Thursday, September 25, 2008

Knight Rider – Disorganized Thoughts

This is not a review of the not-really-new NBC series Knight Rider. I don't know when – if ever – I will get around to writing a real review of this show but this isn't it. What it is, really, is a bunch of disorganized thoughts about a show that I missed the start of and really only half watched when I did turn it on. I believe I dozed off either before the show started or after it ended and trust me, I enjoyed the nap more than I did what I saw of the show. But hopefully this helps to explain why my thoughts on this matter are disorganized than they would be if I had been attentive and taking notes.

I did a full review of the made for TV movie revival of Knight Rider
back when it came out last February. Back then I heaped a ton of scorn on the show for basically being a dopey revival of a dopey show with a ton and a half of dopey plot holes and some characters intended to make it seem modern and well, hip. As I think you can tell I didn't like it, regarding it as a failed attempt to do a "next generation" remake of a well beloved but not particularly good show from the 1980s. The movie was intended to serve as a backdoor pilot for a revival of the show, and despite being pretty bad (as far as I was concerned) it was picked up by NBC's new president of entertainment Ben Silverman. Given some of the revelations about Silverman that are currently making the rounds, one wonders what he was using when he approved this. Say what you want about Kevin Reilly, he gave us Life, Friday Night Lights, and Studio 60, and not crap like this. Anyone who saw that movie knew it was bad no matter what the ratings said. But, as the saying goes, the worst was yet to come.

The original Knight Rider series was once described by its creator Glenn Larson as "The Lone Ranger with a car. Kind of a sci-fi thing, with the soul of a western." And at its very heart it was as much that as it was Brandon Tartikoff's joking idea "The Man With Six Words." Although Michael Knight operated within a cloak of authority in the form of the Foundation for Law And Government (FLAG – a very powerful acronym in Reagan's America) he was essentially a lone vigilante operating with the equivalent his transportation (Silver) and partner (Tonto) rolled into one in the form of the original KITT. To be sure there were supporting characters in the form of Devon and Bonnie, but in a very real sense he was alone. The same was largely true in the TV movie. It was Mike Traceur in place of his father (Michael Knight), Charles Graiman as his version of Devin, Charles's daughter Sarah as the analog of Bonnie, with the addition of an FBI agent named Carrie Revai and Michael's friend and mechanic Dylan Fass. Even though the movies team was larger than the team in the original series it was still a compact and secret operation with Michael usually been sent off on his own to right whatever wrong the revived FLAG had chosen for him.

In the series that has all changed. Now Michael has a support system that seems to rival Mission Control in Houston in terms of personnel and infrastructure. In fact there's even a secret base of operations, cleverly hidden beneath an aircraft hanger that reminds me of the old airship hangar at Moffat Field in San Francisco. The whole thing has been dubbed "the KITTcave" by producers. Also included in the "KITTcave" is what appears to be some sort of government oversight in the form of a bureaucrat who seems to be ordering everyone around – including Charles Graiman who "reactivated" the Foundation and was therefore presumably the boss of things. He's the typical "get it done and get it done now," "failure is not an option," I want to know everything even though wanting it makes me look like a total ass" stereotype of a government type. Obviously he's disliked by most of the group and treated with resigned disdain by Charles.

Ah, but there are more changes. Mike has been given a "secret past". It's so secret in fact that even he doesn't know what it is. He has no memory of a chunk of his life during which he was apparently romancing some woman in Lebanon even as he had proposed marriage to Sarah. What's more his records are so restricted that even KITT can't get to them. Whatever Mike was doing it made him a lot of enemies. In the mission that started the episode the bad guys are targeting Mike as much if not more than they're targeting the thing that Mike and Sarah are trying to recover. In fact they even have a missile that seems capable of tracking Mike himself. That missile is also capable of setting KITT on fire for an extended period of time. This allows for an extended period of seeing Deanna Russo (who plays Sarah) in her underwear (for the guys...and some women) and Jason Bruening with his shirt off (for the ladies...and some men). It's also so big that at the end of the episode Carrie Revai "kills" Mike in order to protect the project – Mike Traceur has become a liability and so is required to become the "new" Michael Knight.

Of course the car plays a big role in this series, as a source of product placement revenue if nothing else. The producers spare no effort to remind us that this is a Ford Shelby GT500KR Mustang, by making sure that we see the Cobra logo as often as possible. In fact when KITT goes from street mode to "attack mode" (sprouting a couple of spoilers and a heavy duty air intake gadget, or maybe it's a hood mounted missile launcher) the Cobra logo becomes bigger and shinier. And when the car flies (yes, the car now has the ability to leave the ground under its own power) there's even a Cobra logo on the underbody of the car! However we don't see all that much of the car in actual action. Both of the extensive car chase sequences in the first episode feature a lot of projection shots from inside the car, and only limited scenes of the Cobra, or the Ford F-150 truck it transforms into (yes, it transforms, with moving panels and everything – Transformers was a success after all) driving on the roads. It may be my hazy memory but I think we saw a lot more of the old KITT from the original series from the outside.

As I have said, this is not intended as a review of the revived Knight Rider, but the result of the retooling of the original concept and even the TV movie is a mess. The show is pathetically weak on characterization of any sort let alone realistic characters. It's mainly about car chases and attractive people and why an actor of the quality of Bruce Davidson is mixed up with it is beyond me. But the roots of the problem go even deeper than the writing and the characterization to the mangling of core concept of the original series. Far from holding to Larson's original concept of "the Lone Ranger with a car" this version is closer to The Bionic Woman with a car. Michael and KITT are no longer free agents or part of a compact organization helping ordinary people, they are an extension of some government agency carrying out espionage missions and dealing with higher ups who demand results. They've gone away from the original soul of the show. I suppose that what they're trying to do is create something "relevant" to today's world but I think that if that's the intention they're taking the wrong approach even though I'm not sure there is a right approach. NBC-Universal seems to be engaged in an effort to replicate the success that they had with the revival of Battlestar Galactica by remaking or updating old shows which, not surprisingly, they have an interest. They failed – deservedly – last season with Bionic Woman, and if the made for TV movie and this first episode of Knight Rider are any indication they're going to fail – deservedly – with this. The root of this is a failure to understand why the revival of Battlestar Galactica works. It works because David Eick and Ronald Moore took the elements from the original 1978 and threw most of them out leaving just the bare bones on to which they grafted their vision. The original Battlestar Galactica never had the sense of fear and desperation that current series has. In the old series everyone seemed comfortable, and the enemy repeatedly proved easy to beat. Within the context of the science fiction setting, the revived Galactica has an almost realistic feel to it in the post 9-11 world. The problem is perhaps that Battlestar Galactica was a unique opportunity, as show with a great basic concept that never truly reached its full potential I suppose because Glenn Larson posited a utopian rather than a dystopian society to arise the destruction of humanity. Larson's humans were on the whole perfect rather than flawed creations. I'm not sure that you could make the same sort of magic happen with a show like Knight Rider. Perhaps an approach where Mike Traceur really was "the Lone Ranger with a car" could work; Mike and KITT alone, devoid of all outside aid except for access to Michael Knight's fortune to pay for gas and repairs (well after all, the Lone Ranger had his silver mine) working to live up to his father's and the now long gone FLAG organization's ideals by trying to help people in trouble. Would it work? Who knows? What I do know is that the current version of the series works even less well than the TV movie and that didn't work at all for me. Then again, I liked Studio 60.

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