Heroes? Reviving cancelled TV shows is already getting off-track

So it seems MSN wants to clamber on the bandwagon of uncancelling TV shows. Using the XBox platform, they’re looking to get into the original programming game by putting long-dead TV shows back into production in some form, following Netflix’s revival of Arrested Development and the Kickstarter-funded Veronica Mars movie.

But what show are they looking at bringing back? Only what’s considered one of the ugliest missed opportunities in genre TV of the last decade: Heroes.

NBC and the show’s superhero-illiterate creator Tim Kring managed to drive the show into the ground with remarkable ease after a hugely popular if woefully derivative, Watchmen-sourced first season. Momentum was squandered, characters wasted in poorly-considered storylines (Hiro in feudal Japan! Who cares!), and old superhero cliches were breathlessly doled out as if Heroes thought of them first. The first season’s characters and setup clearly weren’t designed to be sustainable, and even die-hard fans left the show in droves, frustrated at its lack of direction and baffling, self-defeating plot turns. Its cancellation at the end of season four felt like a mercy killing, even from afar.

But brand recognition and any built-in fanbase at all – even one that now hates the show – clearly trumps creative viability. And so MSN are in discussions with Universal about bringing Heroes back, albeit with new characters. Much as the original show was a painfully familiar, vanilla show about superheroes in the ‘real world’, the new Heroes can be that again with a bunch of new faces. Is anyone really going to miss Milo Ventimiglia? Hell, with that generic title MSN might not even need to licence anything from Universal.

In fairness, there may be just enough of an audience to make this worthwhile. Superheroes are still big business, and given the salted earth the show left behind, Heroes can be remade from the ground up as a new superhero show since hardcore fans are still too offended by the original show to be offended by any deviations.

But oddly, this is only the latest show generally viewed as a creative backwater to be seriously assessed for revival. Netflix was reportedly in talks to bring back The River, Terra Nova, and Jericho, and has gone ahead with co-financing a third season of the critically reviled The Killing. And now MSN is looking at Heroes. Surely it makes more sense to target shows with a dedicated fanbase and a rich creative legacy, like Arrested Development, rather than those that no-one is missing outside of a small but fervent set of fans. (Granted, Jericho has fans passionate enough to campaign for a short-lived second season and warrant a comic book continuation, but I’d argue the show has not been part of the broader cultural discourse the way Arrested Development is, and perhaps not even Veronica Mars.)

I should consider that there may be some logic to this inexplicable behaviour. The metrics must indicate that old episodes of Heroes and these other shows have enough regular viewers to warrant resurrection, even if they’re not talking about it much. Most of CBS’s lineup falls outside of the pop culture conversation, after all, and it’s the highest-rated US network. Or is the motivation as misguided as it seems? Is the corporate hunger for in-built awareness and saving on creative development costs severe enough that any failed show that a few people still watch is ripe for exploitation?

I should acknowledge, of course, that resurrecting the most worthy shows isn’t always feasible. Worthiness is ultimately subjective, I know, but it’s not hard to observe relative cultural impact, and certain shows qualify. But the Firefly cast are scattered to the winds and Joss Whedon’s a big shot now. The Deadwood cast is busy too, plus the show was hugely expensive and HBO will never let another outlet take it on. Ditto Carnivale. And some shows just ended, OK people? They weren’t actually cancelled. (Buffy evangelists, I’m looking at you.)

But it’s hard to ignore the gut reaction to these reports, that resurrecting these particular shows feels like microwaving long since dried-up leftover food. The audience and talent were demanding more Arrested Development, just as they clamoured for more Star Trek in the 1970s. Terra Nova and Heroes feel like the wrong plays, not just creatively but fiscally too.

Of course, the fragmentation of TV viewership into specialist niches can’t be ignored in all of this. The Veronica Mars movie Kickstarter proved that a relatively small group of fans are willing and able to fund more of what they love, which could alter the economics of cult properties. The age of mass appeal is over, because there is potentially enough revenue in individual niches to make up for the fragmentation of the mass audiences who flocked to watch the final MASH, or even most of Lost. And hell, the Nielsen system has never been reflective of actual viewers anyway. There may well be enough undiscovered Heroes fans out there who will throw down money for a new season to make it more than financially worthwhile.

So perhaps what appears to be cautious, reactionary thinking is actually a bold experiment in determining how a property’s perceived cultural impact actually correlates to the revenue it can bring in. Because if a new season of Heroes makes money for MSN and Universal when it apparently couldn’t for NBC, even with a tainted legacy, then it forces us to reassess how we measure success.

Naive optimism? Probably. But if this means we get more Pushing Daisies, I will remain hopelessly, unabashedly optimistic.

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