Monday, February 18, 2008


There was a period in the late 1970s and the 1980s when you couldn't turn on the TV without seeing a Glen Larson Production. The list of shows that he created or was executive producer of is like a hall of fame of the sort of TV that the '70s were, well infamous for (the sort of shows though that the Parents Television Council pines for if their most recent TV Trends is to be believed). They were escapist fantasies with various gimmicks and if they "borrowed" from some hot trend, well so much the better. Larson's shows included Alias Smith and Jones (borrowed from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), Sword of Justice, B.J. and the Bear, The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, The Fall Guy, and Battlestar Galactica. Larson would do everything for these shows: he produced them, directed them, wrote them and even composed the themes (he actually started as a musician, a member of the group "The Four Preps").

Perhaps the most memorable of Larson's creations is Knight Rider, the story of a man and his talking car (the car of course was smarter than the man most of the time). Supposedly the concept for the original version of Knight Rider came from Brandon Tartikoff, who were discussing the problem of handsome leading men who couldn't act with an assistant. Tartikoff jokingly came up with an idea he called "The Man of Six Words." According to the Knight Rider entry in The Complete Directory of Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, the man would wake up in a woman's bed and say "Thank you," would chase down the bad guys and say "Freeze," and after the almost victims thanked him would say "You're welcome." In between the car would do all the talking, presumably voiced by a better, if less photogenic, actor. Larson apparently took this basic concept and refined it to become the original Knight Rider. The handsome leading man, in this case David Hasselhoff, had more than six words of course (although there are some who think that keeping him to six words would have been just fine) but the car – the Knight Industries Two Thousand a.k.a. KITT – was still voiced by the better actor in William Daniels. The series ran for four seasons, and spawned a couple of made for TV movies as well as the series Team Knight Rider.

Of late NBC seems to have started on a retro programming kick for both itself and at least one of its cable networks. It began with a revised version of Glen Larson's Battlestar Galactica. This version of the series which had originally run for a single season in 1978-79 took the original concept of a refugee fleet running from an alien menace and not only updated it but took a far more serious tack with the show. The Sci-Fi Channel version emphasised the sense that things were not normal within the fleet, that these people were fleeing from a genocide, something one never really had a sense of in the original version. The success of Battlestar Galactica led to NBC trying Bionic Woman, a remake of the Lindsay Wagner series of the mid-1970s. This series was unsuccessful in part I suspect because while the original was hardly great drama, unlike Galactica there were relatively few ways in which it could be improved. The net result was that there were some surface changes – Jamie Summers wasn't a tennis player turned teacher, she was a bartender – but most of the plots centered on the character as a novice secret agent and that ground had already been covered better by the original. Still, while preparations were going ahead for Bionic Woman NBC announced that they would be reviving yet another series from the old Universal library (since NBC and Universal are now part of the same company), Glen Larson's Knight Rider.

The new version of Knight Rider – which I'm sure NBC-Universal hopes will become a series – is amazingly uncomplicated by any efforts to modernize it or make it "more relevant" or realistic. And when you think about it, that's probably a good thing. I mean we are talking about a talking car here. Also wisely, they have decided not to ignore what had gone before. There's a brief guest appearance by David Haselhoff at the end of the TV movie, and in the early scenes we see disassembled parts from the original KITT, so there's a tip of the hat to the past, but the producers don't dwell in it. They also don't dwell too much in such irrelevancies as plot. The producers basically spent two hours creating a chase picture with the secondary purpose of introducing characters for a relaunch of the Knight Rider franchise.

The story – such as it is – focuses on a group of mercenaries working for a shadowy Black Water style group that is trying to capture Charles Graiman (Bruce Davidson – slumming) because he holds the key to something called "Prometheus." As nearly as I can tell "Prometheus" is some sort of device that can take over control of computers the world over or something equally nasty. In the "wrong hands" – that is to say the hands of anyone except the United States of America – this has a potential to start wars and other bad stuff. All of which leads one to ask why in the hell anyone would build the damned thing in the first place. But let's face it "Prometheus" is just a MacGuffin; something to motivate the characters but with no other real purpose, as Hitchcock described it. To get the data on Prometheus the mercenaries burst into Graiman's home and threaten his life and that of his daughter, who is at Stanford. Unfortunately for them, Graiman drops dead of an apparent heart attack. Equally unfortunately for them, Graiman has completed work on the new KITT, the Knight Industries Three Thousand (Val Kilmer – career in the toilet). The new KITT has been pre-programmed to do three things. First it has to pick up Graiman`s daughter Sarah (Deanna Russo) at Stanford and protect her from the four mercenaries. Naturally, despite the fact that KITT is the fasted thing on the roads and can turn on a dime and give you nine cents change and the bad guys are driving a van, they still get there ahead of the car which means that the car gets to pull off a daring rescue and the chase is on. KITT decides to lose the mercenaries – who by the way are types that used to be described as "straight out of Central Casting"; a nerdy white guy (you can tell he's a nerd because he says the word "algorithms"; Kevin Christie), a beefy Black guy who is the muscle of the group and doesn't talk much (Kevin Dunigan), a young Asian guy with long hair and a definite fondness for guns (but in this one he exhibits no ability for the martial arts; Jack Yang), and the older white guy who is the brains of the operation and the only reason why these guys have any hope for success (Greg Ellis – this role is a big step down from playing Amador in the third season of 24). Naturally enough KITT evades them.

KITT's next task is to find Mike Traceur (Justin Bruening from All My Children). Mike is an ex-Army Ranger, who is also a failed race car driver. Currently Mike is living in Las Vegas with his mechanic and best buddy Dylan. The first time we see Mike he's in bed with a beautiful woman... and joined by a second beautiful woman. Obviously he'll have to be the man with eight words ("thank you" being said twice). Mike has a big problem – he owe $90,000 to some guys whose idea of debt collection consists of taking the debtor's best friend out into the Nevada desert and leaving him there, presumably not in a condition to make it back to the highway. Then twenty-four hours later they'll do the same thing to the debtor. Naturally Mike's solution to paying off his debt is to take every last dime he can raise and go play poker against a guy who looks a lot like Phil "The Unabomber" Laak. It is at the casino – the Montecito of course (note to Toby, this puts Knight Rider in the same universe as Crossing Jordan as well as Las Vegas). It is at the Montecito that Sarah catches up with Mike. The two of them grew up together and had a relationship in the past but for reasons we'll eventually discover he left her (the idiot). Naturally enough the bad guys catch up with Sarah at the casino, and naturally enough the combination of KITT and Mike are sufficient to stop them. But mostly it's KITT who does it; he sets off the fire alarms, opens locked security doors and so on – Mike just fights older mercenary guy and finds that his Army Ranger skills are meagre compared to the bad guy, who fortunately for Mike doesn't wear a cup thereby making him vulnerable to a knee to the family jewels.

KITT's final instruction is to turn himself over to the FBI represented by brilliant loner agent Carrie Revai. We know that she's a loner because she's partnered with the most ineffective FBI agent ever, who she soon ditches. Carrie has headed up to Graiman's isolated compound to identify the body (because remember they can't get in touch with Sarah) and besides she suspects murder. At the compound she meets up with the local sherrif. She quickly identifies the body as not being that of Charles Graiman but a body double. Charles, we discover has taken off through the woods to an even more isolated house, which happens to belong to an old friend named Jennifer, who just happens to be Mike's estranged mother. Now here I was half expecting it to be revealed that the reason that Mike had dumped Sarah was because he had learned that Jennifer and Charles had been involved and that Mike and Sarah were half-siblings. But no, we discover that the reason that Charles sent KITT to Las Vegas pick up Mike before going back to San Francisco to turn himself (yeah, I'm thinking of the car as a him, get over it) in was because Mike is actually the son of Michael Knight (I feel like there should be a trumpet call or something at this revelation).

Charles and Jennifer have to flee from her cozy cabin of course because she's totally off the grid – no phone, no computer (how can she live like that!!!!!). They eventually go to a motel where they call KITT to come pick them up. They also call the agent Revai which is a bad move because the local sheriff is in league with the bad guys. So naturally everyone ends up at the motel, where Jennifer nearly shoots Mike and the whole lot of them get captured by the bad guys. But are our heroes stopped. Of course not there's still one more chase left. Jennifer foolishly tries to come out shooting and ends up shot but before she dies, she manages to pass some sort of weapon over to her son. Then, after three of the mercenaries (and the sheriff) leave with Charles, and the one who remains prepares to execute Carrie and Mike they overpower him with whatever it was that Jennifer passed to Mike. KITT, Mike and Sarah take off after the mercenaries and Charles. Now this would normally be a mismatch but somehow nerdy mercenary has managed to hack into KITT's computer systems (because he's had all of ten minutes to do it in and no help from Charles, and really no reason to do it because he believes that the mercenary left behind will be bringing KITT and Sarah – but not Carrie and Mike – to meet them). He intends to take control of KITT so Mike is forced to turn the car's systems off which eliminates all the superpowers the car has, like auto-repair. KITT gets shot up and bashed up pretty good before mike finally figures out that if they can get ahead of the van and block the road and then turn KITT's systems back on the van will crash into the car and, in total violation of the laws of motion and a few other laws of Newtonian Physics, will stop the van without so much as pushing the car that it hits a millimetre down the highway. The end... well except for a coda at Jennifer's funeral where Mike meets Michael and talks him into "making a difference" by taking up the responsibility of driving KITT. If I were Mike what I'd want to know is why the old man deserted the mother and child before the kid was five, but hey, that's just me.

What to say about this? The acting was adequate although I had the definite feeling that there were people in this that were doing it for the money. I mean let's face it if you're Val Kilmer (who was brought into the project when Will Arnett pulled out because he did voice ads for General Motors and the new KITT is a Ford Mustang) this has to be a pretty nice payday for very little real work. As the voice of KITT, Kilmer is a worthy successor to William Daniels (and if you've heard the 80 year-old Daniels's voice of late you will understand at least in part why the change was made). No one else really stood out. It's only fitting because the real star of the show was the car. This time it's a 2008 Ford Mustang GT500KR. For the purposes of the show (only!) the car has self regeneration and damage repair, is solar powered (though it does need gas, primarily when driving at night – well duh) with gas mileage of 167 miles per gallon, has artificial intelligence, GPS and military satellite access and guidance, has a top cruising speed of 191 miles per hour, and can disguise itself as any other car... as long as that car is a Ford Mustang.

The writing can best be described as workmanlike for what it was. It certainly wasn't cutting edge, and I'd go so far as to say that it old fashioned. There were a couple of nice nostalgic touches, such as when Jennifer asks Charles if the new KITT is another Trans Am, or when the smart older mercenary mentions "an urban legend" about a car and driver that fought crime. Still, despite touches like having Mike in bed with two women when we first meet him, or having FBI agent Revai being a lesbian (she comes home after a bit of early morning surfing to a naked woman who she has obviously picked up the night before), the writing comes across as old fashioned. I think that may be the biggest problem with this revival, it's old fashioned and there's no real need for it. Like it or not (and the PTC most assuredly does not like it) TV has progressed beyond talking cars. Battlestar Galactica is successful for the simple reason that it took only the most basic premise of the original series and made it darker and more realistic. I'm not sure there's a way to make Knight Rider darker and more realistic nor do I think there's a real need to. If the powers that be at NBC are smart (I know, oxymoron) they won't turn this new Knight Rider into a series regardless of the ratings for this TV movie. While I think the ratings for this will be good I can't see the public watching an ongoing revival for more than a few episodes out of a sense of nostalgia. Leave us with our memories of the original series instead and renew Friday Night Lights, or even Las Vegas instead.

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