Putting the Audience in Touch with Their Inner Kid: Knight Rider (TV Showcase #24)

I got this series for Christmas one year, and I was intrigued. I’d heard of it, but I’d never considered watching it. I don’t watch much from the 80s, but I was excited to give this one a whirl. I was just finishing the last of the 800-plus-episodes of “Doctor Who”, and I’d never had culture shock towards my own culture until I started watching this David Hasslehoff classic immediately after the huge amount of time I spent in the British Whoniverse. But there’s something I noticed about “Knight Rider” that made me sit back and observe the show from a whole new perspective once I looked at it that way. So, buckle down, because we’re taking a ride in a souped-up Trans Am. Yes, okay, I know how insanely cheesy that was.

“Knight Rider” (KR for short) started in 1982 and ran for 90 one-hour episodes over four seasons, ending in 1986. The series focused on Michael Knight, who was presumed dead but was just barely saved. After some plastic surgery and a new name, Knight became an undercover cop/detective of sorts, being given a futuristic computer-car that talked. Together, Michael and KITT (the car) worked with two other characters, a British agent named Devon, and a mechanic/computer whiz named Bonnie, and they solved crimes all over the place. So, right, the series only ran four seasons, which means that it was somewhat successful, but it just didn’t wow the audience enough for any longer than that. So what’s the common denominator?

When KR was fist announced, critics were skeptical that the idea of a talking car might ruin the show, citing Jerry van Dyke’s “My Mother the Car” as the prime example (this has come to be commonly referred to as the worst TV show of all time). In spite of this, the show was a success, in no small part due to KITT, the talking car. The funny thing about KITT, though, was that his character style was similar to that used in “My Mother the Car”, as KITT was often used for comedic relief (this idea of a machine having personality was probably borrowed from “Lost in Space”). It’s true that Michael had adventures of his own, apart from KITT, and the premise of KR was completely different from “My Mother the Car”, but this seems almost like a contradiction, like the fact that a talking car for comic relief in a police detective show shouldn’t work. So why did it?

Well, KITT had more features than the ability to talk. He could do all sorts of neat tricks, like tilting up on two wheels, crashing through things, and let’s not forget the famous turbo boost that allowed him to literally jump over things. Plus, KITT had pursuit mode, which allowed him to use his turbo power to travel at incredible speeds. So KITT was a tricked-out piece of work. Add to this the story of Michael, who had Devon in the office directing him over video phone more often than not, and Bonnie (or April in season three) as the assistant who always entered the scene quickly, did what she needed to do, and then tried to express an opinion but was cut off as Michael made his exit. And of course, Michael always had to spend the night with a female (all off-screen, for the record), and he always caught the bad guy. It was kind of like “The Wild Wild West” on wheels. What am I getting at here?

Between all these factors, KR was essentially a superhero show for adults. Naturally, Michael can’t be called a superhero, because that’s childish by the 1980s, but really, he acts like it. KITT’s cheesiness serves to enhance the fact that Michael uses him to assist in his heroic acts. And with KITT’s terribly immature functions that I mentioned before, this show is basically a superhero show. Not superhero like superpowers, obviously, but maybe like Batman… but not the 60s “Batman”… please, don’t make me talk about it. The dynamics between Michael, Bonnie, and Devon, and his companionship and relationship to KITT puts the show’s target audience in touch with their inner child, reminding them of what they liked as a kid, but set in a more adult setting. Add to this the love story of Stevie and the recurring villain KARR, and you can practically adapt this as a comic book and sell it to Marvel. No, wait, don’t do that.

So where did KR go wrong? It got boring, as superhero shows will. And this became increasingly obvious with the addition of the character RC3, who was younger sidekick for Michael, in order to appease a younger audience. Plus, KITT was equipped with a super-pursuit mode, and when this happened, wings, tails, an extra engine, and a raised roof would all come rolling out of KITT, which totally said “I’m a superhero’s car”. It was like watching the opening scene of The Incredibles… only KR expected its audience to take it seriously. And I suspect that the audience saw through the superhero in disguise thing and the desperation to keep the show on the air, and off it went. It was revived twice more, though, and we’re going to look at both of them.

So, overall, I enjoyed “Knight Rider”. I mean, hey, a car chase and explosions in almost every episode? Can’t complain there. But it was also an intriguing example of how to tap the young person inside an adult audience member. I wonder if there are other shows that have done that that you may not even be aware of. What do you think?

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