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Knight Rider: A Vintage '80s Lemon

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An ironic nostalgia lunchbox in video form. / NBC Photo: Mitchell Haaseth

Pretend you’re a TV screenwriter. You’re writing an episode of a cop procedural, involving the murder of a washed-up ’80s TV star. The opening scene of the episode is a scene from his former hit action show. You want to make it cheesy, bad-syndication-drama cheesy, Exposé cheesy. There will be a talking car, of course. But there will also be Schwartzenegger-reject one-liners, a retro command center complete with computers with big flashing lights and a lame excuse for the female costar to strip to her underwear.

NBC’s remake of Knight Rider is that show.

I’ve long thought that there needs to be a term for TV shows and movies that are set in, or made in homage to, a certain era, which are made in the style of that era. Like Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven, which was not only set in the era of Douglas Sirk films but was made to look like a Douglas Sirk film. Just so, NBC’s gloriously awful Knight Rider—which NBC’s press materials optimistically identify as Knight Rider (The Series)—is not a bad update of a cheesy ’80s show. It is a bad ’80s series updated in the manner of a bad ’80s series. It’s not a TV show so much as an ironic nostalgia lunchbox in video form.

In a way, this is an accomplishment. Knight Rider isn’t merely bad. It’s bad in a way that TV shows no longer are. In a way that I had not imagined they still could be. Knight Rider is a reminder of the days when major-network TV meant something. When broadcasters used TV to make fantasies come alive—really dumb fantasies. When they programmed shows that insulted the intelligence of audiences from 8 to 80. When they had the reach and resources to make a show this monumentally lousy.

I’ll describe it, though you really owe it to yourselves to see a few minutes of its atrociousness. As in the original, the hero, this time named Mike Traceur (Justin Bruening) is paired with a souped-up talking robo-car, KITT (Knight Industries Three Thousand). The first half of the debut (a two-hour movie “pilot” aired earlier in the year) unfolds with no discernable plot: Traceur and hottie/partner Sarah (Deanna Russo) are at a soiree; some “information” is at stake; she gets captured and rescued; and then there’s a car chase. A really long car chase.

In the process, KITT gets hit by a napalm bomb and Mike and Sarah spend several minutes talking in the car, surrounded by the most fake looking flames outside a yule-log screensaver. As KITT’s high-tech shell fends off the flames, Mike and Sarah unburden themselves of their clothes: “Our bodies can’t take the excessive temperature!” To conserve precious oxygen, KITT counsels them, “I suggest you both refrain from speaking unnecessarily.” Yes! That is an excellent idea!

The rest of the episode introduces a mystery involving Mike’s repressed memories from an earlier stint in Iraq, and the intrigue, such as it is, is like a cave painting compared with the complex mythologies of Lost, or, hell, even a typical CSI episode.

But nobody was expecting narrative genius from Knight Rider. We should not have expected good acting from the heirs to Hasselhoff, and Breuning and Russo, who have the faux-human presence of Second Life avatars, do not disappoint.

What we did have a right to expect was a really cool-ass car. And KITT is absolutely mind-blowing: for 1982. Today, though, with high-priced SFX standard on TV and technological omniscience a staple of shows like 24, showing us a car that can hack into computer systems or perform the same weak Transformer tricks we’ve seen in Scion commercials is like trying to impress a kid who owns a PS2 by giving him a Merlin.

Then there’s KITT’s personality. In the original series, William Daniels voiced KITT, giving him/it a fussy, supercilious attitude that made him/it a character all his/its own. Now Val Kilmer voices KITT, who speaks through something that looks like a glowing glass boob, and his affect is so detached and the dubbing so disjointed that he doesn’t sound like he’s in the same scenes with the human characters.

And why would he want to be? He’s forced to respond to Michael’s amnesia about Iraq by leaping to the brilliant conclusion: “It is possible that something traumatic happened to you and you are repressing the memory.” Apparently KITT is programmed to be a hack scriptwriter too!

I could go on, but it would be unfair to spend more time and thought taking this show apart than Ben Silverman did greenlighting it or the writers did crafting it. But seriously: if you have the time, you should try to witness for yourself at least part of Knight Rider, which has all the nostalgic value of a K Car. They truly do not make them like this anymore. And thank God for that.