Heroes

Mondays at 9 p.m. on NBC. Eighteen episodes into the first season.

Heroes lacks many of the markers of good TV. The writing is often stilted, the acting is often wooden, and the plot deals with superheroes, if you’re going to be snobby about that sort of thing.

Yet despite all that (and something because of it—awkward delivery of melodramatic dialogue can be oddly charming), Heroes is a compelling, endearing show, using cliffhangers to great effect and ably juggling more than a dozen main characters, even making some of them worth caring about.

The show weaves together numerous threads to tell the familiar story of ordinary people awakening to extraordinary powers: the ability to hear thoughts, for example, or become invisible or manipulate fire. But the so-called heroes don’t divide neatly into good and evil camps. Sylar, who has discovered how to absorb the superhuman powers of people he kills, is certainly a villain, but many other characters occupy grayer terrain. It’s still not clear who will cause the apocalyptic event that Isaac, the seer, has foretold and that others are now trying to prevent, and that uncertainty means that equally sympathetic characters frequently find themselves at cross-purposes. The morass of conflicting goals and questionable decisions made with faulty or incomplete information feels real, even if the details of the plot are fantastical.

I don’t want to overstate the case, though. The writing on Heroes is wildly uneven, making some characters far more interesting than others. Mohinder, an ordinary scientist reluctantly continuing his father’s investigation into the further “evolution” of humanity, is terribly dull, slow to make connections and prone to rambling, pompous voiceovers. Telepathic Matt, played by the charming Greg Grunberg, is saddled with an interminable subplot involving his adulterous wife. Niki seems out of place because her angst stems not from her extraordinary ability (superstrength and -agility) but from her goofy multiple personality disorder. Even Ali Larter’s great performance, wordlessly marking the change from darling Niki to murderous Jessica with subtle yet striking changes in bearing and expression, can’t overcome her silly, slow-moving storyline.

Fortunately, though, the sheer number of characters ensures that we rarely have to spend too much time with the show’s weaker elements. Heroes’ breakout star is probably Masi Oka. His character, Hiro, can manipulate time and space (with varying degrees of success), and his giddy embrace of his powers and “mission” is a welcome contrast from many contemporary superheroes’ dark, tortured personas. Occasionally, the writing for Hiro tips a little too far into childish glee (it can feel condescending and strained, especially when the writers foist malapropisms and other language-related difficulties on the Japanese character), but Oka is so warm and energetic that much foolishness can be forgiven.

My favorite storyline, though, involves teenage Claire Bennet (Hayden Panettiere), who has seemingly limitless regenerative powers. Her father (Jack Coleman) works for a shady organization that tracks (uses? creates? exterminates? who knows!) people with superhuman abilities, so the manifestation of Claire’s powers—and Mr. Bennet’s efforts to protect her through deceit—throws the previously close father-daughter relationship into turmoil. Their story, more than any of the others, is genuinely poignant, a twisted exploration of the tension between parent and child as the child grows into adulthood.

I think Heroes greatest strength, however, is its momentum. Other serial dramas reveal their secrets at a frustratingly sluggish pace, exacerbated by untold levels of obfuscation, but Heroes has enough characters, enough backstory, enough subplots, and enough turns and twists to keep the storytelling brisk and rewarding. In a cute touch, every episode ends with at least a mild cliffhanger and the words “to be continued.”

Heroes makes serial dramas fun. It doesn’t try to be overly sophisticated or profound or opaque. It’s just fun—melodramatic without being heavy, clever without being labyrinthine, inventive without being smug. It’s not going to change the world, but it sure makes Monday evenings a lot more diverting.