Sunday, August 11, 2013

Nostalgia Theater: Believe It or Not, It's Just The Greatest American Hero

We live in an age now where new superhero spectacles seem to be hitting theaters every other week, all armed with boffo budgets and big stars. Wasn't always that way, though. Time was, just a few short decades back, before CGI technology could turn every wayward imagining into a reality, the only way to depict a superhero on the screen was with tongue placed firmly in cheek -- that way the audience knew it was meant to be cheesy. That they were supposed to laugh at it. Yeah, that's the ticket!

The most obvious go at this approach was the 1960s Batman TV show that I talked about here. That pretty much set the cement for screen superheroing until Superman: The Movie in 1978 made a pretty strong argument for ditching campy & tongue-in-cheek in favor of earnest & sober. A few years later, producer Stephen J. Cannell tried to split the difference between the two takes, and what he arrived at was 1981's The Greatest American Hero, an action-comedy-drama that happened to have a superhero at its centre:

(Even if you haven't seen the show, I'm pretty sure you've heard theme tune "Believe It or Not", with music by Cannell's go-to music man Mike Post. Here's the Chipmunks version, FYI. And here's the George Costanza version.)

Premiering on ABC in March of '81, series starred William Katt as high school teacher Ralph Hinkley (hastily changed to "Hanley" after John Hinckley's attempted assassination of President Reagan), the great American of the title. His encounter with an alien craft leaves him in possession of a super-powered alien suit, though he neglected to take the instruction manual with him, leading to several George of the Jungle-esque instances of flying into walls, etc. Serving as Ralph's partner-in-crime solving was the late Robert Culp as FBI agent Bill Maxwell.

When he first dreamed the thing up, producer Cannell had envisioned The Greatest American Hero as the kind of weird genre hybrid that you didn't see much of back then. Thus, Ralph would tackle smaller scale "real world" problems, with fantastical elements serving as a backdrop for character drama. Things changed somewhat by the time the show actually made it to air, however, as the network higher-ups probably saw Katt in the red footie pajamas and figured this thing was meant to be the height of campy comedy.

Thus, we saw this weird tonal disconnect between what The Greatest American Hero was meant to be, and what it was forced to be. Oddly enough, that push-and-pull kind of worked for it, imbuing it with its own unique charm, and making it unlike just about any show that's aired before or since. With a likable lead in Katt and the fun byplay with Culp, The Greatest American Hero managed to eke out 44 episodes over the course of three seasons -- no mean feat, given its wonky premise. In fact, it probably could have gone a couple of years more if it weren't for the usual network interference.

While there have been a few cursory attempts to revive the show in the decades since (including a failed sequel series for NBC in '86 entitled The Greatest American Heroine that brought back Katt, Culp, and co-star Connie Sellecca, and got as far as a pilot), a planned movie update, to be produced by Cannell, fell apart a few years ago over financing issues. After Cannell's death in 2010, there's been no movement on that front at all, which is a shame. Given the current, superhero-soaked pop culture moment we're in the midst of, it's past time we gave The Greatest American Hero his due. Seriously. Believe it or not.

Check out the full pilot for the series below:

No comments: