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The Greatest American Hero: Season One

"Quality control" and "Stephen J. Cannell" are not typically synonymous; the television producer's prolificacy having ensured that his triumphs ("The Rockford Files" and "Wiseguy") are far outweighed by his travesties ("The A-Team," "Sonny Spoon," 'Booker," "Silk Stalkings," etc.) This is unfortunate, because, while many of these misbegotten series have undoubtedly contributed to his already sprawling estate, their low quality also tends to obscure the fact that Cannell is actually a very capable writer, and, "Rockford Files" notwithstanding, this was never in clearer evidence than with the oft- (and curiously) maligned The Greatest American Hero. Best remembered for its theme song, "Believe It or Not" (inescapable for a time on FM radio), the show premiered as a midseason replacement in March of 1981 and immediately enraptured an American public hungry for feel-good heroics as Cold War anxiety reached a fever pitch under the Reagan administration. Cannell's adroit masterstroke had to do with essentially matching two heroes, the first being a bleeding heart liberal schoolteacher with the rather indelicate (and wholly inadvertent) moniker of Ralph Hinkley (William Katt), the other a veteran, arch-conservative, Russkie-hating FBI agent named Bill Maxwell (Robert Culp). Highly unlikely circumstances bring the two together in the desert southwest just outside of Los Angeles, where they experience a close encounter with a U.F.O. ferrying aliens who communicate through Maxwell's car radio. The "little green guys" give the pair a dorky red supersuit and an edict to overcome their differences and do good. For the zealously patriotic Maxwell, this means routing the Red Menace and restoring America to its worldwide position as the sole global superpower, all of which he imagines in an amusingly overheated scenario. Hinkley, on the other hand, is a reluctant hero, especially since he's the one who'll be donning the spandex long-johns on a regular basis. Hinkley's task is also rather crucially complicated due to his having lost the supersuit's instruction manual (the first time he wears it, he's forced into soliciting takeoff advice from a kid.)

*          *          *

The 90-min. pilot episode of The Greatest American Hero establishes what should've been the m.o. for the entire series at least for its first few seasons — after fighting off a militia of right-wing Christian skinheads (try getting away with that in today's social climate), Hinkley and Maxwell make a pact to restrict themselves to righting domestic wrongs. In the wake of the Reagan Revolution, and not so long after the divisiveness of the Vietnam War, Cannell couldn't have hit upon a better concept. Though the show would find rough waters in its second season (a combination of fixing what wasn't broken, and the fact that ABC never really knew how to sell the series), the first season is a fun, corny, but often sharply written paean to the best, most selfless aspects of the American spirit. Cannell wisely brought Connie Sellecca to the fore as Hinkley's lawyer girlfriend Pam Davidson, who's generally the sanest character on the show. Also put to good use is Hinkley's high school class of troubled teens, led by Michael Paré as the tough-talking but good-hearted Tony Villicana. Of the eight episodes, only one approaches clunker status ("My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys," which features ex-"Lone Ranger" John Hart dishing out tired, straight-faced homilies that clash against the show's usual self-deprecating tone), while the others cleverly deal with the business of Hinkley bungling his way as he learns the suit's various powers (e.g. invisibility, clairvoyance, and pyrokinesis). The season finishes strong with "Fire Man" and "The Best Desk Scenario," both of which deepen Hinkley and Maxwell's relationship — the former by depicting them as adversaries, the latter through the juxtaposition of their rapidly changing fortunes, as dictated by age, in their respective professions. The series certainly had its limitations — like most Cannell shows, it bellows to the cheap seats rather than contend with nuance — but, in an era even more divisive than the one in which the show premiered, there's something unmistakably resonant here. It all builds off of the pilot episode, where Maxwell, after watching Hinkley perform brilliantly on their maiden mission, lets down his sardonic guard and expresses his heartfelt admiration for the "kid." He feels proud, and we feel kind of great, which is no small feat in this day and age. There's a mint waiting to be made from a big-screen treatment of this material. Anchor Bay Home Entertainment presents The Greatest American Hero: Season One in smudgy full-frame transfers with so-so monaural Dolby Digital audio. Extras include the never-aired pilot for the mercifully aborted 1986 spin-off The Greatest American Heroine and a generous helping of brand new, fairly candid interviews from Cannell (20 min.), Katt (10 min.), Culp (16 min.), Sellecca (16 min.) and Paré (12 min.) Two slim keep-cases with a paperboard sleeve.
—Clarence Beaks

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