|The Greatest American Hero: The Complete Series (1981)
Starring: William Kaat, Robert Culp, Connie Sellecca, Don Cervantes
The setup was brilliant: Mild-mannered schoolteacher Ralph Hinkley (played by the soon-for-Cinemax William Katt) is abducted by aliens who bestow upon him a suit which gives its wearer a whole bunch of cool superpowers. The suit comes with a manual, which – and here’s the genius twist – Hinkley promptly loses in the middle of the desert.
An unwilling superhero who isn’t even sure how to use his powers? Gold, Jerry. Gold. And from 1981 to 1983, it was just another of the many hits flowing from the fertile mind of series creator Stephen J. Cannell (also known as the guy who brought you “The Rockford Files,” “Hunter,” “The A-Team,” “21 Jump Street,” and literally dozens of other shows).
Naturally, this being television (not to mention the ‘80s), the gap between concept and execution would eventually prove to be fairly significant; Cannell’s efforts to use the show as a platform for (relatively) adult entertainment were quickly thwarted by network executives who wanted to pursue a safer, younger crowd. Thus was Ralph Hinkley, by series’ end, reduced to chasing genetically engineered Nazi monsters through sewers.
It’s difficult to bemoan the dumbing down of a concept that was never really meant to be taken all that seriously in the first place. That being said, “The Greatest American Hero’s” downward arc is a compelling argument for the widespread channel expansion that occurred not long after the show’s demise. The three major networks had forgotten how to entertain their audience; even when given popcorn, they couldn’t resist adding cheese.
Much of what was popular in the ‘80s hasn’t aged particularly well, including a lot of hit television series, and “Greatest American Hero” is no exception – broad swaths of the show are just as broad and corny as you’d expect, and you’re periodically reminded of how much easier it must have been to write an action/adventure script when the Red Menace was still regarded as a serious threat.
Still, the whole thing works more often than not, and the chemistry between stars Katt, Robert Culp, and Connie Sellecca manages to transcend many of “Hero’s” more ill-advised moments; sets like these often make you question what the hell you were thinking when you tuned in the first time around, but in this case, nostalgia will likely outweigh buyer’s remorse.Originally issued in three single-season sets, this deluxe box arrives packaged in a tin case, and comes along with a sticker, cape (along with a helpful warning that it “does not guarantee the power of flight”) and battery-powered replica of the suit’s manual. Extras include a series of entertaining (if often painfully earnest) interviews with Cannell, Katt, Culp, Sellecca, and Michael Paré.