A decade from now, if you wanted an encyclopedic list of everything wrong with television in 2008, you'll need to look no further than NBC's back door pilot movie Knight Rider.
The original series aired on NBC from 1982 to 1986, and quite frankly, it hasn't aged well. Cheap production values, unsophisticated plots, and David Hasselhoff combined to create some first-rate cheese. Still, it was reasonably good-natured and just sophisticated enough to make every boy born between 1970 and 1974 drool over that wicked cool car and tune in every week.
Unfortunately, over the last twenty years, the bar has been raised for both television action and science fiction shows. And ironically enough, NBC/Universal's Battlestar Galactica is the current high water mark for science fiction (a series also reconstructed from the ashes of a twenty-year-old series created by Glen A. Larson). Even if you only count Knight Rider as half science fiction, it now is unquestionably the worst piece of sci-fi American television has seen in a long, long time, replacing the old title holder of last fall's Bionic Woman
It takes less than sixty seconds to parse the lack of subtlety, imagination, or creative inspiration behind Knight Rider 2008. An old man, living in a house chock full of the most sophisticated artificial intelligence algorithms in the world casually lets a menacing pair of strangers walk into his house after a sudden power outage. This isn't just a failure of logic — the suspension of disbelief required to make this work would require your central nervous system to shut down completely. But it gets worse when the camera work – all medium shots and unrevealing pans – suddenly goes hand-held and leers into the face of a bad guy, using a dutch angle framing that went out of fashion when the first Knight Rider aired.
In short order, we meet a random lesbian/FBI agent; a brilliant scientist with hypnotically shiny lip gloss; and a tousle-haired ex-Army Ranger/race car driver who seems to spend his time having threesomes. When the most well-rounded, believable, and engaging character is a solar-powered morphing Ford Mustang voiced by Val Kilmer, you're watching a show that is running on fumes.
What's worse is that the clichés haven't really started piling up yet. The brilliant scientist in the opening turns out to – gasp – be a body double! Which gets revealed in a monochromatic, jumpy-camera flashback! The ex-Army Ranger (vaguely played by Justin Bruening) has a shocking family secret! And he's a big-stakes poker player! And he just happens to have harbored romantic feelings for the scientist's ultra-foxy daughter (Deanna Russo)! Who was heartbroken he left her years ago! And the local sheriff is in league with the villains! Who are a near omnipotent, Halliburton-inspired "private security company"!
Most pilots are exposition heavy and lumbering, but this whole venture is senseless and wholly devoid of fun. Way back in 1982, the idea of a super-intelligent talking car was balanced right on the edge of 'way out fantasy' and 'airbrushed van painting cool'. Now cars are coming equipped with talking GPS systems, and the outer edge of cool is somewhere beyond Facebook. Good television can't be any more than a half-step behind the mainstream. Good science fiction needs to be a couple of steps ahead of the mainstream. None of the factory spec elements of Knight Rider have any current relevance — the Bluetooth headsets, hipster lesbianism, and cheesy poker games already feel like dated cultural relics. Completely missing is that sense of cool, that 'gee whiz, wouldn't it be awesome if…' sensibility that fueled your imagination when you were young.
In a show this dismal, you can't entirely blame the actors, but Bruening lacks the porn-star-lite charm that Hasselhoff exudes with ease. The other actors are so devoid of character that it's hard to tell if they're even performing. There isn't a compelling image or coherent thought to be found. Shadowy conspiracies that seem to have only four employees, body doubles, mommy issues, absentee fathers, and hack cliffhangers all feel like something a twelve-year-old J.J. Abrams would come up with. Cheap digital effects work compounds the problems, with green screen spill very visible in a number of shots. There isn't even the thrill of sweet cars driving fast — a feat even The Fast And The Furious: Tokyo Drift managed to achieve in spades.
Not every show needs to be as heady and grim as Battlestar Galactica. Sometimes bad television can be at least enjoyable to watch, and everyone has an over-eager twelve-year-old tucked away somewhere deep inside who deserves to come out and play occasionally. Damn the nostalgia, though, because your inner twelve-year-old boy is going to have to hold on to the slim hope that an inevitable A-Team re-make is much better.