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"The Price is Right," "30 Seconds Over Little Tokyo," "Divorce Venusian Style," "Live at Eleven," "The Resurrection of Carlini," "Wizards and Warlocks," "Heaven is in Your Genes," "This is the One the Suit Was Meant For," "The Newlywed Game," "Desperado," "Space Ranger," "It's Only Rock 'n Roll," "Vanity, Says the Preacher"
by Walter Chaw Aliens come to earth in a giant metal calamari ring and give a nebbish schoolteacher a red superhero outfit with the Chinese symbol for "centre" on the centre of its chest. They also give him an instruction booklet he promptly loses, leading to a couple of seasons of Ralph (William Katt) trying his best to figure out how to use his special jammies with the help of his attorney girlfriend Pam (Connie Selleca) and rogue FBI agent Bill (Robert Culp). It's on-the-job training, though, as the reluctant crime-fighting trio find themselves, weekly, pitted against a Saturday morning cartoon's rogue's gallery of two-bit hoodlums that reek, somehow simultaneously, of desperate invention and formula contrivance. (How else to explain the second-season search for a sea monster in the Caribbean?) But there's something that remains effective--sticky, even--about a show more at home in the Shazam! posture than in the prime time slot it was asked to fill. (Indeed, I discovered the show in syndication, seeing as I was too busy during its regular run watching "Knight Rider" and "The A-Team" on a rival network.) It's wish-fulfillment of the flavour towards which most superhero creations tend, sure, but it also speaks to what is essential in the American ethos: that the least of us believes we can be heroes under the right circumstances.
On a more proximate level, you have two children of the Sixties in Ralph and Pam (Ralph's a special education teacher, Pam, I'm going to surmise, is a public defender) in constant tension against one of Reagan's button-down goons--thrown together to save the world from all manner of foreign threats. By season three, the carefree slapstick of the eight episodes of the first season and the insane master-villain world domination plots of the second have distilled into threats from the Japanese (servile or evil), Saudis (nerds or evil), Mexicans (see: Japanese), and, er, somehow Nazis. The third (and last--truncated like the first due to bad ratings) season's opener has surprising pathos as Ralph is mortally-injured and is drawn, Bill at his side, back to the landing site where he made his close encounter of the third kind to reunite with the "green guys" and to ask, belatedly, for another copy of the long-lost instruction booklet. The alien special effects are flat and unapologetically, unforgivably awful, but Bill's response to them is a model of comic timing and, against all odds, character depth (a holdover from the second season's finale, written and directed by Culp and possibly the best single episode of the series). If the g-man is the only one of the three to ever exhibit something like a subterranean emotional life, more's the conundrum of "The Greatest American Hero", where three people are forced by the costumes they wear into the suddenly-ill-defined role of defender of the realm.
The general low-budget/high-concept crappiness of "The Greatest American Hero" (reminiscent of the Tarzan pictures, most of the action shots and cutaways are recycled from the first two seasons) is only a symptom of a more global voodoo '80s malaise. It's part of the "importance" of the piece (he says, using the word lightly (maybe even ironically), insofar as there's anything really important about '80s television beyond shedding light on itself in retrospect), its ability to hold a mirror up to the rigidity of the 1950s character archetypes that the "morning in America" was doing its best to recast: Pam the lawyer but still third-string behind the men; Ralph the spec-ed teacher now Superman and Clark Kent mashed together in an unfortunate chimera; and Bill the suit, who wants in every episode to have a backyard BBQ and watch some football while desperately pretending that he's not actually the heavy in every situation, no matter the ostensible bear of the week. The catchword for the show (and the decade?) is "reluctance"--reluctance to be a hero, reluctance to be an asshole, and in tension with the other reluctances, reluctance to be an afterthought. It only works as a triumvirate, after all, the two choices presented to men, and the one presented to a woman. There's something classic about it. Not "Golden Girls" classic, but classic.
Of course, being built on a classic composition* doesn't automatically mean that you're any good, and while "The Greatest American Hero" will probably always occupy a cozy Condorman place in my childhood (it was only within the last five years that I learned that Michael Crawford was Condorman and not William Katt), the fact/s is/are that the series' only full season (season two) was a disaster; that its first, best season didn't wear out its welcome only because it hung around for eight episodes as opposed to twenty-four; and that its final season (three) was cancelled because, with a couple of conspicuous exceptions, it sucks balls. It's a comedy that's hardly ever funny on purpose, a superhero fantasy that's constantly castrated by its premise, and an action film that is never, ever exciting. I do want to mention my favourite moment, when Ralph, holding onto the grill of a moving car and being pulled under, somehow stops the vehicle, leaving us to figure out that he must have done it the only way he could have done it: by gripping the pavement with his ass. But let's talk about Ralph discovering in this season that he can perform the Jedi Mind Trick on people; he decides to practice on Pam in an extended sequence during which Pam realizes that she's getting jerked around like a puppet and yet Ralph just won't stop. It's well into the realm of inappropriate and uncomfortable before I realized that the whole damn thing was meant to be a joke--a kind of romantic banter betwixt lovers. It makes sense that in a subsequent episode, Pam will confront Ralph about the toll that the super-suit is taking on their lives--but it sure as hell doesn't make sense outside of the rage to nuclear conformity that they'll end up married in one of the low points of a low season.
You'll argue that "The Greatest American Hero" is a fantasy/comedy and never meant to confront any of the deeper issues that will arise when the balance of power in a relationship suddenly skews; or when an FBI agent goes Commissioner Gordon with his secret Batman and yet never receives a commendation or promotion; or when a tree-hugging peacenik is granted the power of the universe by the alien Chinese. (Did I mention that the idiot Chinese aliens give Ralph his replacement instructions in some alien, symbol-based language?) But at every moment in this series, there's the chance that it will become something valuable to more than the eight-year-olds in their own magical jammies. Cult classics aren't spawned just because they're terrible and a little gay (Ralph wears a negligee in the episode about an old high school football buddy involved in points shaving, while, more times than I care to count, I wished that the suit, in addition to being bullet-proof, was also waterproof)--rather, cult classics are spawned because they always have the potential of harbouring in their heart of hearts the key to the meaning of life. At every turn, though, "The Greatest American Hero" fails, miserably, to be something better. There's the Japanese guy Ralph saves and becomes, therefore, indebted to him like some Nipponese Wookiee ("You save-a my rife! I you srave!") as they go on the run from the Keystone Yakuza; the drunken, giggling Mexicans who challenge Ralph to an arm-wrestling contest; the missing Middle-Eastern prince ("Prince Aha," natch) who plays a Dungeons & Dragons game badly, earning the notice of a gaggle of Arab villains who all look not only like Hasidic Jews, but also like Leon Redbone looking like a Hasidic Jew. I love the '80s. Things aren't better now, they just manifest in prettier ways--call it "human nature." And call it the contribution that "The Greatest American Hero" has made to the conversation in spite of itself.
Season Three's thirteen episodes come home on four DVDs courtesy Anchor Bay in what I will euphemistically call the best-case scenario considering the remorseless cheapness of the original production. Full frame and sounding lousy even in a remastered DD 2.0 stereo, "The Greatest American Hero"'s A/V quality is as good as it can be, I'm sure, given Anchor Bay's sterling track record--even if that pinnacle is modest by most objective analyses. After blowing their wad with special features for the first two collections of the show, the third season is packaged in a cardboard slipcase (in which are housed two dual-hub wafer cases containing the four platters) that plays a short snippet of Joey Scarbury's scandalously catchy theme song when you grope Connie Selleca's turtleneck-clad chest. Unfortunately, every single menu on the discs also plays the theme song, so that by the time you're done gazing lovingly upon the thirteen episodes packaged herein, the choice between hearing it again and just putting an earwig in your ear becomes a confusing one. An eight-page insert written by prop master Richard Coyle includes such fascinating (and perversely detailed) anecdotes as how Coyle once made a radar gun read "113 MPH" while clocking a hot-dog truck, or how he used a green transistor to fashion a communicator that appeared as though it had a green transistor stuck to it. That theme song is sounding better and better.
48 minutes/episode; NR; 1.33:1; English DD 2.0 (Stereo); CC; 4 DVD-9s; Region One; Anchor Bay
*Someone, someday, should write about the bonanza of stunning brunettes in the '80s: Jami Gertz, Erin Gray, Courtney Cox and Justine Bateman, Stephanie Zimbalist, Kirstie Alley. Or maybe just devote a web page to them that I can visit in my underwear. return