Look At What’s Happened to Me!
A tarantula traverses sun-scorched sand. Three militarized dune buggies soar into the scene overhead, careening through canyon terrain. It’s a chase. Piloting the first car is a frightened African-American man in a business suit. Hot behind him speeds a coterie of bald-headed, aviator-shaded, jackbooted gunmen. The deadly game is very much afoot.
The pursued driver looks ahead and sees still more suped-up buggies facing him. He attempts to turn, but his car stalls in a puddle. The chrome-dome muscle menaces pull up, encircle their target, and cock their weapons. A pale fist rises. The man in the middle pleads, “Hey, guys! Come on, please, man! All I want to do is go back to my car, huh? Look, I don’t want any trouble!”
A strapped, strapping skinhead approaches and, through a grin, says, “Jesus loves you, my friend!” The ensnared victim responds, “That’s terrific news.” From behind an assault rifle, another skinhead reveals A) she’s female and B) she’s got sweet pipes. Ethereally, she intones, “Onward, Christian soldiers/Marching as to war/With the cross of Jesus/Going on before….”
The character the writers probably referred to as “Black Guy” flees on foot. Two shiny-pated thugs launch a flying tackle and down he goes. Quick cut to a POV shot dreamily floating above daytime Los Angeles. “Believe It or Not,” by Joey Scarbury—a glazed gush of lightly carbonated mellow pop—underscores the footage and a title crops up: The Greatest American Hero.
That’s the TV show and the above is what happens in the
first three minutes of its debut episode. On March 18, 1981, ABC’s quasi-conscious
superhero semi-spoof announced itself with racist carnage and soft rock.
With The Greatest American Hero, network strategists targeted The Entire Family. Junior and Sis could thrill to the series’ comic action with high-school teacher William Katt (Carrie’s prom date) klutzily transformed into a cape-clad flying avenger by a UFO, while Mom and Pop might knowingly chuckle over his square G-man partner being played by Robert Culp (of I Spy).
The Greatest American Hero successfully targeted me that night, too. I was 12. Television was all I did. That opening segment caught me off-guard, though. “That’s how they’re starting this thing?” I marveled. “With Nazi skinheads doing The Most Dangerous Game?”
I liked what I saw. At first. I instantly planned to reference The Most Dangerous Game the next day at school, knowing none of my classmates would get the reference to the 1932 RKO human-hunting jungle adventure with Fay Wray filmed on the same sets as King Kong. That esoteric cultural tidbit stoked my smugness (which, along with television, was also what I did).
Better still, I perked up because I couldn’t stand the provincial, working-class, law-and-order, and (maybe above all) inescapably Catholic surroundings in which I grew up. I let everybody know about it.
When it came to TV time, I hooted, cheered, and brayingly fake-laughed over any insult that might upset my Catholic relatives and neighbors (i.e., all my relatives and all my neighbors who weren’t Jewish). In 1979, Saturday Night Live introduced comic Don Novello’s Fr. Guido Sarducci character to Brooklyn living rooms at the precise right moment for me, only to yank the friar within a year while so much more work was still to be done.
So just as I had been mourning the absence of Fr. Guido Sarducci among SNL’s ’81 cast, here came The Greatest American Hero, a primetime adventure laying it all out—Jesus equals hate and murder and uncoolness—right there on TV, smack at the start of a kiddie show, so America’s tykes would absorb and understand, because that was right and proper.
Then came the rub. Somewhere, way down, a voice inside me whisper-shouted, “Screw you, Hollywood! Who the fuck are YOU?!” That was the Catholicism (specifically, of the Brooklyn variety) talking.
Nobody wanted to hear that. I fought the Inner Church of Rome all day, every day with nascent punk-rock vitriol (represented largely by a bedroom poster of Rock-‘n’-Roll High School and my turning up the radio for Elvis Costello) and by loudly mouthing off my leftist politics (expressed most nastily by drawing anti-Republican cartoons and leaving them around for my Green Beret father to explode over).
Regardless, the Altar Boy Within loomed insurmountable. So did dopey Lords of Flatbush-esque tribalism.
Inside, I prayed and believed and fretted over sin and held holy what papal edict decreed holy. Outside, I made an angry fuss about doing none of that and announcing I hated anybody who did. That second part reveals how soul-deep my Catholicism ran, particularly there on the cusp of Confirmation.
Even though I took some twinge of offense at Commercial Mass Media rewiring “Onward, Christian Soldiers” as shorthand for pure evil, I’d never acknowledge it. Besides, we never sang “Onward, Christian Soldiers” at Our Lady Help of Christians—that song was some Jerry Falwell/snake-handler shit, and to Hell with them! (And, oh, did I believe in Hell.)
The remainder of the Greatest American Hero pilot detailed a vast(ish) right-wing conspiracy in which an Evangelical cult leader aimed to paint the White House fascist by assassinating the Commander-in-Chief during an L.A. race riot, enabling the krypto-Nazi VP to take charge. Somehow, the show made this plot boring. I thought so at the time. I thought it again upon suffering through a recent YouTube revisit.
After the premiere (and, as planned, impressing no one the next day with The Most Dangerous Game), I only sporadically tuned in to The Greatest American Hero.
Mostly the dullness drove me to whatever was on the other two channels. Still that episode annoyed me in a manner I could distinctly recognize but felt loath to verbalize. I feared I might echo my Old Man. That I was very much in the business of not doing.
For Pops McP, every click of the TV ignited mushroom-cloud rage over what he perceived as Hollywood’s liberal conversion campaign oozing from cop-show plot point and sitcom punchline.
The Greatest American Hero seemed like a parody of my Old Man’s paranoia, only not funny because, shit, it might have been serious and, fuck, Pops might have been right.
Following its boffo first half-season, The Greatest American Hero’s ratings spiraled south and the series bounced around the ABC schedule for a year-and-a-half, petering out with four episodes unaired. Weirdly, some in the pop-culture-attuned public have never forgotten it.
A lot of that has to do with the aforementioned theme song, an enduring nostalgia touchstone that spent two weeks pop-chart peaking at #2 (top-blocked by Diana Ross and Lionel Ritchie’s “Endless Love”) and later emerged as an outgoing phone message on Seinfeld (“Believe it or not/George isn’t at home…).
Still, Hero’s ongoing zeitgeist presence remains prolific and bizarre.
Peering back through a 2020 lens, I wonder what kind of time-bomb The Greatest American Hero may have planted within us with its depiction of a nation bolting toward totalitarianism—if not for the hard-science defense put up by two government employees empowered by undocumented aliens.
There’s that, and there’s the title character’s original surname being “Hinkley.” Consider, now, that society’s electronic gatekeepers pumped up and let loose a “Hinkley” as humanity’s hope—not merely a hero, but the greatest American hero—a scant 12 days before President Ronald Reagan received a slug in the chest courtesy of one John Hinckley.
By episode four, Hero’s “Hinkley” became “Hanley,” but the seed was planted. Perhaps it just took decades to bloom.
You might think I’m kidding. My father would not.