The news that NBC was canceling Heroes this week may not have been a surprise considering the show's dramatic drop in the ratings since its season 1 heyday, but what lessons can be learned by the producers of other shows to escape the same fate?
Here's the most obvious lesson: Don't suck. As someone who stayed with the show all the way through the start of this most recent season, it was obvious that the show's loss of popularity was merely mirroring a loss in quality - What had started as a breath of fresh air in a television environment that had come to value "mysteries" over plot and lost its way as a result (Particularly apposite to think about, on the weekend that Lost is ending) had, by the end of its third season, become a series of increasingly over-the-top plot twists that ignored character, consistency and logic in favor of the next big shock. Even though I am personally unconvinced about the value of mixing superheroes and TV, it's nonetheless heartening to see that TV producers seem to have realized that it was the show, and not the genre at fault in Heroes' case, judging by the announcement of new fall shows The Cape and No Ordinary Family. But how can those shows avoid what happened to Heroes? Here're some suggestions:
Have A Good Reason For Your Characters To Be ThereOne of the many problems with Heroes was that there were so many characters that the writers had to come up with ever-more-tenuous ways to keep them all busy (Matt Parkman's spirit walk, anybody? Or Mohinder's Seth Brundle impersonation?). A lot of this, it seemed, was down to audiences demanding more screentime for their favorites, even if there was no real story reason for them to stick around (See: Almost every plot that included Sylar after the first season), which the show indulged to the point of ridiculousness, but such fan service came at the cost of the credibility of the writing. As over-the-top as the first season was - and, at times, it seemed as if "over-the-top" was the reason the show existed - it still maintained a sense of cohesiveness and character continuity that was lost as it became more and more desperate to give Peter a reason not to actually just save the world all by himself. Which reminds me...
Don't Make Any Of Your Characters Too PowerfulSure, both Peter and Sylar's powers make sense when you're planning to kill them both off at the end of the first storyline, but as soon as they both survived, it stretched credibility for both to not simply dominate the entire show on a weekly basis through powerset alone. Similarly, Hiro's ability to travel through time and space meant that he, too, became a plot problem that needed to either be entirely ignored or dealt with when dealing with any problem the characters came up with (Note that Peter, Sylar and Hiro all managed to be depowered in one form or another during the course of the series). If any of your characters are powerful enough that they could essentially stop the show all by themselves, you have a problem in terms of story; if three of them are that powerful, then something's gone very wrong.
Don't Repeat YourselvesAs Heroes continued, it began to feel as if we saw the same stories over and over again: Peter and Sylar would have to face off. Mohinder would make some mistake in the name of either curiosity or science. Nathan would do the wrong thing for the right reasons, and learn the error of his ways. HRG would have to sacrifice family for duty or vice versa. It pointed up the formulaic nature of the show, which in turn made it look as if the writers cared so little that they were happy to keep recycling what had worked the first time, instead of coming up with something new.
It's Okay If You Don't Keep Raising The StakesNot every story has to save the world, and you need smaller stories to give the larger ones some context. At times, it felt like Heroes lost track of the "ordinary people" part of its tagline, Ordinary People Discovering Extraordinary Abilities; as much as the show was clearly influenced by old X-Men comics ("Days of Future Past" especially), it seemed to miss how necessary those downtime issues where everyone played baseball between adventures were to the characters, and the readers.
Don't Lose Track Of What The Show Is AboutHeroes' mistakes all stem, I think, from the creators trying to give other people what they wanted to see, instead of creating what they wanted to create. On the one hand, there's nothing wrong with wanting to please your audience, because that's the way you get them to come back, to an extent. But on the other hand, part of good storytelling is staying true to what you feel to be right, no matter how uncomfortable it may feel for those watching/listening/reading. By the end of its run - by the end of its second season, even - it wasn't clear what Heroes was actually about, other than "these people with superpowers"; it didn't have a clear direction or theme, with the idea of "ordinary people" sacrificed as conspiracy theories, spies, carnivals and other fantastical elements filled the show to create freakish interest in the place of continuity or consistency.
When I stopped watching the show, it was because I didn't feel like anyone - me, or those making the show - knew what the point of the show was anymore. It still had potential as a concept, but it felt like it was further and further away from fulfilling it with each new move. Here's hoping that other shows learn from Heroes' mistakes.