Starring: Milo Ventimiglia.
It's always risky to declare any new show the "best new series of the season" when all one has to judge is the pilot episode. With that caveat, NBC's "Heroes" is the best pilot of fall 2006. Whether it continues to soar in future episodes remains to be seen.
In a year of multiple "Lost"-like large ensemble dramas about people forced together by circumstance (see also: "Jericho," "The Nine," "Six Degrees"), "Heroes" (9 p.m. Monday) soars far above the rest. Viewers may detect trace elements from other TV shows and movies ("The X-Men," "Unbreakable," "The 4400"), but "Heroes" stakes out its own unique superhero turf.
The pilot quickly and easily establishes its characters: normal people from all walks of life in different parts of the world who suddenly discover they have extraordinary powers.
A Texas cheerleader, Claire (Hayden Panettiere), can jump from a tower or walk through fires and heal instantly; a New York artist with a drug addiction (Santiago Cabrera) paints images of the future; good guy Pete (Milo Ventimiglia) dreams he can fly; and Japanese geek Hiro (Masi Oka), destined to be the show's breakout character, can stop time and teleport.
Writer Tim Kring ("Crossing Jordan") wisely added the Hiro character to offer some much-needed levity in an otherwise super-serious show, and it works magnificently.
Eventually these heroes will cross paths, and a genetics professor from India, Mohinder (Sendhil Ramamurthy), seems destined to play a role in their joint efforts to save the world.
A lot happens in this 55-minute pilot (airing with limited commercial interruption), but Kring and director David Semel ("American Dreams," "House") deftly manage these introductions, set up intriguing glimpses of their abilities and create potential threats and dangerous connections without overwhelming the audience. That's no easy task.
Kudos to the cast for making it easy to buy into their characters and care about them from the start. For Ventimiglia, so often cast as the jerky bad boy ("Gilmore Girls," "The Bedford Diaries"), "Heroes" represents an opportunity to reinvent himself as a nice guy who looks up to his politician older brother (Adrian Pasdar), who doesn't always return his affection (although he does when it counts most).
Future episodes will introduce a Los Angeles cop (Greg Grunberg) who can read minds and a fugitive (Leonard Roberts) who manages to elude authorities.
Unlike "Lost," which has an overriding mystery about the island, the "Heroes" mysteries all come from within their characters.
"There is no island to get off of. The show does not posit an ending," Kring said, adding that he has the first two seasons of the series sketched out in his mind, but no grand conclusion planned.
One thing "Heroes" won't turn into: "Justice League."
"They're not necessarily going to form a team, but they'll come together in small ways and small pockets," Kring said in July. "And just like all shows when people come together, you'll have to find ways to break them apart to keep the drama alive."
Some of the characters will even use their powers for selfish, evil reasons, rather than for the heroic good. And the Indian professor will link these developing powers to a scientific basis.
"When you say humans only use 10 percent of their brain power, it makes you ask, are there hidden powers there?" Kring said, explaining that the continued evolution of the human species will be a backbone for some of the characters' unusual traits.
Kring said he was influenced most by "The Incredibles" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" when writing "Heroes," which sprung from a desire for control in a topsy turvy world marred by global warming, diminished resources and terrorism.
"There's a sense that people want a wish fulfillment, that somebody is going to rise up among us and actually be able to do something," Kring said. "That's what I was trying to tap into."
TV editor Rob Owen can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-2582. Ask TV questions at www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Q&A.