Greatest American Hero: Season 1
In almost every culture there has been a need for mythology. For those of us in the United States one of the best known of these modern myths is Superman. Powerful and perfect he always knew just how to use his incredible powers to save the day. In 1981 Stephen J. Cannell came up with a unique twist on this character and gave the television audience a flawed superman in the form of The Greatest American Hero. Ralph Hinkley (William Katt) is a liberal high school teacher in California who finds that his car has driven him out to the desert near Palmdale. There his meets another seemingly hijacked person, Bill Maxwell (Robert Culp), a few right wing FBI agent. Once there they are pulled into a space ship by a group of small, green aliens. The ‘little green guys’ as Bill dubs them, bestow upon Ralph a special red suit that provides him with super human powers and he is commissioned to help fight against evil. The problem is Ralph immediately loses the instruction manual and is constantly coping with how to control his new found powers. Along with Ralph’s lawyer girlfriend Pam Davidson (Connie Sellecca) the three set out to fight crime as Ralph discovers power after power. Ralph only has his powers while he is actually wearing the suit but once donned it does provide a nice set of abilities. Ralph is super strong, bullets bounce off of him and he can fly, well sort of fly. Without the instructions Ralph’s control of this ability is far from perfect. Unlike Superman’s graceful take offs Ralph lurches into the away and tosses around the sky. He also receives holograms, pictures that only he can see that give him clues to what the bad guys are up to. The three members of the team fight stumble and bicker but they always manage to get the job done.
This show almost instantly became a cult favorite and for good reason. It was just good old fashion fun to watch. The eighties where a time of financial uncertainly and political turmoil, sounds a lot like today doesn’t it? After a hard day at work it was a relief to watch a show that transported you away to a simpler view of life. Ralph was not an idealized superhero; he was flawed, filled with self doubts, a hero we all can immediately empathize with. It’s the warts and all humanity in this series that touched us and made this show a perennial favorite with so many people. Ralph and Bill seemed to always be at odds with each other. Bill wanted to use the suit’s powers to affect a larger, more global scope of problems. He hoped that his involvement would boost his waning position at the FBI. Bill is an old war horse that is now watching much younger men pass him by. Ralph, on the other hand, is the eternal optimist, looking to make the world a better place. Still, at the end of the day they have each other’s back. In this first season we get to see a strange and unlikely pairing become a strong friendship. Pam loves Ralph and puts up with the misogynistic Bill. She is the one that balances the trio and keeps them on track. Together they made for a little piece of television history.
There is something about the distinctive casting of this little series. William Katt, son of Perry Mason star Barbara Hale, had already made a name for himself by the time this series was aired. With his work in shows like Pippin and Carrie, he carved out a niche as the nice, unassuming guy. This greatly helped in this role giving the audience someone to identify with. It promoted the premise of the average man becoming a super hero. He was able to portray Ralph as a man in possession of great powers yet still maintaining his values. Robert Culp is one of those actors that never seem to disappoint. A regular on the Outer Limits he is no stranger to the Sci-Fi genre. While his work in the groundbreaking film ‘Bob & Carol, Ted & Alice’ demonstrated his dramatic abilities this show displayed the natural talent for comedy. His facile acting style gave grounding to this series, a touch of reality to help us believe. Culp was equally at home as the villain or the good guy. Here, he plays a man that has his own agenda yet never loss sight of the purpose for the suit. Connie Sellecca showed she was capable of a lot more than being the pretty girl usually added to a show for eye candy. She gave Pam intelligence and depth far beyond what most shows of that time possessed. She was well known on the set for her bizarre, often macabre practical jokes which displayed her innate sense of off beat humor. She was able to use this to her advantage in this series.
Series creator Stephen J. Cannell has an uncanny knack to take a gimmick laden premise for a television show and create a cult classic. With hits like the A-Team, Hunter and Stingray among his long list of successes, Cannell never allowed Greatest American Hero to take it self too seriously. The series is well written, far better than most would think. It is his commitment to quality, no matter how silly the series may seem to some, that made this show so beloved. Even his selection of a theme song, Believe it or Not, was genius; it became a hit single, one of the few television themes to do this.
As an admitted fan of the show from its original airings, I was overjoyed to find that a DVD box set of the first season was set. Finally, I could retire my treasured, twenty year old video tapes, thank you Anchor Bay for realizing that people enjoy DVDs of things other than blockbuster films and more recent television series. The Dolby mono audio track has held up remarkably well. The dialogue is clear and typically without any glitches. The full screen mono was done very well consider the age of the source material. I did note a few specks here and there but overall it was excellent. I only hope that Anchor Bay has plains to release the whole series soon. This is a kinder, gentler television show, one the entire family can enjoy time and time again. If you are tired of television that is intent on pushing the envelope get this and see that quality television can be made for the whole family.