Believe it or not…From 1981 to 1983, The Greatest American Hero aired on ABC. I haven’t watched it since, but my memories of it were that it had an incredible theme song (Joey Scarbury’s “Believe It Or Not”) featured a character named Ralph Hinkley (or, briefly Ralph Hanley or Mr. H. following the 1981 assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan), and that when Ralph received his ridiculous red super suit from aliens he promptly lost the user manual and had to figure out how to use it with the help of an FBI agent and Ralph’s girlfriend, played by Connie Sellecca.
Forty years after the show debuted, I decided to watch the series again. I can’t say I was disappointed by it, although part of that has to do with the fact that I went in with rather low expectations of what I was going to watch.
The title role is played by William Katt, a high school teacher who has been assigned a class of the most incorrigible students the school has to offer. Ralph’s high school students, easily among the oldest teenagers ever (when the series began, Katt was 30, Sellecca was 26, and Katt’s high school students were in their mid-twenties), are all clustered together in a class for incorrigibles. Ralph is their sole teacher, having to try to teach them history, science, English, and every other subject, more akin to an elementary school teacher than a high school teacher. One gets the feeling that the school administration views Ralph in the same category and his assignment is because they don’t know what else to do with him.
Robert Culp, who cut his teeth playing a US intelligence agent on I Spy in the 1960s plays Bill Maxwell, an FBI agent who loses his partner in the first episode. Unofficially teaming up with Ralph in that same episode, he goes through the entire series without ever being given another partner by the FBI. A lone wolf, the FBI allows him to find his own cases and takes them on, although his boss, Les Carlisle (William Bogert) is less than thrilled with Maxwell’s modus operandi. Maxwell is also quick to flip his badge, relying on the letters FBI to allow him to do anything he wants, whether he has jurisdiction or not (and using it outside the US as well as inside). Maxwell is a living and breathing example of an abuse of power. And the show’s writers allow him to get away with it.
Connie Sellecca’s Pam Davidson comes across as a person who could actually be a successful attorney, although her role does suffer from the standard television failure that views all types of attorneys as interchangeable. At various times, she is called upon to act as a corporate lawyer, a litigator, a contract lawyer, and more. She approaches all with an expertise that few real life lawyers would bring to an area outside their specialty. Of course, Ralph suffers from a similar issue.
Of course, in the first episode, Ralph is on a fieldtrip with his students when he first runs across Bill and the two later reunite when a spaceship appears, making them partners and providing Ralph with a super suite (the red ‘jammies) that give him super powers, although since Ralph lost the instruction book almost immediately, the powers are unspecified and Ralph can only control them sporadically. In fact, Ralph’s control over his powers is related to James Blish’s concept of the “idiot plot.” He can control them when the exigencies of an episode’s plot call for it, otherwise his mastery of his skills are rudimentary. While part of this is the camp nature of the show, part of it is tied directly to the show’s creator.
Most of the episodes were written by Stephen J. Cannell, who has made clear that he wasn’t a fan of the superhero genre, but he was asked to create and write the show and he did. Some of his prejudices showed through, not so much with regard for his disdain for the genre, which he was parodying in any case, but, for instance, the frequency with which he had all his characters complain about the IRS, always in the same voice. The one time an IRS agent appeared on screen as a victim, Cannell’s characters had a hard time deciding whether or not to actually rescue him.
Despite racing down city streets and flying over one of the most heavily populated cities in the United States (L.A. was the third most populous city when the show was made). There is only one episode of the series where Ralph attracts media attention. Individuals who interact with him are usually cautioned by Bill that if they tell people about Ralph’s powers, they’ll find themselves in a psychiatric ward, advice taken by all except for one individual. However, there are plenty of bystanders who would have witnessed Ralph’s super powers who fail to question it or report it to the police or media.
The Greatest American Hero ran for three seasons and 43 episodes, although the final four were not shown during the show’s original run. In addition, three years after its cancellation, a one-off episode was created as a pilot for a sequel, The Greatest American Heroine, with Ralph gaining some fame and the aliens announcing that it was time for him to pass on the super suit and they would erase the memory of his exploits from the cultural consciousness. Much to Bill’s chagrin, Ralph chooses to pass the suit along to a woman. The episode ranks among the campiest episodes and demonstrates why the new series was not picked up.
At times The Greatest American Hero is fun to watch and other times it is cringe-worthy. The special effects are always awful, but they were also pretty bad for the time at which the show was first produced. The Los Angeles Ralph, Bill, and Pam live in and protect seems to be surrounded by rural areas and often the backgrounds used for Ralph’s flight sequences bear no relationship to his actual location or any sensible flight path for him to take to his location. The show does not present well for binge-watching, which spotlights its redundancies, logical flaws, and lack of overarching plot. About the only change that happened to the characters over the course of the three year run was the decision to finally have Ralph and Pam marry in the third season.
While only the first season of the show are available for free on Prime Video and Shout TV, the entire series can be purchased on Amazon, and all three seasons can be streamed on Peacock, Roku, Vudu, Tubi, Crackle, Pluto TV, Filmrise, and Plex.
Steven H Silver is a seventeen-time Hugo Award nominee and was the publisher of the Hugo-nominated fanzine Argentus as well as the editor and publisher of ISFiC Press for 8 years. He has also edited books for DAW, NESFA Press, and ZNB. His most recent anthology, Alternate Peace and his novel After Hastings, was published in 2020. Steven has chaired the first Midwest Construction, Windycon three times, and the SFWA Nebula Conference 6 times, as well as serving as the Event Coordinator for SFWA. He was programming chair for Chicon 2000 and Vice Chair of Chicon 7.