It’s been nearly a decade since Tim Kring first dreamed up the superbeings-in-our-midst concept for Heroes, a sci-fi ensemble series about ordinary people discovering newfound powers. After selling NBC on his pitch, Kring brought it to life in the fall of 2006 with one catchy tagline: “Save the cheerleader, save the world.”
But four seasons, 77 episodes, and several awards later, ratings had tanked. NBC pulled the plug in 2010, grounding Heroes before its fifth birthday—and before fans could see their favorite characters go public with their extraordinary gifts.
Heroes might have disappeared from the small screen after its network cancellation, but for the past five years it’s managed to stay alive, quietly, behind the scenes, Kring told The Daily Beast. Tuesday night at the Toronto Film Festival, Heroes will get a rare second life when the first two episodes of NBC’s miniseries Heroes: Reborn premiere in the festival’s new television-centric program, Primetime.
“The time was right,” said Kring, who’s back as executive producer on the 13-episode reboot, which will star returners like Jack Coleman (aka Noah Bennet) and franchise newcomers including Zachary Levi, Judith Shekoni, and Ryan Guzman. “There was never a time they stopped talking about it from the time it ended.”
In its hit first season, Heroes and its optimistic post-9/11 message coincided with Barack Obama’s bid for the White House. Fast-forward nine years and America’s looking for a different kind of hero, or heroes, than it was back then.
“When I first started thinking about Heroes, it was in reaction to lots of things,” Kring said. “It was a post-9/11 world that we lived in, and we had become so small as a world—that had been demonstrated by the fact that people flying planes into buildings could literally help to bring down economies. But what happens 10,000 miles away does affect us. We’re all living on a very small planet.”
“9/11 and even Bush-era politics—Heroes was very much a statement about all of it,” he continued. “There was this idea of a global consciousness. That people of different backgrounds needed to figure out how to come together in order to do things.”
Coming back into its canonical universe in 2015, the show will acknowledge events that transpired in the past five years to change the world of Heroes as we know it. (Spoiler) For starters, as Kring revealed last month to the shock of fans, that cheerleader—the indestructible Claire Bennet (Hayden Panettiere)—is now dead. So what’s at stake now, if not saving the world?
“In the very final moments of the series finale five years ago, Claire Bennet basically outed the whole idea of powers to the world,” said Kring. “For four seasons nobody knew that these people existed. And we literally left the series with the idea that for once, the whole world was going to discover the existence of these people.”
After Claire’s public revelation made the specials of the world known to their normal friends, families, and peers, superheroes have been shunned, not embraced. Society has become more divided.
“The world has changed dramatically as a result of [Claire’s] coming out. We find that the world has rejected these people—they are persecuted, hunted, chased, feared, and hated,” said Kring, who acknowledges how divisive current events ranging from Trayvon Martin to Kim Davis reflect an American society that often seems to be moving away from the kind of interconnectedness he was hoping to inspire.
“There was a bit more of an innocent quality to [the original run’s] message than there is in Heroes: Reborn,” admits Kring, who for Heroes: Reborn moved production away from the LA studios to Toronto and on location in places like Iceland and Paris. “The world still needs saving, but it is more dire. It’s less innocent of a message and a little less mystical. There’s not as much room for the mystical introspection; now it’s about taking action.”
“Whereas the first time the stakes were, ‘What’s happening to me and how do I live my life with this power?’ this time it’s about, ‘How do we survive knowing that the world is doomed, that something is coming that’s not good, and we have to come together to save the world all while being persecuted and hunted?’” he said. “The thing that has always been part of the wish fulfillment of the show is that more and more social media has connected us, and for the most part that’s been very positive, but in terms of that being able to effect change I think most people feel powerless.”
His underlying message is still cynically wary of corporations and the government, but hopeful in the empathetic power of people. “There’s this postmodern idea that institutions are not going to be there for you and the traditional role of the hero might not be there for you,” he said. “Listen, I think we’ve all seen that institutions are harder and harder to blindly put our faith in, but that change is going to come from ordinary people who rise up and become extraordinary.”
The condensed and finite run of Heroes: Reborn also means Kring and Co. are concentrating their storylines and intentions with no room for rambling tangents or open-ended arcs. There will be a beginning, a middle, and an end to the one-off reboot—and Reborn might just be the final finale of the Heroes franchise.
“That is the contract that we’re making with the audience with this one. There’s not a sense that we’re leaving something for these characters to come back to. This was the assignment, and this is what we wanted to do,” said Kring. “So that allowed us to focus on ending it, and when you do that it allows you to have a lot less of what I would call the ‘art of the stall,’ where you have to drag things out because you know you have 23 episodes or it has to go into the next season. This means that we get to have a very aggressive form of storytelling, a lot of story crammed into every episode, with a lot of twists and turns.”
Kring recalls how, back in 2010, flagging ratings were exacerbated by changes in the way America and the world watched Heroes—online, on their own time, or even downloaded illegally. Chalk it up to how far streaming options and alternate consumption habits have now become the norm, because now Kring even has charitable words for those who pirated Heroes back in the day.
“I obviously have a competing agenda with the network,” he laughed. I’m a showrunner. I just want people to love the show. I really loved the idea that a fan of our show would go to the lengths of illegally downloading it. To me, that’s a real fan—somebody who will break the law to watch your show. Rather than stand on the sidelines and heckle that person, embrace that. Maybe you can sell them a DVD or bring them back into the fold somehow.”