Case Number 18974: Small Claims Court


Mill Creek Entertainment // 1981 // 600 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Jim Thomas // May 26th, 2010

The Charge

"You're the only one that can save the world from destruction. If you fail...this planet will simply turn to dust." -- Alien

So, no pressure.

The Case

The Greatest American Hero is pure, unadulterated, 1980s-era cheese. A very fine cheese, mind you, but cheese nonetheless. The show chronicles the exploits of Ralph Hinkley (William Katt, Carrie), a mild-mannered teacher who has greatness thrust upon him when he encounters aliens in the desert. The aliens gift Ralph with a suit that grants him all manner of superpowers. Unfortunately, Ralph loses the instruction manual (As a technical writer, I must express my outrage that documentation is treated in such a cavalier fashion). The aliens partner Ralph with gung-ho FBI agent Bill Maxwell (Robert Culp, I Spy), who sees the suit as the ultimate means to root out communism. Dragged along for the ride is Ralph's girlfriend Pam (Connie Sellecca, The Wild Stallion).

Bill's uber-enthusiasm for their various missions notwithstanding, Ralph has some major issues with the "magic jammies" and the crusade into which he has been unceremoniously dragooned. For one thing, he's a single parent (although his son makes rare appearances), and periodic disappearances don't sit well with ex-wives or family courts. For another, he teaches at a local high school, having been assigned a "special ed" class full of congenital troublemakers, including Tony (Michael Paré, Eddie and the Cruisers), a Vinnie Barbarino wannabe, and Rhonda (Faye Grant, the original V), who has a crush on Ralph. Being dragged away from school projects and Shakespearian performances aren't going to help Ralph's chances for tenure. As a result, Ralph has quite the balancing act, attempting to juggle his parental and educator responsibilities with saving the world and keeping Bill from going too far off the deep end. The fun is in watching Bill attempting to boss around Ralph (who usually responds with a variant of "Hey, I'm the one with the magic jammies, remember?") and Pam, whose reactions when Bill calls her "cupcake" never get old. Ralph's inability to control the suit is played to the hilt, and the scenes in which Ralph and Bill try to discover new powers are money, since they usually trigger an unexpected power -- and thus Ralph manages to turn himself invisible right before he's supposed to have dinner with Pam and her parents.

Cross Chuck with Welcome Back Kotter, and you've got a good approximation of the show's overall tone. The show is a nice artifact from the halcyon days of television, when screenwriters simply didn't know what "verisimilitude" meant. So you get patently ludicrous concepts, such as Bill enlisting Ralph's class to track a dangerous criminal. That Bill would consider such a thing is perfectly believable, mind you -- that Ralph would go along...not so much. For a superhero, Ralph does relatively little to protect his secret identity. Bizarrely, it all manages to work as escapist fun of the first order.

The disc retains the mastering from the 2005 Anchor Bay edition, and that's just fine. Images are sharp, with some occasional color banding, most often seen whenever Pam's white VW bug passes in front of anything dark. The packaging leaves something to be desired, consisting of a thick snap case with the two discs resting inside in paper sleeves. Not only is it cheap, but it's bulky -- the same width as cases housing six-disc sets -- and for most DVD collectors, shelf space is at a premium. Most of the extras from the earlier Anchor Bay edition are gone, presumably to trim the set down to two discs; the only survivor is a 20-minute interview with show creator Stephen J. Cannell. It's good, but it would have been nice to get the cast interviews as well.

Trivia: In 2008, William Katt launched Catastrophic Comics. It's first title? The Greatest American Hero, natch.

The Verdict

It's hardly the greatest American series, but The Greatest American Hero's oddball antics will have you walking on air.

Not guilty.

Review content copyright © 2010 Jim Thomas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC

Scales of Justice
Judgment: 83

Perp Profile
Studio: Mill Creek Entertainment
Video Formats:
* Full Frame

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)

* None

Running Time: 600 Minutes
Release Year: 1981
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks
* Featurette

* IMDb

* Wikipedia: Greatest American Hero