Anchor Bay // 1981 // 432 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Eric Profancik (Retired) // March 2nd, 2005
Believe it or not I'm walking on air...
It shouldn't be any surprise that The Greatest American Hero was a success, at least for a season or two. How could this show not be a hit when it, as eloquently distilled by star William Katt (Carrie, House), appeals to the 14-year-old boy in every man? Countless children (and Comic Book Guy) have dreamed of being Superman, of being able to fly, to run amazingly fast, and to be indestructible. It's the classic childhood fantasy. It definitely was my number one wish as a boy -- and it still might be.
I loved this show and was ecstatic to see it released on DVD. This first season has whetted my appetite for the remaining episodes, even though I know they will quickly go downhill. But let's just sit back, relax, and enjoy the first season of the midseason hit. Let's go back and revisit the man with the magical red jammies.
Ralph Hinkley (William Katt) is your average mild-mannered high-school teacher. There's nothing at all special about him; in fact, life is a bit rough for him now: He's in the midst of a divorce, and his class of high-school students are the "bad eggs" of the school and aren't especially receptive to learning. Then, one day when Ralph is taking his "kids" on a fieldtrip to the desert, something ordinary happens that leads to an extraordinary event. The school bus stalls, sending Ralph walking back to the nearest gas station. En route, he is almost run over by FBI Special Agent Bill Maxwell (Robert Culp, I, Spy). As the two talk, a UFO appears in the sky above them. The "little green guys" tell them that they are to work together to help solve the world's problems. Ralph is given a red suit that will infuse him with super powers. To learn what the suit is capable of doing, an instruction book is included, but Ralph loses the instructions and has to figure out how to make it work on his own.
Soon Ralph and Maxwell are taking on the tough cases and saving the day in the greater Los Angeles area. And, even sooner, the two bring a third person into their fantastic new world, Ralph's girlfriend and lawyer, Pam Davidson (Connie Sellecca, Hotel). Follow along as Ralph tries to figure out how to fly, as Maxwell figures out how to use the suit to catch Commies, and as Pam tries to remain sane in the midst of such a wild ride.
Before I watched The Greatest American Hero (GAH) for the site, I had previously reviewed the first season of MacGyver. If you were to hop over and read my review of that TV show, you'll learn that I didn't have a lot of fun watching those episodes. It was a chore, and that premier season was a drag, since it was missing crucial elements of what become "MacGyver." It was tedious and tiresome. But when I popped in GAH and watched "The Pilot," everything was different. The first time I sat down, I only had five minutes before I had to leave to do something else. I was curious and anxious to take a quick peek, and those five minutes were great. Those first five minutes of GAH were more exciting and "alive" than the entirety of Season One of MacGyver. It was a complete change and a wonderful breath of fresh air. I really do like MacGyver, but GAH resounds with me so much more.
This slim three-disc set contains the first season of this midseason replacement. There are only eight episodes to view: "The Pilot," "The Hit Car," "Here's Looking At You, Kid," "Saturday on Sunset Boulevard," "Reseda Rose," "My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys," "Fire Man," and "The Best Desk Scenario."
Right off the bat, this show works. All the essential elements of GAH are here. An outstanding groundwork is perfectly laid down in "The Pilot," and the show is off!
The key element to the success of the show isn't Ralph and his super jammies. No, while it's fun to watch Ralph try to figure out how to use the suit, what makes the show work is the awesome rapport between Katt, Culp, and Sellecca. There is an instant understanding among the three, and it's like these people have worked together for years. The chemistry is fun to watch because it looks like they are having fun. Imagine my surprise to learn in the bonus items that Katt and Culp really didn't get along for a while. I never would have guessed that. The witty repartee, the insults, and the jabs were all so natural. This relationship blossoms in "The Pilot" and is finessed over the remaining episodes. If it weren't for this great interaction, GAH wouldn't be half the show that it is.
Of special note is Robert Culp and his irascibly lovable Bill Maxwell. If Bill weren't being a chauvinistic pig and picking on the counselor, if Bill weren't pushing Ralph to use the jammies, if Bill weren't bullying the world to catch the Commies, the show would be nothing but a simple Superman clone. But with Bill, a throwback to Reagan's cold-war '80s, the show has a hilarious character who spotlights the single-minded focus of good versus bad, the "I'm right and you're wrong" attitude. As crass, as rude, as rough as he is, you know his heart is in the right place -- so what if he ruffles a few feathers?
One of the funniest offshoots of Maxwell's steadfast determination to root out those dang Commies is the corny and cheesy dialogue. Some of what the characters say is so hokey you cannot help but laugh at it. Still, while this type of dialogue is usually a killer for a show or movie, it doesn't land a deathblow here. In fact, because the delivery of the lines is so earnest and true, it comes across as quite charming and endearing. I found myself looking forward to what inane thing Bill or Ralph would say next.
Now let's address the concept of the magical jammies and the underlying Superman fantasy. I know that when I first watched this show in 1981, I was attracted to the idea that a man could fly. I dreamed that it would be me with those spectacular powers, going off to save the planet. Now, twenty years later, I realize that the superpowers are a footnote to the show. The show appeals to me today because of the characters, their interactions, and the way they handled this absurd situation. Of course I still like Ralph trying to figure out the suit and its new role in his life, but I also find it annoying. How many times do I have to watch Ralph flail through the air because he can't fly straight? It's cute for a few seconds, then it quickly gets on your nerves -- except for the constant "damns" when he crashes; those are always funny. All the funky gyrations, weird faces, and odd noises coming from Ralph made me to want to fast forward. I guess it wouldn't have been so bad if there were more than, say, four clips of Ralph trying to fly. They just kept repeating the same scenes over and over again. Another interesting aspect of this season is the limited powers of the suit. There isn't a broad spectrum of powers yet, just your basic flying, speed, invulnerability, and invisibility. In later years, the suit would really become impressive.
One other item of note happened to the show. Somewhere around the third episode, John Hinckley shot Ronald Reagan. Seeing how it might be a bad idea to have your hero with the same last name as a presidential assassin (even though Ralph saved the President in the first episode), the powers that be decided Ralph Hinkley needed to become Ralph Hanley. So, in the third episode, it's perfectly obvious and humorous when sound effects pop up to cover up "Hinkley"; in the fourth episode, his last name is never mentioned; and in the fifth episode, Mr. H. is now Mr. Hanley. (Of course by the second season, he's Mr. Hinkley again.)
This DVD release looks pretty good for its age. Again I cannot help but mention the MacGyver DVDs because it's another night-and-day comparison. For the video, while MacGyver's full-frame transfer was soft and bland, The Greatest American Hero's is clean, bright, and sharp. Colors are accurately rendered, there's no bleed from Ralph's red jammies, blacks are not muddied, and the details pop out with solid contrast and sharpness. It isn't perfect, though: There is some occasional dirt, and the biggest problem is the last half of "My Heroes" flickers. The audio isn't quite as good; it sounds thin overall, but you can still easily understand all of the dialogue. What is hard to "understand" is the menu interface: It's too small. I had to squint to read the tiny print on the screen, and when you select an episode, it should immediately play and not go to the chapter list. And, speaking of chapters, this set commits the ultimate dual felonies of not having a chapter break at the end of the opening titles and not including any subtitles.
There are two bonus items on the final disc, and both are worth watching. The first is the unaired pilot episode of The Greatest American Heroine. The basic plot is that Ralph is caught being a superhero and the publicity inflates his ego. He is no longer the man the "green guys" recruited, so they tell him he has to find someone to give the suit to. The rest of the story follows the search, his female replacement, and Bill coping with his new "skirt" partner. Honestly, the episode is terrible, so I'm glad it was never picked up. But, as a bonus feature, it's a great inclusion -- though I think it would have been smarter to include this on the Season Three (final) set so we would be completely caught up on Ralph and the suit. The other bonus items are a series of new interviews with Stephen J. Cannell (20 minutes), William Katt (10 minutes), Robert Culp (16 minutes), Connie Sellecca (17 minutes), and Michael Paré (12 minutes). I enjoyed them all very much and learned many interesting things about the show. They're a definite watch! As much as I got out of these two items, though, I would have liked to see more, but it's better than nothing.
You really expect me to take this blonde, super fro-ed, skinny guy seriously? I'm supposed to believe this thin pork chop is a superhero? Ha! Now that's comedy.
And, if Bill Maxwell has been a Fed for well over a decade, why does he stink at simple undercover surveillance? Why is his idea of being discreet to pull up in front of the house/building with the bad guys inside, pop the hood of the car open, and pretend he's having engine problems? Is that really what they teach in the FBI? Maybe Maxwell should have stopped doing that after the first episode when the bad guys immediately realized what he was doing and took him hostage...classic!
I really enjoyed this show, and seeing it again on DVD was a welcome visit with an old friend. So many shows from my youth that I've picked up on DVD have let me down, but not The Greatest American Hero. This first season is a perfect blend of comedy, action, and adventure. The rapport between our lead trio, the quirky super powers, and even those pesky high-school kids added to the stories. I know the show is going to tank in the near future, but right now it really is great. I highly recommend this set for purchase.
I hereby find Ralph Hinkley to be The Greatest American Hero and all charges without merit. This case is dismissed.
Review content copyright © 2005 Eric Profancik; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 432 Minutes
Release Year: 1981
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* The Greatest American Heroine Pilot Episode
* Interviews with Stephen J. Cannell, William Katt, Connie Sellecca, and Michael Paré