My wife and I got hooked on NBC’s superhero drama Heroes after the first season was completed. Several friends of mine had recommended the show, and despite the fact that I’ve been burned many times by movie and TV show recommendations, I ordered the first season from Netflix. We both really enjoyed the first season: following the intertwining storylines, gleefully empathizing with characters as they discovered their powers, trying to anticipate who was behind everything, and the constant sense of suspense made the first season a welcome break from the stress of work and school for my wife and I.
The second season, which was cut short by the writer’s strike, lacked some of the suspense of the first season, but was still quite enjoyable. Two weeks ago, NBC premiered the third season of Heroes, which you can watch on Hulu.com.
So far, the third season has not lived up to my expectations. The tone is almost obnoxiously dark at times, the central conflict is not clear at all, the characters’ motives are not well defined, and the pacing is off. For example, there are several scenes in the first few episodes where main characters are suddenly and inexplicably thrust into danger, which undermines one the essential aspects of the show: long, suspenseful build ups to action. Within the first episode of this season, Sylar (the main villain) manages to steal Clarie’s power, something he spent the entire first season trying to do. When we watched this particular scene, my wife and I thought it was a dream sequence since there was absolutely no setup. Sylar is suddenly at Clarie’s house. She is home alone. She runs. He takes her power. He leaves. While the story has picked up in the latest episodes, thus far I am concerned that the producers have forgotten what makes a drama compelling.
As a believer, there are many aspects of the show that interest me. Perhaps at some point I’ll post an article on the ethical issues Heroes presents. But the issue that has bothered me most about Heroes, from the very first episode, is its portrayal of women as either evil, shallow, sex-objects, or dead.
With few exceptions, the female characters in Heroes are painfully shallow, stereotypical, or sexualized. One of the more obvious examples of this is Niki Sanders, a former Internet stripper who has a split personality named Jessica. Jessica is an assassin who often uses her sexuality to complete her assignments. Although the producers try to make Niki a complex character by giving her a family, her “powers” prevent her from being a good mother, as they consistently lead her into sex and violence. Unless we are meant to believe that her character is a commentary on how society prevents women from being anything but sex objects, and I doubt the producers put that much thought into it, Niki (or “Tracy” in the new season) is little more than the show’s sex appeal.
Then there is Claire Bennet, the cheerleader. Claire’s character is interesting in that she is very purposefully written to challenge the ditsy, sleazy, shallow, superficial cheerleader stereotype, but her actions often reinforce these very characteristics. On several occasions Claire stands up to the school cheerleader (a girl who does fit the stereotype), she is deeply concerned for her family, and she has a desire to help others with her power. On the other hand, she consistently disobeys her parents (who, in painfully trite fashion, just don’t understand her), is primarily motivated by her personal desires (so like a teenager), and often makes obnoxiously stupid decisions based on those desires. I get the impression that the producers really wanted to make Claire an intelligent, well-rounded character, but just got lazy. It’s simply easier to set up dramatic situations when you have a character who is foolish enough to put herself in danger. Plus, attractive cheerleaders make for high ratings television.
Last season, they introduced a new female character. Maya Herrera has the power of plague, or something like that. Essentially, when Maya gets mad, people around her die. As if giving a Hispanic, female character the power of hotheadedness wasn’t bad enough, she is also one of the sleaziest characters in the show. Within a few episodes of meeting Sylar, she starts making out with him. Within two episodes of meeting Suresh, they are having sex. In fact, Maya seems unable to resist her desire for Suresh. In one of the first episodes of the new season, Suresh says something about Maya having a hot body, and within a few seconds they’re at it. Maya, at least thus far in the series, is portrayed as a hot-blooded Latina who is unable to control her anger (which kills people) or her sexual desire. Oh, and between season two and three she seems to have lost most of her accent, for no apparent reason.
While there are some female characters on the show that do not so easily fall into a sexist stereotype, that does not minimalize the inappropriateness of these three characters, particularly since Niki and Claire are so central to the show’s plot. As believers, I would hope that we can watch shows like Heroes with discernment, understanding that many telivision characters are created to appeal to certain demographics, desires, or stereotypes, rather than to explore the complexity of a person made in the image of God and in desperate need of redemption.
This discernment, allowing yourself to be concerned about the loving and truthful portrayal of characters, may often damper your enjoyment of telivision a bit, as my experience with Heroes has been, but the choice to not allow culturally defined and unloving stereotypes to mold your thinking is much more important than any enjoyment the tube can offer. My wife and I will continue to watch and enjoy Heroes, but we’ll do so only with a heavy dose of discernment–which more often than not translates into audible groans and shouting at the TV.