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A Casual TV Fan's Guide

The Greatest American Hero: Season One
Rated: N/A :: Air dates: 1981

By Dan Toland
11 September 2008 — Everyday, people ask me, "Hey, Dan. What's your favorite Seinfeld moment?" The answer, of course, is George's answering machine message:

Believe it or not, George isn't at home.
Please leave a message at the beep.
I must be out, or I'd pick up the phone.
Where could I be?
Believe it or not, I'm not home.

The Greatest American Hero: Season One
Episodes / DVDs: Eight episodes (plus a bonus episode) on three discs
Starring: William Katt as Ralph Hinkley / Hanley, Robert Culp as Agent Bill Maxwell, Connie Sellecca as Pam Davidson
Featuring: Michael Paré as Tony Villicana and Faye Grant as Rhonda Blake

Sprung fully formed from the mind of Stephen J. Cannell (The Rockford Files, The A-Team, 21 Jump Street and about a billion other shows), The Greatest American Hero is a dramedy about Ralph Hinkley / Hanley (William Katt from House, the comedy / horror film, not the show about the cranky doctor), a Los Angeles remedial education teacher who's given a superhero costume by aliens (RE: "little green guys"). Why? Hell, it was 1981. We were lucky to get that much explanation. Anyway, along for the ride is Robert Culp (I Spy) as FBI Agent Bill Maxwell, an overly enthusiastic commie-hunter. He was ostensibly there to guide Ralph toward missions, but, really, it was so we could have the obligatory sensitive liberal / conservative jackass debates that were federally mandated by the Bickering Mismatched TV Partners Act of 1976. (However, to the show's credit, Maxwell wasn't always wrong, and Ralph wasn't always right.) The only other person in on the secret is Pam Davidson (Connie Sellecca, Hotel), Ralph's girlfriend and attorney in his court battle to secure custody of his son, Plot Device. No, wait. Sorry, his name's Kevin.

Much of the humor came from the fact that when Ralph got the suit, he immediately lost the instruction manual, the result of which is that he has no idea what the suit can do or how to make it work. He's constantly discovering new powers, but what everyone remembers are the flight scenes. Rather than fly in a straight line with his arms stretched in front of him, Ralph flails wildly through the air, kicking his legs and waving his arms, screaming like Shemp the entire time. And he never lands, so much as he crashes into stuff.

The rules for the suit changed depending on what each episode needed, but generally they ran as follows:

01. The only person the suit will work for is Ralph. (Or whoever.)
02. Ralph isn't generally allowed to perform his super-stunts in front of people. (Unless he is.)
03. The suit must be worn in its entirety with nothing covering it. (This was broken all the time.)

What this generally leads to is a lot of William Katt looking humiliated while wearing a really goofy costume in some very public places. That suit is awfully goofy looking, and the show's writers and producers are fully aware of that. This show is making fun of superheroes, it can't be denied. But it's not making fun of its characters, and it's never campy or mean-spirited. It's a joke that everyone's in on, and it's hard not to root for the show.

And, of course, it has a theme song that's so pervaded pop culture that even people who were born after the show went off the air can sing at least the first couple of lines.

Disc One
Writer: Stephen J. Cannell

The Plot: Ralph gets his magic jammies just in time to prevent a presidential assassination.

Good Stuff: First of all, Robert Culp is a force of nature. He's absolutely hilarious. He takes a character that could have been, and probably should have been, a leaden stereotypical gun-nut government agent and plays him with an enthusiasm that borders on childlike. When he thinks about all the things he can do with Ralph's suit (such as taking out the entirety of the Soviet military in an afternoon), he's positively gleeful.

The show opens strong with a pretty decent ATV chase. You don't see a lot of those.

The spaceship, especially for its time, is very well-realized. And the means it uses to communicate with Ralph and Bill is very clever.

The part where Ralph flies for the first time opens with a great scene as a very young kid informs Ralph that he's doing it wrong. As anyone who watched the George Reeves Superman program or the old Filmation Shazam! series could tell you, in order to fly, you need to take three steps, jump once (like, say, onto a springboard) and then you take off.

Ralph's first attempt at crashing through a wall is unsuccessful.

Not So Good Stuff: This still happens to some degree now, but this was extremely common for the time: Ralph's students (the typical TV prototypes of tough guys who're basically good kids) all look like they're pushing 30.

And incidentally, what high school teacher gets to take his kids on spontaneous field trips that keep them out 'til after dark? Or, for that matter, what school not only condones but actively sets up a boxing match between that teacher and one of his students? I mean, even if the student is 32 years old?

About 35 minutes in there's a scene loaded with boom shadows.

Ralph takes a curious lack of convincing that the suit will give him superpowers. I mean, sure, it was handed to him by an alien, but still, you think he'd want to actually see it work before he assumes it will help him fly and lift stuff. Regardless of the circumstances, if anyone, no matter how hellishly impressive those circumstances might be, hands you a suit and says, "Wear this and you can fly and stop bullets," you're going to be at least mildly skeptical and want to start off small by lifting things around the house. Your immediate reaction is not going to be "Awesome!" followed by a quick jump off the neighbor's porch overhang.

Powers Discovered: Flight, strength, speed, holographic vision (when looking in mirrors) and resistance to injury.

Random Observations: Kevin is watching an episode of The Super Friends the morning after Ralph gets the suit, the soundtrack to which acts as a backdrop to the scene in which he wears it for the first time. (Both shows ran on ABC.)

Both Cannell and Katt confirm it in the bonus interviews: the look of overwhelming horror and disgust that Ralph displays when he looks at himself in the mirror while wearing the suit for the first time is all too real. Katt hated this suit.

Just 12 days after this episode aired, John Hinckley attempted to assassinate President Reagan. Because of this, Ralph's last name would be changed to Hanley, but he was almost always referred to as "Mr. H." He would go back to being Ralph Hinkley by the start of the second season, however.

Overall: This is pretty good. Katt is obviously uncomfortable about being in the costume, but it serves the character well. As mentioned, Culp is a lot of fun. The story itself is almost inconsequential, and the special effects are very dated (and frequently recycled), but this still holds up as a character piece and a buddy comedy: 8 out of 10.

The Hit Car
Writer: Stephen J. Cannell

The Plot: A mobster attacks a federally protected witness from his heavily armored sedan. Ralph tries to protect her, while guiding his class through a production of The Taming of the Shrew.

Good Stuff: This car seriously looks like it could drive through a building without slowing down.

The look on Culp's face when the witness informs him that she wants he and Ralph to drive her from San Francisco to Los Angeles, based on advice she got from her astrologer that flying was inadvisable, is worth what it costs to buy these DVDs.

Not So Good Stuff: Bill Maxwell, FBI Agent to the stars, hangs out in front of his witness' hotel room window, and has the gall to look surprised when he gets shot at.

You know what's even goofier than William Katt and his giant afro? A stuntman dressed as William Katt in an even bigger giant afro wig.

In a subplot that disappears before being addressed in the final five minutes, the kids have prepared and rehearsed The Taming of the Shrew — all on their own, to the point of public performance in two days.

Random Observations: Ralph is still named Hinkley.

Kene Holliday, who pays District Attorney Turner, was the voice of Roadblock on GI Joe. I don't know why I know that, but I do.

Overall: A fun episode. The bulk of it is built not on the plot (it's pretty thin), but on the relationships between the three main characters. They haven't learned how to play together yet, but they're all trying. And you can see them bonding: 8 out of 10.

Here's Looking at You, Kid
Writer: Juanita Bartlett

The Plot: A top-secret gunsight is stolen (kinda easily). Ralph investigates. Although Pam's parents are in town, this is bound to be an acceptable excuse, and could not possibly create any problems or headaches.

Good Stuff: A lot of time is spent with Bill trying to help Ralph train in the use of the suit. These scenes manage to be both funny, and build the Katt / Culp dynamic.

Not So Good Stuff: Seriously, what the hell does Ralph teach? History? English? Civics? Getting Lost in the Desert at Night 101? Man, he's throwing a lot at these kids.

One of these things is not like the other. They were very cavalier about showing the stuntman's face, and he turns up several times — looking nothing like Katt.

Powers Discovered: Psychometry (touch something and learn more about its owner) and invisibility.

Random Observations: The de-Hinkleyfication begins here. Pam's mother (June Lockhart, Lost in Space) says Ralph's name, but it's drowned out by a poorly dubbed plane engine. Twice. And later, a maitre d' brings a bottle of champagne to Pam's table, "compliments of Mister." They just cut the name out entirely.

One of the bad guys is played by Elvis Presley's associate Red West. (See the Quantum Leap episode "Memphis Melody," in which the fictional version was portrayed by his real-life son.)

Overall: The caper-of-the-week takes a little more prominence here, and it's to the show's detriment. While there's plenty of banter between Katt and Culp, Sellecca is all but sidelined, and the subplot with her parents isn't very interesting. Nor, for that matter, is the A-story. This isn't a bad episode, but it's hardly a highlight: 6.5 out of 10.

Disc one starts things off strong. The pilot is very entertaining, as is the episode following. "Here's Looking at You, Kid" is a little weaker, but it has its moments.

Disc Two
Saturday on Sunset Boulevard
Writer: Stephen J. Cannell

The Plot: As both the FBI and the KGB are searching Los Angeles for a Soviet defector and his wife, Ralph tries to keep his students from dropping out of school. Bill fails a semiannual lie detector test due to his inability to talk about Ralph and the suit, which may lead to him being drummed out of the FBI.

Good Stuff: In an effort to showcase the kids, Ralph has them help Bill find Sergei, the missing defector. This is a great way to get the students, who usually feel shoehorned in as Ralph's day job, involved in the story. Michael Paré (Starhunter) as Tony, the leader of Ralph's class, is always fun, and any reason to give him more to do is a good one. Incidentally, he has a very good rapport going with Culp and Katt. Faye Grant (V) plays Rhonda as someone who realizes just how low her self-esteem is, and wants to feel better about herself without quite knowing how to go about it. They're two standouts in a crew that's finally getting some attention paid to them.

Ralph reluctantly changes in a phone booth.

Not So Good Stuff: Ralph is shockingly naïve about some things the government would be willing to do, especially for someone so unabashedly liberal in the post-Watergate era.

The KGB make big trrroble for Moose undt Sqvirrel.

I could handle Ralph slipping on a banana peel (seriously) if they hadn't felt the need to dub in a Hanna-Barbera sound effect.

Overall: Despite getting off to a slow start, this is a very well-written episode that fleshes out a lot of the secondary cast. The character interplay comes first, and the viewer's interest is held, despite there actually being very little time with the suit: 8 out of 10.

Reseda Rose
Writer: Juanita Bartlett

The Plot: Rhonda's mother goes missing after she sees something she's not supposed to.

Good Stuff: Nothing specific is really jumping out.

Not So Good Stuff: Apparently, the ocean is only about 15 feet deep three miles off the California coast.

I'm not totally clear on why Rhonda goes to Ralph for help. If my mother had gone missing when I was in high school, I probably wouldn't have enlisted the help of my English teacher, no matter how cool I thought she was.

Dialog indicates that Rose is supposed to be in her early 30. Um, no.

The Hanna-Barbera tape makes its reappearance.

Random Observations: For the first time since the pilot, Ralph's son puts in an appearance.

Rhonda calls Ralph "Mr. Hanley." The dub's not bad.

Overall: This isn't awful, but it's pretty tedious. Much like "Looking at You," the last episode written by Bartlett, the focus is more on the crime than on the cast, and that usually means a dull episode. Even Robert Culp isn't all that amusing, and Rose is just irritating: 5 out of 10.

My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys
Writer: Stephen J. Cannell

The Plot: A retiring police officer is planning to pull a big heist. At the same time, Ralph seriously considers giving up the suit when a mistake he makes puts people in danger

Good Stuff: The episode opens mid-action. They really should have done this more often. In the first four minutes, Ralph flies, crashes into a police car, stops a bad guy's sedan and prevents a bus filled with Japanese tourists from plunging off a cliff.

Speaking of which, Ralph still can't land for shit, but he is getting his flying under control.

It's not just that Culp gets to say lines like, "Either I get what I want, or I get to feed you to my cat." It's that he delivers them so cheerfully.

We see Bill Maxwell's apartment for the first time. He has a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher hanging on his wall.

Not So Good Stuff: Even for this show, some of the flying sequences are bad.

Ralph's class is brought in for a 90-second scene at the very end of the show. I have to wonder why they bothered.

Random Observations: This episode features a guest appearance by John Hart (best known as the Lone Ranger who wasn't Clayton Moore) as himself, giving a speech that inspires Ralph to keep on keepin' on with his superhero thing. (Totally pedantic note: Hart was only the Lone Ranger from 1952-1954, and his relative unpopularity kept his episodes from being syndicated until the 1980s. It was highly unlikely that Ralph would have grown up watching him, as he says several times in the episode. It's far more likely that he would have watched Clayton Moore only.) This episode aired a month or so before the extremely highly promoted The Legend of the Lone Ranger film was released, bringing the character back into the public eye — before fizzling out rapidly, due in large part to being a serious contender for "worst movie ever made."

See Brandon Williams as Ralph's son? Take a good look, because it's the last time you'll ever see him. The show barely, if ever, acknowledged Ralph even had a son after this.

Overall: This is great. Like all the best episodes, the crime Ralph is trying to stop is secondary to the personal stories of the main cast. Ralph's crisis of confidence is handled well, and we learn a lot about Bill Maxwell. Ralph's nostalgia for a show he grew up watching obviously resonates, too. Cannell's a hell of a writer: 9 out of 10.

Disc two is bookended by a pair of very strong episodes, although "Reseda Rose" is really boring.

Disc Three
Fire Man
Writer: Lee Sheldon

The Plot: Ralph tries to prove Tony Villicana's innocence when he's arrested for setting fire to an FBI records facility.

Good Stuff: "Okay, kid, I'm gonna read you your rights: Shut up and wait for a lawyer."

Katt, who has frequently looked mildly uncomfortable in this series, looks like he's having a good time here. Ralph mouths off to the FBI, embarrasses Bill in front of another agent with relish and saves a bag lady from a burning building.

Michael Paré turns in a good performance as Tony. In the face of serious trouble, Tony is nowhere near as tough as he pretends to be.

Not So Good Stuff: Whenever Ralph flies, they use the same "whooshing" sound effect that was used for George Reeves. At one point, Ralph tries to take off, gets about four feet in the air and does a face plant. He's probably not traveling fast enough at this point to be whooshing through the air, although they tack on the sound effect.

In the pilot, Pam practiced divorce and family law, but now she's a criminal defense attorney?

The bad guy pulls out of his garage wearing a silver asbestos suit with a flamethrower strapped to his back in broad daylight. Way to be covert!

Powers Discovered: Super-breath.

Random Observations: This is the only episode written all season by someone other than Cannell or Bartlett.

Danny Glover makes a very early appearance as one of the undercover cops chasing Tony. He was, at this point, precisely the right age for this shit.

Overall: This was pretty good. A lot of great stunt work, especially from the drivers. Robert Culp is criminally underused, however. Still, it's very enjoyable: 7.5 out of 10.

The Best Desk Scenario
Writer: Juanita Bartlett and Stephen J. Cannell

The Plot: Ralph accepts a promotion as the school's new vice principal, Maxwell begins to feel his own mortality and Pam takes a high-powered job at a firm whose senior partner is involved with the mob.

Good Stuff: Ralph uses his holographic vision to determine the whereabouts of a certain file, and sees Pam and Bill finding the file all on their own in the next room. His reaction? "I want to go home."

There's actually a fairly cool set piece in which a car falls on Ralph.

Not So Good Stuff: There are altogether too many pictures of clowns decorating Ralph's home. And in his new office, he has a poster of a bunny. Seriously.

Bill Maxwell mopes through the entire episode. He's forgotten that he needs to be awesome.

Powers Discovered: Pyrokinesis. (Bill's car go boom.)

Random Observations: Bill's carrying around a copy of The Anarchist Cookbook.

Overall: An interesting idea for an episode, but it's not really all that engaging. The leads interact amusingly, but the plot fails to hold the viewer: 6 out of 10.

That was it for the season. As a mid-season replacement, only eight episodes were produced that first year. But the disc continues with an inexplicable special feature:

The Greatest American Heroine
Writer: Babs Greyhosky
Guest starring: Mary Ellen Stuart as Holly Hathaway

The Plot: After Ralph uses his powers in public and becomes a celebrity, the aliens ask for their suit back. Ralph gives it (and Bill Maxwell) to Holly Hathaway, a kindergarten teacher and foster parent with about a thousand causes to support.

Good Stuff: For one thing, it's pretty cool that all the main cast returned for this.

The scene on the spaceship with the "little green guys" wisely has their faces in shadow.

Robert Culp struggles mightily to rise above the morass of awfulness, and he gets some good lines in. His reactions to some of Holly's more egregious stupidity (see below) are pretty funny. Especially good: when he gets to her house and sees a sign for her in-home business: "Anything's Pawsable." Most actors would have read the sign out loud, their voice dripping with vitriol, eye-rolling their way through it. Culp, on the other hand, gets as far as "anything's" before refusing to say the second word and silently moving on. It's much more effective.

Not So Good Stuff: Ralph's "outing" takes place far too quickly. It's a 90-second scene in the first four minutes of the show that seems to start about halfway through the action. I think that he was set up to perform on camera, but I'm not sure, because it's really unclear.

Mary Ellen Stuart is bad. She's real bad. Oh, also, Mya Akerling as Sarah, Holly's precocious foster-daughter who talks like a nuclear physicist? Also extremely not good. I can't remember the last time I wanted to punch a little girl in the mouth this badly. And the script — I can't forget the script. It's just plain terrible. Holly is a hyper-perky caricature of a hippy-crunchy-granola chick who drinks turnip shakes and ignores terrorists and crime to put a stop to illegal whaling off the coast of Newfoundland. Her training session is a montage of Holly destroying sporting equipment on a football field. This whole thing is just a mess of the highest order. My brain hurts so very much.

Precisely how much authority does an FBI agent have in Newfoundland? What's that? "None," you say? Excellent! Give yourself a gold star. And while you're at it, go back in time to let the writer know.

Random Observations: Made three years after the series ended, this was a pilot for a proposed spin-off. Clearly, it wasn't picked up.

While I understand including it with a The Greatest American Hero set, why it's with the first season and not the last is anybody's guess.

The suit has been redesigned. It seems to be made of Lycra, and actually looks marginally less dopey (on Ralph, anyway).

Every episode of The Greatest American Hero had at least one pop song on the soundtrack. Usually they were fairly unknown songs. Here, however, they use Whitney Houston's "The Greatest Love of All." (You know, the one where she believes the children are our future.)

Overall: Bleaurgh! While it's not so bad starting out, it becomes completely unwatchable once Katt and Sellecca depart. A poorly written script performed by a sub-par actress, completely devoid of characterization of any sort. While a hallmark of the series had always been the slight tension between the gently left-wing Ralph and the hard-nosed conservative Bill, this totally fails to work because Holly isn't a well-rounded character like Ralph; she a "save the whales" cartoon character. It's that characterization which was always the series' greatest strength, and without that, this is just a noisy kid's show: 3 out of 10, and that's only because the first 10 minutes are relatively easy to sit through.

Disc three runs from excellent ("Fire Man") to not bad ("Best Desk Scenario") to purely indescribable wretchedness ("Greatest American Heroine") which should be viewed only if you really feel a driving need to see for yourself how bad scripted television can be. It also has the special features, which come to 45 minutes of interviews with Cannell, Katt, Culp, Sellecca and Paré. They're actually pretty interesting, and more honest than you usually get in nostalgic DVD bonus material. (Despite fond memories of the show and the people he worked with, Katt still hates the costume and would like to see it burned.)

Final Verdict: There are good episodes on every disc, but disc two just beats disc one. Despite having the least overall material (all the discs have three episodes, but disc one includes the double-length pilot and disc three has the interviews that equate to the length of a fourth show), "Saturday on Sunset Boulevard" and "My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys" are probably the two best shows on the set.

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