|The Incredible Hulk: The Complete First Season (1978)
Starring: Bill Bixby, Lou Ferrigno, Jack Colby
You’re reading the work of a longtime comic geek here, my friends, but after revisiting the first season of CBS’s “The Incredible Hulk,” it still must be said that, damn, Marvel Comics just did not know what to do with their properties when they brought them to television.
Instead of attempting to meld the sensibilities of the comic books to the TV series, the producers of their shows seemed to ask, “How little of the original source material can we keep and still retain the rights to the title?” Like, for instance, “The Amazing Spider-Man,” starring Nicholas Hammond, never managed to achieve anything remotely resembling the fun of the comics. Blame it on the special effects of the ‘70s, which didn’t offer many inexpensive ways to put web-slinging and wall-crawling on the small screen. (It probably also didn’t help that they filmed that show in Los Angeles, a city with decidedly fewer tall buildings than Spidey’s usual hangout of New York City.)
“The Incredible Hulk” is, thankfully, a lot better than it could’ve been; after all, the writer and director of the original pilot film – Kenneth Johnson – reveals in his audio commentary on this first-season set that he would’ve preferred to have him colored red rather than green, since, as colors go, red is more indicative of anger than green. A red Hulk? Funny, that’s the exact same color fans would’ve been seeing if that had come to pass. (Thankfully, Stan Lee put the kibosh on that misguided plan.)
As it is, “The Incredible Hulk” is probably about as good a television adaptation as comic fans could’ve expected to get. No, there are no super villains…but would you really want to see characters like the Leader or the Abomination as rendered by a weekly TV show’s budget? I thought not. Instead, the aforementioned pilot film established a tweaked origin for David Banner (yeah, I know, his name in the comics is Bruce; don’t get me started); he’s a physician who, troubled by his inability to have saved his wife’s life after a car wreck, desperately searches for a way to tap into man’s hidden strength. Like the comics, however, he still ends up taking a massive hit of gamma radiation – though it’s more or less intentional, rather than by trying to save a kid from a gamma bomb – and the gamma exposure is what results in him changing into a green behemoth when he gets angry. (His co-star in the pilot, by the way, is Susan Sullivan, who’s best known nowadays for playing Greg’s mother on “Dharma and Greg.”) After having this adjustment to his biochemistry, Banner is quizzed by tabloid reporter Jack McGee (Jack Colvin), resulting in Bixby uttering the line of dialogue that would follow him throughout his career: “Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”
By the end of the pilot, Banner is uncertain as to whether or not he’s committed a murder while in his gamma-irradiated form, and he’s not sure exactly what he’d tell the authorities, so he lets people believe that he has perished in an explosion, then wanders around America in search of a cure for his “condition.” On his tail is McGee, who’s following the appearances of the Hulk as well as being suspicious about Banner’s supposed death.
If you notice a certain similarity between this and “The Fugitive,” well, you’re not alone. That format stays the same throughout these episodes, as well as in further seasons of the show, but Bixby’s acting is what makes the show worth watching. Kids, however, will be twitching as they wonder aloud, “When’s he gonna turn into the Hulk?!” (I know: I used to be one of those kids.) The aforementioned audio commentary on the pilot film is the only special feature on the set, aside from a “bonus episode” from the second season.
Ultimately, viewers didn’t seem to care about the differences between the comic book and the television series; “The Incredible Hulk” stayed on the air for five years, then proceeded to make a few returns via TV movies. Interestingly, a few of those movies attempted to bring a few other Marvel superheroes into the mix, like Thor and Daredevil. The result? They were laughable.
Hmmmm. Maybe Kenneth Johnson was onto something…