When Heroes debuted in 2006, there was nothing else like it on TV—a serialized superhero drama about ordinary people doing extraordinary things. (Imagine those words spoken by a narrator with an Indian/British accent, and you have the first season’s tagline.) It was mysterious and compelling, with enough levity to attract a wide audience. But as time goes on, it seems there’ll be nothing like that first season ever again. In spite of the second-season interruption due to the WGA strike, Heroes trucks on with clumsy dialogue, arbitrary drama, and a stable of tired characters who’ve pretty much worn out their welcome. Yet the show still has its fervent fans, who praise creator Tim Kring for the juggernaut he unleashed on NBC. Kring, who’s also responsible for Strange World and Crossing Jordan, continues to manufacture story and characters to fit NBC’s orders. (As of press time, the show has yet to be signed for a fifth season, but Heroes has a history of 11th-hour pickups.) And though the shtick feels tired, it’s hard to hate the show outright: Even the worst Heroes detractors still long for the glory days, and pray they aren’t totally in the past. A few days before the show wrapped its fourth season, The A.V. Club called him to ask about the show’s 9/11-based roots, the evolution of Heroes, and why most of the major characters will never die.
The A.V. Club: What is your involvement with the show on a day-to-day basis?
Tim Kring: I wrote a few episodes this season, including the finale. I mean, listen, it’s a giant undertaking—there are close to 300 people who work on the show—so it’s a big free-for-all when you’re really making the episode. Especially the way we write the show: We write it as a group. A lot. To the extent that I’m probably the closest thing to a guy who writes by themselves. It came from the beginning of the series when there were such disparate storylines going at the same time. It was born out of necessity. We had to get on the air pretty quickly—we got picked up in mid-May, and we had to be on the air in September. Because of the serialized nature of the show, we needed to do what’s called block shoot, going to one place and shooting a bunch of scenes from different episodes in order to pay for it. To do that, we had to have five scripts written in less than six weeks. So we decided the best way to do that was, “You take this story, and you take this story, and just keep going!” So you’d say to a writer, “Instead of writing five scenes, write 15, and we’ll put three scripts together.” It set the style for how we were going to work. It’s been really helpful, because it ensures everyone is attached to every episode, and because of the nature of the storytelling, the episodes can have a lot more consistency from one to the other. When episodes are written by individual writers, they have wild inconsistency. When everybody is writing an episode, they feel like they’re written by one voice.
AVC: If everyone’s focused on their own storyline, how is it possible to keep track of the bigger picture of the season?
TK: What we do is break the stories one at a time, then we work in what’s called sprints—a sprint is, like, four episodes.
AVC: Funny you call it a sprint, since Sprint is this huge show sponsor.
TK: Well actually, it comes from “agile methodology,” which came out of game design. We use some of the same ideas, like using iteration and mistakes to help you along the way. You never really know where you’re going—you’re only seeing as far as your headlights all the time, so you can keep readjusting. On a TV show, there are huge issues that come up that a lot of people don’t realize. Locations fall through, actors aren’t available, suddenly actors don’t have chemistry and you’ve banked an entire season of love story around them, etc. You have to be really agile. If you don’t have an actor under contract and they get a movie, you no longer have George Takei to work with.
AVC: In another interview, you mentioned that part of the show’s inspiration came from 9/11. What did you mean by that?
TK: At the time, I was raising small kids and thinking about the world they were going to inherit. How it seemed to be vibrating in a way that felt precarious, given all the problems we had. We no longer had real faith in certain institutions to pull us out of these kinds of problems, like politics. Perhaps the real next salvation for us as a species was going to come from within, in a postmodern way—you, or your neighbor, or the guy you went to high school with. We talked a lot about how when the Ice Age hit, hundreds of thousands of species went extinct, but many immediately adapted, almost overnight. I came out of that thinking about the world after 9/11—this idea that the world can be populated by people to take us to the next evolutionary run.
AVC: Is that theme still prevalent to this day?
TK: It’s baked into the DNA. We talked a lot in the beginning about scenes we wanted to put out there, and this theme of interconnectivity came up. We literally said the phrase, “We are all connected” about 50 times that first season, like a mantra. We’re all connected globally.
AVC: Whenever anyone talks about Heroes, they always go back to that first season, especially in storytelling. It feels a lot like it had a much clearer idea of where the show was headed than this recent season. What do you make of the comparison?
TK: It’s always hard. For us, the seasons aren’t really seasons. We took about four days off between season one and two—we never stopped writing. Same directors, same actors, same everything. So when someone says they don’t like season two, it’s like, “Well, that was yesterday.” We don’t have a sense that the seasons are divided by ideas or timeframes; it’s just this big long continuum. I think the first season can be divided into two places. We took a seven-week break, and the audience never came back after that. The first 16 episodes was the part everybody talks about.
The other thing is, you can only be shiny and new one time. Also in that first season, we probably should have done two volumes or three volumes, smaller stories. I think people would have gotten used to the fact that we tell a story in volumes that have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Because we didn’t, and we ended with sort of a finale, it felt like, “Well, I guess that’s over.” So how do you go back to saving the world again? In reality, that was an issue for me. I was very interested in the origin story of where these characters came from—that first blush of discovery. It’s the most fun to write, and ultimately it’s the most interesting for the audience. Once you answered the big questions—“What is happening to me? How am I connected? What does it all mean?”—as we did, then those questions have to be replaced by other questions. And those are usually plot questions as opposed to primal questions. To be really honest, those questions aren’t as interesting for an audience. So you have to keep going to those original questions by turning things on their head. Maybe it isn’t an evolutionary thing, maybe it’s scientific. Or you keep wiping a character clean and bringing them back to being evil again.
AVC: So… Sylar?
TK: Yeah, I guess. One of the issues of serialized storytelling is that the characters have to change. If they don’t, the audience says, “Why aren’t they changing?” And obviously you have actors to deal with. They’re people, they have to play these parts. They’re not robots, they can’t do anything without understanding it or making it work for themselves. You just naturally gravitate toward changing these characters, and if they change so much that they no longer resemble who they were at the beginning, you’re either held to some standard where the audience wants them back, or you have to just say, “This is who they’ve become.” On a procedural, that cop can be the same guy every week for 10 seasons.
AVC: What’s frustrating about the show now, though, is that it feels like characters such as Noah Bennet are changing just for the sake of changing. Is there pressure to change characters, vs. letting things happen naturally?
TK: Again, it’s one of those things that’s very hard to tell from the inside, when you’re under pressures that come to bear on every decision. This is not the kind of show where every episode was planned out in a bible. You can’t do that. Listen, certain characters change in and of themselves. It’s funny how you’re not in complete control of a character; really powerful characters on TV are a combination of the actor meeting you partway. Bennet was a classic example: He started with five lines in the pilot, but because he was played by Jack Coleman, who brought so much pathos to this character, we started writing toward all his nuances and tics, and that character was developed. Same with Sylar: He was meant to be a shark, a serial killer who’d be after our people. But by hiring Zac Quinto, who has this infinite sense of vulnerability below the surface, we started exploring that idea. I mean, listen, I’m probably the wrong guy to analyze where and how things change, because I’m so far in the inside. We’re in the weeds a lot.
AVC: You famously had a piece in Entertainment Weekly during the second season where you called and apologized for how the show was shaping up—
TK: No, I was standing on the picket line when Jeff Jensen called me. And he said, “Would you have done anything different?” Nobody had ever asked me that before. So I answered really honestly, “There isn’t a day that goes by where I wouldn’t do 10,000 things differently.” People think you’re making some precise widget, some scientific little thing, but instead it’s filled with human error and guesswork. So I mentioned a few things, but they published it as I “apologized to my audience.” I got sandbagged.
AVC: Whatever the case, the perception from that article was that you guys follow fan feedback online, and change things based on it. Is that true?
TK: In season two, we were shooting episode 11 when we wrapped because of the strike. We had probably eight episodes in the can by the time we aired. So any feedback we get from the audience, we can’t really do anything about. We’re three to four months ahead. But we very much are like the fan base ourselves. We’re all fanboy geeks. The writer’s room in a way is like a sociological study: It mirrors the fan base in a really close way. When we start to say, “We should do this, we’ve done too much of this,” sure enough, three months later when the fans are watching the show, they have the exact same reaction at exactly the same time as we did. We’re constantly wishing we could say, “Just wait. We’re way past that now.”
AVC: Do fans ever affect how the show is written?
TK: Yeah, I guess. The problems we are on to today are so different than what the audience is experiencing. We obviously know that certain characters are popular, so we’re not going to kill those off. But even that is hard to know, because you really understand the whole saying of, “That’s why God made chocolate and vanilla.” If you really look at the fans’ stuff—which is hard to do, because there’s a lot—it’s all over the place. For everyone who hates this one character, there’s a fan club that loves him. There’s a very broad reaction to things—it goes down demographic and gender lines.
AVC: But when people wonder whatever happened to the soul-patch future Hiro, and then he’s explained away in a later episode, it’s easy to wonder if people are following the fan commentary.
TK: It’s so amazing how much collective-conscious stuff you pick up on. The truth is, people would like to think their blogs actually influence us, but there really isn’t one main place to get an aggregate sense of what people are thinking. You’d have to troll forever. People who work on shows get very wounded by going online—they’d rather just do their jobs and hope they’re making the right decisions. Someone invariably goes online and gets depressed. It’s akin to hitting the bottle again.
AVC: Popular characters won’t get killed off, but you’ve mentioned in other interviews that you didn’t want the show to get unwieldy with too many characters. This season feels like the worst offender: Multiple weeks go by between resolving character cliffhangers.
TK: That’s a product of a few things. First of all, there are only so many storylines you can actually do. The first season, there were six or seven—little bit of this, little bit of that. The haiku type of storytelling was effective when characters had very separate storylines. My idea was for them to stay apart for as long as possible. The network wanted them to be together on the second episode, and we really fought that. Once characters start crossing, you can do fewer stories. One of the tricks to making a show efficiently and hitting a pattern budget is by telling fewer stories per episode. When you have a certain number of characters, you’re facing a mathematical reality that not every character can be in every episode. So some have to sit out. That’s the only solution a bunch of smart people sitting in a room for a few years has come up with.
AVC: What’s it take to kill off a character, then?
TK: A million things. Sometimes it’s Kristen Bell going off to do movies. If we don’t kill anybody, then eventually people are convinced there aren’t actual stakes to these stories. Somebody pulls a gun, you go, “They never kill anybody, so no one’s gonna get hurt.” Or the story just dictates that the characters have run their course for whatever reason.
AVC: Have you thought about killing off any more major characters?
TK: Not really. We’re down to a real core group right now.
AVC: That becomes a problem in episodes like the recent one where Hiro battles the brain tumor. We all expect him to live, and the episode deflates.
TK: It becomes very hard to kill off certain characters. You get a big bump from the shock of that, but the fallout will be a lot harder to deal with. The network has a very strong say in this, because of actors who are under contract and do publicity for them. It’s not just up to the writers to decide.
AVC: How do you balance what the network wants and what you want? In the beginning, it seemed like you could get away with a lot more, since there were no expectations as to what Heroes was.
TK: That’s a very astute observation. It gets more complicated when you have a show that gets more popular, not just with your audience, but with your own network. We were very free to do whatever we wanted until people had opinions. There’s a real luxury to making your show in a vacuum, when the microscope isn’t on. It’s why every year we make eight or nine episodes before the audience starts watching, and it’s always more comfortable to work.
AVC: Are there things you would have liked to do that NBC kept you from doing?
TK: Yes, I would have done fewer episodes. Thirteen a season is fabulous—you can really control the quality and the way you craft them. The sheer number of episodes has been a real struggle for us. Most shows shoot eight days, and we sometimes shoot as many as 15 days an episode. Season three took 15 months to make. Creatively, those 24 episodes are a hard number to hit. The other thing is that I would have started with new characters all over again. The premise is that this is happening to people all over the world, and the idea of seeing new people exploring this was really fascinating to me. But once fans fall in love with certain characters, it’s harder to do that.
AVC: What happens when you have to write more episodes than you expected? Do you keep the same finale and just get there slower?
TK: What we tried to do—season two was a classic example—is plan lots of volumes. We could control when stories end, not this giant weight you’re dragging all season. [This season], we knew from the very beginning we were doing 19 episodes. The volumes work nicely when there’s a natural break in programming, and the only break we had was over Christmas. So we decided not to do a separate volume for after. I like the idea of the audience knowing we tell the story in volumes, and it took them up to last year to figure that out. Looking back, I would have made season one a clear definition of two volumes so people would understand that’s how we tell stories.
AVC: Was it always the plan to have some characters way more powerful than others, then limit them? Peter now can only have one power at a time, and great lengths go into ensuring Hiro never has the full use of his powers—so he can’t go back in time and strangle Sylar as a baby or something.
TK: If you sit in a writers’ room and try to come up with these stories—for this particular character, especially—you come to the conclusion that he’s simply too powerful. He can stop anything from happening at any time. You face the problem of having to throw dirt in his eyes or kick him in the shins. You find ways to cripple him. While that may become obvious to the audience, the flip side is that we just can’t figure out how to keep him from using his powers in a way that could affect the story at the drop of a hat.
AVC: That must get tiring.
TK: You know, that’s the challenge of serialized storytelling. You keep coming up against the same issues over and over, and putting new hurdles down. It’s exciting, and hopefully you get more than four days off between seasons so you can think of new hurdles to put in front of people.
AVC: Were you aware that this was an issue you were going to have to deal with when you introduced Sylar, Peter, and Hiro?
TK: At the very beginning, the conversation was, “This is a really powerful character.” It was a concern from the very beginning. It’s why Hiro often keeps separate from other characters—a tangential story that runs parallel to your story. An errand he has to succeed in. Those little methods keep him from being planted in the center of the story, going “I’m gonna stop time and change history.” We’ve gotten so used to those challenges that no one is really articulating it anymore; it’s just part of what we do.
AVC: What do you make of all the comparisons between the show and comic books?
TK: I knew from the very beginning that I was stepping into a world where people had very strong emotions about comic books they’ve grown up with. I naïvely thought I could live in those waters and swim comfortably. We’re just often in the world of comparing us to a million things that have already been done. I had the same issue when I made a procedural drama—we were in competition with all the other shows that were solving crimes. “Man, CSI had an episode where a guy’s stabbed with a knife made of ice, and we’re shooting that episode right now!” That was the world we ventured into just by opening the Pandora’s box of superpowers.
AVC: Do you see it as a positive comparison, or a limiting one?
TK: Well, fortunately, I don’t read. Or watch TV. Or go to the movies. Or go out very much. Living in a bubble where I make a TV show keeps me blissfully unaware of other things.
AVC: Another thing you mentioned to EW is that romance isn’t a really great fit for the show. Why is it still part of the show, specifically the Claire-may-be-a-lesbian subplot?
TK: We experimented with Claire having a relationship in high school, and the truth is, we all struggled with it as writers, because the engine of the show was always hyped up. It became complicated to stop that train for romance. It has to be very cleverly woven into the narrative in order for it not to feel like you’re putting the brakes on something big so you can have a relationship. If you can weave some romance into action, that’s great. But we struggled with that… This year with Claire, we wanted to explore the idea of her being a college freshman, living in the dorms, having friends—the theme was, “How do I blend into life, and what would happen if I were to actually try and present myself to the world as I really am?” To come out of the closet, so to speak. But there’s no such thing as saying “never” on a show like Heroes: We’ve got so much story to tell, best idea wins. We’ll take an idea from the guy who gets our coffee, you know?