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Heroes Never Die

Enough time has passed for NBC to dust off its old superhero show, Heroes, and give it a new lease of life

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I’m sure by now we’ve all heard the big news out of the Sochi Winter Olympics. That’s right, Russia topped the leaderboard with 33 medals Heroes is returning to our TV screens! It’s been just over four years since NBC’s superhero show was on the air, and a good few years longer since it was actually any good. Approaching something of a phenomenon back in its heyday, it was hard to find someone who couldn’t complete the show’s slogan (Save the Cheerleader…) never mind wasn’t full-on glued to the weekly adventures of Super-nurse Peter Petrelli, evil villain Sylar and toe-clipping Claire.  

Well, for the first season, anyway. The quality swiftly nose-dived as we headed into season two and beyond, with meandering storylines and the constant dangling of what was to come without ever actually getting it (seriously, when was Hiro going to stop being such a dumbass and grow a goatee?). 

But perhaps enough time has passed for NBC to dust off its old superhero show and give it a new lease of life. It’s a very different TV world now – we’ve been from Smallville to Alphas, Arrow and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., not to mention the upcoming Gotham and The Flash. Superheroes are hot, and it’s not surprising that the studio is eager for a second helping of the costumed crime-fighter pie. If Heroes Reborn is to survive, however, it’s going to need more than a catchy slogan this time around. So here’s my adamantium-lined, kryptonite-powered, five point plan for superhero success. 

Take A Fresh Start

We’ve already been told not to expect the old guard to return, albeit they’re keeping the door open for the occasional guest appearance, and this is definitely a step in the right direction. The fact that Noah or Matt could pop their heads in at all means it’s not a total reboot, but hopefully it’s still a clean break from what came before. I don’t know about anyone else, but the storyline got incredibly convoluted towards the end. There was an ongoing series of incestuous twists whereby every character slowly discovered they were a member of the Petrelli family, Nathan, Sylar and Matt were caught in some kind of bizarre body swap loop of hell, there was tension-evaporating magic blood that brought Noah back to life and then was never used again because hello it’s magic blood that can bring people back to life, and Hiro spent four years dicking around with his best mate, travelling through time and stealing paintings instead of buying a sword and learning Matrix.      

Leave all that behind and start fresh. New characters, new powers. Keep it simple, and for the love of God, plan it out fully. It’s only thirteen episodes, so there’s absolutely no reason not to have the entire beginning, middle and end completely mapped. And if you’re going to tease future events, bloody well deliver on them! 

Have A Proper Baddie

Look, Sylar was great. A guy who slices people’s heads open, takes their brains and learns their power? That’s deliciously macabre. It’s Hannibal Lector meets Magneto. But he was completely wasted after the first season; the constant switching sides was one thing, but to become increasingly side-lined by the likes of Adam Monroe and that guy from Prison Break was too much to bear. If you’re going to have a core group of heroes, they need to have a villain to rally against. Loki, Zod, Joker – a superhero is only as good as his arch nemesis.  

Don’t Overpower Anyone

Pretty self-explanatory, this one. By the end of the first season, Peter’s ability to take the powers of others had turned him into the Swiss Army Knife of superheroes. He could fly, freeze time, become invisible, control objects, time travel, paint the future (lame), read minds, heal any injury… I mean, really? Now, this actually makes sense when you realise the original plan for Heroes was to have a totally new storyline and cast each season, American Horror Story-style. Peter was meant to gain all these powers because he would need them to save the world in the season one finale, and die in the process. 

That last part was pretty important. 

Once the show got going and smashed NBC’s ratings into the stratosphere, showrunner Tim Kring realised he had a bit of a problem on his hands. People loved the characters – too much to let them go, he said. And so we had to endure three more seasons of Peter (and Sylar, and Hiro…) continually being depowered in order to stop them being able to pretty much dominate any situation. Peter’s amnesia, Hiro’s brain tumour – just two examples of the horrible plot devices used by the writers. 

Luckily, this is a problem that’s easily sorted by a little forward-thinking. Don’t give too many abilities to any one person, and if you genuinely have a solid, narrative reason to do so, then don’t lose your nerve at the last minute! Viewers will respect a show that has the balls to kill off a major character far more than one that keeps them alive so they can be dragged repeatedly through mundane storylines. 

Keep The Numbers Low

A big problem with Heroes was the simple fact that the cast grew larger and larger each season. Each episode would introduce another character with powers, which meant more time had to be spent fleshing them out as we learnt what their ability was. Towards the end of the show, things got even worse with the development of a serum that gave ordinary folk powers too. Because what the show really needed was people like Ando becoming a dynamo (worst power ever) or Mohinder doing his best Jeff Goldblum impression. 

The point of Heroes was to see how people with abilities impacted the normal world. If every character has powers, that entire aspect of the show is lost – not to mention the Powers Barrel gets well and truly scraped. If Heroes Reborn is only going to be thirteen episodes long, don’t clog up those precious hours trying to flesh out too many superheroes. Trim it back, and don’t be afraid to let the humans be human. 

Surround Kring With Strong Writers

Tim Kring is an ideas man, certainly, but I don’t think he’s that great a writer. As a concept, Heroes is pretty solid. Very X-Men, sure, but remember this came out back in 2006, when superpowers were still relatively low-key in the media. His last show, the Kiefer Sutherland-starring Touch suffered from a similar fate as Heroes: strong idea, poor execution. 

As it’s already been confirmed that Kring will be returning (as he should, it’s his baby), NBC need to make sure he’s got a solid team working with him. And I’m not talking about Jeph Loeb (what that man did to Ultimates 3 was a crime) or any of the previous writers – with perhaps one exception: Bryan Fuller.

Fuller was a major reason that the first season didn’t suck, and when he left to make Pushing Daisies (along with half the writing staff, to be fair), the show really suffered. He did briefly return during season three, and the two episodes he penned were easily the best of the bunch. Obviously he’s busy working on the fantastic Hannibal right now (also for NBC) but it would be a shot in the arm for Heroes Reborn if he was able to help out at all. 

So there you have it. The five biggest problems with Heroes and the five obstacles Reborn needs to overcome. There’s absolutely no reason why it can’t succeed – you only need to glance at the top grossing films of all time to see how successful superheroes can be – but this is a show we’ve been burned by before. I’ll be keeping a wary eye on it over the next year, and take solace in the fact that no matter how bad it ends up, it can’t possibly be worse than Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., can it?

Television

Swamp Thing: The Futility of Saving a Good Thing

DC’s best show, Swamp Thing, creeps to its death with no one to save it

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Swamp Thing, the only good television show DC has produced in decades was abruptly canceled after just one episode. Despite glowing reviews and a small but devoted following, hopes for its survival and saving are unfortunately as futile as the idea of DC making good television and knowing what to do with it. It’s not like I haven’t given DC TV a chance either. But after countless attempts at trying to enjoy Arrow or Supergirl, hoping that one of their myriad of poor crossovers would ignite a desire to watch more, my hopes are all but dead in the swamp after they pulled the plug on the only good property they have. To make matters worse, Swamp Thing is not only great, but it was great right out of the gate- gripping, dark, and intoxicating. A wonderfully violent change to the cartoonish junk that DC is associated with.

When I was a kid, I remember watching the 1990 USA Network series of the same name. I drew to it on the back of my love for the Toxic Avenger and all things mutated humans. Sure, it was kitschy, but what television show from the ’90s wasn’t? Perhaps it was waiting for the right time or the right production, but the long-dormant franchise found new life in 2019. Produced by James Wan (who does horror well, big blockbusters, not so much), Swamp Thing has proven to be the very best of superhero television. Coated in dirty swamp green hues, it is beautifully gritty, and when it dives into the subject material, it does so with the fervor- unafraid of exploring mysticism and the darkness of the human soul. The new series follows the familiar story; scientist Alec Holland is turned into the Swamp Thing after meeting his untimely demise. Over the course of the series, he battles the demons and history of the swamp while trying to understand his new place in the world, flanked by familiar characters like Abby Arcane (the terrific Crystal Reed). The cast of the new series is rounded nicely with a slew of recognized faces – Virginia Madsen, Will Patton, Ian Ziering(!), Jennifer Beals – that adds to the series’ sense of gravitas. And regardless of whether you’re a long time fan of the creation, whether you’ve seen the original 1982 movie or watched the series in the 90s, this current iteration stands leagues above- which makes its cancellation all the more infuriating.

Television that resonates, like the current love for HBO’s Chernobyl, is driven by the desire to understand the deep seeded flaws of humankind and what critics have called; “a creeping dread that never dissipates“. It’s true to the latter that as you traverse the murky episodes of Swamp Thing, the crawl of inescapable horror and impending doom is ever looming. Like the swamps in which it festers in, the series slowly wraps its vines around your feet, character by character, mystery by mystery, and before you can scream for help its dragged you helplessly into the bayou.

It’s gutting to know that these 10 episodes are all we’re going to get, made more painful by the fact that this count was already cut down from the original 13-episode run. The show’s cancellation has been attributed to money of course. Early speculation pointed to errors in accounting, but in truth, most have said that the rising cost of production and the uncertainty of the DC Universe platform itself ultimately led to the show’s demise. The difficulty of an expensive, well-produced show is perhaps, far too great of a risk for a fledgling streaming service. One whose intellectual property is already average at best, hampered by the disastrous cinematic run of their most noted ones. Their TV often leaves me wondering how on Earth they have run for so long. My attempt at watching Legends of Tomorrow was spent laughing at the pilot’s campy cartoonishness. It was so bad that the idea of watching this series would be weekly self-flagellation. I wish The Flash was good (I enjoyed the 1990s series), Supergirl could be good if it wasn’t so afraid of offending anyone, and every time I think maybe Arrow could salvage the DC’s television property I’m reminded how terrible it is (if you google “Arrow is a terrible show” you will know my opinion is not a solitary one).

Abby Arcane
Crystal Reed stars as Abby Arcane

I’m not alone in wanting Swamp Thing to live. Fans were outraged by the immediate cancelation, and cast and crew of the show couldn’t believe it either. Unfortunately, we live in a world where network execs and bean counters are, as expected, more concerned about the tightening bottom line and the immense amount of content already out there. Why invest so much money into a quality niche product when you trot out B-grade characters in dopey costumes for 7+ seasons on the cheap? Sure, there’s a petition out there to #SaveSwampThing, and while I’m happy to sign it, a big part of me knows that it is just not feasible to save such an expensive and complicated undertaking. There’s just a sense of futility to it all, that while you can see a network saving average, cheaper fare like Brooklyn Nine-Nine or even Lucifer (why?), the thought of saving something as big as this is just unlikely. Is there hope for another network or service to pick it up? I don’t even think spend-happy Netflix are willing to put money behind a quality product when its easier to make crap Adam Sandler movies and incredibly generic racial pandering tripe. It’s too late for Swamp Thing. The swamp has literally been drained. And that’s a damn shame.

Good television lives in the darkness. It lives in the darkness of humanity and the darkness of our imaginations. Pick any great television property and you find will find it; Stranger Things, Westworld, The Wire, Breaking Bad. And for the first time, DC has found their darkness but clearly, have no idea. To make matters worse, we will probably get 5+ seasons of that horrendous looking Batwoman show.

Perhaps in a perfect world Swamp Thing would have been produced by a competent network. Perhaps in a perfect world, comic book television would be given the chance to flourish next to noted television that becomes regular discourse in our socialverse. Unfortunately, we won’t be finding out anytime soon. Netflix’s Marvel series’ limped to their end, and now DC, with the golden opportunity to become the torch bearer of great superhero television has once again shown why they are DC.

Fans of mystery and horror will find so much to love in Swamp Thing. It is a series that isn’t afraid to dive deep into the murk, bound by great writing and distinct and memorable visuals. It’s infuriating as you watch each episode knowing it creeps slowly to its end. From the house of secrets the Swamp Thing was born, and now in a shroud of uncertainty and unanswered questions, it dies again.

Swamp Thing airs on the DC Universe streaming service.

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Netflix’s Street Food is a disjointed but sincere ode

Netflix’s Street Food is a disjointed, but sincere ode

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One of my fondest memories of growing up in Jakarta are the times I spent parked on the side of the road, perched on the front seat of my car, door ajar, with a bowl of hot, freshly cooked chicken noodles (mie ayam) on my lap. It wasn’t just the incredibly immersive palette of flavors a good bowl of mie ayam had, but it was that I could easily pull up on the side of the road next to a street food vendor and have one of the best, most memorable meals one can have.

Street food, of course, is not unique to any one country. It is an idea that Netflix’s Street Food series aims to bring to light. Produced by David Gelb and Brian McGinn (the same producers as Netflix’s Chef’s Table), Street Food shares the idea that across the globe the myriad of wonderful foods, personalities, and historical culture can be found around the corner, in the unlikeliest of places, made by the unlikeliest of people. This is the series’ strength. Street Food Vol 1. spends its nine episodes across Asia, from Singapore to Yogyakarta, from Osaka to Delhi, exploring the rich foods you find on their streets. But the strongest connection you’ll find is with that of the people profiled in the episodes. Sure, the food is irresistible, but it is the very human stories this series profile that make it worthwhile.

We meet Grace in Chiayi, Taiwan, who had dreams of escaping small city life, only to find herself back home running her family’s street food restaurant that specializes in fish head soup. There’s is an inescapable sadness as Grace tells of her lost opportunity in the big city of Taipei, but we are overcome when she’s found happiness at home, expanding, modernizing, and running the business she’s known since she was a child. We meet Truoc in Ho Chi Minh City, who after a family tragedy, found it overwhelmingly difficult to find passion in her work. But a passion re-found when her hard work and perseverance enabled her son to attend university. In Seoul, there is Yoonsun Cho, whose incredible 11-year work as a street food seller at the market got her family out of bad debt, seeing her son attend culinary school, and seeing him take up a job at an upscale hotel. This is alongside stories like the purported-last ‘3 day 3 night goat stew’ chef on the planet (seeing how toxic and life-threatening this process is, it’s not hard to understand why). These are the stories that make this series interesting, and it takes cues from what we loved about Anthony Bourdain’s take on global food. He was not there just for the food, but he was there to understand, listen to, and discover the people, their histories and their cultures.

The cinematic Netflix production helps with the series’ presentation, but where it struggles is to find cohesion within the episodes. You get narrators for each episode, individuals who are locals or familiar with the food and culture, but as you hear the stories of the vendors, the production employs cheesy voice-overs that sound robotic. I would rather have let the vendors speak, in their natural tongues with subtitles instead (which strangely, they do at times). Another gripe is their instagramesque presentation of their signature dishes that give the show a less than genuine feel. It’s a shame because it takes away from the narrative of the vendors and takes viewers away from the on-the-street feel of the rest of the episodes.

It is, however, the vendors that ultimately make this series worth the venture. We often forget that behind the foods of the worlds, there are the people who make them, whose stories are just as rich and important as the foods they make.

I miss mie ayam, I miss sitting on the side of the road next to the gerobak (street food cart) while I stuff my face with the best tasting noodles you’ll find on the planet. Some days it is all I long for. But the next time I do find myself eating mie ayam on the side of the road, I’ll take a moment to appreciate the food, and the vendor whose life is as story-filled as the food they are making.

Street Food is streaming now on Netflix.

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