Test Pilot: File #11, Knight Rider

Test Pilot #11: Knight Rider

Debut date: September 24, 2008

Series legacy: One of the most disastrous remakes in an era full of disastrous remakes.

Test Pilot is back! It’s a new year, but the historical pilot analysis continues! In case you have forgotten or are new to the site, here’s the general primer: In this bi-weekly feature, I will be joined by a rotating batch of guest writers in an analysis of, you guessed it, television pilots. In this space, we’re hoping to analyze pilot episodes in a number of ways in hopes of discussing its historical, cultural and industrial context. To get a well-rounded opinion, this feature will include two perspectives from individuals who have just watched the pilot, one coming from a writer with full knowledge of the series following the pilot develops, the other coming from a writer who is not as familiar with the series. I’m hoping that this can be a fun way to add some less time-sensitive material to the site, but also expand coverage back through history of the medium.

This is our third quartet of series and this go-around, things are a bit different. Instead of discussing the medium’s canon (like we did in the first four files) or a very specific genre (as we did with teen dramas in the most recent files), we are going to dive into the history of one television network: The National Broadcasting Company, or NBC.

Now feels like the perfect time to discuss NBC. The sale to Comcast has been completed, Zucker is finally gone and they have a brand-new, Peacock-less logo. NBC is obviously trying to signify this time as a new, fresh start so it makes sense to look back on this terrible era they’re just moving out of.

NBC has been discussed, derided and destroyed for nearly a decade, as what was once the most popular network in America that millions of people grew up loving has now been turned into the laughing-stock of the industry thanks to a regular dose of poor decision making.But it is really easy to pull up pictures of Ben Silverman and Jeff Zucker and use MS Paint to caption them with “FAIL” and perhaps even easier to point to YouTube clips of The Event and Outsourced as obvious reasons for why NBC sucks.

While I would certainly enjoy those activities, I’m hoping that discussing certain series and their development over the next few months will help in connecting NBC’s failures together into some sort of pattern. At this point, it is still fairly unclear as to why NBC continued to make the stupid decisions it has made. I’m looking for something more than “bad management” or simply “Jeff Zucker.” Of course, I might not find those answers, particularly in this admittedly limited scope of series and contextualization. But I do think a minor backtrack through the NBC archives will allow us to highlight why specific series are examples of NBC’s errant decision-making and perhaps even figure out if they were given a raw deal because of the stench NBC has been putting off for nearly a decade now.

With that in mind, it’s important to note that while these four entries will most certainly follow the familiar framework established from the beginning of this feature – the newbie/veteran perspective, discussion of various contexts – I have to imagine that there will be an increased focus on the historical and industrial contexts.

I have to be completely honest with you folks: I totally forgot that this was a week for a new Test Pilot entry. Unfortunately, because of my absentmindedness, I didn’t have enough time to wrangle up some assistance on this entry, the late-aughts reboot of Knight Rider. On the most basic of levels, that totally changes what the Test Pilot feature is supposed to be all about. There will be no dual perspectives on that terrible series in this entry. On one hand, that’s most certainly problematic and unfortunate. But on the other hand, I’m actually kind of excited to see the results of a post wherein only one person talks about a series. This isn’t going to be the norm and it’s clearly just an offshoot of an error in scheduling made by me, but I’d prefer trying this than screwing up the schedule I’m already working on. I hope that doesn’t make this post particularly less interesting than the other TP posts, but if so be it, I understand. Things will go back to normal in two weeks, I promise. SO, let’s just move on, shall we?

Today, I’m here to discuss yet another script series that has played a big part in the downfall of the Peacock over the last decade. I know that things like Heroes or even the Bionic Woman reboot are usually brought up first when discussing NBC’s descent into suckitude, but when I picture it in my mind, the series that always appears first is the Knight Rider reboot of 2008. If we think about the previous two entries posted in this “theme,” Joey and Heroes, both were wrapped up in extension. Jeff Zucker and NBC rightly wanted the Friends money machine to continue and thus, Joey. A few years later when it was clear that Tim Kring had no idea how to write a good superhero serial, Zucker, Silverman and the rest of NBC saw the series’ value in the ancillary and foreign markets and it probably went on for at least another season and almost returned for another one because NBC was making money off its terribleness.

It’s fitting then that we continue with the 2008 reboot of Knight Rider, which arrived early in that year in the form of a backdoor pilot/TV movie and then was eventually picked up to series that September. There were a few different “extensions” going on with Ben Silverman’s decision to reboot Rider. Of course, the primary inspiration was the original Knight Rider series starring David Hasselhoff. We all about the ’80s nostalgia that has been running rampant in Hollywood for almost a decade now, so it’s really no surprise that Silverman, a man primarily interested in implementing series with built-in audiences (and thus built-in revenue) wanted to revamp Rider 21 years after that original series ended for the first time. When the backdoor pilot was first put into development in the fall of 2007, NBC was trying to get that tepid Bionic Woman reboot off the ground and could probably see it wasn’t going to work. They needed another, different brand name to save them.

All that, despite the continued flawed thinking that “brand names” will automatically sell audiences, actually makes some sense from a 21st century television executive thought process. I don’t agree with it, but I see where Silverman was going with it. But hilariously, there’s more to his motivations to reboot Rider, something that is evident in the original news items about the process and the actual introductory episodes themselves: Transformers. Check out this snippet from the Variety piece announcing the production of Rider 2008:

Success of “Transformers” had a role in inspiring NBC Entertainment chief Ben Silverman’s decision to revive “Knight.” The thinking is that smallscreen f/x have advanced to the point where it’d be feasible to have a weekly series in which cars shift shapes.

It’s also likely the new show will explore the idea of “evil” cars to offset the heroic talking K.I.T.T. car of the original skein, which starred David Hasselhoff. That said, skein is expected to essentially remain focused on the story of a single man fighting for justice with the help of his superadvanced car.

There’s also huge potential for advertiser integration. General Motors was all over “Transformers,” and it’s easy to see NBC striking a rich deal with a single automaker to serve as the exclusive auto brand for the new “Knight.” It’s understood preliminary talks have already begun.

That’s right folks, Silverman was totally charmed by making Knight Rider into the television version of Transformers, which of course is yet another ’80s property that found a new audience in the summers of 2007 and later 2009. But Silverman’s Knight Rider would already be dead by the time the second Transformers film hit the silver screen in the summer of 2009. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but whereas it appears that the Transformers script was in some stage of development before those annoying/awesome GM sponsorships kicked in, you can see that Silverman was thinking about sponsorships before the script was even written. Now, that’s definitely not an unoriginal practice in today’s Hollywood, but it again shows you where Silverman’s head was at when he was coming up with and approving new pilot and series ideas. Again, I see the value in trying to bounce off other successful pop culture phenomenons and things like that, but when those words come from Silverman’s lips, you know you’re in for less of an homage and more of a flat-out rip-off that probably involves some marketing tie-in. I wish it wasn’t that way, but it was hard to trust the guy in early 2008 — and for good reason.

And unfortunately for NBC, that kind of thinking showed in the execution of the Knight Rider backdoor pilot. I can no longer find the link because of some redesigns and such, but I remember writing a fairly scathing review of that early 2008 TV movie for the Indiana Daily Student’s WEEKEND Watchers that mostly discussed the product placement. When I watched it again this past weekend, I was slightly disappointed that I couldn’t find the full broadcast version with all the terrible Ford commercials and wrap-arounds that pretty much made the whole two-hour event feel like one giant commercial for Ford. I mean at least the first Transformers film had a semblance of a story and tried a little bit. The same could not be said for the Knight Rider backdoor pilot, which is not only dumb but also extremely boring. If you’re going to try to rip off Transformers and build an entire series around a cool car that can basically do anything, at least try to make it feel exciting for modern audiences. Instead, the backdoor pilot is more or less an extended episode of the original series, at least in terms of pacing, plotting, etc. There is very little to like in those 80ish minutes.

Unfortunately for the viewers at home, the backdoor pilot was moderately successful, 120-minute Ford commercial or not. Despite porous reviews, NBC came in first place in the coveted 18-49 demographic when it aired the backdoor pilot/TV movie on Sunday, February 17, 2008. Don’t quote me on this, but a 4.0 in the demo for the Rider movie was probably one of the best numbers the Peacock scored that season, which means there was no way it wasn’t making it to series. Of course, we also have to remember when this all came about: directly after the WGA Strike, which lasted for 100 days and ended on February 12, just five days before the awful Rider reboot aired. At that point, networks had little new episodes of scripted programming to offer and so I have to imagine that combined with some drips of nostalgia brought in the audiences on a sleepy Sunday night.

But the WGA strike also meant that NBC and its competitors had little in development for the following pilot season. Even with the buzzy trio  of Heroes, 30 Rock and Friday Night Lights from the season before, NBC still found itself in last place and the 2007-2008 season did absolutely nothing to improve their chances. That fall, NBC invested most of its new schedule spots to hourlong dramas: Chuck, Journeyman, Life, Lipstick Jungle and Bionic Woman. Relatively speaking, most of those series were decent performers in the ratings with the Bionic Woman disaster being a notable exception. Chuck and the rest of the lot were not lighting the world on fire that’s for sure, but it could have been worse. I think. Yeah, with NBC it could always be worse.

In any event, though we always talk about the strike’s affects on the following season’s developmental slate (and for good reason), it cannot be emphasized enough how much damage the WGA disastrous decision to strike in November 2008 had on all the series that had just debuted a few months earlier. We all know how difficult it is to launch a new television series on broadcast television in the 21st century, but those difficulties are compounded when you go off the air in December to little fanfare and then don’t return again until the next September, meaning you’re off the air for a whole 10 months. All the publicity in the world probably can’t save you at that point and that’s exactly what happened to Life and Lipstuck Jungle. Chuck is the only hourlong to survive from that actually solid developmental slate and that’s only because of its rabid fanbase and the continued decline of NBC. If Life could have survived that second season, it’d probably still be on the air too. This is how pathetic NBC is right now.

Unlike with the last entry on Heroes where I gave NBC a bit of a reprieve for the terrible way that series continued on and subsequently died, I cannot cut the network a break in these circumstances. Although most of the other networks did the act same thing — most notably ABC, who killed Pushing Daisies and Dirty Sexy Money in the process — NBC should not have let its brand-new series stay off the air after the strike. I don’t care that everyone else was doing it, if you’re NBC and you’re in last place and your competitors are playing it safe, you go for the kill. I’m not suggesting that had NBC brought back Chuck, Life and Lipstick Jungle back for 2-4 episodes in April and May that it would now be in first place every night, because it wouldn’t be. But those series would have had a better chance of becoming really solid hits in a time when people were looking for any sort of new scripted programming. I mean seriously, almost 13 million peopled watched the terrible Knight Rider TV movie! I’m very confident that had those series come back in the late spring, if only for two episodes, they would have had more success in the following fall. In fact, if I were NBC in March of 2008, I would have ordered all those series into production and aired new episodes into the summer if I had to. YOU ARE IN LAST PLACE, you have to try something.

Instead, NBC played it safe and cheap, airing all sorts of reality and game drivel like the American Gladiators reboot (which almost made it into this theme quad), My Dad Is Better Than Your Dad, Baby Borrowers, Celebrity Circus and America’s Toughest Jobs. Again, I know that’s the kind of stuff that basically all the networks were trying at the time, but when you’re in last place, that’s when it’s time to take a risk and give the audiences what they want. Instead, it feels like NBC (and again, much like all the broadcast networks) used the strike as excuse for their troubles and problems in the last few years of the decade and while I see the rationale in that kind of press spin, it doesn’t make NBC’s ratings any better and certainly doesn’t make the programs that were created in that void, including this Knight Rider, any better when they’re on screen. NBC might think they had no choice but to push this reboot to series and maybe in a lot of ways, they didn’t. But it feels like some different (read: smarter) choices could have been made along the way to soften the blow.

By the time Knight Rider did make it to series in the fall of 2008, some tinkering was done — most notably Gary Scott Thompson came on to run the ship — that was supposed to make the new series more in line with the old one. Based on my viewing experience with the first official hour of the series, very little was changed. The premise is inherently goofy and cheesy in the first place, but that only works at all if you have a leading man who is remotely charming and able to carry scenes where he’s literally talking to a car. Justin Bruening is not that person. He’s a charisma vacuum, where terrible lines go to die an even more terrible death. The plot in the pilot, involving Bruening’s Mike tracking down a “mysterious” woman from his past, is awful and just not fit for episodic television. All the supporting players, including the moderately appealing Deanna Russo, have very little interesting things to do and basically just stand around delivering horrendous dialogue. I cannot emphasize more how terrible the scripts of this series were. And much like the backdoor pilot TV movie, the initial episode is simply boring.

People embraced the original Rider because it was the ’80s sure, but also because it had some fun moments. When this new series basically tried to carry that exact same premise, only with newer, shinier technology over to the 21st century, it doesn’t work. The television landscape has changed. We still want to escape into the tube, but in a different sort of way. If we wanted total, unironic cheese, we’d probably just rather watch a terrible reality series. But at a certain point, we expect some quality from our scripted series. I think we still have low standards for what is considered entertainment, but they are still standards. This Knight Rider was poorly planned and even more poorly executed from the very beginning and even the “simplest” of viewers could recognize that.

The Knight Rider reboot premiered in the same season as The Listener (imported from Canada), The Philanthropist (part of a co-op deal), Crusoe (same thing), Kath and Kim (remake of an Australian series) and Parks and Recreation (started as an Office spin-off), which of course means that the network had another terrible season full of barely-original or at least in-house produced programming. Again, this is a time where the network had an excuse for that because of the strike, but Zucker and Silverman were clearly looking to find either cheap or built-in ways to put new programming out there in the fall of 2008 and beyond. This is something I’ve talked about repeatedly during this quadrant and that’s because if there’s one primary thing to blame for the failure of NBC, it’s this. Building content around product tie-ins, format purchases, spin-offs or anything else that doesn’t involve coming up with at least a solid script and then moving forward, is flawed. All networks are looking for spin-offs or product integration or new formats to exploit, but it seems like CBS, FOX and ABC come up with as many “original” ideas to supplement those practices. And at worst, NBC’s opponents seem to be able to balance both the artistic and business decisions that go in to making a successful television series and a successful television network. NBC might be really good at the latter, but they’ve struggled so mightily with the former that I’m not sure how they ever get back.

–CB

Conclusions on legacy: Totally deserved — This thing is terrible and never belonged on the air in the first place.

One thought on “Test Pilot: File #11, Knight Rider

  1. While I agree with you that the execution of Knight Rider was a big fail, I don’t think the idea of doing it was all that much of a bad one – especially with the unfortunate product placement which surely offset the cost of doing the show. (Interestingly enough, Pontiac actually asked that they STOP referring to KITT as a Trans Am on the original series, showing how product placement has changed in three decades).

    The concept of a car that can do really cool things coasted Knight Rider through in the 1980s and is a concept that I think still resonates – who wouldn’t want an awesome car like KITT? Having grown up watching the original series and loving it (also keep in mind I was like 8)…. I’ve seen what success Knight Rider could be, even if the original show only aired for four seasons.

    Yet despite being poorly executed, even in the Fall, there was a viewership for Knight Rider. It wasn’t as steep of a freefall fail as Bionic Woman had been, and I think people at least tuned in for the same escapist feeling they watched it for originally – they knew it’d be a fun, inoffensive (mostly) show. It beat Pushing Daisies in the same timeslot multiple times and I think it’s because – make comments about viewer intelligence if you will – it was more accessible. You knew exactly what you were getting into when tuning into Knight Rider. You’re not getting an Emmy winning series. Heck, even the original series wouldn’t have gone there despite Edward Mulhare being kind of awesome.

    I do think, though, that after 5 or so episodes of it, people got sick of it, and started to move on, so ending it when they did was a good thing. Many of the problems with the series are exactly what you had pointed out in your feature. These things were not flaws with the original concept, though. These things included:

    – The lead actor: Who’d have thought someone would be poorly compared to Hasselhoff, but it’s true. Cheesy as the Hoff is, he had charisma, and people in the 80’s especially loved watching him. He had a great banter with the car, he was “cool” (I think… at least to 8 year olds he was cool). Justin Bruening as “Michael Knight” (something that never really made sense because people who knew him in his past life ALL seemed to come out of the woodwork), while a nice guy, didn’t have the on-screen appeal to get people coming in every week. He was passable, but it takes a lot more than reading your lines to carry a series. You have to have people liking you.

    – The car: The TV-movie did not even feature KITT’s top feature, the Turbo Boost. In fact, it almost felt like the car, especially in the movie, couldn’t do much more than my Prius can with a GPS. So, that there was lame. And again comparing to the original series, William Daniels’ KITT had a snarky tone and interaction with Michael that was priceless. Val Kilmer was bland. Originally, Will Arnett was to do the voice of KITT; that would have been fun, though it’s still not Daniels, who really added a lot to the voice role.

    – The ensemble: Knight Rider 2008 was filled with characters that frankly, no one cared about, even if actors like Paul Campbell and Bruce Davison who I like in other things were in that cast. There were a good half dozen characters. Some of them they got rid of eventually but it was too late… and Davison was one of the ones they lost. That also was an important thing they failed in. Like the Bionic Woman reboot fail, it’s not worth it to try to be Alias. No one wants to see Michael, KITT, and his wacky sidekicks; you don’t need that for humor. In the original show, Michael and KITT were fine. Yes, there were Devon his boss and Bonnie or April, but they were minor roles in the ultimate scheme of things. Here, it was like they included all sorts of characters to try to appeal to random demographics. And we got a love interest with unnecessary sexual tension where there was no excuse not to have the characters together so why even tease with it. It was just silly.

    There was also the “tease” of Michael Knight (David Hasselhoff), who drunkenly slurred through a cameo in the pilot but who would have been great to see in the original series. Yes, they did bring back the original voice (but not the form) of KARR, but how cool would it have been to see Bruening’s Michael and KITT teaming up with his father and his KITT, out of storage? Then again, that might have been a Ford thing too, not wanting to show a Pontiac Trans Am, but that is the kind of team-up that fans dream of, and the kind of reason people tuned in for that first TV-movie in the first place.

    I do think, though, that trying Knight Rider again was not a bad idea at all, especially when the financial incentives were considered. It’s a brand that could and should make NBC/Universal more money, and if the gamble had paid off and it had actually been good, it would have also brought up interest and DVD sales in the original series, so they could make more money off of what they had already paid for. The bad idea was not remembering the concept of the original series – “a young loner on a crusade to champion the cause of the innocent, the helpless, the powerless, in a world of criminals who operate above the law” – which is really all it needed to be. The right casting and the memory of the actual concept behind the series might have made it a lot more watchable.

    Like

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