Pale Rider

Yet Another '80s revival gets its engine going

NBC's two-hour Knight Rider rehash/pilot/made-for-TV movie sat untouched on my DVR for a month or so, like an unwanted voicemail from an ex-girlfriend. One of the last "creative" vestiges of the writers' strike, I considered it to be less a piece of potential entertainment and more a sign of just how badly the industry sucks.

Being a child of the 1980s, Knight Rider holds the same inexplicable place in my heart occupied by Howdy Doody or John Wayne in the hearts of people older than me. It was four years of largely-forgettable vintage '80s fluff, but it was my fluff, and I'll cry about the desecration of my golden calf if I feel like it.

I'm as Machiavellian as any studio head when it comes to what I'll allow in the name of entertainment—as long as it's actually entertaining. Hell, I liked Michael Bay's Transformers enough to consider calling off my fatwa on him. (My first car was a Camaro, though, so Bay's Bumblebee might leave me less than objective on that one.)

Unfortunately, after sacrificing a couple of hours of my life to the possibility that this backdoor pilot might not further lower my expectations of humanity, I can't get behind the new Knight. It's bad, but not because it's unintentionally hilarious or overfilled with the tics of the extreme revisioning process of the past decade. It's just a bland, unsavory mess that takes the premise of a crime-fighting supercar and somehow makes it boring. An admirable feat, sure, but not a fun one.

The original Knight Rider, for all its irrelevance, managed to do a couple of things right. The new version (the fourth in a series of ill-conceived reboots, by the way) seems to find those diamonds in the rough as aberrant, and has used all the technology of the modern age to systematically excise them.

Observe first the exposition. The '80s was an age of movies like Big Trouble in Little China, in which the first sentence out of each character's mouth is everything you will ever need to know about that person. Anything else would have wasted precious frames of film better used on Lo Pan throwing fireballs. Old-school Knight Rider's opening was a two-sentence teaser that accomplished the same purpose. "You don't have time to make popcorn!" it screamed at us. "The car's about to jump! Sit down and watch!" Given that heritage, the very idea of starting off a new series with two hours of tepid character drama interspersed with occasional mild action sequences should have set off some pre-production alarms.

Spending so much time on a weak, sometimes silly exposition wouldn't be so bad if the characters themselves were a little more worth watching. David Hasselhoff brought a nonchalant bravado to Michael Knight which fit the equally flippant series perfectly. Call it the Keanu Reeves approach: Cast a blank slate as your lead, and the millions of blank slates in the audience will identify with him. William Daniels' KITT, conversely, was the most personality-driven portrayal in the series. Combined, their performances had an enjoyable Odd Couple-meets-Kirk-and-Spock feel.

Contrast this with Justin Bruening's Mike Traceur, the son of Michael Knight and an ex-Army Ranger with none of his father's gung-ho gusto, and Val Kilmer's KITT, which trades in Daniels' indestructible hall monitor for a dead-sounding HAL 9000 without the murderous streak. The spark, so to speak, isn't there. They aren't friends; they aren't competing for the steering wheel. They're both annoyed at having to deal with each other, which is in turn annoying to watch.

The whole show maintains this slapped-together mood, leaving discordant elements scattered across the screen. Car chases are accompanied by inappropriate pop-punk music that does nothing to heighten the action, while extended trips are invariably paired with stereotypical ballads that try too hard to set the stage. Robots talk about love and humans react to it with forehead-slapping obviousness. Even KITT itself is inconsistent, displaying future-tech capabilities one minute and vulnerabilities which could be remedied by a Geek Squad member with an antivirus installation the next.

But we're stuck with it, folks. Knight Rider's ratings pushed it over the top, and its place in the fall 2008 line-up may be announced as early as April. Apparently, you can still put a couple of soap-opera stars in a car driving through the desert and call it a sci-fi Western. More's the pity.