Superheroes look just like us

'Heroes' arrive on the scene just when we need them the most.
LAIRE BENNET, THE BEND-BUT-don't-break high school cheerleader in "Heroes," doesn't have much in common with Superman, or even Wonder Woman, for that matter. But like her stupendously gifted predecessors, she taps into a fantasy that long has entranced television viewers:
Wouldn't it be way cool if real live, flesh-and-blood superheroes roamed the Earth?
"These days, the world is a much more complex and dangerous place," says Tim Kring, who created and executive-produces "Heroes." "I think there's a wish-fulfillment fantasy at work with our show. Many of us want to believe in the idea that there are some people just like you and me, but with remarkable powers, who will come along and make a difference."
There has been a rich tradition of superhero worship on television, beginning in the early 1950s when George Reeves donned the red and blue underwear for "The Adventures of Superman." Over the years, prime-time audiences have been treated to the campy crime-fighting of "Batman," the 'roid-rage ferocity of "The Incredible Hulk" and the girl-power sizzle of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," just to name a few.
And now there is NBC's "Heroes," which raced up the Nielsen charts faster than a speeding bullet.
The series returns Monday with a new episode after taking seven weeks off. It started the season with 11 episodes, before taking the hiatus. Six new episodes will air in the second coming, which will be followed by another short break, before the season wraps up with a five-episode stretch ending in May.
Rebellious style
Though "Heroes" is carrying on the superhero tradition, it is doing it in decidedly rebellious style. Instead of relying on a single marquee crusader, Kring's series spreads the wealth among a diverse ensemble. And rather than bursting onto the scene all decked out in capes and spandex, these crusaders are just ordinary folk who are inexplicably developing extraordinary powers.
Claire (Hayden Panettiere) the cheerleader, for example, can survive any injury and even death. Politician Nathan Petrelli (Adrian Pasdar) can fly. Los Angeles cop Matt Parkman (Greg Grunberg) can read minds. And geeky office drone Hiro Nakamura (Masi Oka) has the ability to stop time and travel through it. Slowly, they're discovering that their collective fate is to save mankind from an as-yet undetermined threat.
"I've always been more interested in the depiction of superheroes as real people," says Kring. "The parts of 'Spider-Man' I enjoyed the most were the parts that dealt with the origins of the character and how he developed his powers and came to harness them. Same thing with 'The Incredibles.' Here was this suburban family with amazing abilities. I just became fascinated by that idea -- how they went about leading their daily lives while being burdened by, and afflicted with, these powers."
Kring's grounded-in-reality approach is partially why "Heroes" has managed to go beyond the comic-book crowd and cross over into the mainstream, according to John Kenneth Muir, author of "The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television."
"The show has avoided some of the crazier conventions of the genre's past," he says. "The characters aren't saving the world on a weekly basis. They're not facing a cast of colorful freaks like the Joker or Penguin "
Right on time
Television historian Tim Brooks agrees with that premise, while adding that "Heroes" has struck the right note at the right time.
"I think viewers are seeking an escape from literal reality these days," he says. "It's a time when a lot of bad things are happening -- an unpopular war, terrorism, global warming. Television has traditionally been a place to escape, and a place that puts a big value on heroes."
Superhero shows have often tapped into the mood of their times. This was never more evident than during the late 1970s, when, after Watergate and Vietnam, the small screen was riddled with genre dramas that included "The Six Million Dollar Man" and its spinoff, "The Bionic Woman," along with "Wonder Woman" and "The Incredible Hulk."
"We wanted to wash away all those bad memories," Brooks says. "So you had a lot of lightweight sitcoms like 'Happy Days,' as well as these fantastical superhero dramas."
During the 1980s and early '90s, superhero shows largely faded into the background as programmers opted for gritty crime dramas and reality TV. But then came a mini resurgence as producers and writers took nontraditional approaches to the genre with live-action shows aimed at older audiences. The trend was typified by "Buffy" and its spinoff, "Angel," as well as "Smallville," a Superman reincarnation that envisions the hero in his fledgling years via a teen-drama format.

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