Like a lot of 11-year-old boys in the early 1980s, I was a fan of Knight Rider. Even my 11-year-old, uncritical brain realized, though, that a show about a super-intelligent car and its driver, fighting crime together, was a fairly thin premise.
A quarter-century later, NBC is rolling out a new Knight Rider with fancier visuals and a different car, but the same thin premise. Which, it turns out, is among the least of the show’s problems. This is one broken-down hooptie of a TV series, featuring comically stilted writing, wildly divergent acting styles and a general air of pointlessness that leaves me scratching my head as to why it’s even on the air.
Check that — I have a pretty good idea as to why it’s on the air. NBC is all about pre-sold properties and product integration this season, and good-but-not-great ratings for a two-hour movie/pilot in February helped convince the network to greenlight a series. The new KITT (voiced by Val Kilmer) is a super-modified Ford Mustang; you can probably expect to see lots of other members of the Ford family of vehicles as well.
What I don’t get is who let it on the air in this form. On one hand, Wednesday’s premiere episode sort of assumes that you watched the February movie and already know that Mike Traceur (Justin Bruening) is the son of original the Michael Knight (David Hasselhoff, who had a cameo in the movie but doesn’t appear here) and is following in dad’s footsteps by joining up with the top-secret group that built KITT and works with the government to thwart all sorts of bad guys, and that he’s kinda-sorta romantically involved with Sarah Graiman (Deanna Russo), the daughter of the scientist (Bruce Davison) who built the new KITT. Sydney Tamiia Poitier, another holdover from the movie, plays an FBI agent who works with Graiman’s team. New to the series are Yancey Arias as another, more mysterious G-man and Paul Campbell and Smith Cho as bantering techies.
On the other hand, it feels as if the entire first half of the premiere is devoted to exposition, as various people take turns explaining exactly what’s happening on screen. This is the kind of show that has Poitier’s character tell us she’s "bypassing security protocol Alpha, Delta, five, seven, three" as she’s typing the command on a keyboard.
The show is full of clunkers like that. A few examples: "That’s my daughter in there!" "I know. I know. But they have to upload the files"; "Open the damn door!" "I can’t override the emergency system!"; and, no kidding, "You have to get his thumb back at all costs."
That last one refers to the episode’s mission, in which Mike, Sarah and KITT have to retrieve a package (spoiler alert, although you’ll probably figure it out by the third mention of the word "package": It’s not a briefcase) containing a top-secret code. The people trying to steal the package all seem to know Mike from his time in the Army’s Special Forces, but he has no memory of them. Davison and Arias say a few portentous things about Mike’s missing memory toward the end of the episode, but the team’s solution to the immediate problem of Mike’s identity is so laughable that it’s hard to care. The original show at least gave the former Michael Long plastic surgery to change his appearance.
Davison and Arias, along with Poitier, seem to be playing the preposterous action around them pretty straight. Bruening tries to channel Hasselhoff’s jokey persona, but it falls a little flat. And Campbell and Cho seem to be in another show entirely, swapping lame nerd-humor lines while manning the control panel.
Yeah, yeah — so what about the car? If anything, KITT is almost too tricked-out. An array of heads-up displays fill the windshield in most scenes, rendering Mike a completely passive passenger; he spends most of an extended chase scene videoconferencing, draining just about all the excitement from the action on the road. KITT can also change his skin and turn into a pickup, but as written and as voiced by Kilmer, he has almost none of the prickly personality that William Daniels brought to the old car’s voice. Instead, KITT just comes off as a know-it-all bore.
It all adds up to a show that works neither on its own nor as an exercise in nostalgia. If your memories of the original show are still fond, there’s no need to sully them by watching the update.