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Thursday, March 31, 2011
Retro TV Round-Up: The Greatest American Hero "Pilot"

When The Greatest American Hero first aired in the early 80's, I thought this show was the greatest thing since sliced bread. Or at least the greatest thing since they canceled the original Battlestar Galactica and the new Buck Rodgers.

I saw a handful of episodes, though I can't recall much about the show except that it involved a teacher named Ralph who had this supersuit and he'd lost the instruction manual. Any nuances the show had beyond that were lost on me. I was tuning in to see Ralph take on the bad guys and what kind of wacky fun he'd have that week either trying to fly or understanding whatever new power was making itself evident that week.

I also recall the show would air past my bed time so if I wanted to stay up to see it, I'd have to take a nap that afternoon. I think this was the biggest impediment to seeing it on a regular basis because after school there was homework, time to play and endless repeats of Looney Tunes cartoons (if only they still showed them today).

Oh yeah, and I remember the theme song. I think everyone remembers the theme song.

Needless to say, I have fond memories of the show, even if they're a bit hazy. So, a couple of years ago when I saw the first season was hitting DVD, I decided to take a trip down memory lane and pick it up. It was an impulse buy pure and simple, a yearning to revisit something I fondly remembered from growing up but hadn't seen since then.

I recall I watched the pilot and a few episodes from season one. It was enough to make me want to buy seasons two and three when they hit stores. But then I got distracted by other things and stopped watching the DVDs. Again, it comes down to only seeing a handful of episodes of the show.

And while we're still in full swing of most current shows, for some reason last week I was consumed by a desire to watch the pilot again. So, I pulled out the DVD and started again, thinking I might make it another retro round-up journey for myself. The biggest difference is that unlike classic Trek, many of these episodes are new to me. And while I plan to watch at least the entire first season, I may combine several episodes into one post.

But, for now, it's the pilot episode.

One of my first thoughts on watching the pilot is that if you've watched the opening credits (which run almost two minutes), you've seen a lot of clips from the pilot. School teacher Ralph Hinkley takes his class out on a field trip into the middle of the desert. When their van loses power, Ralph sets out to find help and meets up with FBI agent Bill Maxwell. The two met earlier in a diner when the students were rude to Bill. Anyway, a space ship comes down, tells our heroes they're chosen to use the suit (Ralph wears it, Bill picks the assignments) and heads off. Interestingly, the alien representative is Bill's partner who is killed before the opening credits.

Of course, the two don't immediately hit it off. They're opposites--Bill is conservative, Ralph a bit more liberal. They go their separate ways and vow to never speak of it again...until the next day when Ralph is running late to a custody hearing for his son and decides to try out the suit. But he's lost the instruction book and is on his own. He tries to fly and it doesn't go well. This all leads to his being picked up and sent to a psychiatric hospital. He calls for Pam, his lawyer and maybe girlfriend (it's not clear whether she is or not at this point, though the episode quickly puts them together) to come get him. While there, he sees visions of Bill in trouble. Bill's been captured by a group of shaved headed guys who want to put the president out of the picture and put the vice president in charge.

Ralph convinces Pam to help him find Bill and escape. They go in, rescue Bill and then hatch a plan to stop this group from taking out the president. Ralph controls his flying enough to wave off the president's chopper and the plot is overthrown. Meeting again in the desert, the trio decide that they'll fight for justice on our home turf first and then expand the crusade later if necessary.

Watching the pilot again this time, I was struck by a few things. One is I'd completely forgotten that Ralph had a son--even from my watching the pilot a few years ago. Also, it's interesting that he's not romantically involved with Pam as the story starts (at least it doesn't seem that way) but this is quickly addressed. The two declare their love for each other in her car on the way to rescue Bill and discuss how Ralph's being a super hero could impact their marriage. It all seems a bit quick--more like the script wanted to put this card on the table in the pilot and not allow the audience to watch the romance develop. Either that or they decided late in the game Pam would be a love interest and they sort of just put this thread in there.

Given that I recall ads for an episode with Pam and Ralph getting married, I think we can gather it all works out.

It may seem I'm a bit down on the show, but I'm not really. For what it is, I liked it. The banter between Bill and Ralph is what makes it work. And while some of the plot threads don't hang together all that well, the three main characters are well developed and interesting enough that you can see how the show can and may develop. The series came along at a time when serialization wasn't quite what it is now, so I'm prepping myself for the thread of Ralph learning to use the suit not exactly building like it would today. I fully expect Ralph to have problems flying for a while now.

And while it's a bit obvious on DVD where some of the special effects are (esp. the flying), I still have to remember when the show was made.

All that said, I can see why the show was picked up and given a chance. I can see why it made an impression on me as a kid and why it's still fondly remembered to this day. Hopefully future episodes won't diminish that too much....

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posted by Michael Hickerson at 3/31/2011 01:21:00 PM | |
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