Anybody remember The Incredible Hulk television series?
Aside from it being really entertaining, there also was and is a lot of respect for this show. For one thing, they didn’t overreach by choosing to adapt a comic for live action at a time when television special effects could be quite crude (I’m looking at you, The Amazing Spiderman). They simply hired a massive bodybuilder, painted him green, and pointed him towards the balsa wood buildings and the stuntmen waiting to be thrown through them.
In terms of tone, they played it straight. No Adam West or Caesar Romero overacting here. They instead took a tested television actor (Bill Bixby of My Favorite Martian and The Courtship of Eddie’s Father) and placed him in a series that took a tried-and-true plot structure from The Fugitive: Man on the run enters a town, befriends nice people, helps them out, almost gets caught, moves on. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
It all worked very well, and I have fond memories of watching this show as a kid. But in terms of the pattern this show followed to success, I’m beginning to remember one more distinct element:
This was one sadistic program.
Oh sure, there were plenty of action shows in the late 70′s/early 80′s with heroes that were occasionally beaten up and stomped on. Hell, I watched a lot of them myself. But none of them seemed to unload on the hero with the consistency that David Banner endured week after week.
This was the nature of the beast, so to speak. The pain from beatings and torture (which, in turn, led to anger) was required in order for Banner to make his two script-mandated changes into the Hulk each episode. And, to be fair, the show would mix it up occasionally by having the change be caused by natural circumstances (like a fire) instead of a fight. But more often than not, Banner was unfortunate enough to face villains who knew how to put on the thumbscrews.
It’s no secret that superheroes can be the source of major empowerment fantasies for the kids who read about them. Little geeks could read about them and dream about dispatching bullies in much the same manner. But most of these comic book heroes, when faced a formidable force, often battle in the most fantastic of circumstances. In the case of David Banner, we just have a good old fashioned ass whupping ramped up a couple of extra notches. I suppose this brought it home for kids in a way that other superheroes never could.
I remember one show in particular which, due to the details, may forever be burned into my brain. Near the end, the bad guys take Bruce out to a construction site. They beat the crap out of him then seal him in plastic then throw him in a hole then start filling the hole with cement! This is somewhat different than, say, the old Batman show. Even if there is the threat of Batman and Robin being buried alive inside a giant hourglass, everything is so silly that you can’t take it seriously, even if the mode of death is inherently horrifying.
Perhaps I’m wrong and either (a) the beatings weren’t as bad as I remember and/or (b) there were beatings just as bad on other shows. I did a quick Google search to find the episode I mentioned. I didn’t find it, but I did find a synopsis for a Simon and Simon episode that also featured a bad guy attempting to bury some good guys in cement. So maybe I’m engaging in a bit of selective memory.
Still, I imagine some viewed the dispatching of bad guys by the Hulk as one hell of a cathartic experience. No wonder it lasted for five seasons.