Say what you will about TV today, but back in the 80s they knew how to make high-concept shows. Imagine a show about a talking car, and you’ve got Knight Rider. Imagine a show about four modern mercenaries, all of whom are slightly crazy, and you’ve got the A-Team. And hey, imagine a show about an ordinary schoolteacher who is given an all-powerful superhero costume by aliens…but loses the instructions. That’s The Greatest American Hero.
Created in 1981 by Stephen Cannell, he of the famous typewriter tagline at the end of many shows, GAH ran for three seasons (well, really only two seasons total as the first and third were only 13 episodes) before burning out the conceit behind the show and nearly getting sued out of existence by DC Comics. But it was fun while it lasted.
The premise is fairly simple: Ralph Hinkley (William Katt, whose afro thankfully shrinks as the series goes along) is a mild-mannered special ed teacher, who one day takes the unruly kids on a field trip out to the desert, where he meets ultra-conservative FBI agent Bill Maxwell. Car trouble leaves the two men squabbling on the way for repairs, until an alien vessel swings by and essentially ties their lives together forever: Ralph is given the famous red suit and a set of instructions on how to use it, and Bill is charged with finding him suitable cases to use his fantastic new powers on. Ralph, however, immediately loses the instructions and thus every new power learned is a new adventure for him. Especially the flying part. Luckily, most of the powers needed are passive in nature — Ralph becomes nigh invulnerable, super-strong and super-fast just by wearing the suit — whereas other abilities like flight, telekinesis, invisibility, shrinking, and whatever else the writers make up as they go along take longer to figure out and generally have a steep learning curve for him.
However, when the show is at its best, it’s not about the suit, it’s about the characters and the snappy dialogue they throw at each other while dealing with the bizarre implications of having a super-suit in the first place. As it is noted early on in the series, in the real world anyone wearing a costume like Ralph’s and claiming to have superpowers would be tossed in the loony bin anyway, and it’s exactly this winking attitude of light-heartedness and absurdity that keeps the show from outliving its welcome or bogging it down in clichÃƒÂ© moral platitudes. It’s not a show about saving the world from giant Nazi robots, it’s a show about a befuddled Everyman trying to figure out the best way to stop a runaway train, and usually failing at it. What made the show work was the reactions to everything that happened, like Maxwell brow-beating Ralph for not being able to fly straight or his constant “scenarios”, not the actual superhero stuff (which often was recycled footage anyway).
Unfortunately, it was the battle between the absurd and the normal that really did the show in by the end, as the original vision for the show got lost in an increasingly silly parade of Nazis, voodoo gods, time travel, ghosts, and other forays into the more child-friendly aspects of the characters that the network demanded. Whereas the premise of an ordinary guy reacting to extraordinary powers can be milked forever with the right scripts, you can only do so many silly superhero stories before budget and creative limitations kick in. Luckily, at only 42 episodes, the show wasn’t around long enough to really get bad, and most of the episodes in the series are of pretty equal quality. Special mention should go out to “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” from the first season, which is truly the best representation of where this show could have gone given a longer life. It’s a truly wonderful episode featuring John Hart, the former Lone Ranger, quietly inspiring Ralph to continue as a superhero when it seems like he’ll never gain the confidence to be a hero. Easily my favorite show of the series. Other standouts for me included season 2’s “The Two-Hundred-Mile-An-Hour Fastball,” with Ralph using his powers to become a pitcher, season 3’s “Train of Thought,” where he suffers an embarrassing head injury while trying to stop a train and can’t remember his superhero lifestyle, and “Divorce, Venutian Style,” which is kind of the capper to the series, as the aliens return and give him another instruction book. What I liked about the last one is that even when given the instructions, it becomes apparent that the thing is so horribly complex that even having them is not likely to produce better results than Ralph’s clumsy trial-and-error produced anyway.
I should also stop to mention to the unaired pilot for “The Greatest American Heroine” that is included as part of season 1. Produced in 1986 as a gambit to revive the dead series, it features Maxwell partnered with a feminist, environmentalist, socially aware, ditzy schoolteacher named Holly, and if ever proof was needed that the chemistry between the lead stars of the original show is what made it work, this was it. With forced humor and a nonsensical plot, it’s no wonder that this wasn’t picked up by the network. Just like the suit only worked on Ralph in the show, it only worked on William Katt in real life.
Disney has reportedly had a feature film revival in development since 2004, and if ever the bloated superhero genre needed a good kick in the pants with a human story like this one, now is the time. In fact, I think a movie retelling would be pretty much tailor-made for Zach Braff.
The Complete Series collector’s tin presents the entire run of the show over 13 discs, basically collecting the three previous season releases into one box, retaining the same extras and order. They are as follows:
Disc One: Pilot, The Hit Car, Here’s Looking At You Kid.
Disc Two: Saturday Night On Sunset Boulevard, Reseda Rose, My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys
Disc Three: Fire Man, The Best Desk Scenario, The Greatest American Heroine
Disc Four: The Two Hundred Mile An Hour Fastball, Operation: Spoilsport, Don’t Mess Around With Jim, Hog Wild
Disc Five: Classical Gas, The Beast In The Black, The Lost Diablo, Plague
Disc Six: Train of Thought, Now You See It, The Hand-Painted Thai, Just Another 3-Ring Circus
Disc Seven: The Shock Will Kill You, A Chicken In Every Pot, The Devil In The Deep Blue Sea, It’s All Downhill From Here
Disc Eight: Dreams, There’s Just No Accounting, The Good Samaritan, Captain Bellybuster
Disc Nine: Who’s Woo In America, Lilacs, Mr. Maxwell
Disc Ten: The Price Is Right, 30 Seconds Over Little Tokyo, Divorce Venusian Style, Live At Eleven
Disc Eleven: The Resurrection of Carlini, Wizards and Warlocks, Heaven Is In Your Genes
Disc Twelve: This Is The One The Suit Was Meant For, The Newlywed Game, Desperado
Disc Thirteen: Space Ranger, It’s Only Rock N Roll, Vanity Says the Preacher
This is actually a very nice transfer for a show from 1981, which is good because the colors are crisp and bright and the print is pretty much free from dirt and scratches, but bad because the improved clarity of DVD means that all the ridiculously bad special effects and rear-projection tricks are laid bare. So you win some and you lose some.
The audio itself is fine for a show of this age, but what really bugs me is the replacement of all the licensed music from the show. Most notably, the song “Eve of Destruction” is specifically referenced as playing on the radio in a major plot point in “Divorce Venusian Style”, but is excised from the DVD and replaced with a generic piece of music instead. Also, Elton John’s “Rocket Man” was used in a featured way in the pilot, and that’s gone too. Sadly, that’s the price of getting the DVDs on the market, I suppose.
Now here’s where you get your money’s worth.
On the DVDs themselves, there’s 90 minutes total of interviews with the various cast members done a couple of years ago, with the usual stuff about how they were doing theater and didn’t expect to get cast in a silly superhero show as well as the usual useless photo gallery and the like. However, the Collector’s Tin not only gives you a cool tin box with the alien logo on the front, you also get a life-size cape, and a working replica of the instruction book from the show, plus an iron-on decal of the alien logo! TOO COOL! This really makes me wish that we had DVD when I was a kid, because I’d have been freaking right out to get my hands on a set like this. It’s a really well-made cape, too. If that doesn’t put you over the top, then you’re watching the wrong show anyway.
The Inside Pulse
A breath of fresh air in the 80s and still one today, The Greatest American Hero was a show, like many, that the network just didn’t “get” and killed off before its time. But hey, that’s why DVD is so cool, because we can relive our childhood and discover that sometimes stuff really does hold up after 25 years, and this is certainly one of those times. Light-hearted, well-written, and just plain fun, any fan of super-hero movies or comic books would do well with picking this set up. Plus, you get a CAPE. What more do you want?
Tags: SmarK Rants