Knight Rider 2008: Not Quite Dumb Enough

Dobrow Yearns for More Drool, Fools

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For my money, there can never be enough sentient contraptions and anthropomorphized appliances on TV. Independent-minded computers, peevish toasters, especially sass-talking robots -- TV's most valued service is preparing us for the day when we will be enslaved and summarily pimped out by our mass-produced electronic overlords.
'Knight Rider': Deanna Russo as Sarah Graiman, Justin Bruening as Mike Tracer
'Knight Rider': Deanna Russo as Sarah Graiman, Justin Bruening as Mike Tracer Credit: Byron Cohen

So yeah, I was pumped to learn that "Knight Rider," the impassioned tale of a man and his glib Trans Am, has returned to the airwaves after 22 years of pop-culture hibernation. I may not have watched "Knight Rider" the first time around -- I was more a "Sheriff Lobo" type of kid -- but I support every quintessentially American value for which it stands: good overcoming evil, nice hair, articulate cars, you name it. If everything on TV followed in the "Knight Rider" mold, we'd be a stronger society for it. And we'd probably read a whole lot more.

It's terrible -- duh
To answer the obvious first question: Of course the new "Knight Rider" is terrible. Heck to Betsy, it's a show about a talking car and the beautiful superpeople who alternately serve as its minders and its confidantes. By definition, such a show can only be measured in degrees of terrible. A better question, then, is whether "Knight Rider" is expediting-the-decay-of-Western-culture terrible or so-terrible-it's-entertaining terrible.

I'm leaning slightly toward the former, because "Knight Rider" v.2.0. makes the mistake of taking itself seriously. It attempts to construct an "Alias"-ish mythology around Mike Traceur -- the estranged son of original "Knight" protagonist Michael Knight -- and his covert black-ops ninja SEAL military service in Iraq. Too, it borrows unabashedly from the genre's smartest offerings, most notably "24" (Knight Industries HQ and the fetchingly ethnic people who populate it are poached straight from C.T.U.) and the Jason Bourne trilogy (the palpitating techno music during chase sequences, the quick-whip editing).

But see, I still can't get past that talking car. In my experience -- and granted, I'm not schizophrenic -- cars don't talk. So while I'm down with the suspension-of-disbelief thing, I can only take it so far. Any show in which a talking car figures prominently has to be sheer, sugared fantasy. It doesn't necessarily have to be played for camp value, as the original "Knight" was, but it cannot for a second have ambitions beyond lowbrow escapism.

Too close to the original
And "Knight Rider" clearly does. It wants to be for talking-car action-dramas what the excellent "Battlestar Galactica" reboot was for modern-era science fiction, but at the same time it doesn't want to stray too far from the original. So what we have is a meticulously plotted, thoughtful drama in which a car cracks wise and the lead chick strips down to her skivvies in the show's first 12 minutes.

That's a recipe for tonal discord.

"Knight Rider" also wastes our time by dabbling in romantic subplots and attempting to give its characters depth and dimension beyond their finely tailored clothes. The protagonist has a history with his sssssssssmmokin' agent/spook partner, while the quirky young Knight Industries tech guy has a crush on his wiseass cutie-patootie of a coworker. Then there's the maybe-conflicted agent/scientist/saboteur played with Master Thespian vigor by Sidney Poitier's daughter, Sydney. Imagine that post-work parent/child phone conversation: "Hi, Dad!" "Hi, kiddo! How was work?" "Really weird -- KITT called me 'mamacita' then offered to 'oil my engine.' How about you?" "Ah, you know how it is with Chekhov -- yak, yak, yak." Etc.

One change from the original "Knight" that plays out in the newbie's favor is the car itself, with a tricked-out Ford Mustang replacing the original Trans Am. This ranks as one of the most clever product placements in the history of intrusive marketing, especially when KITT makes the mid-chase transformation into a Ford truck. Predictably, auto brands dig "Knight Rider," with Audi, Acura, Toyota and even Enterprise Rent-a-Car populating the ad breaks between deeply pensive car chases.

Bring on the babes and explosions!
Therein lies the problem. I don't want nuance or multidimensional characters or slowly unfolding back stories from "Knight Rider." I want fast cars doing wheelies. I want leggy babes slathered in lip gloss. I want no fewer than 12 explosions per episode, and I want half of them to be presented in slow-motion. I want a thick puddle of drool to have accumulated on my chin by the time the hour is up.

Alas, after watching "Knight Rider," my face isn't moist and my brain hasn't liquefied and seeped out of my nostrils. That tags the show with a great big "fail." Nice try, though.
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