have black males act the part, especially in an inner-city setting, such as when Mojinder was almost mugged on the dock in 302 than to have white males do so, because of the social situation in which we live today. From what I understand, most semi-organized gang-type criminal activity in the underdeveloped inner city is perpetrated by black males in the 18-25 age range. Similar to that is the thugs who stole the comics, in which the black girl (I forget her name – which sucks, she has HUGE potential in the series) had to retrieve them. That was a terrible setup and a complete waste. That whole story arc was a halfassed attempt at pointing out the fallacies of the government surrounding the Katrina incident, and a complete representation of the negative black stereotype. Case in point being the young black kid who took the comics to begin with. His arrogant, rude, and ignorant ways exemplify the negativity that is thought about the black people of America. I have experienced many people who emulate that, BUT I have also met MANY black people who very much DO NOT. He was a setup character who ultimately made the show worse in my eyes. Not to mention the black girl really had no Louisiana accent to save her life… I really wish she’d be used more often in a better role. She’s got such great potential as a character. Better, in fact, that Peter, because she has the human flaws – much like Sylar’s need to kill to gain his power, it’s his weakness.

    Claire is a waste of space. i hate that character with every fibre of my being. She is so shallow and stereotypical and one-sided, it isn’t even funny. When she met West, it was just your typical tv/movie teen melodrama. Waste of airtime.

    The girl Hiro met in the eatery in Texas was awesome. Her death sucked, but it made an important point in Hiro’s storyline, that changign the past won’t always make the future better.

    Nikki and all her other personalities annoy me. Her whole storyline was crap, but the reformed DL storyline was cool. Going from crime to productive citizenry is a very important message I think. Him becoming a true hero as a firefighter was neccessary, I think.

    I have a lot more views and what have you, but I’m sure I’ve offended someone, which was totally not my intent, so i am gonna just stop here. Heroes uses stereotypes, both social and comic book, to tell a mostly engaging story. for what it is, and what it tries to do, I think it is mostly succeeding, and I laud them for their efforts.

    Have a nice day. :]

    -Jimmy

  22. I have heard a rumor that the female black character, Monica Dawson (portrayed by Dana Davis), will be written out of the show, early this season.
    That was the women with muscle memory ability right? What a shame. Given that she was still just discovering her power she had a lot of room for development. Character and powerwise.

  23. That is a shame, because she actually had a mature, excited response of enjoyment to her power; the only other characters that “enjoy” their powers, upon discovering them, were Sylar, whose response was to go on a megalomaniacal killing spree, and Hiro, whose response was infantile glee, which there is a time and a place for, but eventually it must evolve into a more mature reaction. During the 3rd-season premiere, when Hiro was amusing himself with the clock-trick, I could only think to myself, “This is what you do with your time, now?”

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