Inside, Judge Eric Profancik weeps every time he hears this show's theme song on adult contemporary radio, sandwiched between Jon Secada and Amy Grant.
Our reviews of The Greatest American Hero: Season One (published March 2nd, 2005), The Greatest American Hero: The Complete First Season (published May 26th, 2010), and The Greatest American Hero: Season Three (published August 31st, 2005) are also available.
"What? I love the color red!"
It's always interesting to see how quickly things can change in life. One day everything is rosy and happy and going well; the next day, the very same thing has become dreadful and tiresome. How is it that we can flip our emotions so quickly? Shouldn't that joy be able to counteract the badness for a little while? You would think so, but deep down inside, we all know that isn't the case. This happened to me recently, when I started watching the second season of The Greatest American Hero (GAH). Even though I vaguely recalled the show getting bad in the second season, I was not prepared for how quickly my joy would vanish when I broke open the set.
Facts of the Case
Ralph Hinkley (William Katt, House) has had his supersuit for several months now, and he's getting better at using it. He doesn't flail around as much when he flies, and he's discovered a few more tricks up those alien sleeves. The ever-blunt FBI Agent Bill Maxwell (Robert Culp, I, Spy) is pressing Ralph to use the jammies for bigger and better cases. Instead of helping a cat out of a tree, Bill intervenes to help stop World War III. And the lovely Pam Davidson (Connie Sellecca, Hotel) continues to support the team in any way she can.
Coming along for the ride this year is Ralph's class of high-school special-education students. They have been joining Mr. H. on many fantastic field trips to abandoned gold mines and to the Bahamas! And, of course, wherever Ralph and the suit go, so goes trouble.
Presented on this six-disc set are the 22 episodes of the second season of The Greatest American Hero—its only full season of production:
• "The Two-Hundred-Mile-an-Hour Fastball"
In my review of the first season, I said many positive things about the series; but one statement still rings loudly with its irony: "This first season has whetted my appetite for the remaining episodes." Any hunger I had almost instantly vanished when I started watching the very first episode of Season Two. I have never seen a show do such a quick turnaround and go from good to crap in less time. In Season One, they made just eight episodes, and I really liked them. Then they had summer off to rest and plot the next season, and when they came back, it fell apart. In "The Two-Hundred-Mile-an-Hour Fastball," GAH jumped the shark. And, if I recall correctly, I believe they did it within the first ten minutes. The show turned into such a tremendous bore that it took me weeks to plod through the season. I found myself nodding off towards the end of most episodes, and I had to force myself to sit down and watch the next one. I kept thinking, "This show really can't be this consistently bad. It has to turn the corner at some point. There's certainly a light at the end of this tunnel." We'll get around to whether or not I found that light.
The problem in Season Two is that the problems the team faced dramatically changed. This year, instead of small problems, they faced such monumental dilemmas as a smallpox plague, a rogue general trying to start a thermonuclear war, stolen toxic waste, cloaking devices, international espionage, and terrorism. These grand plot complications contradicted the intimate nature of the show. They didn't fit with Ralph, Bill, and Pam trying to save the day. And when we see Ralph pushing a military rocket back into its underground bunker, it's really gone too far. Not that the premise of the show was believable in the first place, but the situations they dreamed up in the second season were better suited for Superman and not Ralph Hinkley.
But on the flipside, the stories that didn't involve some grandiose scheme to kill millions of people—all conveniently taking place in or around Bakersfield—were simply ridiculous. Ralph pitching a 200 mph fastball in an MLB-like Championship series and nobody remembering him two months later? How about those evil circus carnies? Do you remember when Ralph saved the Space Shuttle from crashing? Or the haunted house with a ghost that attacked everyone? Keeping with the silliness, Ralph chased "Carrie," the Caribbean's version of the Loch Ness Monster. See what I mean? The show just went off the deep end with too many ridiculous stories.
Compounding the situation is that GAH, in trying to be a comedy, often veered into camp. Too much time was spent on zaniness this year, and instead of being light and funny, it became farcical. The zany hilarity of the early '80s has not aged well.
All of this distracted me from what I found to be the best part of the show: watching the three interact. It's best when Ralph and Bill are arguing in the car and Pam is trying to be the peacemaker. It's fun to see Bill flinch every time Ralph goes invisible, and it's charming to see Ralph and Pam progress as a couple. That simple charm was overshadowed and ignored in lieu of fantastical shows, not to mention that Pam is missing in the first four episodes.
As far as that light at the end of the tunnel, my patience did pay off. While the first ten stories are thoroughly dreadful, they begin to pick up about half way through the season. That camaraderie began to reassert itself, and the shows became more enjoyable. Instead of looking at my watch every ten minutes wondering how much longer until the episode was over, I made it until the end of the episode before taking that first look. Near the 18th episode, the powers-that-be realized how off track they were and wrote a story in which Ralph complained he needed to get back to helping people and doing the simpler things. And best of all is the final episode of the year, "Lilacs, Mr. Maxwell." The show, written and directed by Robert Culp, jettisoned the camp and created a semi-serious story with great character development. It was easily the most enjoyable 47 minutes of the season, and it's just too bad it was the last show. Hopefully this slightly more serious tone will carry over into Season Three.
This set isn't quite as good as its predecessor; from the transfers to the bonus items, something is missing. The full-frame transfer is wholly unremarkable; while the picture is clean with decent colors and mostly free of defects (except in the stock footage, where the grain flares up), it has a flat, old appearance. For the Dolby Digital 2.0 audio mix, dialogue is a bit muffled at times, and the background music overwhelms everything else so that the mix feels a touch out of balance.
Now we need to address the oddest part of the set, the bonus features. It's easy to tell that a good deal of effort was made to include bonus material on this set; but take a close look at what was included and you'll realize that not much is there. What is there are interviews with Stephen J. Cannell and Mike Post, a Japanese audio track on "The Two-Hundred-Mile-an-Hour Fastball," the script for "The Two-Hundred-Mile-an-Hour Fastball" (DVD-ROM), and a small photo gallery. Let's go in reverse. I'm not a fan of photo galleries, but this one has some redeeming behind-the scenes pictures in it. I enjoyed those but didn't care for the silly, hammy shots of William Katt in the jammies. Next is the DVD-ROM script item. Even if I were to have a slight inkling to read the script, which I don't since it's a bad episode, I am not a fan of DVD-ROM based material. Then there's the Japanese audio track, which makes absolutely no sense. I know baseball is popular in Japan, but what good is this track here, especially when it isn't subtitled in English? Offering the only shot at redemption are the interviews. They are broken down into four parts: Stephen Cannell, the early years (24 minutes), Stephen Cannell and his shows (26 minutes), Mike Post and his musical career (17 minutes), and "Stephen and Mike Reminisce" (17 minutes). The fifty minutes of time with Cannell is excellent. He's a fascinating character who (obviously) knows how to tell a good story. The segment with Post is a toss-away, unless you're really into his music. And the piece with the two talking about how they met and all their various collaborations is a pretty good piece. But the problem is that for the vast majority of the 84 minutes, The Greatest American Hero is barely discussed. It probably makes up three minutes at most. Thus, the question to be asked is why is it on this set? It has little to do with the show, and while I liked Cannell's part, it doesn't add much value to the show.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Let me address just a few other nitpicks about this season. First, too much stock footage is used; by this, I am mainly referring to using the same flying and driving shots over and over again. I complained about that in Season One, and it's just as annoying in Season Two. At this point, I have every one of Ralph's flying flails memorized. Second, the continuity of this season is abhorrent. One minute Bill is wearing a tie, the next he isn't, and so forth; something like this happens in just about every other episode. Then you have William Katt's obvious stunt double with the bad blonde wig, and it's all too blatant and darn annoying. Third, Ralph's "high-school kids" play too big a role in this season. Why are they going with Ralph to a goldmine? Worse, why are they traveling with him to the Bahamas in two episodes? Why are they there? In this season, he doesn't even teach them for more than two minutes. I guess we need to be reminded that he is a high-school teacher, after all. And, lastly, what happened to Ralph's son? He's mentioned once in the first episode and is never heard from again. If only it were that easy to make them disappear.
Happiness is a warm pistol.
I knew it was going to get bad, but I just didn't believe the speed at which it happened. The Greatest American Hero went from eight, fun-filled episodes in its first season to 22 bland and often terrible ones in its follow-up year. Too many gigantic problems, too much cheese, and just too many simplistic stories with resolutions readily apparent in the first five minutes, GAH lost its way. As a result, I am not recommending this season for rental or purchase. If you have any fond memories of the show, it's probably from the first year, so I'll go ahead and reiterate my recommendation for that set. Go and enjoy that small dose of fun and don't look any further.
Oh well, at least this season has the greatest episode title of all time, "Captain Bellybuster and the Speed Factory." It's hard to top that one.
The Greatest American Hero is hereby found guilty of impersonation and is found to be nothing more than a mediocre hero.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Interviews with Stephen J. Cannell and Mike Post
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