[28 February 2005]
Television producer/thriller novelist Stephen J. Cannell is like the Bob Dylan of TV. Over the last 30 years he’s been prolific as hell, creating and/or helming some of the best series on the Idiot Box. The Rockford Files remains the greatest private-eye show ever, Cannell’s Blonde on Blonde. And Wiseguy, let’s say it’s his Time Out of Mind. Cannell has also crapped out some of the worst formulaic tripe, such as Hunter, Stingray, and The A-Team: call the mid- to late ‘80s his Dylan-finds-Jesus period. Between those extremes lie shows that were good but could have been better. 21 Jump Street was a fairly engaging hour and it gave us Johnny Depp. If only it hadn’t given us Richard Grieco as well.
The Greatest American Hero is another one of those almost-great shows. I watched it religiously as a kid, and my 10-year-old digs it muchly, but it’s hard to watch as a grownup without armchair-quarterbacking it to death. The series is best known for three things: the extreme bad luck of its main character having the same last name as Ronald Reagan’s would-be assassin, who struck during the show’s first season; the theme song by Joey Scarbury, a catchy hunk of insipid lite-rock cheese that continues to play in elevators to this day; and the flying sequences. You see, he was a superhero who couldn’t fly straight. And he screamed. A lot.
Idealistic young high school teacher Ralph Hinkley (William Katt), saddled with a class full of juvenile delinquents, takes them on a field trip into the California desert. On the way home, the school bus stalls out, forcing him to trek through the darkening wilderness on foot. There he hooks up with old-school FBI agent Bill Maxwell (Robert Culp), also stranded with car trouble. These circumstances, it turns out, have been engineered by aliens, who grant Hinkley a red suit and cape which bestow superpowers. Maxwell is chosen as his partner, alternately a mentor and sidekick, the idea being that Hinkley’s altruism will force him to use the suit for the good of mankind while Maxwell will point him toward specific situations that need cleaning up.
This is all well and good, except that Maxwell doesn’t want the gig and Ralph manages to lose the instruction book for the suit. Still, TV destiny being what it is, the arch-conservative Maxwell and the ultraliberal Hinkley become partners in crime-fighting, aided by Hinkley’s girlfriend Pam (Connie Sellecca), whose main purpose is to remind us that the entire premise is ridiculous.
In one of the interviews among the DVD set’s bonus features, Cannell relates that he was approached by ABC about doing “a superhero show.” Having no interest in comic books or the like, he was dubious about the project until a skull-session with his writers produced a superhero who himself had no interest in being one but had no choice. Wardrobe came up with the red “jimmies,” under specific instructions that no one could possibly look cool wearing them. In his interview, William Katt reveals that he hated the suit from day one and never warmed up to it, and his visible discomfort became one of Hinkley’s defining traits. It works beautifully—even as he performs superheroic feats, Ralph looks like he’s dying of embarrassment. Another case of life insinuating into art is the Hinkley and Maxwell relationship, which starts out rocky and then warms up, as was reportedly the case between Katt and Culp, well-known for attempting to ride herd over other actors. The two men buried the hatchet early, however, and one can see their chemistry growing with each episode.
The superpowers are merely a plot device—each week Ralph discovers he can turn invisible, or start fires, or shrink, and always with the flailing and screaming as he flies past the blue-screen—to get to character-driven stories. In the episode “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys,” Ralph inadvertently endangers some innocents and decides to hang up the suit, while Maxwell discovers that a police captain who saved his life in Korea has decided to go bad. The episode wrestles with the concepts of loyalty and duty, with the superhero stuff emerging only for the wrap-up.
The show falters when the focus drifts away from Hinkley, Maxwell, and Pam. Several episodes dwell on Ralph’s juvie students, who are meant to keep Ralph grounded (so to speak) and provide social commentary on the lives of the young and disadvantaged. The problem here is that the “kids”—all actors plainly in their 20s—are straight from Central Casting. There’s the tough Italian kid (Michael Pare) who’s good at heart, his white-trash girlfriend (Faye Grant), and a black kid and a Hispanic kid (Jesse D. Goins and Don Cervantes). They’re the Sweathogs West, complete with tough Brooklyn accents for some reason.
Hero‘s greatest asset is Culp. While Katt is energetic and charismatic as hell, and Sellecca proves to be an excellent comic actress and foil for the boys, Culp shines as the gung-ho uberpatriot. Always too cool for school—anyone who ever watched him with Bill Cosby in I Spy can attest to this—Culp overturns his persona just enough to play the powerfully uncool Maxwell with panache. Maxwell should be this show’s buffoon, the contrarian to Ralph’s lofty ideals, a sexist and vaguely racist Hoover-era relic who wants to fight Commies (this is the Reagan era, after all) and who never heard the term “excessive force.” Culp, however, never descends into parody, fully capitalizing on the character’s weaknesses. In his interview, Culp describes his immersion in Maxwell’s evolution at the expense of his real-life wife, who found herself living with Bill Maxwell.
But there’s only so much Culp and company could do to save the show from the network. Realizing it was a hit, but not understanding why, in the second and third seasons ABC pressured on the makers to cut back on the human-interest jazz and focus on the superheroics. As Cannell and Katt lament, Ralph began spending more time in the jammies fighting aliens and monsters, until the show went from being wryly cartoonish to being a live-action cartoon. Predictably, viewer interest waned and the show was cancelled. Cannell attempted to revive the franchise in 1986 with a spin-off called The Greatest American Heroine, the unaired pilot of which is included in the Season One boxed set. In it, much to Maxwell’s outrage, Ralph hands the suit over to a perky tree-hugging activist (Mary Ellen Stuart) with a foster daughter and enormous ‘80s hair. The show is terrible—even Culp looks embarrassed—and a classic example of why some formulas should be left alone.