The Greatest American Hero

Posted on July 14, 2010

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On the 4th of July, when the United States celebrates Independence Day, SyFy (God, I still hate that name) showed a marathon of The Greatest American Hero. This show originally ran on US television from 1981-1986.

A high school teacher, Ralph Hinkley (played by William Katt), and an FBI agent, Bill Maxwell (played by Robert Culp), have a close encounter with aliens in the southern California desert. The aliens give them a red suit that endows the wearer with super powers. The suit only works for Ralph, and of course he loses the instructions.

Sounds silly, right? Except that the writing and the cast consistently elevated the show above typical fare. The relationship between Ralph and his lawyer girlfriend (played with intelligence and warmth by Connie Sellecca) rang true, and seemed like a real relationship between two adults.

In addition, the writers consistently subverted typical genre tropes. Ralph’s suit worked even when worn under his clothes. It failed to work at trivial times, and not just at moments when it drove the plot or heightened tension. It was very typical in superhero shows that a character would go to adventure town and become involved in some conflict, try to resolve it as a normal human being, until the climactic moment when he had to use his powers. The Incredible Hulk and Manimal were two examples of these tropes. TGAH used Ralph’s powers all the time, even to overcome common difficulties in everyday life.

I had forgotten how good that show could be, and what positive messages it brought to the screen. The Lone Ranger episode, in particular, struck me. Watching the marathon connected me to childhood joys again.

I recommend it.

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Posted in: science-fiction