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Review: Heroes Reborn still asks the world of its audience

There's a social contract inherent in serialized television. Any show that demands you commit to watching each episode in sequential order, week after week, tacitly promises that the ultimate payoff will make up for any lag or less-than-stellar parts of the journey. It's the kind of deal that makes binge-watching enticing and live tune-ins challenging.

Heroes Reborn is unforgivingly serialized. The 13-part miniseries marks the return of Heroes, a comics-inspired NBC series that enjoyed a stellar debut in mid-2000s and seemed to squander all goodwill and viewership as the show dragged on for four seasons. NBC and showrunner Tim Kring want Reborn to "reconnect with the basic elements of the show's first season." Gauging from the first episodes, it's unclear if the team has pulled that off, and difficult to recommend sticking around to find out.

Whereas most of Heroes' past stories existed outside of the public eye — muddled alternate futures notwithstanding — Reborn opens with the present world very much aware of "evos," shorthand for evolved humans. That alone could be fertile narrative ground itself, but Heroes Reborn is more interested using that as a springboard to push a mystery wrapped in a conspiracy wrapped in another even bigger mystery.

In the opening moments timestamped one year ago, a terrorist attack — subsequently referred to by its date (June 13th) and dripping with 9/11 allusions — is blamed on an "evo supremacist." We then zip forward to the present, where evos are being hunted by various government and non-government entities.

By my count, Heroes Reborn juggles at least a half-dozen disparate plot lines in its first two hourlong episodes: An evolved high-school student in Illinois who just wants to fit in. An evo-hating couple on a cross-country killing spree to avenge their son. A swords expert in Tokyo who can jump in and out of a virtual game. Heroes has always followed this format, gradually merging the separate threads in time for a big finale. But the characters here aren't as immediately relatable, and I struggled to empathize or connect with anyone before the show jumped to another story. None of this is helped by the at-times clunky dialogue, especially in the case of Luke (Zachary Levi) and his painfully one-dimensional partner-in-crime Joanne (Judith Shekoni).

A half-dozen disparate plot lines (not all created equal)

Whereas the first episode of Heroes (2006's "Genesis") took its time to introduce identifiable characters — the selfless nurse with vivid dreams of flying, the cheerleader who feels angst over her newfound immortality — Reborn makes it clear that all these plots primarily serve a Bigger Picture. That narrative throughline is most apparent when the focus shifts to Noah Bennet, aka Horn-Rimmed Glasses (Jack Coleman), the most prominent of several returning characters from the original series. In the first two episodes, Bennet's role can be summed as going around and asking people, "What is the big mystery?" while occasionally giving a wink and a nod to past Heroes lore.

Heroes... then and now

I remember very clearly when I got hooked on Heroes. It was during that first episode, when lowly office worker Hiro Nakamura stares intensely at a wall clock before making it "tick" backwards a second. When he joyfully screamed about his newfound power, I felt that giddiness, too. That moment made me care about Hiro and his journey on the show even as it veered off into territory so bizarrely terrible that I've since wiped it from memory.

Faith in the Big Mystery is required

Heroes Reborn doesn't have a moment like that. (If you're interested in empathy-driven exploration of powers, I'd warmly recommend the Wachowskis' Sense8 on Netflix.) It isn't necessary to know anything that's happened in past seasons of Heroes, technically, as gaps are filled in pretty effectively. But I'd argue you need some emotional connection to the series to make the weekly investment here. You need to want to see those callbacks and have some nostalgia for the original. Heroes Reborn is messy and soapy and promises a major payoff that, if the past is any indication, is unlikely to live up to the hype. That's a hefty contract to ask someone to sign when there's so much other television to watch (too much, some would say), and the journey alone isn't engaging enough. Not yet, at least.

There's no point anymore in asking why NBC chose to reboot Heroes. It's here, and barring some calamitous early ratings (which seem unlikely), the show will finish its 13-episode miniseries arc and enjoy a second life on streaming services as a weekend binge. The question now is, should you make the commitment now or wait and see.

Maybe it's best to wait.

Heroes Reborn premieres Thursday, September 24th at 8PM on NBC.