Should’ve Been Somebody Else …

So, recently I was poking around in a local Walmart, and picked up a few new TV series on DVD.  One of them was the complete series of “The Greatest American Hero” which I picked up because:

  1. I vaguely remembered the name of it.
  2. It was cheap.
  3. It had Connie Sellecca in it, which would pretty much justify the price.

I started watching it this weekend, and noticed a few things about it, the most important of which is:

Faye Grant was also in it, which between her and Connie Sellecca really does make it be worth the price, although I really wish they were focused on more often [grin].

But the most relevant thing is that this was a show that had a good premise that was badly executed.  The basic idea is about a man who is given a superhero suit in order to become a hero, but he loses the instructions to it, meaning that as he tries to go out and stop bad things — no, not crimes specifically; it really is “bad things” — from happening he has no idea what he’s doing, and so things go wrong.  Sometimes in ways that are funny.

Now, the first thing to notice about this concept is that it can’t carry a long-running TV show.  The show lasted three seasons and 43 episodes, and I’m on part of the second season (likely approaching the half-way point).  But we’d expect that as our hero goes along he’ll learn how to use the suit, and in fact many episodes involve, at least in part, his learning to use the suit and develop a new power.  So, over the course of the series, we’d expect him to get better and better at using the suit.   So that part of it would have to fall off as the series progressed.  And so it would have to be replaced with something.  What would that be?  So far, there’s not much set-up to replace that, and I suspect we aren’t going to get anything like that.

And the problems in handling start right from the pilot.  See, the main story here is that a group of aliens with really weird powers — like reanimating the dead, apparently — give our hero the suit and deliberately try to associate him with an FBI agent — the partner of the dead guy — so that they can, basically, save the world.  Okay, that’s pretty odd, but not too bad … except that they start their “conversation” with them by playing radio snippets of Roosevelt — “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” — and Hitler.  All of which could have been the lead-in for a great hook and a hook that could have carried the plot further past the introductory “I have no idea what I’m doing” thing:  the aliens are giving them this suit to test humanity, to see how they handle power, and if they’ll use it for good or evil.  This, then, could be an underlying factor in the entire series, and could lead to arch-enemies who are others who’ve gotten the suits and turned to “evil” and allies who’ve helped out.   He could even go out to seek out some of these to help them.  It’s a nice evolution and a serious premise that could go on through the seasons and tie-in to the next plot point, which is his relationship with Pam (Connie Sellecca, by far the best thing about this series).  Instead, it isn’t really clear why the aliens are doing this, and what their purpose is.  They interfere a bit, but no one really knows why.  So it’s all a bit of a muddle.

Which describes the rest of the pilot as well.  Take the other main plot point, which is basically the hero’s girlfriend/lawyer/whatever Pam (and it’s perfectly understandable that I remember her name and not his [grin]).  In the pilot, at the beginning, she’s introduced as his attorney.  As the pilot moves along and he basically drives off with her to save the FBI agent, as part of a long litany of comments designed to talk down an insane person, she admits she loves him.  He says he does as well.  This carries on … except that in that context we’re just as likely to think that she was lying to him as that she really meant it.   But this is just presumed accurate, even after he proves that he really does have special powers (which includes a nice fainting scene, where when the hero lifts her car for an instant she looks like she’ll keep on going and then she just falls over, which seems to me a reasonable reaction in that case).  Where did this come from?  And this problem shows up later, when her parents come to town and have never met him, despite the fact that marriage has come up as a topic between them a few times before that episode.  So it actually seems like they weren’t even dating before the pilot, and yet want to get married?  Or were they dating and were a bit serious?  Then why had her parents never met the guy?

The show should have gone one way or the other.  Either have them be dating seriously — and drop the lawyer thing, since the kid happily disappears by season 2 — before the suit or have them be friends and associates — here, the lawyer thing works best — and have a relationship develop when she gets dragged into his exploits as one of the few people who knows who he is and that he has the suit.  But this is just inconsistent, which pretty much describes her role in the entire series so far.  Is she just the girlfriend?  A part of the team?  Something in between?  Is the suit an issue for her and their relationship, or not?  What role does she actually have in this whole thing?

And this is sad, because while I like Connie Sellecca I also really like the character.  Pam makes an interesting foil for both the hero and the FBI agent, since she won’t take crap from any of them.  That interplay — her being the intermediary between the two — is an interesting one and is far too underplayed.  She also doesn’t show up often enough, having “court” as an excuse.  I guess part of that is due to the fact that she’s more in demand in terms of acting than the others were — she was in “Hotel” at least part of the time while this was on — and so can’t always be around to film.  But it would be nice, then, to dedicate some episodes to just defining how things stand, even if they have to leave things open.

Ultimately, this is a show that really doesn’t know what it’s supposed to be.  Is it supposed to be a comedy?  A drama?  An action-show?  It tries to, in some sense, do them all and does none of them really well.  There are comedic elements, but they aren’t enough to carry the show on humour.  There are interesting dramatic and personal issues to address, but they aren’t made a big enough part of the show to carry it.  Action?  The action is, really, pretty pathetic, even for the time period;  A-Team — also by Stephen J. Cannell, if I’m not mistaken — did it better and had other things going on to make it all work out better.  So, what is it aiming at?  It seems no one knows.

And that’s consistent:  no one really seems to know what’s supposed to be in and what’s supposed to be out.  Even his powers get forgotten and remembered depending on the writer.  I know that, in general, I have a tendency to not pay that close attention to these things — I watch while playing games or reading, for example — but for light family fare this is just way too noticeable.

Which is too bad, because the concept is good.  The execution is poor.

However, it has Connie Sellecca and Faye Grant in it and cost me about $15.  I think I got my money’s worth out of it.

4 Responses to “Should’ve Been Somebody Else …”

  1. Matt Says:

    4. The awesomely catchy theme song.

    I have to agree with you that the show wasted a lot of opportunities for more interesting plots. I think the writers were just, for some reason, afraid to upset the status quo too much. Maybe they thought “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” forgetting that the exact same thing over and over again in storytelling IS broke.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Okay, there’s that, too [grin].

      Well, I think it would have been better for them to be consistent, too. It was never really clear what they were trying to do. Different writers treated the characters and situations differently, and it was never really settled what they were supposed to be.

      Having watching it all now, even how they settled the relationship reflected this sort of thing. They raised the issue of the suit breaking up the relationship … and then suddenly it’s all okay and they’re actually going to get married, ’cause he asks her. Except that even in that episode I think she was called his fiance. So he hadn’t asked yet? Huh?

      That being said, “status quo” seems to be typical for Cannell productions, unless I’m confused about what he did.

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