Been thinking a lot about why primetime TV is in such a superhero-loving moment. No, it wasn't brought on by the onset (onslaught) of Comic-Con this week. It was Television Critics Assn. press tour and all the yak yak yak during the past fortnight about the upcoming season's new shows.
I was struck by the superhero-mania by realizing that that even high-end, Emmy-winning drama types a la writer-producer Kevin Falls and director Alex Graves are working in the genre (sort of) with NBC's "Journeyman." Our hero in this show is a San Francisco newspaper reporter who can travel through time and change the course of people's lives. Falls and Graves during the TCA sesh on the show took pains to stress that they were going for "grounded sci-fi," and that the show would hinge not on time travel but on relationships.
"It's a a time-travel show made by people who don't believe in time travel," assured Graves, whose past credits include "The West Wing," "Sports Night" and "Ally McBeal." Still, "Journeyman" has a mandate, one that he doesn't quite understand, to change people's lives for the better (and to keep viewers from changing the channel). Sounds superhero-ish to me.
It was NBC's own "Heroes," of course, sparked the most recent mania for supernatural storytelling with its breakout sizzle this past season. (BTW, the two pics posted here are from the soph season opener of "Heroes," tantalizingly titled "Four Months Later," set to air Sept. 24. Not many clues revealed in them but I figured they were a nice touch for anyone interested in this column's topic.)
In the coming season we have variations on the superhero theme in not only "Journeyman" but NBC's "The Bionic Woman," Fox's "The Sarah Connor Chronicles," and to a lesser degree (more about people with special powers than save-the-world-itis) in CW's "Reaper," ABC's "Pushing Daisies," from "Heroes" alum Bryan Fuller, and Fox's "New Amsterdam."
So why all the interest in characters with power to bend Newton's laws?
The obvious next sentence here is to invoke 9/11 and the collective yearning for truly heroic figures endowed with the power to spare us the horrors of such pure evil ever again. The cheapest trick for columnist thinking aloud about this topic here would be to dig up a "Man and Superman" quote from Friedrich Nietzsche, but his whole "Ubermensch" thing was a favorite of the Nazis, so forget that. (The second-cheapest trick would be to blame it on Watergate and the national disillusionment it wrought, but that'd really be a stretch -- in the post-9/11 world.)
In all seriousness, I think the answer is pretty obvious and has been cited a few zillion times by writers and thinkers far more astute than I. I think it's all about having a vision of the future, particularly a hopeful one where life is a little easier in some ways, people are more more enlightened and at least some of the strife and turmoil of the present day has been put to rest for good.
Certainly that's what the oracle of the Enterprise, Gene Roddenberry, always said about his beloved "'Wagon Train' to the stars." Sure, "Star Trek" had its bad guys, and the Federation always had a contingent off fighting a war in some Alpha quadrant (don't get me started on Seti Alpha VI), but there had to be some drama, otherwise it'd be just a vision of a very boring future.
In many respects, the mere fact that there is a future to write about in sci-fi worlds offers a kind of built-in hope. I don't think it's accidental that a key line in the season closer of "Heroes," as delivered by both cheerleader Claire and her mysterious father was: "The future isn't written in stone."
Apropos of "Heroes," another huge (and obvious) draw for these shows is the idea that everyday people are endowed with powers that may be dormant for years until they need 'em in the clutch to save themselves or some other innocents (like Earth).
To really understand what drives the superhero-milieu, check out (Thursdays at 9 p.m.) the new season of Sci Fi Channel's charming reality skein "Who Wants to Be a Superhero?," hosted by Stan "the Man" Lee, the godfather of the superhero biz if the ever was one. (The true tale of how Lee and illustrator Jack Kirby saved a dying comic book company then known as Atlas with their creations including the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man and the X-Men is an Epic Saga unto itself.)
The first season of "Superhero" was an unexpected delight last summer for me and my husband (who keeps certain beloved comics enshrined in mylar plastic covers in a bookcase in our bedroom). Stan, with his twinkly grin and pencil-thin mustache, is perfect in the role of the omnipresent disembodied head who pops up on a screen every so often to give the wannabe superheroes instructions on their next challenges and tasks.
What made the first season, and seems to be present again in this second round (pictured left and below), is how seriously the 10 contestants take the show. These everyday folks worked on their costumes at home before fighting their way through the open-auditions. They honed their characters (Mr. Mitzvah, Hygena, Basura, Ms. Limelight, Whip-Snap, Braid, Hyper-Strike, the Defuser, Mindset, Parthenon, Whip-Snap) and their special powers (Hygena uses household cleaning utensils to fight "crime and grime"; Basura turns trash into treasures with the help of bugs; Mr. Mitzvah is a millionaire who uses his fortune to save kids in need; Whip-Snap fights bad guys with a whip and withering look that turns them into sand, etc.)
A competition-reality show is the ideal forum for Stan Lee, who made his name on comics featuring superheroes who live in the real world and have to deal with nagging little things like paying the rent, catching a cab, returning library books, finding Mr. or Ms. Right, etc.
The motivation for "Superheroes" contestants is to be on a national television, for sure, but on this one, they have to bring a little something more than their desire to secure a SAG card. They have to want it. Why else would they disrupt their lives -- as a Texas police officer (the Defuser), a Sherman Oaks homemaker (Hygena), low-rent L.A. security guard (Whip-Snap), an Oakland performance artist (Basura -- OK that one might not be such a sacrifice) etc. -- to be on a show where they have to endure all kinds of convoluted tests of strength, character and ingenuity in the hopes of winning a grand prize without any zeroes?
The "Superhero" victor gets a comic book of their character penned by Stan and a walk-on in a Sci Fi Channel movie -- maybe a few comic book convention appearances and in-store events, if he or she is lucky. In monetary terms, it amounts to low four-figures at best. But in the world of people who believe Stan Lee sits at the right and left hand of a four-handed god (aka Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko), the prize they're after is priceless.
"I offer you...immortality," Lee informed the hopefuls early on in the "Superhero" season opener.