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The Small Picture
by David Liss

Fall isn't what it used to be, and with cable networks running shows in the winter and summer, premieres and finales are now a year-long phenomenon. This fall is unusual in that the original big three US networks each has a science fiction program in the offing. These shows are obviously part of the post-Lost phenomenon, but I'm not complaining. Serialization, in my view, is television's natural idiom, so I'm happy to see more efforts to tap into Lost's ratings magic.

[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Small Picture columns.]

Day Break
Wednesday 9:00 PM

Day Break Day Break premieres on November 15th. I was hoping to review some advance episodes, but ABC decided that this site, with its half million plus hits each month, doesn't warrant a promotional DVD. The advance buzz is positive, and I'll post a full review next month, but if you choose to boycott the show because of the network's blatant disrespect for the science fiction community, or for its revisionist history of 9/11, I certainly won't blame you.

Monday 9:00 PM

Heroes I approach Heroes with an equal amount of anticipation and dread. The big networks rarely take on straight, unambiguous science fiction projects, and even with the box office success of superhero movies, it seemed a reasonably sure bet that NBC was going to gum this show up. It turns out they didn't. They didn't get things astonishingly right, either, but the early episodes of Heroes demonstrates an earnest commitment to the project and a willingness to improve.

To its credit, Heroes doesn't try to draw in a larger audience by masking its comic book roots. The rather unimaginative premise -- people around the world are beginning to develop special abilities -- is packaged as though it were a televised comic book. Each episode comes with its own story title, the credits are in comic book lettering, and, least successfully, there is an opening and closing voice-over narrative that provides ponderous philosophical underpinnings that we can all do without and, if we are lucky, immediately forget.

Like all television, Heroes lives and dies by its characters, and fortunately most of them are at the very least marginally interesting. Some far more so. Nathan (Adrian Pasdar) is a congressional candidate ashamed of his ability to fly; Claire (Hayden Panettiere) is a cheerleader ashamed of her indestructibility; Isaac (Santiago Cabrera) is a painter ashamed of his ability to predict the future via his art. There's a pattern forming, if you look closely. Heroes tries to mix things up with principals who move beyond comic book archetypes, like Niki (Ali Larter), an internet porn model with a dark and dangerous twin who lives in her reflection. Later on, it will prove handy if Niki is chasing villains into a department store dressing room, maybe less handy if the bad guys try to escape into the woods. Even more unusual is Peter (Milo Ventimiglia), Nathan's brother, who absorbs the abilities of whatever hero he happens to be near. And then there's Hiro (Masi Oka), a Japanese office worker who can literally stop time and is beyond doubt the highlight of the program. He shines in part because he and his sidekick Ando (James Kyson Lee) bring some much needed comic relief to this otherwise dour universe, but also because Hiro rejoices in and embraces his abilities. He's not trying to hide from the world or explain the unexplainable. He wants to save lives and live out his comic book fantasies.

Beyond the circumstances that will, through seeming chance, bring these characters together, there are the unifying factors of Mohinder (Sendhil Ramamurthy), the son of a university professor who spent, and indeed gave, his life in search of the next phase of human evolution; a creepy (government?) operative (Jack Coleman) seeking out the people with newly formed abilities; and the evil doings of a serial killer called Sylar, who seems to have special abilities of his own.

The show started out on somewhat rocky footing with clumsy character development, dialogue and plotting, but worked out a number of kinks early on. The addition of Greg Grunberg as a police officer with psychic abilities bodes well, and Claire, who began the show merely as eye candy is developing into a fairly complex and interesting character. Niki remains little more than another scantily-clad blonde, and her narrative of single mother struggling to make ends meet is low-hanging fruit for network dramas.

Each episode advances the plot pretty handily, however, and despite some rough patches Heroes is well worth watching now, and it promises to be even better down the road.

Wednesday 8:00 PM

Jericho Jericho, a surprise hit for CBS, is by almost any standards a rotten show. I approached this one with trepidation as well, but it turns out not nearly enough trepidation. It's easy to see how the show's concept got thrown together, CBS wanted something like Lost -- a bunch of characters, most of them attractive, trapped in a small space -- with an arced story interweaving their personal relationships and physical perils. Just because a mysterious and seemingly magical island is a more attractive set-up than nuclear devastation doesn't have to make Lost a better show than Jericho. But bad writing, bad plotting, and bad will pretty much seal the deal.

Jericho opens when prodigal son Jake Green (Skeet Ulrich) returns to the small Kansas town of his birth, supposedly for one day, but he's trapped there when nuclear bombs are detonated all over the country. No one knows where Jake has been all this time, and he's not saying, but clearly it was someplace where you learn a lot of handy skills, and it's no time at all before Jake is performing field surgery, driving heavy vehicles, strategically planting dynamite, engaging in shoot-outs with hardened criminals, single-handedly fighting fires, and accessing the black box recordings of crashed airlines. But lest you think Jake is a made of stone, we see at once that he still has feelings for his old girlfriend Emily (Ashley Scott), whose heart he broke in some unspeakable, and so unspoken, way. Everything is more interesting so long as you don't actually explain it, and particularly when you flash meaningful looks while not explaining it.

While Jake is busy saving the town, making moon eyes at Emily, and ducking the moon eyes of several pretty women cast in his direction, we're treated to a variety of sub plots, including that of Jake's father, the mayor (Gerald McRaney), bald and bearded, who bickers with his would be election-year opponent (Michael Gasston), bald, not bearded, and Jake's brother Eric (Kenneth Mitchell), bearded not bald. Eric has romantic woes of his own, torn between his serious and capable red-headed wife, a doctor, and his brassy and emotional red-headed girlfriend, a bartender. Then there are those teenagers whose emotional lives would have seemed stunted on Dawson's Creek, let alone in a post-apocalyptic universe.

The only bright spot is mysterious stranger Robert Hawkins (Lennie James), an outsider who possess a fair amount of knowledge of what is happening in the outside world, and may well have known of the attacks before they happened. The Hawkins plot is great stuff, but not nearly enough buoy up a show that squanders screen time with dead romantic tension and action sequences that revel in cruelty. The premise of the country being destroyed in a nuclear war is hard enough but Jericho delights in distasteful set pieces: a small child receiving an emergency tracheotomy; a deaf girl trapped in a house with two escaped convicts; another small girl in a burning library. It is an endless parade of characters we don't care about trapped in situations we don't want to know about.

In some ways, the concept of a post-nuclear war in our post-cold-war world was fairly gutsy, and there's no reason why the premise had to fail. Yet fail it does, because Jericho has no original ideas, and its rehashed ideas aren't even interesting ones. It takes a special kind of ineptitude to make global war and political upheaval this uninteresting.

Copyright © 2006 David Liss

David Liss is the author of four novels: A Conspiracy of Paper, The Coffee Trader, A Spectacle of Corruption, and The Ethical Assassin. He can be contacted via his web page

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