Though engineered for the delectation of boys who are too old for Hot Wheels and too young for learner’s permits, Knight Rider (NBC, Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET) arrives tricked out with just enough eccentricity to avoid utterly craven stupidity. That level of near-competence is perhaps all we can expect from NBC, given the network’s recent record of reviving vintage TV. Last year, someone over there took Bionic Woman—which began its brief life as the best new show of the season: tense, menacing, existential, and foxy—and sucked all the bio- out of it within three episodes. “They did something really dumb with that show,” Bill Carter observed to Charlie Rose that fall. “They decided that the pilot was too dark, and they made it as pedestrian as they could.” There is no danger of NBC’s repeating that mistake: Knight Rider, a sequel to the 1980s hit about the crime-fighting, sentient car, first returned a few months back as a TV movie—a “backdoor pilot” in industry jargon. Nothing else they come up with could possibly be more pedestrian than that backdoor pilot.
So if you’re looking to see the sci-fi Cheese Whiz of your youth transformed into something compelling, then you’re probably already watching Battlestar Galactica. The new Knight Rider, meanwhile, has less gravity than the old Knight Rider. One actually longs for the presence of David Hasselhoff, who played hero Michael Knight in the original. The distinctively animal weirdness of the hirsute Hoff has been replaced by the square-jawed humanoid blandness of someone or other.
The role of the car’s voice (once drolly phonated by William Daniels, with some of Trevor Howard’s clipped superiority and just a touch of C-3PO’s fussiness) has fallen to Val Kilmer, who makes his intelligence sound eerily artificial: Just because the car, KITT, is more congenial than HAL 9000 doesn’t make him any less chilling, and Kilmer’s too much a Method actor to consider playing it for camp. (His voice keeps a straight face, almost a saving grace.) The show replaces the original’s Pontiac Trans Am with an indestructible Mustang also capable of transforming into other vehicles found on the lot of your local Ford dealer.
Further, the new Knight Rider discards the vigilante Western mood of the Reagan-era original in favor of fashionably careering through the world of surveillance as presented by Alias, 24, and the Bourne films. (Doug Liman, who directed The Bourne Identity and also, damningly, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, is an executive producer, so let’s credit him with bringing some kiddie-ride zing to the proceeding.) There’s some counterfeit James Bond in there, too: KITT is like a career-topping gadget by Q, and he tends to speak to the new Michael Knight in tones as reproving as M’s. Near the opening of the first regular episode, while the evening-suited hero is racing around inside a party at “Foreign Consulate, U.S.A.,” the car chides him through his earpiece: “You would probably move faster if you ate a healthy diet, decreased your alcohol intake, and reduced the extracurricular activity with your lady friends.” Just don’t tell the post-Hot Wheels crowd that the Ian Fleming creation that Knight Rider most closely resembles—in its raison d’être prop, yes, but also its general level of sophistication—is Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Beyond his special friendship with his motorized steed, Michael Knight has human colleagues, who sit in front of fancy computer screens wearing tank tops and bantering and plotting who-knows-what. (After Alias, spy shows no longer feel obliged to make sense, and obscurity is embraced as a virtue.) He has a love interest, Sarah, the daughter of KITT’s inventor. Sarah has long hair, gray eyes, and classy taste in underwear, as we discover in a scene where KITT absorbs a hit from a heat-seeking missile and then motors around for a very long time engulfed in the flames of “an advanced form of napalm.” But Knight also has an old flame he doesn’t even remember—something about black ops, French-kissing in Beirut, multiple-personality disorder, maybe, as if it matters. The main thing is that the mystery woman vrooms onto the scene exactly like a Russ Meyers supervixen; then cuts off another character’s thumb in order to obtain a sample of his DNA; and then carries the thumb, in a transparent jar, into an exceedingly phony stand-in for a Washington, D.C., Metro station. Would a swab of the cheek have been too simple for Knight Rider’s tastes? But that’s the wrong question: Taste isn’t an issue here.