[26 November 2006]
Returning to a show you watched during your childhood can be a disappointing experience. On the one hand, nostalgia can make the program appear better than it is, clouding actual critical judgment. On the other, the show’s flaws may be revealed to be as clear as day and a small part of the romance of the past can be destroyed forever. So, in the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that as an eight-year-old in 1981, I did in fact own the Joey Scarbury 45 of this program’s theme song, “Believe it or Not”. This quickly replaced a Sci-Fi themed LP featuring Elton John’s “Rocket Man” as my new favorite album and would remain so until the release of “Thriller”.
I sincerely hope that my taste has improved since that time. In those days, any program that featured spaceships or robots, raiders of lost arks, bionics, incredible hulks, ninjas, tales of golden monkeys, Lee Majors, Bruce Lee, or Gil Gerard would catch my interest. I even felt sad the day ABC cancelled Manimal. Looking back, the ‘80s was clearly a golden age for adventure fantasy television as I can remember going from The Amazing Spider-Man to Buck Rogers to The A-Team to Knight Rider until Miami Vice and Moonlighting finally made me grow up. Not much.
Some things get lost in the haze of memory. I still half-remember/believe I saw Captain Stuebing and the passengers of The Love Boat dock at “Fantasy Island” only to have their fantasies turned to nightmares by the devil played by Roddy McDowell. I also sincerely wanted to believe that the obviously Asian double in the ninja outfit was really “The Master” himself, Lee Van Cleef. This willingness to believe, so important for any fiction to function, is of primary importance to the fantasy genre.
This must’ve been on the mind of the very dedicated looking, bearded fella who seemed to appear at the end of so many of my favorite shows. He always sat at his office desk banging at the keys of an IBM Selectric typewriter before quickly tearing the paper out with intense determination. Now, this wasn’t the familiar MGM big cat meowing, or that bemused dog being told to “Sit, Ubu, sit.” This was just some guy in a cramped office who had just finished writing a hit show and seemed ready to start another one immediately. The sheet of paper flew towards the screen and we could read the name: Stephen J. Cannell. Now, if John Hughes was the king of ‘80s teen comedies, than Stephen Cannell must’ve been the king of the high concept television adventure fantasy. Here a list of just some of his hit shows: The Rockford Files, The A-Team, Riptide, Hunter, 21 Jump Street, The Commish, and Wiseguy. Cannell was kind of the pulp counterpart to Steven Bochco, carving his own niche out of wisecracking heroes and villains and well-constructed plots.
In 1981, he decided to put a twist on the comic book superhero. For those of you who missed it, The Greatest American Hero featured the adventures of high school teacher Ralph Hinkley (William Katt) whose busload of “Blackboard Jungle” students breaks down returning from a field trip. While looking for assistance on the long, empty night road, he has a close encounter with aliens who present him with a superhero suit that gives him all kinds of superpowers—superpowers he has to learn about through trial and error when he loses the instruction manual. With the grouchy help of FBI agent Bill Maxwell (Robert Culp) and his own girlfriend, attorney Pam Davidson (Connie Sellecca), Hinkley tries to deal with the weight of the responsibility he’s been given.
Having just suffered through a few episodes of TVLAND’s recent A-Team marathon, I was very apprehensive to return to a program I felt would be revealed to be nothing more than another juvenile adventure. No wonder my father hated The A-Team: seen as an adult, it’s really a very silly show that wastes a great musical theme by Mike Post.
I shouldn’t have worried because The Greatest American Hero holds up very well on its own merits and is actually wittier than I understood it to be at the time. There’s still too much slapstick involving Hinkley’s clumsiness in flying and landing, but aside from this, the show is remarkably adult and even somewhat political. For one thing, back in ‘81, I took the bantering between Maxwell and Hinkley as just some kind of Abbott and Costello routine. Maxwell seemed to be in a bad mood most of the time, telling Hinkley to get into his “red jammies” to save the world. What I missed was the fact that FBI man Maxwell was clearly a Reagan era conservative and with Hinkley presented as an idealistic liberal, the aliens clearly had something more in mind when they made the two of them work together. And within this context, maybe these “jammies” had to be red.
The Emmy-nominated two-hour pilot is a fantastic start to the series, focusing tightly on the relationships between the bickering characters and walking a very fine line between the absurd situation and a reasonably realistic world. Although armed with a magical suit which gives him untold powers, Hinkley still has to deal with his daily life as a single father trying to keep custody of his son. A situation the suit makes more complex, not easier. At first, Maxwell himself wants nothing to do with the alien mission, fearing a future in a white padded cell for both of them. But he quickly warms up to the idea that the suit could be the greatest secret weapon for the US since the atomic bomb or the “Star Wars” defense system. In a Dr. Strangelove-like monologue, Maxwell envisions a future in which the US could become a true super powered superpower by mass producing the suit and thus ending the cold war. His only fear is that Hinkley is too much of a peacenik to get his cape dirty in order to achieve a greater good.
Season one is still the best, even though it’s also the shortest. As a mid-season replacement, the show had to be produced quickly and yet the mix of tones and styles was more controlled and confident here than in seasons two or three, when things started to come unglued.
In one of the DVD interview extras, Cannell explained that the original idea was to avoid the “saving the world” plot that was expected whenever a guy flew around in tights, and focus more on the character humor within the clash between the ridiculous and the everyday. This plan was compromised when the network underwent a regime change. The new regime demanded more conventional “superhero” plots, resulting in episodes involving nuclear destruction and even a genetically altered Nazi monster. Now, the show was never exactly “serious”, but there is a real difference between the kind of crime you might read about in the newspaper and the literally monstrous results of Nazi science. In many ways, these adventure fantasies always seem to jump this particular shark. I can still remember when The Six Million Dollar Man moved from fighting spies and criminals to battling it out with Bigfoot. Not exactly a red letter day for Bionics. Or even Bigfoot.
William Katt is still very likable and charismatic in the lead role, erasing all memories of his bouncing blonde afro in the slow motion climax of “Carrie”. Like his character, Ralph Hinkley, Katt was given a large responsibility to shoulder. Many actors before and since have lost the battle of the superhero tights, but Katt succeeds by playing the role honestly, with humor while avoiding parody. You care about Hinkley and the show would not have worked otherwise.
Robert Culp has long been underrated as an actor, writer, and director. But I Spy, Hickey and Boggs, and A Name for Evil were all quite memorable and in the case of the globe-trotting location filming of I Spy, actually innovative. It’s clear that his casting in The Greatest American Hero is meant to capitalize on his I Spy persona to a certain extent, but Culp doesn’t lean on it, instead making Maxwell his own man.
As Pam, Connie Sellecca completes this triangle of bantering protagonists, and she is very much an important part of the series. It is the witty interaction and fast one liners fired among these three that is the heart of the program. Pam stands by Ralph’s more peaceful plans for the suit and will not allow Maxwell to reduce her to a “third-string backup” in order to catch some Commies. A second season pregnancy caused Sellecca to miss several episodes and the difference is noticeable. The show needed her presence to keep the engine running.
Michael Paré and Faye Grant round out the main cast with Joe Mantegna, Markie Post, Bob Saget, Rick Dees, June Lockhart, David Paymer, Barbara Hale (Katt’s real life mother), André The Giant, Dixie Carter, Don Drysdale and many other familiar faces appearing throughout the series run.
Anchor Bay has released all three seasons to DVD in a single box set of 13 discs which retails in a special tin box containing quite a few goodies for the collector. You get an honest to goodness full sized cape, a replica of the lost instruction manual, and, believe it or not, an iron-on decal of the alien superhero insignia. The DVD extras include over two hours of interviews with the cast and creators, a downloadable script for the episode, “The Two-Hundred Mile An Hour Fastball”, the usual photo galleries and the not-so-usual unaired pilot for the spin-off series The Greatest American Heroine. This curio is no lost gem, and proves that high concepts are nothing without the right execution.
The Greatest American Hero has it’s own flaws to be sure, but in many ways they just add to the charm. The special effects are, of course, incredibly dated and the overuse of post production overdubs are extremely silly. I can’t count how many moments a line of dialogue had been dubbed over the action in order to make sure that the lowest common denominator could follow the story. But this was the ‘80s, a decade when television and movies were ruled by the lowest common denominator and the tyranny of the high concept, in which a story would be celebrated for it’s shallowness and sound bite salesmanship. The show fails on those counts the same way many programs from that decade fail. It succeeds for all the reasons programs have always succeeded: good characters and well cast performers.
As a side note, it’s interesting that, all these years later, the theme song would have enough cultural relevance for Michael Moore to score George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” landing to the newly relevant lyrics:
“Look what’s happened to me-eee, I can’t believe it myself.
Suddenly I’m on top of the world, should’ve been somebody else…”
Maybe Maxwell told him to put on the red jammies.