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Sunday, February 13, 2011

Superhero Sunday: Believe It or Not

Look at what's happened to me-ee. . .
I can't believe it myself.
Suddenly, I'm up on top of the world.
Should've been somebody e-e-e-e-lse. . .
Are you singing along yet? Then you know what today's subject is, don't you?
I recently returned to the magic of my youth by re-watching all of the episodes of The Greatest American Hero television show from the 80s. It was my favorite television show for the two to two-and-a-half years that it aired.
For those needing a reminder, The Greatest American Hero followed the adventures of liberal school teacher Ralph Hinckley, (William Katt) chosen to wear a super-powered costume given to him by a mysterious alien species and partnered with conservative FBI agent Bill Maxwell (Robert Culp) to save the world. The only other person who knows about the suit is Ralph's attorney/girlfriend Pamela Davidson (Connie Selleca, my first crush). Oh, and Ralph lost the instruction booklet on how the suit works. Let the hijinks ensue.
I was seven when the series first aired, so I was most drawn to the bright red suit, the flying, the throwing of bad guys into the air, and Connie Selleca. (I was seven, not a eunuch.)
Watching it now, I realize that there was a hidden meaning to the title The Greatest American Hero. Ralph worked as a special education teacher at the high school and he struggled to get through to his class of outcasts (Michael ParĂ© and Faye Grant, among others) to help them turn their lives around. He was an idealist and an all-around decent guy, which is probably why he was chosen to wear the suit. Bill Maxwell represented the other side of America. A bit rough around the edges, Bill was a Korean War veteran and had committed his life to catching bad guys and bringing them to justice. Through the series, we find that Bill's got a pretty big heart himself.
Seeing the episodes again some 30 years later, I find that I am now more drawn to Ralph's struggles of trying to save the world and his corner of the world at the same time, Robert Culp's complex characterization of Bill Maxwell, and Connie Selleca. (Some things are not meant to change.)
When series creator Stephen J. Cannell was first approached by ABC to create a "superhero show" he wasn't sure how to go about it. He decided that the most interesting story was about the man rather than the powers, so he decided that the powers should exist only in the suit. After the series was up and running, he fought with the top brass at the network who wanted to tell more traditional superhero stories: stopping nuclear missiles, fighting alien creatures, etc. Sometimes Cannell lost the battles, and a few of those types of stories made it through.
I suppose when I was a kid, those were my favorite stories, because there was more flying and more super-powered stuff, but now my favorites are the stories where Ralph explores the ramifications of wearing the suit and where having the ability to fly and crash through walls can't solve every problem.
The cast most enjoyed those stories as well, and not just because William Katt hated the suit. (He really hated the suit.) Katt and company definitely understood that The Greatest American Hero wasn't really about the super-suit, and I now understand that, too.
In fact, it's that element of the show that holds up the best three decades later. The effects are still pretty good even today, and they were downright breath-taking in 1981. The performances are top-notch from the leads and the chemistry is undeniable - especially between Katt and Selleca. Weaker aspects of the show are some of those network-driven "monster" episodes. (Katt has theorized that these episodes were ultimately the downfall of the show.) Also, some of the episodes are almost inexplicably very poorly edited and directed. A lot of footage - particularly the flying sequences - are re-used extensively in the first couple of seasons, but I don't suppose that anybody ever anticipated that people would someday be able to watch episodes back-to-back that had originally aired weeks apart.
The show was cancelled in 1983, and, in 1986, a mini-pilot, The Greatest American Heroine, was filmed in which Ralph passes the suit on to a young woman. It was an intriguing idea, and Mary Ellen Stuart looked pretty incredible in the costume, but it just didn't have the magic of the original. Stuart's Holly Hathaway was thrilled to have the suit, whereas Ralph Hinckley had always seen it as a burden and a responsibility.
There was talk of a movie a few years ago, but nothing seems to have materialized. Perhaps that's for the best. I worry that new writers and producers will focus more on the campiness of the costume than the
story of a man who suddenly becomes a superhero.
If you're feeling nostalgic for The Greatest American Hero, I think it's best to just stay with the original series.

1 comment:

Prof. Jenn said...

Whatever happened to William Katt? He was the epitome of Pippin back in the day, and this show...well it's a Cannell classic.

Damn you, Darnell, for getting this song in my head, BTW.