In fact it really is very cheesy. But, mostly, it’s cheesy in a good way. It’s cheesy in a good-natured way. It doesn’t take itself seriously and it doesn’t expect the viewer to take it seriously. It has a comic-book sensibility but with some humour..
The two-part pilot episode Knight of the Phoenix gives up the setup. Michael Long is an undercover cop and he’s on a big job involving very rich very powerful people sand the job all goes horribly wrong. Michael’s partner is killed and Michael is grievously wounded and very very close to death. He would certainly have died in a very short time but instead of ending up in a hospital he ends up in the hands of an eccentric billionaire. Wilton Knight (Richard Basehart) has plans for Michael Long. Michael is patched up, which is quite a job since his whole face had been blown off. Now he looks quite different, in fact now he looks like David Hasselhoff. Wilton Knight’s plan is that Michael, now renamed Michael Knight, will be a crime-fighter for the Foundation for Law and Government, a kind of private vigilante justice outfit but with Wilton Knight’s considerable wealth behind it. Michael has been given a second chance at life and the idea is that he’ll be sufficiently grateful to accept this deal.
They have also fixed his car for him. Actually they’ve done a little more than fix it. Michael’s Trans-Am is now the K.I.T.T. 2000, a computerised supercar. The car is practically indestructible and it has an artificial intelligence that makes it crash-proof and capable of doing everything except fly. And the car, or at least its artificial intelligence, can talk. And it can think. OK, this concept might not seem so startling today in an age of self-driving cars but in 1982 it was pretty darned exciting.
There are those who have been unkind enough to suggest that K.I.T.T. has more personality than Michael Knight. It’s certainly true that David Hasselhoff is a bad actor. But he’s a fun bad actor, and his acting is bad and fun in just the way the series needs. Edward Mulhare plays Michael’s boss, Devon Miles, as a prissy and disapproving comic relief character. The other regular character is Bonnie Barstow (Patricia McPherson) who is the engineer who keeps K.I.T.T. going and naturally has to be a beautiful woman.
Knight Rider is comic-book stuff in both style and content. That’s something you either accept about this show or you don’t. Knight Rider doesn’t have the edginess or the touch of cynicism that you’ll find in a series like Airwolf. Or at least it doesn’t have the same degree of cynicism. Not quite, but it’s still cynical enough in a low-key way. In all the episodes I’ve seen so far it never for one moment occurs to Michael or to his boss Devon that the police or other legal authorities might be trusted to deal with serious crimes. It’s simply taken for granted that the legitimate authorities are entirely useless. So I guess you could say there’s the same passive cynicism about authority that you get in The A-Team where anyone who has serious problems with criminals doesn’t bother with the police - they call in totally illegal private mercenary vigilantes who, unlike the police, will actually get the job done. And in Knight Rider the police aren’t always just useless. Sometimes they’re crooked. Judges are sometimes incompetent but sometimes dishonest. FBI agents are sometimes just over-zealous but sometimes they’re unethical.
Glen A. Larson created Knight Rider and it follows the same basic formula as all his successful series - it has humour, it has lots of action but no graphic violence, it has likeable sympathetic characters, it’s generally upbeat and it qualifies as what used to be known as family entertainment. Larson’s 70s science fiction series Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century achieved decent ratings but were cancelled mostly because they were just so expensive to make. Knight Rider has the science fiction elements and the gadgetry but because it’s about a car rather than spaceships it was presumably not quite so expensive.
The one thing that all Glen A. Larson’s shows have in common is that critics hated them, which worried Larson not at all.
Deadly Maneuvers is outrageously silly, but that’s not a problem for a Knight Rider story. There are shady goings-on at an army base. Shady is perhaps an understatement since there’s been at least one murder. The daughter of the murdered officer, who is a junior officer herself, persuades Michael to help her to find out the supposed accident that killed her father. They uncover a tangled web of corruption. This is an episode that has a bit more cynicism than you expect from Knight Rider. It also has a spectacularly crazy, ludicrous but thoroughly enjoyable action climax with Michael and his car up against half the U.S. Army!
In Good Day at White Rock Michael decides he needs a holiday and some rock-climbing is what appeals to him. The little town of White Rock is pleasant enough except for the sheriff. The sheriff wants to avoid trouble at all costs, in any situation that arises, and while that is often a wise approach in this case it seems to be a symptom of weakness rather than good judgment. And now the town is about to become a battlefield for a war between two rival biker gangs. The sheriff as usual thinks he can evade trouble but it’s clear to Michael that trouble is coming whether the sheriff likes it or not.
Just My Bill has Michael acting as bodyguard to a crusading (and annoyingly self-righteous) state senator. This is a very poor episode, clumsy and uninteresting.
Not a Drop to Drink pits evil big rancher Herb Bremen against a bunch of virtuous little guy ranchers, the issue at stake being control of water rights. Bremen is prepared to take drastic, and violent, measures to break the good small ranchers. The Foundation is acting for the small ranchers. Michael’s job is to keep Herb Bremen at bay until legal measures can be instituted. This entails K.I.T.T. having to teach himself bull-fighting and fight several battles against heavy earth-moving machinery. They’re the fun parts of the episode. Otherwise it’s a standard western plot that threatens to become rather soppy but it’s OK.
No Big Thing is yet another example of one of the most tedious American TV tropes of all time - a city person ventures into the country only to discover that every single person in rural American is a knuckle-drugging redneck and every small-town sheriff is a vicious corrupt monster preying on innocent city folks. This time Devon Miles is the city person victim. A very poor episode.
Trust Doesn't Rust introduces K.I.T.T.’s evil twin, K.A.R.R., the original prototype on which K.I.T.T. was based. The big difference is that K.I.T.T. is programmed to serve and protect humans. K.A.R.R. is programmed merely for self-preservation. K.A.R.R. teams up with a couple of small-time hoods who then go on a crime rampage. Only Michael and K.I.T.T. can stop them. Fortunately Michael has learnt a thing or two about robot psychology. A good episode.
Inside Out is a heist story and it’s a good one. A crazy pensioned off U.S. Army colonel has assembled a crack team to pull off a huge robbery. Michael has infiltrated himself into the colonel’s organisation. The heist itself is clever and exciting and it’s the element that makes one of the best episodes of season one.
In The Final Verdict Michael has to find a witness who can provide an alibi for a girl charged with murder but the witness (a harmless inoffensive guy) has managed to get himself mixed up with all sorts of legal difficulties. It has a reasonable car chase but otherwise it’s fairly routine.
A Plush Ride has Michael infiltrating a school for bodyguards. One of the bodyguards is actually a terrorist planning to assassinate Third World leaders at a summit meeting but which one is the terrorist? The bodyguards school has a whole fleet of heavily armoured limousines so you’d expect lots of spectacular stunt driving in this episode. There is some, but it’s not as impressive as might have been hoped. A routine episode.
Hearts of Stone puts Michael in the middle of a war between rival gun-running gangs and then he kind of loses $240,000 of the Foundation’s money so he’s in a pretty stock situation. An average episode, and enjoyable enough.
Give Me Liberty... or Give Me Death involves deadly shenanigans behind the scenes at an alternative energy car race. An OK episode.
The Topaz Connection is an attempt by a girlie magazine publisher to re-establish himself as a serious investigative journalist but the big story he’s working on, which he’s code-named Topaz, is a potentially deadly story. Another decent enough episode.
Chariot of Gold involves the Helios Society, which is kind of like Mensa on steroids except with a whole lot of added creepiness and geekiness. Devon has applied for membership but much to his chagrin they accepted Bonnie instead. One of the Helios Society members involved in an archaeological dig has died in very suspicious circumstances. There’s also Aztec gold and nuclear war survivalism involved, as well as brainwashing. And we find out that a car is like a dog. It only has one master. This episode works by going over the-top, and Knight Rider is always at its best when it goes over-the-top.
Knight Moves is a trucking saga. Independent truckers in New Mexico are being driven out of business by hijackings but it’s obvious there’s something more behind the hijackings. This is one of those episodes (you see a lot of similar episodes in The A-Team) about the little guy, the honest working-class guy, getting a rough deal from the big guy with the money. Lots of 80s CB radio nostalgia in this one! A fairly good episode.
Nobody Does It Better really lays on the 80s nostalgia extra thick. It’s all about video games! Somebody is stealing video game software. Unfortunately there’s a lady private eye involved in the case and while she can’t be faulted for her enthusiasm her competence is another matter. She thinks it’s just another divorce case. The plot isn’t very challenging but anyone with fond memories of 80s video games is going to be in seventh heaven. And it’s typical Knight Rider - it has enough energy and glitz to make up for any deficiencies in the script.
In the final episode of the first season, Short Notice, Michael gets mixed up with a woman who is mixed up with a biker gang and she has a kid and it’s the sort of situation that he should just stay right away from but of course he doesn’t and he thinks he can rescue her and even K.I.T.T. knows he’s crazy but he’s going to do it anyway, and since this is a TV show then maybe he really will be able to save her even though she would cheerfully have sacrificed him for her own ends.
Knight Rider is corny and it’s formulaic and it’s often predictable but it’s executed with enthusiasm and it’s unfailingly entertaining. The special effects may not entirely convince but they’re enjoyably outrageous. K.I.T.T. and Michael are a likeable team. It’s a formula that works. It doesn’t matter that you can’t take it seriously because you’re not supposed to.
For all its faults Knight Rider is thoroughly enjoyable television. It’s cheesy and trashy but in a totally good way. Highly recommended.