Man’s love affair with the automobile will never be over. However, in the 1980’s, a decade emerging from the oil embargo and particularly ravaged by bad engineering and foreign competition giving the Big Three a real run for their money, the passion for ‘a good ride’ received its fuel-injected turbo boost, at least on the small screen, with Glen A. Larson’s Knight Rider (1982-86); an hour long crime-fighting drama, two parts sexy good fun to one part abject silliness and a little male-bonding/chest-thumping buddy/buddy action going on, on the side. No, not between avenging angel, Michael Knight (played with self-deprecating aplomb by David Hasselhoff) and Knight Industries' custodian, Devon Miles (the uber-suave Brit sophisticate, Edward Mulhare), but between Michael and his car, or rather, the artificial intelligence housed beneath the hood. Alas, a lot of what seemed fanciful in the whack-tac-u-lar eighties, a decade for which I continue to harbor a treasured affinity, has since entered the realm of science fact than science fiction; the Chrysler Corp. first out of the gate with ‘the talking car’ (an ’84 LeBaron). We can sincerely forgive the North American automaker its two-year lag in catching up to Larson’s TV show; with voice recorded prompts like ‘…a door is ajar’ more than vaguely reminiscent of Larson’s sleek K.I.T.T. 9000 super computer; the veritable brain in charge of the guts of this very sensual black Trans Am; its shell, virtually impervious to any and all earthy damage, frequently and rather carelessly inflicted throughout the series 4 year run on NBC.
Despite changing times and a decidedly more serious undercurrent for (choke!) realism from our present-age in popular entertainments, the memory as well as the legacy of Knight Rider has endured well beyond most every expectation. Even those who have never seen a single episode from the original series know the basic premise of the show; an ordinary cop given the extraordinary opportunity by a dying philanthropist to become a one-man crime-fighting zeitgeist, capable of taking on the super-devious and as wealthy, flaunting their superiority and abusing their power. Part, if not all, of Knight Rider’s success is owed to the increasingly meaningful interactions between man and machine; the initially hostile détente between Michael and KITT eventually softening to the point where the line between human emotions and A.I. wit gets sincerely blurred. This concept was nothing new; Stanley Kubrick having achieved as much with his murderous self-preservationist, HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). And even before it, from the mid-1950's onward, American movies increasingly hell-bent on achieving absolute supremacy over their technologies, fond of their innocuous talking robots and other interactive devices, inevitably meant to support mankind in our leisure, though increasingly rebellious or even detrimental to the ways and lifestyle of their creator. There is an interesting dichotomy to consider herein: God creates man. Man creates machine. Man to machine is God...for a time. Hmmm. Creepy, perhaps… though not on this occasion; KITT as ever-devoted to Michael and committed to his safety even at the expense of its own.
Despite a usually tempestuous relationship, Michael wanting to maintain a certain level of autonomy in the driver’s seat while KITT knew all along it could outmaneuver his intellect, the sincere joy in watching Knight Rider then, or even today, is had, not necessarily in the traditional milieu of the hour-long action/adventure (that were a dime a dozen in the eighties, although, in hindsight, wildly popular with remarkable durability), but in addressing the startling similarities between man and machine, even the unlikely ‘friendship’ ever-evolving on a queerly ‘emotional’ level. KITT really did come to care for Michael – an odd value to ascribe to an ‘object’; odder still for its master and mate bro-mantic chemistry in the homophobic eighties. Indeed, there are those among us today who still refer to KITT as a ‘he’ rather than an ‘it’; proof positive how far television audiences had come in their acceptance of this nonentity as ‘just one of the guys’ and not simply a pre-programmed appendage in the palms of the driver holding onto its steering wheel. Hence, while the lanky David Hasselhoff, poured into form-fitting jeans, pointy-toed boots, black leather bomber and a startling array of turtlenecks (many of them red) receives top ‘star billing’ to actor, William Daniels (of St. Elsewhere fame) as the voice of KITT, Knight Rider sustains itself on the premise of a thoroughly engaging buddy/buddy actioner; imbued with some of the finest stunt work then possible on a TV budget. While Larson was either directly involved or conceived/wrote the plots to 86 of the show’s 90 episodes, he employed a small army of writers, too numerous to mention herein, and almost as many directors to tweak, refine and pull off this weekly escapism.
Season One of Knight Rider is quite unique, both in and of itself, and, for a franchise increasingly crushed under the pressures of a marketing bonanza in toys, posters, lunch boxes, happy meals, etc. et al, soon to follow it. For Larson and his team sincerely took this show seriously - at first. The pilot involved a botched theft intercepted by Nevada Lieutenant Michael Arthur Long (Larry Anderson), shot in the face by his accomplice, Tanya Walker (Phyllis Davis), actually a rogue agent working for the other side; Long’s body left for dead in the isolated desert next to his car. Michael’s murder is narrowly averted with the unexpected arrival of a pair of mysterious men; the aforementioned Devon Miles, acting on orders from his employer, Wilton Knight (Richard Basehart); a reclusive and dying billionaire. Basehart’s career – or lack thereof – gives pause for reconsideration; a really solid actor with strong physical features in his youth, given far too few opportunities to outshine the competition in Hollywood; herein, unceremoniously expiring from an undisclosed ailment, though not before he effectively pays for the best plastic surgery money can buy, and then hands over the keys to his formidable kingdom (a vast and secretive business consortium) to the very reluctant Long – rechristened Michael Knight (and played by Hasselhoff just as soon as the bandages have come off). Those with keener eyes and ears will note it is Hasselhoff, heavily back lit to obscure his similar features – and not Anderson – who actually takes the bullet in the desert; Hasselhoff’s voice dubbed over Anderson’s to make the transition from one actor to the other more acceptable. After all, Tanya shoots Michael in the head - not the voice box.
As plots go, Knight Rider’s is already a doozy. Wilton had hoped Michael would assuage into the role of a compassionate crusader for all humanity; entrusting Devon to oversee this metamorphosis, and quickly introducing the character of hot shot engineer, Bonnie Barstow (Patricia McPherson) to add predictable spice as a potential, though unrequited ‘love interest’. After all, man does not live by his stick shift alone – or rather, frequently does. But on occasion he needs a little help moving things from second into third gear. Michael is initially disinterested in Wilton’s dream, although he rather greedily feels himself entitled to take advantage of the sleek Trans Am parked inside the old man’s laboratory. While the 1970’s were justly famous for their muscle cars (a lot of six-cylinder, gas-guzzling brawn under the hood) KITT is an intellectually superior, ‘thinking man’s’ ride; reasoning its way out of one deadly situation after the next and, on occasion, giving Michael (infinitely more prone to bouts of exercising that typical ‘big dumb machismo’ we have all come to expect from our male action stars, nevertheless, increasingly brought into line with KITT’s cerebral life-saving analytics.
We must not underestimate the physical appeal then thirty-year-old David Hasselhoff brings to Knight Rider; with his piercing blue eyes, chiseled chin and a mop of immaculately quaffed dark curls – the atypical ‘big hair’ for a big guy ‘eighties uber-yuppie look’, briefly to become all the rage with every aspiring inner city Rico Suave; Hasselhoff (foreshortened to ‘the Hoff’ as his reputation and status ballooned from congenial TV star to pop sensation a la hunk du jour), bringing something more to the part than as written. Stars are stars precisely because of this intangible quality they possess and can emit on cue far beyond their own physical attractiveness. Indeed, ‘pretty boys’ are as common place as paperclips in Hollywood. And we have all been privy to what handsomeness without charisma is worth in front of the camera; eye candy, too quick to dissolve into nothingness under the hot lights and California sun until not even its thin iconography as a poster size pin-up can be recalled.
Yet Hasselhoff, because of Knight Rider (and his subsequent appearance as the main staple middle-age lifeguard on TV’s Baywatch 1989-2001) has, in hindsight, become something of a cliché without actually deserving such debasements of his many-splendored talents (extending all the way to pop chart-topping singer with a highly lucrative recording career, wildly popular in Europe). To Knight Rider Hasselhoff brings a certain je ne sais quoi to belie his obvious stud appeal; something about the seemingly unrehearsed facial expressions he gives in reply to KITT's wry wit. Yet, there is a slight homoerotic tinge of naughty playfulness between these two; the guy's guy and the effete intellectual. Together they make up one whole man - or rather, the perfect impression of his public persona. However, nothing is this 'cut and dry' behind closed doors or locked closets. Think it is easy to play drama and/or comedy off of an inanimate hunk of metal on four tires? Try it something.
The other talent we must acknowledge here is Edward Mulhare, who left us much too soon at the age of 74 in 1997 after a brief battle with lung cancer. Like all classically trained actors, Mulhare (born in Ireland) could affect an air of Brit-born culture; the pluperfect picture of restraint and level-headed decisiveness, with an occasionally glacial façade, ideally to compliment and counteract Hasselhoff’s more transparent bravura and swagger. Mulhare is the ‘third wheel’ in Knight Rider; a sort of KITT substitute for Michael to bounce off ideas, particularly when KITT is not in the room. With almost ingenious precision, Larson and his screenwriters have worked out the mechanics to ensure this rarely happens. Hence, this leaves Mulhare’s Devon to hold down the fort at Knight Industries; its de facto CEO, but actually subservient to the codicils of Wilton’s Last Will and Testament and Michael’s newfound authority as the master of all he surveys. The show never entirely clarifies who is whose boss; the secretive Foundation everyone works for presumably ‘in charge’ yet Michael generally calling the shots in the field, and Mulhare’s Devon chiefly responsible for inveigling his young buck in their latest vision quest against a spurious and secretive enemy from the big bad world of capitalism run amuck. Knight Rider’s motivation is a little less heavy-handed than this, however. For it is with such unlimited resources that this crusade is made feasible and lavishly maintained; producer, Larson suggesting money itself may not be the root of all evil, though it frequently corrupts the weak and the greedy.
It is, I think rather pointless to offer a blow-by-blow synopsis of each episode in this time capsule cult fav, mostly because the plots are suspiciously similar; begun with a crime perpetrated and the introduction of Michael and his magnificent car sent to investigate the scene, interrogating the ‘usual suspects’ and righting the wrongs with a vaguely reminiscent Columbo-esque ‘just one more thing’ approach to unearthing the clues that perpetually lands Michael in hot water. As the series moved beyond Season Two a few distinct changes were made – arguably to its own detriment. First, it was decided Knight Rider needed more comedy. Hence, we get a lot of glib repartee between Michael and KITT, and occasionally, between Michael and Devon. Alas, the trajectory of the franchise, at least in hindsight, seems to be a near textbook example of the old adage about ‘too many cooks spoiling a well-seasoned broth’. Season Two is not so far gone down this rabbit hole; but Season Three invariably shows signs neither the cast nor the writers are taking any of this seriously anymore.
A TV series is usually in trouble when it begins to muck around with the elements first to have made it the main staple audiences believe they cannot live without, and, in Knight Rider’s case, the undoing rests squarely on the series’ increasingly heavy-laden elements of camp; Michael Knight, migrating from tortured/emotionally scarred crime fighter into a sort of slickly polished figure of amusement (think Roger Moore’s James Bond living in his car), without much care beyond his latest investigation. Solving crimes becomes a lark and a spree, the crusader more interested in ‘fixing’ problems simply because he can, not because it will make the world safe for democracy again. The other great ‘undoing’ of the franchise is its ever-increasing reliance on stunts over plotted substance. There are, in fact, several episodes in the final season that play almost as one gigantic and jam-packed ‘chase’, the dialogue linking these passages so painfully slight and incidental one actually wishes for the characters to simply ‘shut up’ so the rest of the pyrotechnics and elaborate crashes can occur.
NBC exec, Brandon Tartikoff, in charge of programming once described Knight Rider as a show of very few words and even less intelligence. And yet, its glittery smash-up of goodies vs baddies and gadgets galore made it precisely the sort of escapist male fantasy to appeal to young men and boys. Increasingly, however, the show suffered from its restrictive adherence to ‘sight gags’ and stunts suggestive of copycats and castoffs from the Bond film franchise; KITT spewing oil slicks from its exhaust pipes and bullets from its headlamps to narrowly avert capture or, at least, a very bad wreck; its mysterious shell impervious to a veritable holocaust of assault weaponry exploding all around it. The car even had driver and passenger ejector seats, capable of catapulting a full-ground man six stories into the air ‘when the pressure was set to precisely the right capacity’. Oh please! Homage is one thing. But Knight Rider steadily favored stealing outright the thunder of other actioners and thus devolved into a sort of rank and unappealing chestnut, thinly disguised and vaguely reminiscent of what others had done with more originality and flare elsewhere. In its last three years, Knight Rider even sacrificed interest in the interplay between Michael and KITT; the latter, increasingly prone to irritability and an air of smug arrogance; more a tug-o-war than symbiosis between man and machine.
Inexplicably, during these already all too shaky times, producers chose to replace Patricia McPherson with Rebecca Holden, as newly arrived auto mechanic, April Curtis and then, in 1985 (presumably to add ‘diversity’ to the cast), Peter Parros as Reginald Cornelius III – a.k.a. RC3 – a shoot-from-the-hip troubleshooter – more ‘trouble’ than ‘shooter’. It ought to be pointed out Glen Larson was not at all pleased with these changes being incorporated into his brainchild. Alas, once NBC smelled a hit and studied the demographics, recognizing the show’s appeal to be at its strongest in the kiddie category, it was inevitable Knight Rider would begin to pander to a younger audience, thus depriving the series of its edgier and more adult ‘feel’ and, in hindsight, thoroughly undermining the aspects of the show so wildly popular in the first place. Larson’s focus had been on proving Wilton Knight’s mantra about “one man” impacting the lives of many through his altruistic ‘good works’ funded by cutting edge scientific research. The new mantra was simply, “hey, let’s have a good time and blow things up.” Knight Rider’s reputation as a quality affair of the fanciful mid-eighties thus unraveled; then, imploded under pressure from NBC to make it a kiddie matinee in prime time. If only they had moved the series to Saturday mornings, or even introduced a Knight Rider cartoon spin off to satisfy this demographic, leaving the original franchise intact there is no telling how far it might have gone, or what greatness it might have attained as a truly iconic piece of eighties super-kitsch.
And yet, even with the prospect of ‘greatness’ off the table we are still left with Knight Rider as a very fun, usually classy, and occasionally darkly scripted entertainment. The pilot remains one of the strongest entries to any ‘fantasy-based’ actioner in TV history; later named ‘Knight of the Phoenix’, presumably to identify it for syndication purposes; the plot, rather startlingly bleak as Michael Long, newly resurrected from certain death and given flawless regenerative plastic surgery to make him even more handsome than before, sets out to avenge himself, in the process, discovering an insidious corporate espionage unraveling inside a California-based technologies plant. Other highlights in the series include Season One’s cliffhanger, with Michael facing a murder charge after unintentionally killing a redneck motorcycle enthusiast, and, Season Two’s ‘Brother’s Keeper’ – Michael becomes a prison informant to break out a man suspected of terrorizing an entire city with a bomb. In Season Three’s Dead of Knight, a young dancer, Cindy Morgan (Karen Kopins) accidentally ingests a poison meant for Michael, who is forced in a race against time to locate the only scientist brilliant enough to concoct an antidote. Dead of Knight’s finale, featuring a car/plane chase on an airport tarmac, is practically verbatim the finale to Season One’s pilot; perhaps the first sign Knight Rider has begun to run out of creative steam.
Season Four’s ‘The Scent of Roses’ has Michael facing a crisis of conscience as he contemplates quitting The Foundation and later, marrying Stevie Mason (Catherine Hickland), a nondescript blonde featured in far too many episodes during the latter half of Season 3 and virtually all of the episodes preceding this one in Season Four. Of course, the real kiss of death for any series is usually marriage; the domestication of the handsome/young hotshot made almost complete when Michael proposes to and marries Stevie half way through this episode, with regrettably lethal consequences for his new bride. In some ways, The Scent of Roses is an amiable attempt to return the series to its more adult roots; a little too late for most, already tuned out and moved on to ‘better’ scripted shows in primetime. Season Four’s finale, and in retrospect the farewell to the series, is as silly as it is a letdown: Voo Doo Knight, depicting an island spiritualist (Rosalind Cash) who uses metal earring clamps to transmit microwaves into the brains of her anticipated victims; first, to induce a primitive form of mind control, used to commit crimes on her behalf; then, to destroy themselves before her insidious plot can be unearthed by the police. Michael becomes her latest pawn, forcing KITT to drive them into the empty parking garage of a building about to be demolished by explosives.
Despite this rather inauspicious swan song, Knight Rider ought to be remembered today as the trend-setting and highly enjoyable TV show that, under Larson’s aegis, came hurtling into our living rooms with loftier intentions; a show so popular it spawned a brief reboot in 2008 and an infinitely more successful video game based on the original. Like so many TV shows to come out of that brief ten year span, imbued and buoyed by the optimism in Ronald Reagan’s America, Knight Rider is invested with a strong sense of morality (for, to paraphrase a time-honored adage, “truth, justice and the American way”). At its core, it remains unapologetic as a tale of rugged masculine individualism; one man called upon to make a difference in the world. It is a show, I believe long to endure because it has genuineness, heart and the unabashed spirit for great good fun, even during its most inept permutations and misfires. Knight Rider is far from the ‘hokey oddity’ its reputation seems to have fostered since the series went off the air in 1986. Fair enough, it is still a show about a rich guy and his somewhat snarky talking car. No one is disputing the obvious.
But as undiluted entertainment, it has a lot more to offer beyond this surface ‘appeal’ and, in the end, it comes up more the winner than not with a few modestly amusing deviations. Although never to be confused with ‘high art’ or even prolific ‘must see’ TV, Knight Rider nevertheless delivers the sort of 'warm and fuzzy' every entertainment ought, but too few do: a show requiring virtually zero investment in logic, nor even concentration to become an almost immediately and fondly recalled part of our collective memories. Good shows ingrain themselves into the subconscious, seemingly without even trying. Knight Rider strives for higher motivations. But in the end, it comfortably settles for being remembered as fun and occasionally goofy entertainment. It could have been something more had producer/writer/director, Glen Larson had his way. The real question remains: would any of us want it to be any better than it already is? Not quite a TV classic, but certainly far from the farcical dreck of yesteryear.
Knight Rider: The Complete Series arrives in North America via Universal’s licensing agreement with Mill Creek Entertainment and predictably with questionable results. It has been a little over three years since the first incarnation of this beloved series made its way into a deluxe ‘region free’ box set in Japan, complete with a reproduction of the shooting script for the pilot (albeit, in Japanese) and a snazzy box shaped like the hood of KITT’s Trans Am. Unsurprisingly, Mill Creek has gone the ‘quick-n-dirty’ route with streamlined and very dull packaging; the discs housed on top of one another in four double hub Blu-ray clip cases with virtually no bells or whistles. I could sincerely forgive this, except the quality of these transfers is all over the place. While some episodes are extremely impressive, featuring stunningly bold and balanced colors, accurate flesh tones, superb contrast, impressive detail, and, indigenous grain faithfully reproduced, as many episodes appear to have been fed through a meat grinder – starting with the pilot. Herein, colors are muddy and muted, grain waffling between nonexistent and thickly amplified, infrequently leaning toward the unnatural digitized and overly processed appearance familiar to everyone (and mercilessly still not a thing of the past), and some very pasty orange flesh tones. Fine details suffer and the image frequently looks soft or even out of focus. Age-related artifacts are present and, in certain instances, dot the overall visual landscape quite heavily. It is disheartening actually, because from episode to episode (and in some cases, scene to scene) the viewer is never entirely sure what to expect; the uncertainty drawing one out of the stories to concentrate on the unevenness of the video quality.
Now, how much better could Knight Rider have looked on Blu-ray? Hmmm. As always, it depends on a myriad of factors; the stability of the traditionally archived 35mm film stocks, the quality of the 1080p scans, and, the color correction (if any) and other clean-up employed in the intermediary phase before exporting everything to physical disc format. We should point out Knight Rider’s exterior scenes are fairly impressive; razor sharp without suffering from boosted contrast, and sporting some truly eye-popping eighties hues. Things do not fair nearly as well for scenes shot indoors or on sound stages; contrast teetering between a tad off and lower than anticipated, and, colors in general inexplicably drained of their inherent ‘oomph!’ The audio is 2.0 DTS mono, reproducing the vintage sound of an eighties pre-stereo broadcast; sound effects, music and dialogue all flat and front and center. We really cannot fault Mill Creek here, nor for the lack of extras. What can I say, folks? This is what happens when a studio with zero interest in product they currently hold the copyright, licenses the home video rights to a third party distributor for some quick cash. Not very pretty, is it?
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)