Last night’s episode of Lost threw down the gauntlet for all of American television, daring other shows to shake up their status quo in as major and exciting way as they did. But coming a couple of days after the finale of Heroes – a finale that even the show’s zombified fans must see as wildly disappointing – the finale of Lost reads like a major fuck you to the sorry attempts at serialized storytelling it has inspired.
Tim Kring’s Heroes has often been seen as an answer to Lost – where ABC’s show is all about the mysteries and teasing things out for as long as possible, NBC’s superhero spectacular is unwilling to leave its viewers in the lurch for more than a couple of episodes. It’s part of the show’s basic modus operandi: where Lost has faith in your intelligence and stamina, Heroes knows that its audience isn’t that bright. Never mind Lost’s ambitious literary and philosophical references (‘You’ve always been a hero!’ is about as philosophical as Kring’s hunk of junk gets), Heroes wants to keep frustration levels at a minimum. To be fair, that isn’t just because the producers know their program appeals to people who hate to think – they’ve watched Lost’s trajectory and understand that it’s easy to lose the luster of being the hot new show in a blink of an eye. It’s good business sense to keep things as simple as possible on Heroes.
But that’s where the show failed in its finale. Well, it’s one of many places. Lost’s finale had more action, excitement and tension in its first twenty minutes than Heroes’ last three episodes had in their entirety. The final battle between Peter Petrelli and Sylar, which has been building for months, was a complete letdown that ended up being a quick fist fight in the street. It’s mystifying that the show didn’t spend more money on those climactic moments (let’s just forget how badly written and directed the finale was – that’s a given with Heroes. Compare how Heroes looks with how Lost looks, just from a cinematography point of view); Heroes is one of NBC’s big hits, and you would think that a couple of extra bucks would be freed up for the big finish. Hell, we’ve seen how other shows deal with limited budgets – shows like Battlestar Galactica set up episodes that can be filmed on the cheap, allowing them to splurge on terrific sequences like the Galactica’s atmospheric drop and rescue in the opening arc of the third season. Instead we get a couple of punches and Hiro dropping into an ancient Japan populated by a handful of people. (PS, they’re ripping off the end of Evil Dead II there)
Still, budgets are a reality. One of my favorite TV shows of all time, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, would run headfirst into the budget wall all the time (although almost every season finale of Buffy was more spectacular than the finale of Heroes, and that show was on third rate networks) – you just hope that the writing and acting can make up for the cheesy snake monster or whatever failed effect is highlighted that week. But Heroes, being one of the most consistently poorly written and directed shows on network TV, doesn’t even have that going for it. The finale sucked from a production value point of view, but it also sucked when looked at as a climax of any sort. Most of the characters we’ve been following all year end up together… for no good reason. Rather than having most of these people actually play roles in the finale, Kring and company have them stand around uselessly. By the time the final minutes of the show happen, Kring and his writers have had all the characters do whatever little bits they had to do – kill Linderman, help Horned Rim Glasses Man find a floor in a building (easily the lamest role a ‘hero’ has ever played in an epic), etc – but because of the show’s incredibly poor pacing we’re left with a paradox: all of these events took too long to happen, and occurred only after the show spent hours and hours spinning its wheels, but at the same time they all happened too early. So while it seems like the show slapped about three episodes of filler in there at the end, it still ends up feeling like the non-Peter and Sylar stories blow their loads too early. Instead of having a massive climax where all these stories wrap up in a short time span, we get trickles of wrap up and then a final fight where most of the characters – including at least one character IN the fight – are utterly useless.
That’s to be expected, though. I am not giving in to hyperbole when I say that Heroes is one of the worst written shows I have watched (just look at the episode before, when Hiro learns to be a swordsman in an afternoon and yet doesn’t bother popping into the other room to tell his friend that he’ll be working for a couple of hours, thus giving the writers a cheap excuse to send that friend into some half-assed danger), so having the finale be not just filled with badly conceived narrative but also bad dialogue (see the entire exchange between Shaft and Peter Petrelli) is no surprise. What’s most annoying is how the Heroes finale sums up the show’s contempt for its audience, and how it’s completely different from how Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse approach Lost’s viewers.
The anti-climax of Heroes comes not just from the cheap and boring final confrontation, but from the fact that the events of the last minutes – the ‘How to Stop An Exploding Man’ of the episode title – are so transparently obvious to anyone who has watched the show. Heroes has spent most of the season building to this ending, and when the writers got there they chose the single most predictable way to pull it off (despite the thing being full of plot holes. For instance, if Cheerleader shot Peter in the head, he would die but get better as soon as they pulled the bullet out, so that seems like a good way to stop him from blowing up). I think they did this for the simple fact that it makes the fat-headed fans of Heroes feel smart – ‘I called that ending!’ Of course you did… so did anyone who watched any previous episodes and had a concept of basic storytelling clichés.
Meanwhile Lost went the absolute opposite direction, delivering a finale that was a complete mindfuck, an ending that no one could have guessed six weeks ago. That’s because the producers know that the fans of Lost – intelligent, literate people, mostly – love the sense of excitement that comes from having expectations challenged, not met. The crowd that loves Heroes is the same crowd Robert Zemeckis cuts his trailers for – the people who want to know exactly what they’re getting when they walk into a theater, the people who choose McDonalds over local food when traveling for that same reason. These people are the lowest common denominator, and Heroes shovels its shit into their happily gaping maws on a weekly basis.
There are other ways in which the Lost finale spanked Heroes – for one thing Lost has characters that feel three dimensional, who have contradictions and hidden depths, quite the opposite of Heroes’ cheap carboard cut-outs (the character who got closest to having anything resembling depth was Nathan Petrelli, and he got blown up… although I’m sure he’ll get better next year), and these characters evolve and change in interesting – and not predictable (hello, Peter Petrelli and Hiro Nakamura arcs of gaining confidence) – ways. Lost has a more exciting and intriguing concept and set up as opposed to Heroes’ Comic Books’ Greatest Hits stories. But when the dust settles at the end of this week, the truth is that the biggest difference is how the two shows treat their fans. I’d rather have Lindelof and Cuse think of me as so smart that they can throw in tiny hints and also little bits of disinformation to keep me guessing over Kring thinking his fans are too stupid to be able to deal with actual shock or excitement.