MIDWAY : Mythical heroes

It starts with a falling man; before long we are looking at images of a fireball towering between the two iconic Manhattan skyscrapers still standing, the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building. Heroes, the much-praised American series, wears its post-9/11 anxieties on its sleeve. The eponymous heroes are ordinary men and women who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances. They rise to the occasion because they are special.

We even have someone racing into a burning wreck to rescue a trapped man — the welcome twist is that instead of the rescuer being a burly, mustachioed firefighter, or Nicolas Cage, she’s a small, blonde cheerleader from Texas who’s discovered she’s apparently indestructible.

This is the kind of serial fantasy the US does best, which blends allegory with mythopoeia. A nation that sprang more or less fully formed from a pilgrim’s forehead will by definition excel at mythmaking. It’s what we do, because it’s how we invented ourselves. It’s also how we try to reinvent ourselves, especially in times of crisis.

Mixing wish-fulfillment, self-justification, ideology and entertainment, Heroes is so engaging in part because it is propelled by the US’s most dynamic contradictions: to balance power and liberty, nationalism and globalism, individualism and plurality, exceptionalism and democracy. Enamoured with superiority but worried about elitism, this

is a story in which hitherto ordinary people discover that being special may not be all it’s cracked up to be. Myth and ideology are closely allied with false

consciousness: telling

people soothing stories about their destinies is a good way to keep them from rioting.

It is a myth about the uses and abuses of power, made by and for the most powerful country in the world while it is in the midst of an enormous identity crisis about the status of that power: its moral status — are we good or bad? — and its instrumental status — are we still powerful?

I haven’t made it to the end yet, so perhaps it has some surprises in store, but so far the answer to both questions seems to be

positive: we are powerful and we are good. When all else fails, there’s always wishful thinking.