Every show strikes a deal with its viewers. Give us your attention, your love, your curiosity, and we’ll give you ideas, delights, thrills, a journey. We’ll be a window into the human condition, a way you can look at the world and yourself, or a way to look away from the world and yourself; just look through us, please. It’ll be fun! Or maybe beautiful. Or relevant. And as viewers we decide how to strike that bargain, knowing that every show ends eventually, that even some of the greats will break our hearts, and that if we’re going to invite a show into our home, we’d at least like it to be a gracious guest. For brand-new shows, it’s a tenuous agreement — we’ll see how things go, let’s not get too serious right away. But for known quantities — shows from consistent creators or showrunners, revivals and reboots, or new vehicles for familiar characters — the deal is a little different. Oh, sure, he was a ton of fun at a dinner party, until it turns out he stole a tchotchke from the bathroom for no reason. Or maybe you never liked her that much, but your roommate kept inviting her to stuff, and honestly, she really grew on you! Or one time, he threw up in your bed and it was like, “never again!” but now everyone says he’s cleaned up his act, and maybe …
Two new fall shows in particular are navigating that awkward spot: Heroes Reborn and Scream Queens. Heroes is a revival of NBC’s onetime hit, with many of the same characters inhabiting the same world as the original. An original that started out so well! Oh, that first season was fun. Remember “save the cheerleader, save the world”? Of course you do; it was drilled into our heads as part of the last gasp of NBC ubiquity. Then the show lost its mojo in season two and somehow hung on for two more seasons, just digging itself further and further into the trash hole. I am by nature a finisher; rare is the show I abandon. And even I eventually lost interest in how convoluted and un-fun Heroes became. Season one was propulsive and poppy, season two less so, and season four became sort of dour and stiff.
And now there’s another Heroes, and it wants back into our hearts. Do you let it? We’re not talking about Firefly here, something cut down before it ever had the chance to blossom fully. We’re talking about a show that had four seasons.
Scream Queens is a little different, though not very. It’s from creator Ryan Murphy, though watching one second of it would make that abundantly clear without prior knowledge. It’s Glee meets American Horror Story, 100 percent; it’s a thriller set in a sorority house and makes hay from the same kinds of strict social stratification that made Glee and Popular tick. There’s a serial killer not unlike Nip/Tuck’s masked Carver or every season of AHS. There is abundant “ironic” racism. There’s someone maybe too famous for the show (here, Jamie Lee Curtis) who’s also gloriously tearing it up and showing the newbies how it’s done.
But we know what happened to Glee. And Nip/Tuck. And, frankly, to AHS, too: These are shows with short shelf lives. They burned so, so bright. But then they burned themselves right out — and yet kicked around for years and years. There are things only Ryan Murphy can or will do, but the tough part is that he does them again and again.
So here’s the thing. Heroes Reborn and Scream Queens are both good. They’re both dead-on in doing what they’ve set out to do, and both two-hour premieres (Scream today, Heroes Thursday) are voice-driven, exciting, and very much themselves. Maybe if they had less baggage associated with them, they’d seem more thrilling. And certainly for viewers who haven’t ever watched OG Heroes or any other Murphy fare, I’m sure they’ll seem big and different and and impressive.
But some of us have had this soirée before, have entertained these guests. Maybe Scream Queens is Ryan Murphy’s project with real legs and the 15-episode first season will feel like a glorious prelude to a long and fruitful run, even though college-set shows rarely sustain themselves once the characters graduate. Maybe Heroes Reborn (currently slated as a “limited series,” but who knows what the future holds), will reknit the tangled mess of its predecessor into a more coherent, stimulating experience. That would be great. Maybe just this one time, we can have one nice night, where no one drinks too much and no one’s feelings get hurt, but we also don’t feel old and stuffy, like we can’t have fun anymore; boring is the biggest sin of all.
And that’s why the invitation is open, at least for now. The rampant dullness of the networks’ fall seasons is dispiriting. And Scream Queens and Heroes Reborn are not dull. Even though Heroes Reborn is an actual retread, it still feels more original than CBS’s Code Black or Fox’s Rosewood. Scream Queens’ visual details alone elevate it beyond just about every other series premiere this week. Even if the party ends badly, at least there’s the certainty it’ll be fun for a while.