Sunday, November 24, 2013

Nostalgia Theater: Airwolf Edition

Clockwise from center: Alex Cord, Ernest Borgnine, Jean Bruce Scott, Jan-Michael Vincent
During the 1980s, there were three "super vehicle" shows that only briefly peppered various primetime lineups, but have cast a long shadow in our memories all the same. Once I'd tackled Knight Rider and Street Hawk here in Nostalgia Theater, it became inevitable that I'd get to Airwolf before too long, and here we are. Created by Donald P. Bellisario (who we just talked about last week), Airwolf debuted on CBS in January of 1984, the same month that Street Hawk first raced to the air on ABC.

While Knight Rider focused on a souped-up car, and Street Hawk centered on a snazzy motorcycle, Airwolf was a helicopter outfitted with all manner of new-fangled stealth and capabilities. Though it's commissioned by a shadowy government org called "The Firm," the titular 'copter is piloted by one Stringfellow Hawk (played by Jan-Michael Vincent), who secrets it away in a hidden lair known only to himself and his partner Dominic Santini (Ernest Borgnine). Here's the intro, with memorable theme music by Sylvester Levay:


Airwolf Intro by ijeannie

Unlike the other "super vehicle" skeins I've mentioned, Airwolf did make more of a cursory effort to ground itself in some semblance of reality. It had a central vehicle (a retrofitted Bell helicopter) that, while advanced, didn't feel entirely like a sci-fi concoction. Also, while the show was primarily concerned with adventure-of-the-week stuff, with the 'copter called into action against various threats foreign and domestic, the running backstory (as alluded to in the "briefing" part of the above vid) had Hawke trying to locate his missing brother St. John (pronounced "Sinjin").

Airwolf performed modestly on CBS, and after a ratings drop during its third year, it was cancelled. However, following the cancellation, Canadian production company Atlantis licensed the concept from Universal and produced a cheapie fourth season for cabler USA. In order to make the numbers add up, the entire cast was axed, with only Vincent appearing in the transitory first ep long enough to be reunited with his brother (new lead Barry Van Dyke) and promptly killed off. Just compare the fourth year's to see just how chintzy things had gotten:

(You may also have noticed actor Geraint Wyn Davis in the cast, who would go on to find genre fame as the vampire detective at the center of Forever Knight -- which I previously discussed here)

Predictably, this tossed-together Airwolf (which scavenged all helicopter shots from previous seasons) didn't make enough of an impact to garner a further renewal, and thus Airwolf rotored off into the second-run syndication, with its seventy-nine episodes popping up pretty consistently since then (as of a few months ago, I'd seen some eps on the G4 cable network). All four seasons are also available on DVD, and the entire series can be streamed via Netflix and Hulu. Check out part one of the pilot ep below:

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