I’m not very familiar with the original series The Greatest American Hero from the 80s, but I know it only lasted 3 seasons and 45 episodes on ABC from 1981 to 1983, that it was a 45-minute dramedy, that the theme song “Believe it or not” was very popular -and they intend to keep it in the new version- and that it was about Ralph Hinkley (played by William Katt), a Los Angeles public school substitute teacher suddenly granted superhuman abilities in order to save the world. Before ABC ordered a pilot for this female-centric reboot turned into a 22-minute single-cam comedy, FOX developed a more straight-forward and faithful version last year with Phil Lord and Chris Miller, both of whom wrote and directed The Lego Movie, that didn’t make it. And now that I’ve read this script from the Fresh Off The Boat team, I can’t help thinking it was more on brand with FOX than it is with ABC. But FOX already has a similar-themed okay performer in Ghosted. Maybe that’s why they didn’t keep it for themselves.
The Greatest American Hero has all the best intentions, it’s modern and exactly what we need right now in a world where women are getting their power back, and that’s partly why I liked it despite an overall lack of laughing-out-loud moments (contrary to other hilarious scripts they have in store –Steps & Single Parents to name a few- and that I’ll talk to you about later). It’s definitely feminist, not only because the superhero is a woman, though there are not so many out there right now (Supergirl, Jessica Jones and that’s pretty much it), also because Meera’s close family only consists of her mother Leena and her rival and younger sister Mona since the father died quite a long time ago; there’s a particular bond here, quite emotional. And just in case you didn’t realize it: the show is powered by an all-female team of writer, director and producers. It’s rare, even maybe unprecedented! Also very important: it’s about an indian-american family, which is trendy this year -CBS also has sitcom Pandas In New York for example- a community we don’t get to explore a lot on television compared to african-americans or latinos. Still, they exist and they should be represented too. It’s a cool thing this show didn’t stop at having a female superhero and went for more diversity. ABC has always been good at it and proves it again with this promising project.
There’s a “but” though. The mix between comedy and fantasy is always hard to achieve. I’m not a big fan of Ghosted but we can say they succeeded. On the page, I was not convinced. It depends a lot on the directing and on the quality of the special effects. Reading this script, there were moments when I thought “this won’t translate on screen, it will look ugly and ridiculous” and other moments when I thought “this might look fun and credible”. To be more precise, when in the first scene Meera is confronted to an UFO with only voices of aliens talking to her, it’s hard not to find that cheap and outdated. Whether they can pull that off anyway is a question mark for now. But when Meera talks to Ralph -yes, they’d like William Katt to voice this character- which is an artificial intelligence that helps her in her missions -think Janet in The Good Place– it works on the page and it adds a little something that makes it cooler. But maybe it won’t translate. Who knows at this point? So it’s always risky but it’s not a reason not to give it a chance. They are brave enough to try.
So what about Meera? She’s the black sheep of the family, she’s a hot mess, still single at 30 -which is a huge problem in an indian-american family- she drinks too much, and she’s done nothing especially significant in her career while her younger sister is already a successful doctor. In a few words: she’s a loser. Or so she thinks. Of course, that’s the type of character you can only side with, even when she keeps on taking the wrong decisions. Her trajectory is already quite predictable as the whole pilot is to be honest, but there’s a comfort in it that works most of the time. It’s a superhero show at the core and it always works the same way, man or woman, WASP or indian. That’s the ugly truth.
Other characters in the show kinda work, whether it’s her mother and sister who are funny on occasions, or her colleagues at work, especially her boss Bob Rice (there’s a bit of workplace comedy in there). But what works the most is the association between Meera and Max, a newly hired manager at Meera’s marketing company who helps her make the transition into her superhero life, undercover of course. He’s also in his thirties and he’s gay (so no love story between them, which is a relief). The way he comes out to her is quite funny. Meera’s first mission is not particularly interesting and it does not give a real idea of what subsequent episodes will look like and most importantly, we don’t know why the aliens chose her to save the world and what does it mean exactly. We’ll have to wait to get answers, which is fair game. Part of the fun will be about discovering her new abilities and powers, which should go from super strength to super speed and eveything in between like X-ray vision and telekinesis. Oh yeah, I didn’t tell you but she lost the manual!
The Greatest American Hero is probably ABC’s riskier comedy pilot script this season, also the most ambitious and unusual. It’s off-brand, though they tried to make it more about family than the original show was so it fits better. Part-superhero show, part-workplace comedy, part-family comedy, it wants to be everything and it fails at being convincing on every aspect. But it’s promising nonetheless and may be worth a shot.