Superheroes to our rescue

The Baltimore Sun

As news reports focus on the Hurricane Katrina aftermath, the Sept. 11 anniversary, economic uncertainty and a controversial assessment of the Iraq war, a new TV season arrives this week steeped in a dark awareness of the harsh realities of American life.

But the networks' fall lineup also offers hope - an array of primetime heroes that includes a New Orleans police officer who reclaims his hurricane-ravaged hometown and a time-traveling newspaper reporter who can change history.

Though many of these heroes are deeply conflicted and in danger of losing their way morally, they ultimately drive a narrative of salvation.

It's a television trend that has not been seen since the 1970s, when the nation's confidence had been shaken in the wake of Watergate, rampant inflation and an early recognition of America's dependence on foreign oil.

"Dark times call for superheroes," says David Lavery, professor of television and film at Brunel University in London and author of Saving the World: A Guide to Heroes. "The proliferation of TV heroes this fall is similar not only to what happened in the late 1970s with shows like The Bionic Woman on network television, but also with comic books during World War II, when you had Superman and Captain America fighting Nazis.

"All these heroes and superheroes headed our way this fall on TV are a direct response to the dark times in which we live."

The relationship between national trauma and prime-time storytelling is crystal clear in K-Ville, a series premiering tomorrow night on Fox that the producers describe as a "heroic police drama."

Set in New Orleans two years after Katrina, the pilot opens with a re-creation of the chaos in the city's Lower Ninth Ward right after the storm. One police officer is shown fearlessly rescuing victims and trying to maintain order, while his partner cracks under the pressure and flees his post.

As the pilot settles into modern-day storytelling, the police officer who held his ground is shown struggling to accept a new partner, a former soldier who has just returned from Afghanistan bearing psychic scars.

Beyond a lead character who serves as a constant reminder of an America at war, virtually every scene in the pilot is stacked with references to the storm and stark images of the devastation that remains.

American angst

NBC's remake of The Bionic Woman, one of the most-discussed new fall series, is also a response to a widespread American angst, says David Eick, the show's executive producer.

"It does seem that during troubled times, our storytelling turns to the allegorical. And I would characterize these times as troubling, to put it mildly," says Eick, whose series debuts Sept. 26.

Comparing his Bionic Woman to the original, which ran on ABC in 1976-1977 and NBC in 1977-1978, Eick says that where the original Jaime Sommers was a one-dimensional image of empowerment created in response to the women's liberation movement, the new version features a more conflicted character.

"I think the angle that that original show was taking had a lot to do with the different social movements in the culture, whether it was women's lib" or the Equal Rights Amendment, says Eick, who was executive producer on such successful sci-fi hero series as Battlestar Gallactica and Xena: Warrior Princess.

"But rather than an action girl who's real intimidating and in your face in proving to you that she's not going to be underestimated, what if you had a girl for whom these abilities were as shocking and unusual and difficult to juggle as they would be to you and me?

"What if she is out of sorts with her powers?"

Conflicted feelings

That describes a panoply of heroes about to hit the airwaves.

There's Chuck on NBC, a drama about a computer nerd who suddenly finds himself a target of the CIA after a rogue agent downloads a computer chip full of secrets into Chuck's brain.

Because of the data, Chuck (Zachary Levi) can anticipate events including political assassinations and coups, and help authorities thwart them.

He fears and hates his newfound power but nevertheless responds to its call in this series from executive producer Josh Schwartz (The O.C.), which premieres Sept. 24.

On NBC's Journeyman, which arrives Sept. 24, Kevin McKidd (Rome) plays a San Francisco newspaper reporter who suddenly finds that he can time-travel and change the course of events. But rather than feeling empowered, he sees it as a curse.

"He does have this power," McKidd says of the hero he plays, "but he isn't actually in control of it. It's very erratic, and he has to learn to deal with this affliction."

More than a half-dozen series built along the same lines will be appearing in coming weeks and months on ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox and CW.

That competition among similar shows is likely to leave some casualties.

The networks often go overboard in trying to imitate hit shows, and one reason so many serialized dramas failed last fall was that there were too many aiming to be the next 24. This season, the networks could well be making the same mistake in trying to duplicate the success of Heroes.

The return

That NBC show, which returns Sept. 24, was the only one of more than a dozen serialized dramas last year to become a ratings hit.

Drenched in Sept. 11 imagery, the series tells the story of ordinary people who discover they have extraordinary powers and join to save New York City from an apocalyptic attack.

Like many of the new fall offerings, Heroes had a somber side.

"One thing a lot of people don't admit about Heroes is that it's a very dark show," says Lavery, whose book on the series will be released this month. This isn't your standard Captain America fare. These are deeply conflicted people who are going through deep struggles, and that is in many of these new series as well.

"Something is happening in the culture now where one of the definitions of good television involves the characters being morally conflicted. And maybe that tells us a ton, too. Whereas we have a president who says he never has a doubt, our best television is now about characters who are riddled with doubts in shows like The Sopranos and The Wire."

It is also significant, analysts say, that heroism is being explored in prime-time programs as voters are trying to decide which presidential candidate can lead the nation out of its slump. Beyond the obvious entertainment quotient, the lineup of new series this fall offers a nightly referendum on leadership.

"What interests me are the women heroes and the fact that in our search for people who can lead us, many Americans are wondering if a woman can do it," says University of Southern California professor Diane Winston, focusing on such characters as Jaime Sommers (Michelle Ryan) and cable newcomers played by Holly Hunter, in TNT's Saving Grace, and Glenn Close, in FX's Damages.

"And it's not necessarily coincidental that these strong, flawed women are arriving on television at the same time that a strong, flawed woman, Hillary Clinton, is making an impressive run for the presidency."

Again, the similarity to the late 1970s, when the last cycle of heroes and superheroes ruled the network airwaves, is noteworthy, the experts say.

Voters then were about to decide between Democratic President Jimmy Carter, whose administration was associated with talk of a national "malaise," and Republican Ronald Reagan, who presented a "morning in America" optimism.

The new women

"In the '70s, we had women as heroes, but they were comic book characters," says Winston, who holds the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at USC and has written extensively about the new TV season at her Web site, uscmediareligion.org.

"Whether it was Charlie's Angels or Wonder Woman, it was about their physical attributes, not their leadership qualities. And so you could not take them seriously.

"But with this new crop of women heroes, they are attractive, flawed and believable, and there's no doubt about their ability to lead. That's cultural change."

Looking across the TV landscape, Winston says, she is struck by the extent to which prime-time entertainment programming has been shaped by terrorist attacks, natural disasters and war.

"Whether we're talking about all the new TV series with heroes, or just the programs with heroes who have supernatural or higher spiritual powers, we're talking about the same impulse in religion and popular culture," Winston says.

"Events remind us how precarious life can be, and, in response, we seek out stories that reassure us that our lives have meaning and we can transcend the darkest times."

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

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