Commentary: Will our 'Heroes' escape Dr. Tailspin's evil clutches? Set an end date and find out

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Ask fans what the biggest problem with NBC's "Heroes" is, and their top answer is "the writing." Viewers expect big-ticket dramas to be as well crafted and exciting as top boxoffice movies nowadays, if not better.

Although "Heroes" has improved recently, overall the show has fallen short of the standard set by genre competitors like "24" and its own first season. Beyond advice like "better writing" or more specific notes like "less complex," there's something else NBC could -- and should -- do to improve the show: set a series end date.

The network has contemplated this option. Here are six reasons why it should pull the trigger:

-- Scarcity increases demand. Viewers like knowing there's a grand plan, that the main story's twists and turns are leading someplace finite. Viewers weirdly think of TV as both an entertaining distraction and a burdenlike "investment" of their valuable time. They want to know, like a marriage-minded lover in a relationship, that "this is going somewhere."

-- Creatively, it helped "Lost," "Battlestar Galactica" and "The Shield." Serialized action dramas' ongoing story lines and life-and-death stakes make long, open-ended runs problematic. Threats to central characters don't carry much weight. Satisfying answers to long-standing questions are scarce. The writers are no longer telling the story; they're telling the story before the story, and it gets more obvious every year. Once the end was in sight for "Lost," "Battlestar" and "Shield," writers confidently drove the story and even reached a pivotal event earlier than fans expected -- getting off the island, the fleet finding Earth, Vic Mackey losing his job -- then surprised audiences by moving toward a different conclusion than what long had been expected.

-- It probably helps ratings. Heavily serialized dramas tend to peak early, then lose viewers each year. We can't know for sure that setting an end date helps because nobody knows what "Lost" and the other shows would have rated had they not decided on a series finale. But judging by fan reaction and critics' reviews, all parties tend to seem far more satisfied with shows once there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

-- "Heroes" is doomed anyway. "The toughest thing in TV is getting fans back to a show they have decided to quit," one network executive notes. That "Heroes" is still the highest-rated drama on NBC is amazing considering it has dropped about 30% this season. The show is too expensive to keep trending in its current ratings direction. And given how much shows tend to fall during a summer break, next season has a strong chance of being the show's last no matter what the network does. So why not set series finale for two years from now -- May 2011? It would give the show the best chance of surviving next season.

-- You can always renege. Here's the part that fans will hate, but, c'mon, if "Heroes' set an end date and miraculously surged in the ratings, do you really think NBC would let it die on schedule? Even the vaulted saint of TV dramas, HBO's "The Sopranos," couldn't resist agreeing to another eight "bonus" episodes after setting an end date. You can always use this lame-but-effective justification to fans: "We discovered that we had more story to tell."

-- Assisted suicide = death with dignity. An end date for "Heroes" arguably wouldn't help the show as much as "Lost," "BSG" and "Shield" because there's no overriding central question consistently driving the NBC show that fans instantly will recognize as being resolved by a finale -- which arguably is "Heroes' " biggest problem. In other words: What does ending "Heroes" mean? You can pick a dozen plot questions and character threads raised during the past few years. But at least having an end date would force writers to choose one or even decide a whole new one, figure out what the show is about and give "Heroes" a shot to finish on a strong note.
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