If ever there was a second season of a recent hit TV show that defined "sophomore slump," it's 'Heroes.' Not since season two of 'Desperate Housewives' nearly deep-sixed it as a cultural phenomenon has a show so famously imploded, with the middling critical and fan reaction to 'Heroes' second go-round just about obliterating its hip quotient -- what was once pegged as the all-round coolest television serial since 'Lost' suddenly seemed like this year's 'Commander in Chief.' The silver lining, however, comes from the fact that now that the dust has settled, and with the show gearing up for its much-buzzed-about third season, we can look back with a more open mind and ask the question -- was season two of 'Heroes' really that bad?
The answer is, "sort of." 'Heroes' season two is by no means terrible television, but compared to the involving first season, it is indeed a letdown. Hampered by the writer's strike (which curtailed the season to only eleven episodes, versus the usual average of about twenty-two), 'Heroes' sophomore year was marred by a feeling that its makers misjudged just about every aspect of where to take the show -- it's characters, its storylines, and its newly-introduced thematic elements. While the show's production values remained high, it just felt inert and meandering. Perhaps, then, the writer's strike was actually a good thing -- this aborted second season can thus be viewed as a sort of errant cul-de-sac for the show, rather than a dead end.
As I generally hate spoiler-filled plot synopses, it's difficult to discuss the failings of 'Heroes' in its second season without ruining the many plot developments for those who haven't seen it. Suffice to say, creator Tim Kring and his collaborators have made the arguable decision to splinter-off the show's memorable characters into their own little parallel subplots, which rarely intersect to any satisfactory degree and, even on their own terms, are only fairly engaging. One of the strongest aspects for me of the 'Heroes' first season was the sense that these burgeoning superheroes occupied the same world -- that a cohesive universe existed of action and consequence. Season two replaces integration with fragmentation, which severely damages our faith that the filmmakers know where they are taking us, and also severely cripples characters that have quickly gone from fascinating to insufferable.
In hindsight, given the buzz they generated in season one, it's surprising that season two wastes both Hiro and Claire (aka, "Save the cheerleader!") Why is Hiro banished to feudal Japan? Granted, his search for his childhood idol, the mysterious Takezo Kensei, has an enjoyable Kaizer Soze-esque excitement to it, and I enjoyed the 'Wizard of Oz'-like denouenement, but Hiro's ultimate arc in season two doesn't really seem to have anything to do with the rest of the show. Then there is Claire, who suddenly seems to find herself stranded in 'Smallville,' as she is essentially forced to repeat the same basic story as season one. Only now she's saddled with a new superhero-boyfriend and too much teen melodrama -- it gets so desperate at one point that the best the show's creators can do is give us mean-girl cheerleaders. Did Clearasil sponsor season two?
Most of the other storylines are equally squandered. Siblings Maya and Alejandro were interesting at first, but spend season two doing nothing much of consequence. The extended family of Niki, Micah and D.L. also get a new cousin, Monica, who discovers she has the power of mimicry, but the fun is mostly benign (kickboxing, really?), so these characters feel underserved, too. Even the villains are a bit of a disappointment, with Sylar returning in a different way, and only the "nightmare man" managing to do anything cool and interesting. At least newcomer Kristen Bell (of 'Veronica Mars' fame) gives the show a much-needed injection of excitement and energy, as an electro-spewing little vixen who eventually teams up with Monica. The pair seem to be the only heroes who actually want to use their powers, and with season one standout Ali Larter all but written out of the show, they give 'Heroes' its only real shot of much-needed estrogen.
It may sound as though I'm being overly hard on 'Heroes: Season Two,' and that I unanimously hated it. Not so -- even as disappointing as last year's season was -- it remains fairly engaging if taken on its own limited terms. It's still better than much of the crap that floods network TV these days. And at only eleven episodes, committing to watching the entire second season (if only to remain up to speed for season three) is hardly an outrageous time commitment. It's just too bad that a show that was such a gangbusters success in its first outing had to fall so hard so fast. I guess we'll just have to cross our fingers and hope for a rebirth in season three...
'Heroes: Season Two' comes to Blu-ray as a four-disc set, containing all eleven episodes. There are four episodes on each of the first two BD-50 dual-layer discs, and the remaining three episodes are spread across the final two BD-25 single-layer discs. All encodes are 1080p/VC-1 (at 1.78:1). The quality here surprised me, as it is a fair step up from 'Season One.' The show's sophomore season may have been critically lambasted, but the production values were slightly improved.
Though 'Season One' certainly looked good for a TV-on-high-def release, 'Season Two' is brighter, better photographed, and richer in color. Blacks are nice and solid, and contrast runs more on the bold side than it did on 'Season One,' which further enhances depth. Visible detail is as strong as on some of the better theatrical features I've seen, with even long shots enjoying clear fine textures and superior sharpness. The color palette is also more impressive, with striking primaries and nice gradations across the spectrum. Hues never bleed or smear, and fleshtones are generally accurate.
These transfers do still run a tad dark (which was an even bigger problem on 'Season One'), but it's not particularly detrimental -- only shadow delineation is sometimes reduced due to black crush and occasions of low-key lighting. There's also a fair amount of grain, and it is inconsistent -- darker scenes in particular can suffer from heavy bursts that can be momentarily distracting. The encodes all appear clean, however, with no obvious artifacts save for minor (if consistent across the entire season's episodes) instances of motion jaggies. All in all, I was quite taken with these excellent transfers.
Universal offers English DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround tracks (48kHz/16-bit) for all eleven episodes of 'Heroes: Season Two.' It's not the leap over 'Season One' that the video transfers are, but it's still a nice set of mixes that far exceeds your typical TV-on-high-def audio presentation.
'Heroes' isn't really an action show despite its superhero subject matter, but when it does exploit spectacle, these mixes shine. Surround use, if not sustained for atmosphere, pumps out some noticeable discrete effects that exploit the full dynamic range. There is clear directionality with smooth pans, so localizing effects proves difficult -- these mixes rarely sound "gimmicky." Wendy & Lisa's scores still suffer in my opinion by being too low in the mix, and better dispersement to the rears would have even further enhanced these soundtracks. Dialogue remains the real star of the show, however, and it is strongly balanced throughout. Low bass -- if not a stunner -- hits some nice, deep places and supports the episodes very well. There are no other issues with the source or clarity of these DTS-MA mixes, making 'Heroes: Season Two' a strong example of how a TV-on-high-def release on Blu-ray should sound.
Universal continues to support 'Heroes' on Blu-ray with another strong set of extras. The studio has made a notable decision, however, to upgrade the audio commentaries found on the standard DVD release of 'Season Two' to PIP tracks on the Blu-ray, but not include the audio only versions here. So at first glance, it may appear that some content is "missing" from this release, but in actuality it has been repurposed. Otherwise, the remaining standard suite of extras from the DVD has all been ported to the Blu-ray. The studio has also bumped up the video to full 1080 (versus the standard-def of 'Season One'), and provides optional English, French, and Spanish subtitles on the video-based materials.
'Heroes' doesn't avoid the sophomore slump. This is just not a great year for the show, despite some bright spots that may be enough to keep the diehards keeping the faith. (Of course, I still plan to tune in for the upcoming third season -- call me optimistic.) There's nothing bad to say about this blu-ray box set however. The video is excellent, the audio is strong, too, and there are plenty of great supplements. Whatever you may think of season two of 'Heroes,' this Blu-ray can't be beat.