Beyond Fear

When petite, blonde dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines told a British audience ten days before the 2003 American invasion of Iraq: "Just so you know, we're on the good side with y'all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we're ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas," the political climate was such that she rapidly found herself the subject of international controversy. War supporters burned the group's CDs, and the three-woman alternative country rock band lost half its audience, which at the time was more partial to Toby Keith's Shock'n Y'all–style bluster than to the Chicks' anti-war doubts, at concerts over the next year.

Go back to that moment in your mind. Imagine what would have happened if a television show had dared to suggest that the anniversary of September 11 was anything less than a sacred moment for national reflection and mourning, or that the president was a jingoistic impostor using the specter of terrorism for evil, selfish, and ultimately un-American ends. Most likely such a show would have sparked national outrage, advertisers would have fled, and the writers and actors would have been forced to grovel in apology on the national stage in order to keep working.

But, oh, how times have changed. The misguided invasion of Iraq has gone sour, and so, too, has the American public, among whom Bush supporters now number roughly 30 percent. In June, more than four years after the Chicks were bashed for opposing the president's war, Maines' husband, the actor Adrian Pasdar, portrayed on a prime-time network series a terrorism-era American president who is the living embodiment of evil -- and won the best audience numbers in his time slot.

The hit show is NBC's Heroes, a meandering sci-fi epic about a band of normal-looking men and women whose genetic anomalies grant them extraordinary powers and link them in a shared struggle to prevent a nuclear explosion in New York City. With the penultimate episode of its first season, which aired in May, the show moved from the realm of fantasy into biting political commentary, filled with ripped-from-the-headlines scenes unimaginable during the peak years of the Bush administration. In that episode, the show flashed forward to a post-attack future whose fifth-anniversary memorial service visually echoed the first September 11 commemoration, and was presided over by a platitudinous president who has used the terrorism attack to suspend laws and persecute those who disagree with him.

Middle East scholar Juan Cole has compared Heroes to FOX's anti-terrorism hit 24; the affection of the lead character in that show, Jack Bauer, for "enhanced interrogation" techniques has become such a cultural touchstone that it cropped up during a Republican presidential primary debate. "I'm looking for Jack Bauer at that time, let me tell you," Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo declared at the second GOP presidential debate, after being conveniently presented with a 24-style ticking-nuclear-timebomb scenario by FOX's news division, which was hosting the debate.

"But while 24 skews to the right politically, Heroes seems like a left-wing response" to September 11 and the rise of international terrorism, Cole wrote. More than that, the show represents the passing of the moment in which fear of terrorists and fear of the president ruled, and both were used to justify actions that undermined America's values, legal traditions, and citizens' ability to freely criticize their leaders. While 24, which airs Monday nights on FOX against Heroes, makes Heroes of its torturing CIA agents, Heroes' Heroes are everyday men and women called to greatness by the necessity of their times: a cheerleader, a Japanese salaryman, a bumbling cop who can never quite get that promotion. They are civilians hunted by the FBI -- portrayed in the show's pre-attack moments as a feckless organization that fails to grasp what's truly going on, and that doesn't listen to whistle-blowers and warnings, to boot -- and forced to fend off the storm troopers of the post-attack Department of Homeland Security with Matrix-like superpowers and samurai swords. To be sure, they sometimes go awry when using their powers, over which they have imperfect control, injuring innocents or endangering themselves. Trapped in a world they don't quite understand, with fresh betrayals and revelations in every episode, the Heroes slowly recognize their destiny: to learn to control their powers, and through this self-restraint and self-mastery, to "save the world."

As such, they are descendents of an older tradition in American television, which pits heroic individuals against the corrupt political sphere or government forces. Where 24 makes Heroes of its state agents, Heroes sharply questions their actions.

The plot of Heroes is complicated, going back and forth between time periods, with the narrative thread of past and future constantly evolving from episode to episode in response to the characters' interventions, and new mutants being revealed as old ones are captured or killed off. Even the characters rely on comic books that tell the future to help guide them through the plot twists and turns.

In the penultimate episode, the camera shows us one possible future in a Las Vegas club, where Niki, one of the ensemble show's many recurring characters, is working as a stripper in the wake of the Heroes' inability to stop the nuclear bomb from exploding in New York, an attack that claimed her son and husband. In this episode, as the caption "America Remembers" flashes across a TV screen, overlaid on the image of fires licking the ruins of New York, Niki sighs, "Today's just another day." Her reaction to the anniversary of this fictional attack seems apposite given the real world, where the current mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, can tell reporters in the wake of a recent bomb scare: "There are lots of threats to you in the world. There's the threat of a heart attack for genetic reasons. You can't sit there and worry about everything. Get a life."

Later in the show, Niki sees President Nathan Petrelli (Adrian Pasdar) -- a fellow mutant -- on the TV screen at the fifth-anniversary memorial service, a huge American flag in the background, the stars of the presidential seal on his podium before him. Niki, earlier restrained in her grief, throws a glass at the screen as Petrelli launches into a speech filled with platitudes that should be recognizable to us all. He praises the "sacrifices" that the population has made and "the laws that we have had to pass to keep our citizens safe … We've all lost. We've all mourned. And we've all had to become soldiers, Heroes. This is a battle that we've entered knowing that the enemy is ourselves," he intones, before declaring a false victory against the mutants in the form of a "cure" that is really a poison. "We've been vigilant. We have been uncompromising, and our efforts have paid off. The nightmare is finally over. The world is safe."

In fact, as the show continues, it is soon clear that the world has never been less safe, for that talking head is not Nathan Petrelli at all, but the evil Sylar, a man who kills the mutants to steal their powers. He's the show's vicious anti-hero, who, in the flash-forward, is believed to have caused the explosion, having stolen the powers of a radioactive man. At the time of his presidential impersonation, he has added shapeshifting to his repertoire of skills, and has dragooned the entire apparatus of the U.S. state into his quest for new mutants whose powers he can steal.

Sylar, in his own way, is a victim of the same lack of self-control as Nathan's brother Peter Petrelli, a former nurse who innocently absorbs other mutant's powers and who is revealed in an earlier episode to be the actual exploding man -- a "human bomb" -- who cannot control the radioactive powers he absorbed involuntarily from another character. Sylar, too, cannot control his urge to destroy. It's up to the others to stop him.

In the final episode of the first season, which jumps back to the main, pre-explosion plot five years earlier, Nathan, who can fly, saves Peter and the world by grabbing his brother and flying him up into space as his hands pulse orange, mere moments before he explodes (shades of Superman). Peter, who has absorbed the power of regeneration, will be back next season. But Nathan may well have made a real sacrifice, laying bare the ultimate lesson of this antidote to 24. It is not in torture and the frantic tossing off of our legal standards that we find freedom and safety, but in learning to control our vast and growing power in response to the threats we know we face. And, should any individual fail to do so, we have a responsibility to rein that person in.