Starring Jeff Lester, Milo O'Shea, Robert Forster, Caitlin Clarke, and David Wohl
There are some TV shows that just don't deserve the treatment they get: great shows that just never find an audience. Once a Hero flopped badly, running only three episodes in 1987 (including the two-hour premiere) before cancellation, and racking up the worst ratings of the year. Yet, in a just world, it would have been seen as the classic it was.
The idea was a brilliant one (and part of its problem): what happens when a comic book superhero tries to live in the Real World, where there are no superpowers? The hero in question was Captain Justice (created for the show, though Marvel did a two-issue tie-in). In the set-up, the Captain realizes that he's repeating adventures, and, in the Real World, his creator, Abner Bevis, realizes he's in a rut. So the Captain crosses over from his home town of Pleasantville to talk to Abner.
But the Real World is much different than it is in comics.
I watched the show on a whim. Its two-hour premiere was on a Saturday night and it didn't look promising, but Milo O'Shea -- an actor who I know had a great reputation -- was listed in the cast. I also had a rule to try to catch every SF TV show I could, since so many came and went, even good ones. So I sat down to watch.
I was delighted.
What made the show work for me was the sly sort of logical humor that Joss Whedon later made his trademark. Just like in Buffy, clichéd situations would be turned on their head in perfectly logical manners. For instance, in the pilot, a kid (Woody -- one of the series regulars, if such a term makes sense here) was being relieved of his lunch money (and more) by a high school extortion racket. He gives a speech to the head of the gang telling him he'll get even with him one day. One of the thug's thugs punches Woody. The leader of the gang chews out the guy who did the punching: Woody had paid for his protection that week and should not be touched. He then gives Woody a rebate.
You've got to love touches like that.
Later, there's an exchange that any comic book reader will also enjoy. To understand, you have to realize that Captain Justice's name in the comic was "Brad Steele." Woody's mother, Emma (a divorcee and reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper), asks about him, thinking he's the Big Brother who is supposed to help Woody. And she begins to ask questions.
The plot of the pilot involved a small-time crook and extortionist named Edward Kybo. Kybo's son is the one shaking down Woody. Captain Justice insists that the way to solve the problem is to go to Kybo and tell him what his son is doing. After all, a parent is supposed to be appalled at this, right? But when he tells Kybo, the gangster looks at his son and asks, "How much do you clear a week?" When he hears the number, he beams.
Later, Kybo thinks Emma is getting too close; he goes to his boss and says that she's a threat and should be knocked off. His boss shakes his head. "We don't knock off reporters anymore."
And finally, when Gumshoe (a hard-boiled detective who follows Captain Justice to keep an eye out for him) meets with Emma, he tells her about a potential story about the extortion in town. Emma is uninterested, leading to the line, "Lois Lane, you ain't."
Captain Justice has to adjust with not having powers in the Real World. There was a wonderful scene where he keeps trying to leap in the air like a kid playing Superman. Eventually, he copes, smashing in to rescue Emma (with the help of some explosives). He grabs Kybo and forces him to repeat after him:
And the Captain decides to stay in the Real World.
The second episode involved the Captain's comic book girlfriend going looking for him. Gaining the help from the Great and Powerful ("I am the Great and Powerful . . ." he begins by way of introduction, to which Gumshoe replies, "Save that for the Munchkins."), she sees the Captain is staying there, so she ties herself to the railroad track to get him to rescue her. At one point, Gumshoe explains to Woody about women using an analogy, "A girl is like a baseball," that's something out of the hard-boiled world he's from. Woody thinks it's the stupidest thing he's ever heard. And it was actually quite touching when Rachel returned back to Pleasantville, unable to cope with the real world.
The third episode had the Captain's arch enemy, Lazarus, making the trek to the Real World. Again, it was sprinkled with clever bits. For instance, Captain Justice applies for a job as an archeologist (his identity in Pleasantville) and his dressed down by the interviewer for using fictional credentials.
Later, they discover that Lazarus is in the Real World. Abner and Gumshoe think he's probably going to blow up a dam and flood the city. Captain Justice insists that Lazarus is probably planning to kidnap the Russian ambassador's daughter. Kybo (who evidently finally was able to finish that sentence he had trouble with and turned into a cuddly comic relief guy) rushes in saying, "We have to do something! Lazarus has kidnapped the Russian ambassador's daughter!" Captain Justice pumps his hand, "Yes!" he says, going into a victory dance to Kybo's mystified look.
Lazarus meets with Abner, furious that he always loses to Captain Justice. "Why do you hate me?" he asks. Abner tells him that Lazarus is his favorite character, since it's so much fun writing a villain. There's a lot of father/son interaction between Abner and Captain Justice, too, and the creator = God angle is clearly present throughout the show, though not enough to create controversy (which may have helped the show, alas).
Later Lazarus captures Captain Justice and, instead of fighting it out, the Captain surrenders. "You win," he says. "I've lost." (Certainly one of the few times you've heard that from a comic book character.)Lazarus is delighted. "Let's do it again," he said. But the Captain insists that this is the Real World now, and not a game. That was something of a theme for a show: the difference between the Real World and the world of comics, with something of a longing for the more uncomplicated past, but a realization that we have to live in the real world.
Sounds a bit heavy, but it really didn't get in the way of the fun.
The fourth episode of the show never aired. But in the previews, it was clear that the plot involved an actor who had played Captain Justice on TV and had gotten sick and tired of being associated with the role of a TV superhero and wanted nothing more to get out. And who did the cast to play this?
Adam West. Just perfect, isn't it?
Why did the show fail? In StompTokyo's discussion of it (read it: it's nearly as good as this one), they talk about how Captain Justice was too old fashioned and unsophisticated for the Dark Knight generation of the time. But if the show were to succeed, it needed to attract more than just the fanboys, and I think the old-style hero was hardly the problem.
It was more complicated. First of all, the show appeared on Saturday nights. That's the night with the lowest audience (today, they don't even bother putting on original programming on Saturdays), so the show was in a hole. It was also going up against The Facts of Life.
But the main problem is that not all network affiliates showed it (I know, for instance, that it was never shown in the Boston area). Evidently, after the show was picked up, they fired the actor who played Captain Justice for not playing the part straight enough. Some affiliates took this as a sign that the show was a disaster waiting to happen, and thus they didn't show it. It's hard to get ratings when a market like Boston isn't broadcasting your show.
It's also a hard concept to explain. It was metafiction, after all (and I love metafiction), but that word would certainly scare off most viewers. It also required a good deal of explanation that couldn't be summarized in a thirty-second spot.
So the show was cancelled (remember, this was a time that if you got a month to make a ratings splash, it was a long time). I remember Robert Forster (who played Gumshoe) being interviewed in a newspaper article trying desperately to get people to watch.
It's too bad. It definitely deserved better.
More Great but Forgotten
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