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The super friends of "Heroes" scramble to save the world -- and their show -- from annihilation, while "The Shield" prepares for a heart-stopping finale!

Published November 23, 2008 1:05PM (EST)

Last weekend, with the Southland engulfed in a fiery apocalypse, local residents were forced to stay inside while their air filters registered dust at Terror Alert Red levels. The air outside smelled like a bonfire, and locals marveled at how their throats hurt after just a short walk outside to get the paper. Meanwhile, their dogs and children ran circles around each other in the house, stir crazy from too much time spent indoors.

 There was nothing to do but watch houses going up in flames on the local news. So the locals and their dogs and their children sat, with their eyes glazed over, watching fire, fire, fire, hypnotic fire, for hours on end.

 Occasionally, a news anchor would interrupt the steady 24-hour feed of burning homes to interview emergency-shelter residents who'd spotted their homes burning on the 24-hour feed. "How does it feel to lose your big house, with all of your stuff inside?" the news professionals asked, affecting sad eyes and a tone of faux-sympathy.

 Some shelter residents were visibly distraught when the news people asked them this. Some of them cried into their hands, and some despondently stared into the middle distance without speaking. But others shrugged and said, "It's just stuff" -- a response that made the news people flinch and tug at their expensive suits as their minds struggled to grasp a world without oversize homes filled with oversize closets filled with oversize things.

Finally, one woman laughed loudly right at the camera and said, with a glint in her eye, "I'm so glad I just redid my kitchen!"

Huddled in their houses (and feeling grateful that they still had houses) while the skies turned gray and orange, local residents and their children and their dogs heard that laughter and thought: That woman either has a really good sense of humor, or she has really good homeowner's insurance.

Fallen heroes

But during these trying times, it's really best to have both, isn't it?

Unfortunately, our ragged band of superpowered pals on NBC's "Heroes" (9 p.m. Mondays) may struggle mightily to maintain their senses of humor, but they seem to have lost their ability to bounce back from disaster. The ratings for the show, which was once considered a big hit for NBC, have slipped steadily this season, with just 7.6 million viewers last week, as compared to 15.2 million viewers for "Two and a Half Men" and 19.7 million viewers for "Dancing With the Stars."

Casting aside the question of why anyone would want to save a world filled with people who watch "Two and a Half Men" and "Dancing With the Stars," at least it's clear why our favorite "Heroes" have lost their jocular tone for the most part, replacing it with a steady flow of tense exchanges about the fate of the universe. Take this very typical discussion between Japanese time-traveler Hiro and his sidekick, Ando:

Hiro: No, Ando! I will not do it! I will not go back in time!

Ando: You told me a hero must take risks and make sacrifices to save the world!

Hiro: I say many crazy things!

Ando: You need to go to these moments, and find out how to defeat these villains!

Sadly, every other scene seems to boil down to the same arbitrary dramatic conflict: Two characters argue over what should happen next, even if they were assigned the exact opposite stances in the previous episode. It's just like debate club, only a little less interesting.

On top of that, the main characters on "Heroes" haven't grown or developed discernible personality traits over two and a half seasons, beyond a paint-by-numbers imitation of the typical comic-book hero's back story: Hiro seeks his father's approval. Peter Petrelli is dismayed by his mother's lack of moral standards. Claire is the classic rebel. None of it has the power to intrigue or interest us as viewers.

All any of these characters do is walk around, declaring their interest in saving the world over and over again. With so many valiant, courageous savers of the world afoot, why is the world in such shabby shape, anyway? Maybe because about half of the current crusaders have been led astray or turned selfish or become ethically confused somewhere along the path. This translates to even more heated discussions, with one character preaching reason while the other character explains that drastic times call for drastic measures. One such discussion arises when Angela and Arthur Petrelli argue over Arthur's plan to kill their son Nathan, since Nathan (for various, mostly unspecified reasons) presents an obstacle to Arthur's goal of saving the world (in some unspecified way):

Angela: Our son, Arthur. Our own son!

Arthur: There are larger issues at stake, Angela! You can't let sentimentality derail everything that we worked so hard for!

Angela: I'm sentimental because I don't want to murder our son?

Arthur: We were gonna rebuild the world!

Angela: You were a great man, Arthur. You were a visionary, but somewhere along the line you lost your soul.

I don't know about you, but dialogue this obvious makes me think that this show might be written by teenagers who've never read anything but comic books for their entire lives. Not that we don't all love comic-book-digging teens in theory, plucky rebel-enthusiasts that they are. But I also can't help picturing that pretentious guy who works in the comic book store on "The Simpsons," the one who condescends to Bart for not knowing the minutest details of every classic comic ever written. That guy was once a visionary, but somewhere along the line he lost his soul.

Sometimes it feels like "Heroes" has lost its soul, too -- although these days it's easy to wonder if it ever had a soul in the first place.

Everyone is an agent, trying to round up people with powers and lure them into captivity, or to study their biological makeup. Claire's mother, Meredith, works as an agent in a recent flashback. Daphne is secretly working as an agent for Arthur Petrelli, who himself is either a fallen visionary or just wants to save the world like everyone else. Tracy Strauss is also working for Arthur (but at least she doesn't have an evil twin anymore). Big-time evil guy Sylar is maybe no longer completely evil so he's working for Arthur while secretly helping Arthur's son Peter. Mohinder has gone from selfless crusader to superpowered monster/scientist stooge, also working for Arthur.

By last week, the whole thing started to veer toward a "Legion of Doom Meets Hall of Justice" moment, when all of Arthur's stooges and cronies gathered in his big office with its glorious view and pondered their next (vague) move to save the world, while Angela Petrelli, her sons Peter and Nathan, Claire, Matt Parkman and Daphne (recently having left Arthur to help Matt) met in the creepy sanitarium area of Arthur's complex to discuss their own (hazy) plans for saving the world.

All of which has me wondering, what exactly are all of these people trying to save the world from? Each other? "Dancing With the Stars"?

The big picture here just isn't that easy to sink your teeth into. "An eclipse is coming." So what? "Whose side are you on, anyway?" Who really cares, since both sides say they're going to save the world, but we're not really sure how or when or even why?

Duck and cover

Of course, if you really want to watch some juicy ethical dilemmas and high-stakes standoffs and questions of good and evil unfolding before your eyes, you'll be tuning in for the series finale of one of the best shows on television, FX's "The Shield" (airs at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 25). Last week's second-to-last episode certainly delivered: Vic's former sidekick Shane and his pregnant wife, Mara, are still on the run from the law, and they're starting to get desperate enough that they're making some seriously stupid decisions. Shane tried to scam some gamblers out of their money, got into trouble, and Mara was forced to bust in with a gun and save Shane, but she ended up murdering a woman in cold blood in the process. Now Mara has a broken collarbone, she's in serious pain, the cops are on to them, and neither Mara nor Shane looks likely to escape prison. Somehow, it's tough to see anything resembling a happily ever after for these two.

Meanwhile, ICE (Imigration and Customs Enforcement) offered Vic an immunity deal in exchange for his help in nabbing Mexican cartel leader Beltran, but there was no deal for his partner, Ronnie Gardocki. So Vic walked away without signing the deal.

Vic will always be loyal to his right-hand man, Ronnie, right? Wrong! Later, when Vic thought his ex-wife Corrine was going to be arrested (she's actually working with the cops), he threw Ronnie under the bus in an attempt to save Corrine from prosecution, signing the immunity deal behind Ronnie's back.

Then, in one of the most riveting scenes of all time, Vic sat in a room and listed every insane and unethical move he and his Strike Team have ever made, starting with killing fellow cop Terry Crowley.

"Y-you killed a police officer?" asked ICE agent Olivia Murray, who's gone to bat for Vic and suddenly realized her career could be ruined by this.

"I planned it, I carried it out, I shot him once, just below the eye," Vic responded calmly, as Murray cringed. "Our strike team was committing criminal acts on a regular basis. At first it was just taking drugs from a bust, turning around and selling it for a profit. We were able to do this by making partnerships with local drug dealers and gangs, you know, that we knew we could leverage."

Vic has never been more hateful. Wasn't it incredible, how coolly he could repeat all of his most heinous acts? It was almost like he was bragging.

"You son of a bitch," Murray interjected. And then, "Is that it?"

"How much memory does that thing got?" Mackey replied.

Dat dattta-dattta dowwww!

Yep, this was the big payoff scene, the scene we've all been waiting for. Finally, the truth is out in the open. And naturally both Detective Claudette Wyms and Detective Dutch Holland arrived mid-confession and watched the whole thing from behind a two-way mirror. They not only heard every dirty move Mackey's ever pulled, but they were treated to the news that this bad, bad man just signed an immunity deal with ICE. In an instant, all of their years-long attempts to nail Vic went up in smoke.

Striding out of that office, looking like she might kill someone, Claudette turned on Dutch instead, telling him he was fired. You sort of have to love Dutch, a loyal friend to the end, who responded by holding Claudette's arm and calmly telling her, "This isn't you."

Now that's the kind of powerful episode you watch seven seasons of a TV drama to see, mi amigos!

Just to be a contrarian before the big finale, though, is it remotely realistic that Vic Mackey would have confessed to killing another cop, even with an immunity deal on the line? Isn't a cop who admits to killing another cop as good as dead within minutes of his confession? Yes, he thought he was protecting Corrine, and in turn, his family. But somehow it still seems tantamount to putting a gun to his own head and pulling the trigger.

Also, isn't it a little out of character for Corrine to think that Vic would ever, ever hurt her or the kids? From what we've seen of Vic and Corrine over the years, it just doesn't seem remotely possible that Vic would come after her. He'd be furious, sure, but he'd let her big mistake slide in the interest of making sure his kids still had a mother. Vic may be a slippery bastard, but he's very pragmatic about these things.

Shane, on the other hand, is out of his gourd, isn't remotely practical, and makes terrible decisions -- all of which means that his family is far more endangered by everything he does.

Any thoughts or predictions about last week's episode, or the finale? Let's discuss it in the letters pages. Personally, although I'm happy to muse about it, I really don't demand that every single plot point be perfectly realistic when we're leading up to the big finale. Were the endings of any of the great Shakespearean tragedies realistic? Not necessarily, but Willy sure knew how to get us in the gut!

At any rate, Vic Mackey is going to need a lot more than a good insurance policy and a good sense of humor to wrangle his way out of this one, with or without his soul intact.

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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