Knight Rider - Season One

When I was six, there were only two things that I knew for certain. One was that Tron was the greatest movie ever made (even though I had at that point never seen it with sound) and the other was that there would never be another television show better than “Knight Rider.” My parents took great advantage of my weakness for all things K.I.T.T., frequently using my obsession with the action packed TV show as a means to force me to do their bidding. “Pick up your room or you won’t be watching Knight Rider tonight,” they shouted. My father even used it to teach me to quit lying (or at least get better at it). One night when the show started he hauled me outside and said, “I know you were lying to me today. People who live in my house don’t lie. You can either start telling me the truth right now and go back inside (where I could faintly hear the Knight Rider music already starting) or you can stay out here. I don’t want anyone in my house who can’t tell me the truth.” Of course I talked. That theme music was after all, irresistible.

Now I’m all growed up (sort of) and “Knight Rider” has become more of a nostalgic longing for my old metal Knight Rider lunchbox than a full blown obsession with the show itself. But even that little bit of residual love made the “Knight Rider Season One” DVD set impossible to resist.

Well, this isn’t a movie, it’s a TV show and some day maybe we’ll train the technicians at Cinema Blend Central distinguish between the two. For now, just pretend that says THE SHOW up there or something more appropriate instead.

This particular show is generally regarded as a pretty bad one, representative of all that was cheesiest about eighties cheese and beloved only as a distant childhood memory that’s probably better off not being revisited, right? I disagree. As it turns out, my memories weren’t actually all that far off. “Knight Rider” isn’t a terrible show. Oh sure, it isn’t the masterpiece I thought it was as a tender aged pre-teener. In fact the sheer silliness and sloppiness of it is at times downright laughable. But the show has a great way of taking itself seriously and at the same time laughing right along with us at its own silliness. It’s amazing how well that really sells it.

“Knight Rider’s” admittedly weak two-hour pilot (which premiered in 1982) sets the stage for what would become arguably the eighties biggest television phenomenon by introducing us to undercover cop, Michael Long. Michael is investigating a potential corporate heist and is strangely enough not played by David Hasselhoff. Well, his voice is David Hasselhoff’s, but his face is not. They just dubbed Hasselhoff’s face over that of some other guy, so that when Michael’s investigation goes sour and Long ends up getting shot in the face, he can be reborn as someone else. Presumed dead, Michael is rescued by the Foundation for Law and Government, a shadowy organization owned and funded by the eccentric billionaire Wilton Knight.

The Foundation brings Michael back from the brink of death, and uses mysterious and advanced surgery techniques to give him an entirely new face. When the bandages finally come off, he’s played by David Hasselhoff and assumes the new identity of Michael Knight. Meanwhile, Wilton Knight is a crazy old fellow and has been secretly constructing the ultimate tool in law enforcement, a super-car dubbed the “Knight Industries Two Thousand” in the lab he had set up in his garage. Unfortunately, on the eve of the car’s completion, Wilton succumbs to the illness which has been sapping his life away, and with his last breath charges his butler Devon Miles (Edward Mulhare) and newly re-constructed Michael Knight to continue his cause. Michael does, and soon he’s strapped in to the Knight Industries Two Thousand battling crime which, at least for the first six or seven episodes seems entirely confined to small towns in the very dusty desert. Oh funny thing, the “Knight Industries Two Thousand” can talk and prefers to be called K.I.T.T.

Thank god for that, because it is K.I.T.T. not the eye-liner obsessed Hasselhoff who is the real star of the show. K.I.T.T. has real personality and panache, a biting sense of humor and hard hitting tendency towards sarcasm, all of which are truly what makes “Knight Rider” worth watching. Hasselhoff himself has talked about how important it was to him to mix lighter moments of comedy in with action in order for the show to work, and it’s K.I.T.T. that provides all of these, most of them at the slightly brain dead Michael Knight’s expense. But K.I.T.T. is more than just a one note punch-line, he’s a very much ALIVE character, more akin to “Star Trek: The Next Generation’s” Data than anything else. That’s quite an accomplishment for a character whose only visual interaction with the audience is through two flashy red lights, one on his hood, the other on his dash. Like Data, K.I.T.T. even has a character arc of sorts, as he slowly begins to understand and even incorporate different elements of human emotion that he learns from Michael. As a result, K.I.T.T. is a complete and iconic character, one that could have ended up as just a bland talking toaster, but instead turns into a familiar and beloved friend.

Michael Knight on the other hand, is a bit of a boob. Recently there were a few casting rumors floating around that pegged Paul Walker as the guy to play Knight in the now somewhat defunct Knight Rider movie. At the time I, as expected, railed against anyone foolish enough to cast that talentless Paul Walker oaf in anything, let alone a fan favorite like Knight Rider. However, having revisited the franchise I’ve realized I was wrong. Paul Walker would be dead on. Hasselhoff is somewhat of a dope, and that translates right into Knight. I don’t know if the character was intentionally written as a well-meaning idiot, but that’s how he comes off. Knight is the kind of guy that really thinks he’s something special, and says even the most inane things with the sort of pride that makes you think he believes he’s said something really brilliant, even though to anyone else whatever he said is painfully obvious. Of course, being mildly retarded, Mike loves the ladies and the ladies love him. Single mothers especially seem to gravitate towards him, and Michael loves taking their kids for rides in his talking car. Strangely enough, no one seems to think twice about letting strange men in black Trans Ams take their ten year olds for joy rides, but then the early eighties were a different time. Michael’s only real accomplishment on the show is managing to always wear the right leather jacket at the right time, though one has to wonder how he can stand to wear that thing even in mid-July in the middle of the desert.

Fortunately, even though Michael isn’t very bright or self-aware, he’s pretty damn likable. His chemistry with K.I.T.T. is his saving grace, while both K.I.T.T. and Devon Miles propensity for pointing out Michael’s own ineptitude makes his low IQ not only palatable, but entertaining too. K.I.T.T. laces everything with subtle sarcasm about what a pompous fool Michael is, so that even if Michael doesn’t have a clue, well the show itself does. Devon really is a key component to the series, adding a touch of class and reality to what is otherwise a pretty fantastical and at times ridiculous show. His role with the Foundation adds a touch of legitimacy to what Michael is doing, and his frequent visits to the Knight Foundation repair truck make a nice break from whatever plot he’s wrapped up in for each episode.

Keeping K.I.T.T. in top shape while in for frequent tune ups is Bonnie Barstow, one of several hot babes brought in throughout the course of the show, but the only one to show up in Season One. There’s a good chance she may have also been my first pre-pubescent crush, though at the age of seven or eight I likely didn’t even understand what a crush was. I just knew I liked looking at Bonnie… and still do. Smart women are sexy and back in 1983 television audiences were just starting to figure that out. Bonnie was one of the first real babes with brains. Though after Season One other hotties jumped in and out of K.I.T.T.’s repair bay, Bonnie sets the standard and is the only other really memorable character to join the cast aside from K.I.T.T., Michael, and Devon.

Overall though, “Knight Rider’s” first season was hit and miss. The first few episodes suffer from some obviously faked stunts and the quality of the show’s writing is pretty intermittent. Often the editing is just plain sloppy and a lot of what happens doesn’t even make sense. Some of the problems are little things, for example at one point Michael walks into a store and while hitting on her, asks the woman working there to make him a hamburger. She starts grilling, Michael turns, walks out the door, hops in K.I.T.T. and drives away to go rock climbing. He could have at least paid if he wasn’t going to eat it! Other problems are more glaring, like the way the show completely ignores Michael’s changed identity for sixteen episodes, only to suddenly address it with the return of his fiancée. She of course doesn’t recognize him, since his face has been altered and his name has been changed. That would be fine, had his encounter with her not been preceded by no less than four episodes in which Michael goes to help out old friends who seem to have no problem at all recognizing him. No one wonders why he’s changed his name or why his face looks different, or better yet WHY HE ISN’T dead, and Michael himself never sees the need to bring it up. That is until the aforementioned fiancée episode, when out of the blue some writer remembered the identity change set up way back when in the pilot. “Knight Rider” is definitely a show you don’t want to watch in sequence. In fact, there isn’t really any sequence, just a pilot then a series of unrelated adventures which may or may not pertain to the original premise of the show. Michael’s character has no real development and for the most part no life outside his time fighting crime in K.I.T.T.

As things moved on in the first season though, it became obvious that someone started giving them more money and more cars to play around with. The stunts get better, the scripts seem a little less silly, and K.I.T.T. finally stops wandering around in the desert fighting cliché small town biker gangs and gets to spend some time in the city skulking around in the dark. Around episode ten things really get kicking and a few of the stunts are actually pretty spectacular. Every later outing has K.I.T.T. jumping, smashing through brick walls, and racing around at impossible speeds squealing tires and having some of the best car chases ever to show up on television. Once they had a consistent budget, “Knight Rider” turns into a big ball of stuntatisc fun. The best thing is, they're really doing it. Hasselhoff does a lot of the less dangerous stunt driving himself, whipping K.I.T.T. into 180 degree turns and fishtailing him around corners. The bigger stunts are for the most part done by professionals (except once or twice when Hasselhoff snuck his way into drivers seat against the director’s wishes) who really know how to make those jumps look fantastic. Visually, the show is often almost stunning. K.I.T.T. is a beautiful car and photographs well, particularly in night shots with his front sensor flaring red in the dark. Their production design, while inconsistent, comes up with some pretty good looks for the show and when they’re on gives it a really great, midnight feel. All of that, including the look of K.I.T.T. himself holds up surprisingly well some twenty-two years later.

The best episodes are those which stick to a specific formula and throw in enough brainy detective work to keep it interesting. In nearly every episode Michael gets arrested and then K.I.T.T. busts him out. Michael punches a few people; K.I.T.T. comes up with a clever plan and lets Michael think it is his. Car chases ensue and Michael gets the girl. An early standout for me was an episode where Knight investigates a murder on a military base and K.I.T.T. subsequently ends up being shot at by artillery. It’s a giddy kind of fun watching him wreathed in flame and the story is for a change strong enough to fill in the action gaps. Later episodes are even more solid as all the traditional elements of the story come together and characters like Bonnie are introduced as well as physical additions like the Knight Foundation repair truck or K.I.T.T.’s normal internal display (replacing a bland, flashing red square). Particularly nostalgic for me was the first introduction of K.A.R.R (Knight Automated Roving Robot), K.I.T.T.’s evil twin. Ok yeah, evil twins are pretty stupid (and in subsequent seasons they prove that by introducing Michael’s evil twin Garth) but there’s a weird bit of excitement in watching K.I.T.T. face down his identical equal, destined to become a recurring and unkillable nemesis, much like “MacGyver’s” Murdock.

“Knight Rider Season One” is admittedly somewhat spotty and easy to make fun of. The show isn’t always tightly constructed or even well thought out. But it’s not always a disaster either and there are plenty of episodes that really do deliver. Even the worst episodes contain a hefty amount of fun, enough so that even when the writing is off the interplay between K.I.T.T. and Michael is always on. My only real mistake was watching all twenty-two episodes in a row, the show is better when you can space them out.

They’ve done a nice job putting this set together, and you can tell just from the DVD menu’s cursor which is a cute little K.I.T.T. icon. It’s a little touch but one that tells you that someone out there cared at least a little bit about personalizing what they were selling you. The menu itself isn’t especially spectacular, but well organized with the “Knight Rider” theme playing over and over in the background as well as some kick ass stunts from the show. Personally I can’t hear that theme enough.

The package though suffers from the same thing I complained about in my review of the “Quantum Leap” first season DVD set last week. The artwork is really great, eye-catching and beautifully done. Michael Knight’s head is there along with K.I.T.T. large as life and frankly it gets a little creepy if you leave the package lying face up… you start to feel like Michael is glaring at you. But the outer sleeve of this thing is just so flimsy! The cardboard is little better than paper and after only a week of me sliding the DVD’s in and out of the sleeve, it’s already showing signs of wear and tear.

However, even though they went for discount cardboard the folks at Universal didn’t skimp on actual presentation. In edition to all 22 episodes of season one, included are some nice little extra features like “Knight Moves” a brief interview with “Knight Rider’s” car driving stuntman (who incidentally has chronic back problems after all those jumps). It’s followed by “Knight Sounds” another short interview (both are about five minutes) this time with the guy who came up with that unforgettable and all pervasive “Knight Rider” theme music. “Knight Sounds” isn’t as interesting as talking about crashing cars, but it’s only five minutes which is just about how long you’d like to listen to a guy talk about tapping on keyboards. On the other hand, I wouldn’t have minded if they’d extended “Knight Moves” into a bigger, full blown bit of content.

They’ve also thrown in some neat quick hits like a Stills Photo Gallery. Normally I’m not a fan of staring at old production stills on a TV set. Credit to Universal and the folks at “Knight Rider” for producing the first set of DVD still photos I actually enjoyed. They’re set up in an automatic slideshow, which is timed to flip through photos to the “Knight Rider” theme music. The result is a fast and fun look at a few behind the scenes hijinks in black and white. They fly by in less than two or three minutes, which is just about how long you’d want to spend staring at something like that. Great presentation here and one I wish more DVD’s would mimic it if they’re going to bother to bore people with still photos. Now if only “Knight Rider Season One” had thought to do the same thing with their Blueprints Gallery. Unlike the Photo Gallery it is not set to music and it may in fact be the most boring feature ever included on a DVD. It’s just a slide show of various blueprints of really boring things from the show. I mean, what fan is rabid enough to want to sit and stare at the architectural design drawings for the jail Michael Knight is locked in during the pilot episode? Sure, they intercut the blueprints with footage from the show of the things you’re looking at, but I’ve just finished watching the show and have no more desire to re-watch that footage than I do to stare at bland architectural sketches.

In that same vein of non-video entertainment is the K.I.T.T. Owner’s Manual. No, it isn’t a flip book, but an interactive simulation of all of the controls on K.I.T.T’s rather impressive dash display. You can click all the buttons and get a little pop up explaining what each button does. Click on K.I.T.T.’s voice display and he’ll even talk to you! Granted, it’ll only give you about four or five minutes of enjoyment, but what big kid hasn’t wanted to hop into the Knight Two Thousand and play with the controls? This is as close as I’ll ever get.

The longest of “Knight Rider Season One’s” special features is a little documentary called Knight Rider: Under the Hood. It’s a short but amusing documentary featuring interviews with series creator Gary Larson and star David Hasselhoff. Each was interviewed separately and both talk about the process of putting “Knight Rider” together and the perks of having a massive hit television show. It’s nice, even if Hasselhoff’s face has deteriorated to the point it has become frightening, but I can’t help thinking that maybe they could have done better. I’d like to have seen an interview with William Daniels the voice of K.I.T.T., or maybe a little more insight into what it was like on the set. Hasselhoff talks about playing pranks on the dearly departed Edward Mulhare, but aside from telling us that Mulhare was gullible, he never goes into enough detail to share an actual anecdote.

The real meat of any proper DVD set is of course commentary. “Knight Rider Season One” has it, but only for the pilot episode. That might sound like a disappointment, but trust me, it isn’t. The series set’s only commentary track has Gary Larson and David Hasselhoff sitting in and neither of them seems to understand what they’re doing. They bicker like old men, taking semi-humorous potshots at each other which go on so long that it soon becomes uncomfortable. Larson’s best comments all sound like they’re pre-prepared and you can almost hear him rustling papers. David on the other hand doesn’t seem to know what a commentary track is let alone what’s expected from him. Maybe he was joking, but once he actually asks if the audience will listen to the commentary out of some little box while they watch the pilot episode. He sounded seriously confused. Larson at least offers a few nice insights into the production of the show and what it took to get it off the ground. Hasselhoff attempts occasionally to share some cut-up stories, but Larson always jumps in to head him off, as if he isn’t allowed to say anything beyond stiff technical details. Stifled by Larson’s dictatorial take on commentary, Hasselhoff is reduced to repeating the same generic phrases over and over again. Everything he says boils down to “Hey I remember that!” or “Who was that?” or “Nice kid.” When not giggling and spouting generic phrases, David talks incessantly about wanting to make a Knight Rider movie. By the third or fourth time he mentions it, you really start to feel sorry for the guy and almost wish they’d do it just to give some meaning to the poor washed up star’s life. But then David kills any sympathy you have for him by commenting on his looks. Oh the first six or seven times he does it, the comments seem like they’re humorous. To give him the benefit of the doubt, maybe that’s the way he intends them. Hasselhoff is a pretty relaxed guy and spends a lot of time on the commentary cracking jokes… but after the fiftieth comment about his hair, you start to wonder how a guy so self obsessed doesn’t know about doing setups.

The last extra included is the abortive Knight Rider 2000 made for TV movie. As much as I loved “Knight Rider”, I hated this movie when it floated onto television and guess what, I still do. It’s a total sham that doesn’t even have the wherewithal to sport the Knight Rider theme. K.I.T.T. is stuck inside some god-awful red car and runs around doing ridiculous things like shocking Scotty (seriously, he attacks James Doohan). They don’t even bother to do a single stunt. There’s not one jump, one high speed chase, or even a scene where they bounce a few fake bullets off K.I.T.T.’s exterior. The all new Knight 4000 is little more than an overly complicated wire tap with comfortable seats, perfect for housing Michael Knight’s ever growing posterior. Luckily, this movie was included in the “Season One” set on a separate disc. If you buy it, open the package and throw this piece of junk right in the trash.

“Knight Rider Season One” isn’t a DVD set for anyone who isn’t a pre-existing fan. Much of its enjoyment depends on a pre-planted seed of nostalgia somewhere in the part of your brain that’s still stuck in the eighties. The show is a little dated, but has aged well enough that those of us who went crazy for it back in 82’ will still have a blast watching it all over again. The extras aren’t all perfect, but they put some effort into them and the DVD really is presented well, particularly for a show this old that hasn’t been cleaned up or re-mastered. If you ever had a “Knight Rider” lunchbox, then this is the sort of DVD set you’ve just got to have. If you spent the eighties watching Dallas, then this probably isn’t the right nostalgia trip for you. Hold out for more Larry Hagman. I hear there’s talk of an I Dream of Jeanie movie.