Save the Cheerleader, Save the World. For a hot, prolonged minute in the mid-2000s, NBC had a hit so big on its hands with Heroes (streaming here on Peacock!) that it almost didn’t know what to do with all the excess, beyond-the-screen buzz. Storming pop culture with an instantly viral mix of compelling characters and jaw-dropping weekly plot beats, Heroes was binge-worthy TV in the era before TV binging was even a thing.
Season 1 of Heroes was nominated for oodles of awards and kept viewers fixated with a mesmerizing story that had people scrambling to catch each new episode — all the better to stay plugged in to what everyone else would be talking about the next day. Crafting an entire comic book-style world of superheroes around the premise that ordinary people could gain abilities that keep humanity from teetering toward dystopia, the show caught the kind of fire that presaged the advent of big-screen storylines that would later come to define the can’t-miss movie installments that evolved the yet-to-be-created DC and Marvel cinematic universes.
Did Heroes have more than just one strike against it?
It seemed that everyone was watching Heroes in its first season — and by TV ratings standards, nearly everyone was. Season 1 averaged an incredible average viewership that topped 14 million tune-ins across its 23 weekly episodes. Featuring an ensemble cast packed with A-list names that people take for granted today (Hayden Panettiere, Kristen Bell, Zachary Quinto, and tons more), Heroes was hot, hot, hot during its first sprawling season, and looked to be building story momentum into Season 2 — until, that is, the fateful Writers Guild of America strike of 2007 truncated both the show’s story beats and its sophomore-season episode count.
Slashed from a planned 24 episodes down to a tightly-compacted 11, Season 2 of Heroes drew viewer ratings that almost matched its predecessor — though the ongoing strike compelled show creator Tim Kring (Crossing Jordan) and the writing staff to make some tough plot choices, leading to script revisions and reshoots that swerved the show’s painstaking story plans into creative territory that, by comparison with Season 1, felt forced. The strike ended in early 2008, well ahead of the show’s Season 3 premiere that same September. But by then, nine months had passed since Heroes had last been on the air, and the show’s off-kilter Season 2 pacing (not to mention a few character rug pulls that perplexed some fans) led to a significant dip in audience expectations… and, inevitably, in Season 3 viewership.
How Heroes tried to rebound after the strike-shortened Season 2
Photo: Chris Haston/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
Heroes’ third season extended across 25 episodes and revived some fan-favorite Season 1 storylines — especially surrounding Quinto’s megalomaniacal villain Sylar. But a lot of the must-see story urgency that made the series’ first season so addictive for fans simply wasn’t part of the package anymore. That’s not entirely the fault of the show itself. In hindsight, Heroes’ first season played out like a carefully-curated event series with a finite number of fresh surprises to share, while later seasons — even with some admittedly amazing twists and turns — lapsed into a more meandering, episodic manner of evolving plot beats and characters who, by that point, simply felt familiar.
Context is everything when talking about the success of a show like Heroes, which saw a precipitous viewership dive across both its third and final fourth seasons. By the time the series ended in early 2010, its final few episodes were attracting just north of 4 million tune-ins each week — disappointing for a prime time series whose Season 1 heights had more than tripled that figure.
Why did Heroes ultimately end up getting cancelled?
Photo: Adam Taylor/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
The show’s creators, its core of loyal fans, and (of course) the network itself had invested a considerable amount of money, care, and interest in Heroes by that point, leading to an odd conundrum: 4 million weekly views isn’t necessarily bad for a show with a smaller cast, fewer special effects, and less heightened fan expectations. But Heroes had, in a way, become the victim of its own early phenomenal success. Faced with committing a sizable budget to a series whose ratings had fallen in successive seasons, NBC made the decision to cancel the series after the end of Season 4.
Kring would later share some of his own insights about the factors that made Heroes a tough show to spread across an indefinite episodic format. Ironically enough, those came in the wake of Heroes Reborn, the 2015 NBC event series written by Kring and featuring future superhero screen creative talent (including Shazam! star Zachary Levi and an episode directed by WandaVision helmer Matt Shakman). Though Heroes Reborn didn’t lead to a larger reboot of the franchise, it did bear some of the lessons, said Kring, that he’d learned from trying to propel the original Heroes across multiple seasons.
“I was adamant about that show [Heroes Reborn] being a 13-episode event series, and having a closed-ended quality to it,” Kring told pop culture website Assignment X. “I had always felt that one of the issue[s] with Heroes was the ongoing nature of it was difficult to sustain, so I really loved the idea that this was a 13-episode event series, and when it was over, it was over. I don’t know that the audience ever really understood that that was the initial plan from the very beginning.”
Catch Heroes streaming on Peacock here!