The ‘Heroes’ Reboot and NBC’s Obsession With Its Own Nostalgia

When NBC announced that it was reviving Heroes as a 13-episode standalone “event miniseries” in 2015, the news was met with the expected reaction: mocking. Lots and lots of mocking. It is such a bad, out-of-nowhere idea that it’s hilarious to even think about. NBC decided that a show that was great for one season, acceptable for a second, and laughably awful for its final two would be the best show to revive five years after its cancellation. It sounds absurd, but in the context of NBC’s recent decisions, it makes sense.

Well, sort of. It makes sense for NBC, but it doesn’t make sense for its viewers. Like many people, I liked the first season of Heroes. It wasn’t perfect (uneven pacing and terrible dialogue), but it was interesting and visually satisfying enough. I liked the characters (as a clumsy former cheerleader, I’m still envious of the ability Hayden Panettier’s Claire has to heal herself whenever she gets hurt), the mythology, and the comic book style. It was exciting to watch storylines break away and then tumble back into each other. It was as good as it needed to be.

Heroes lost me, and others, during its second season. It was a mess. It was too ambitious but never aimed for the right highs. It amplified the first season’s problems instead of fixing them. I never finished the series. And here’s the thing: I have a compulsive need to finish every show that I start watching, but the only two that I have managed to successfully quit without a constant nagging feeling in the back of my mind are Heroes and Glee. That’s how disappointing Heroes got for me. (But yes, I will watch it all from the beginning in anticipation of this miniseries event that I will also watch.)

Heroes was disappointing for a lot of viewers and eventually became disappointing for NBC, too. So why is it so intent on bringing the show back? Easy: NBC has become obsessively nostalgic for its own former programming.

This reboot isn’t exactly a case of the network running out of ideas — I’ve read a slew of passed-over NBC scripts that were funny and original, or at least funny and creative enough to put a slight twist on an old formula. It’s a case of clinging to the old ideas that once had NBC at the top. For a while, NBC was everyone’s favorite network, especially at the peak of Must See TV in the ’90s, because it had a slick lineup that featured something for everyone. Most of the shows were ratings hits. Six of the ten most-watched series finales were of NBC programs, all between 1989 and 2004. Over 84 million people watched the Cheers finale; fewer than five million watched 30 Rock‘s season finale last year. Of course, there is context and the decline of overall television watching and the popularity of internet viewing, etc. etc. to take into consideration. But the bottom line? NBC isn’t what it used to be.

NBC wants those high numbers back, and it wants to be Thursday’s top-rated network again. For some reason, it thinks the only way to do this is recreate its past. Friends was a huge hit and had such an impact on popular culture. As long as the internet and nostalgia exist, so will Friends. NBC has tried and failed so many times to recreate this success. There was the spin-off (Joey), Friends in Boston (Boston Common), and every sitcom about a group of pretty people trying to figure out relationships (Perfect Couples, Friends With Benefits). NBC had Friends actors appear on much-hyped 30 Rock and Scrubs episodes. NBC even gave Matthew Perry his own show — twice!

Mad About You was so successful that, 12 years later, Paul Reiser got his own show where he played himself. It was one of the worst programs ever on the network, canceled after only two episodes. To recapture the magic of Will & Grace, there was this season’s Sean Saves The World, which cast Sean Hayes as a near-identical character in a blander environment and, yep, has already been canceled. Sean was paired with The Michael J. Fox Show (Fox was a huge star for NBC with Family Ties), a sitcom whose basic plot was, “Michael J. Fox is back on television and you used to love him so will you love him again? Please?” Fox was charming. The show was not. It hasn’t found its footing, and maybe it never will; it has been yanked from the network’s schedule until April and probably won’t have a second season.

So it’s easy to understand why Heroes: Reborn is so attractive to NBC. Heroes was a hit in 2006. It had good ratings, won awards, and was part of the conversation in a way that say, The Cape and The Event never were. NBC believes that because people once loved that show for a brief period of time, then they will love it again — despite all evidence to the contrary. People will tune in out of morbid curiosity or the basic desire to laugh at something absurd, but they won’t stick around, and they definitely won’t give NBC the ratings and attention that it so desperately wants.

NBC could become a powerhouse again if it learns how to pick scripts based on forward-thinking creativity and provides viewers with something they haven’t seen before. Some of the upcoming pilots are promising, but this reboot of Heroes is a step backwards that makes me wary. It’s as if NBC wants to keep showing us everything and everyone that we’ve already seen. The network is becoming a high school quarterback obsessed with his glory days, and it’s frustrating to watch.