With 'Jump, Push, Fall', the season four premiere continues to perch its foot delicately on the accelerator, taking care not to go too wild and, you know, actually do something surprising with the plot. Adam Armus and Kay Foster take a leaf out of Tim Kring's book and cling to the brakes, making sure they maintain the rather depressing averageness that plagued 'Orientation.' The run-of-the-mill plots, predictable tropes and blasé character beats are still mostly present and correct, ensuring that Heroes continues to feel like a watered down version of its own second season. On the up side, however, a number of narrative threads begin to move the show's characters in rather more interesting directions, suggesting that there may be promise for the future success of the volume.
Frustratingly, Claire's Creek: The College Years isn't one of them. Following the most barefaced product placement sequence in the history of television, in which the words 'guitar' and 'hero' are uttered 6,732 times and we actually waste precious screen time watching Claire and Gretchen attempt to play some Jimi Hendrix, Armus and Foster bump off the irritatingly smug and self-serving roommate stereotype in a plotline straight out of Murder, She Wrote. Oh wait, that's too generous… Diagnosis Murder, yeah, that's it. So, what happened to the poor algebra-loving, trajectory-obsessed girl, huh? Well, she simply had to go, otherwise we wouldn't be able to service the burgeoning friendship between our budding heroine and the awkward flares-wearer. Just look at the two of them now, bonding over conspiracy theories and cod-psychoanalysis, conspiring to steal crash test dummies and throw them out of Ms Bennet's window. That's the kind of storyline that really gets the ratings soaring. Who cares about what actually happened to Little Miss Overconfident when we get to see Gretchen realising that Claire, shock of shocks, has healing powers? Well fancy that! Who would've thunk? Sigh. It really feels like the entire 'mysterious death' trope exists solely for the purpose of creating this moment of discovery and frankly, it's lame. You would think that after having been caught in the act so many times in the last four seasons, Claire would just stick to her new-found mantra and come straight out with the truth the moment she meets anyone new; ah, but then the production crew wouldn't be given the opportunity to gross us all out with shots of Claire's disfigured body being shunted back into place (props to the effects guys here, by the way, that was truly sickening), so no, tiresome predictability it is. And it's hard to decide whether or not this moment is satisfactory in terms of the 'murder mystery' too; Claire's dialogue suggests that perhaps her roommate did commit suicide, although you suspect that this is something of a red herring. However, it would probably be a darn sight more interesting if this were the case, since it would give the character an additional dimension; she would cease being a cipher, and develop a complexity to which we weren't previously privy. On the other hand, it would also draw this narrative to a close and we'd be forced to watch Gretchen and Claire playing BFFs for the next three or four weeks, until the other heroes required the (ex) cheerleader's services. So perhaps it's better if the enigma continues and the two play Scooby Doo for a while, although the jury's out on whether this will be any more engaging than the codswallop we've had to endure for the last two episodes.
Hiro and Ando's narrative generates a similar degree of ambivalence. After an episode of dancing around, we finally get to the heart of their story and it's certainly refreshing: having our comedic, ever-reliable protagonist knocking at death's door, resigned to his fate, is a marvellous conceit that gives Masi Oka a chance to demonstrate that he's more than just a catchphrase machine. He's particularly good when he's forced to be aggressive, as in his conversation with Ando about the morality of time travel. It's also good to see the Carnival weaving its way into the wheels of the central narrative, even if it is a little convenient that it just so happens to be the place where Hiro's mission to be a superhero started, so the writers have an easy route into connecting the two apparently disparate strands. Still, we can forgive this since Robert Knepper continues to be just about the best thing in the show at the moment, beguiling you with his refusal to be pigeonholed into black or white, good or bad, and he and Oka have an instantaneous chemistry that bodes well for the future, since it appears that the writers are throwing them together in a sort of dysfunctional 'master/pupil' relationship that will undoubtedly have disastrous consequences. It's nice to see Hiro making decisions that are human rather than moral, thinking with his heart instead of his head, and, on the face of it, his new-found Quantum Leap-esque mission to 'right the wrongs' of his past seems promising. Unfortunately, it also relies on a frustratingly paradoxical interpretation of time travel that, while consistent with the show's representation of the trope from as far back as season one, still doesn't make a whole lot of sense. The idea that Hiro is 'out of time', that he somehow exists outside of causality and is aware of the myriad changes and redundant timelines that he has produced, contradicts the fundamental physics of the process: if Hiro goes back in time and alters the past so that Ando and his sister fall in love, then this is what will always have happened, and Hiro will remember it as such. Here, while everyone else acts like nothing has changed, Nakamura remembers the redundant timeline, which, frankly, is preposterous. Now, to be fair, we could discuss the concept of time travel all day and never reach a satisfactory conclusion about its minutiae since it's all speculative, but this sort of thing just demonstrates why it's probably best to stay away from it, or at the very least to avoid using it to adversely affect the lives of the central characters.
Elsewhere, we get a not-entirely-subtle delineation of the parallels between loner Peter and, um, loner Noah as they work together to retrieve the Carnival's missing compass, and while the idea is sound, the execution falters somewhat. The occasional flashes of Bennet's home life are a nicely underplayed touch and his phone call to Sandra is genuinely heartbreaking, but when he starts waxing poetic to Peter about the need to surround yourself with people and the counterproductive nature of isolation, it comes across as rather forced and heavy-handed. Armus and Foster would've done better to illustrate the analogy rather than make it explicit, as the dialogue feels grafted on when it should be organic. There are other problems too: Noah acquires the key far too quickly; in fact, it's almost as if he knows where to look, which certainly doesn't seem to be the intended reading. In fact, his analysis of the body – that the nature of the wounds suggest it was not a vengeance killing – is dubious enough without this little slice of convenience, so it ends up smacking of lazy writing. Would it really hurt to have it take a little longer, for them to have popped down to a medical lab to give Danko an X-ray or something? Oh wait, yeah, that would've intruded on the Guitar Hero product placement time… sorry, my bad, stick to the deux et machinas. Peter's need to extract himself from what he sees as the 'destructive' nature of the heroes, while fairly mature in concept, is rather frustrating in practise: we all know that the gang is going to come bounding back together within the space of a few weeks because it always happens, so these feel more like backward steps than logical progression (come on, would he really leave Noah with the compass after having been confronted by knife-wielding maniac? That's just plain malicious!) And then there's Tracey Strauss, who has magically transformed from ruthless, revenge-obsessed killing machine to caring, sharing, Noah-comforting sweet pea in the space of eighty minutes. She ends the episode by the bedside of the man she tried to drown meagre hours ago, and is she strangling him while he sleeps? Stuffing his mouth with the fluids he may or may not have been fed intravenously? No, she's keeping him company, making sure he isn't alone, and offering glances that can only be described as 'suggestive.' (Don't think it couldn't happen… remember Matt and Daphne?) Now call me reactionary if you like, but I don't really think this sort of antithetical character swerve can believably occur overnight. It's just silly, and it betrays the simple fact that the writers really don't know what to do with Ali Larter's somewhat redundant character. Here guys, I've got an idea: make a bold decision and actually keep her dead! No? Oh well.
Speaking of characters that refuse to snuff it, Zachary Quinto's Sylar has more of a role in this one although, refreshingly, the writers manage to do something a little creative with him. Armus and Foster play to the actor's strengths and pitch the character as Matt's self-deprecating conscience, delivering cuttingly insightful and vindictive dialogue that really gets to the heart of Sylar's malice. This is the sort of thing that made him such a potent menace in Heroes' first season, that gave viewers throughout the globe the opportunity to love such a loathsome individual; instead of being bombastic and over-the-top, Gabriel is cutting and heartless, psychoanalysing instead of proselytising. Greg Grunberg plays well off him too, demonstrating Parkman's inner turmoil with suitable aplomb, and never veering too far into the excessive. The only lamentable element of this storyline is the inclusion of Roy; while Armus and Foster clearly need something to cause Matt to finally break, the 'jealous lover' trope is so hopelessly over-used in televisual narratives that its essential beats (misinterpretation, over-reaction, discovery, impasse, rift) frustrate rather than engage. Here's hoping we don't see any more of the long-haired plumber from… um, somewhere other than Liverpool (see what I tried to do there? No? Okay…) and that Janis never finds out about Matt's little indiscretion; I just can't cope with playing the cycle of martial strife any longer.
'Jump, Push, Fall' steps up a little from the lethargic pace of the season opener, but the series still feels like it's running on auto-pilot. The narrative progression remains fairly slow and this hinders the episode's success. Armus and Foster do attempt to introduce some fresh conceits and some of them are quite engaging – Sylar's game of wits with Matt Parkman is superbly handled and Hiro's dalliances with the Carnival give his character refreshingly new dimensions – but unfortunately, a great many problems remain. Claire's narrative continues to be about as interesting as watching paint dry, relying on the sort of beats that were out-dated when they tried them in season two, and the Peter/Noah/Tracey storyline is fraught with problems and inconsistencies, not the least of which is Strauss's sudden about turn which is frankly risible. This is an improvement on 'Orientation' but it still doesn't feel like Heroes is really trying hard enough, and when your show is on as icy ground as this one, that really isn't a good sign.