May 23, 2006
The Greatest American Hero “The Hit Car” (part 1 of 9)
SUMMARY: English teacher/superhero Ralph Hinkley and FBI agent Bill Maxwell travel to San Francisco to try to protect a federal witness. As usual, our boys are in way over their heads, and over the course of the episode, the bad guys manage to slice Bill up worse than Katherine Helmond in Brazil. Meanwhile, Ralph’s students stage Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, which mainly involves the guys dressing up as she-male hookers.
‘80s nostalgia, like show business, morbid curiosity, and the city of Montreal is a hideous bitch goddess. Recently, for example, I indulged my fond memories of one of that decade’s quintessential TV shows, The Greatest American Hero, by purchasing the season 1 DVD set.
You know those commercials where beautiful fresh vegetables instantly time-lapse into disgusting mush because they weren’t kept in those special vegetable keeper bags that cost $30 a box, payable in three easy installments? That’s what happened to those fond memories when I watched the DVDs.
All the nostalgia I could muster—drifting back to those halcyon Wednesday nights sprawled out on our scratchy polyester sofa enjoying the sight of hapless superhero Ralph careening into the sides of buildings while Bill the FBI guy sputtered out hardboiled snark-bullets—could not prepare me for rediscovering just how brutally cheap, relentlessly stupid, and cheesily formulaic this show really was. Honestly, this show was so bad, its acronym has actually entered the English language as an expression of surprised dismay: GAH!
Fortunately, years of suffering in the Agony Booth have prepared me to enjoy and appreciate Greatest American Hero’s failures—and, for that matter, its secret successes—on a whole new level.
I intend to briefly recap all of the (abbreviated) first season eventually, though my head will probably be in a jar next to Leonard Nimoy’s by the time I actually manage to do it. I’m skipping over the pilot movie, which is just as dumb as the rest of the season, but also longer and duller.
What you need to know from the pilot is largely recapped in the opening credits anyway, but here’s the thumbnail: Curly-haired high school special-ed teacher Ralph Hinkley (William Katt) takes his kids out on a nighttime field trip to that well-known, fun, and educational destination known as the middle of the desert. When their bus breaks down, he goes for help, and runs into sarcastic FBI tough guy Bill Maxwell (the recently deceased Robert Culp, who for some reason consistently played Bill as if he were a cross between Clint Eastwood and Paul Lynde).
Ralph and Bill then have a close encounter with a big special effect masquerading as a flying saucer. The unseen aliens, speaking through one of Bill’s dead Fed colleagues (don’t ask), tell super-square dorkmeister Ralph that they’re giving him a suit that gives special abilities only to him (why this guy? Was, I dunno, Mr. Whipple not available?), and Bill will have to help him.
Both men are appalled, but they end up grudgingly working together to foil a plot by a rich industrialist to take over the country by having the U.S. vice president give speeches—really provocative speeches. Seriously, that’s the plot. This is made especially ludicrous given that the veep is played by old softie Richard Herd, whom you may recall as (the later) Admiral Paris, or possibly as Captain Sheridan from T.J. Hooker.
Bill and Ralph outwit the bad guys, even though Ralph loses the suit’s instruction book pretty much the second he gets his hands on it. Hilariously, the instruction book is this totally mundane spiral-bound tabbed handbook the size of a stack of 4×6 index cards. It looks like something put out by Mead for you to look up English-to-Metric conversions.