Uncanny Valley

She almost looks real!In robotics (and increasingly used in talking about CGI), the term “Uncanny Valley” refers to the point at which the attempt to make an artificial character more human-like backfires, and the character becomes more repulsive and disturbing than realistic.

Scott McCloud gives a simple, easily understandable explanation for why this happens in Understanding Comics: humans naturally look for patterns, and we want to anthropomorphize inanimate objects to better relate to them. So we turn power outlets into faces, and simple combinations of lines and circles into living, breathing people. In fact, the tendency is so hard-wired that once we recognize a face in something, it’s difficult not to see it anymore. Your brain wants to fill in the missing detail.

But once that extra detail is supplied for you, your brain stops trying to turn it into a human and instead starts to focus on the details that make it not human. The glassy, unfocused stare, or the eyes that don’t blink, or the way the mouth doesn’t move quite right. And as a result, a bunch of simple shapes can seem more like a person than the real thing. Or the simple, stylized dwarves in Snow White are more convincing and relatable than the rotoscoped human characters.

“Heroes” is getting precariously close to the edge of the uncanny valley. When it started out, it was “the show you hate to love”: filled with corny attempts at symbolism, clunky performances, sub-par dialogue, but still completely engaging. If only for the promise of seeing somebody getting the top of his head sawed off, or a still-living person splayed out on an autopsy table, or a guy escaping kidnappers by leaping into the air and taking off like a fighter jet.

But apparently somebody at NBC just couldn’t leave well enough alone, because they started trying to make it into a genuinely good series. They’ve still got the gross-out shots and the stunt casting and the improbable plot twists, and are adding signs that they might actually be starting to understand what they’re doing. Annoying and unnecessary characters are being weeded out, or made less annoying. The show is spending less time marveling at itself, presenting super powers we’ve already seen as if they were these amazing and novel concepts that will just blow your mind; now, they’re actually fleshing out the characters and showing them using their powers.

The twists and revelations are actually getting pretty interesting. For a while it looked like Isaac’s power was just to paint like Tim Sale, but they added a great twist of having the supervillain’s paintings come out heavily stylized and demented. Last night, they did a genuinely creepy and effective scene that revealed the new villain’s power isn’t shapeshifting, but making people see whatever she wants them to see. And they also put an interesting twist on their main villain, having him kill people all season but horrified to discover that he may be responsible for the deaths of millions of people.

And one of the episodes that aired a while back, “Company Man,” has been getting a lot of praise for being a turning point in the series — it had the hokey twists and the big climax with the cheerleader having her flesh burned off by a nuclear blast, but also added real characterization and a surprisingly moving ending.

The problem is that as “Heroes” approaches a Real Live TV Show, you stop filling over the plot holes and ignoring the clunky dialogue, and start to notice its flaws. I shouldn’t have to care that the characters are able to recognize the Nuclear Man from drawings that don’t look remotely like him. I shouldn’t be thinking that the plot has gotten so convoluted that there’s absolutely no sense of cause and effect anymore; things just happen randomly. It shouldn’t bother me that people just pop in and out of scenes, often in locations hundreds of miles apart from each other, only to deliver a couple of lines of dialogue that don’t amount to much of anything. And it was somehow more fun when you got the sense nobody involved knew much about comic books; now, the references to Jack Kirby and The Watchmen seem forced.

None of that stuff used to matter, back when the show was just a cartoon. But they’re going to have to come to a decision at some point — the whole bomb in Manhattan thing is so convoluted and overblown at this point, that I couldn’t really care less about it. The real explosion is coming when the show gets to take itself so seriously that it collapses under the weight of its own hype.