In this golden age of comic-based entertainment, it can be easy to look back at shows like 1978-82’s Incredible Hulk TV series and feel that it somehow paved the way for today’s hit superhero shows and movies. Easy… but wrong, at least if you’re looking back at The Incredible Hulk episode “The Phenom.”
Our story begins with David Banner (remember, Bill Bixby didn’t play Bruce Banner, because the name Bruce was illegal between 1978 and 1982) hanging out with a young baseball player named Joe Dumming, who, as his name might suggest, is an intensely stupid person. Point #1: He has picked up perennial hitchhiker David Banner off the street and has for some reason asked this total stranger and possible vagrant to play catch with him in the park.
The reason Joe wants to play catch is not because he’s an emotionally stunted man-child is desperate need of some kind of male authority figure in his life — okay, partially that, but also because Joe is Very Good at Baseball. He’s a miracle pitcher from the semi-pro leagues (not to be confused with the minors) who is going to the big city of West Palm Beach to try out for the majors. Despite the fact he apparently threw a no-hitter where he struck out 21 batters — of a possible 27, or nine innings — a feat only one person in the Major League has ever achieved in the last 100+ years, but only because the game lasted 16 innings, and also it wasn’t a no-hitter, which is one of the most rare things to ever happen in baseball. I point this out because Joe is apparently Baseball Jesus, although no one in this episode will ever be more than mildly impressed.
After tossing a baseball with a homeless man for a bit, Joe and
Bruce David head back to the car. David’s is trying to get to Miami to get work in some kind of research facility that he hopes might allow him to find a cure for that darned Hulk. During their talk, though, Joe misses a very clear sign to West Palm Beach, and claims he was distracted. INTRIGUE.
The duo arrive at the West Palm Beach Arms motel, which looks sketchy in 1982 and almost certainly contains two murdered corpses in its rooms in the present day.
Bruce David says goodbye, but Joe panics! He wants David to watch him try out tomorrow! He begs Bruce to stay! Not to try to get to Miami at night! Maybe the motel doesn’t have a room! (It does; David points to the big “VACANCY” sign right next to them. MORE INTRIGUE.) They’ve been through three whole states together! When this doesn’t work, Joe instantly pulls a massive guilt trip on Banner, saying that this is his one chance to escape the farm, and without someone there to root him on, to keep him from being alone… and Joe actually gets the sad “Hulk Walking Away” theme for all of this. If you think that there’s some kind of romantic subtext here, let me assure you that there totally is. Bruce David stays.
Inside the motel, Joe has immense difficulty signing his own name. EVEN MORE INTR- oh, wait, Joe just tells Banner he’s illiterate. With incredible compassion, David says, “Enh.”
The next morning, Joe and
Bruce David have arrived at the spring training of that Major League Baseball Team that everyone knows, the Roosters! Joe strikes all of the Roosters’ batters out — mostly because their tendency to swing at fucking anything — and the Roosters’ coach is delighted. He tells Joe to come back for the exhibition game tomorrow, where the Roosters’ general manager can see his talent and officially hire him for the team.
Meanwhile, Bruce is passive-aggressively watching Joe and smiling for him in complete disinterest when up saunters Cyrus “The Wordsman” McCormack. Cyrus is an alcoholic journalist — I know, they’re really breaking the mold with this one — who covers baseball. Rather than take any notes on the practice he should technically be watching, he tells David to make sure his prodigy Joe stays away from talent agent Bernard Devlin, easily spotted in the stands as he is the slimiest man within 300 feet.
Bruce David tries to protest he barely knows this Joe guy before Cyrus toddles off for another drink from his flask.
Devlin — who you might recognize as no good by the fact that the word “devil” is in his fucking name — definitely wants to sign Joe, and sends his floozy Audrey to make it happen. Devlin himself accosts Cyrus as he’s walking out of the park with a very strange “Happy Birthday!” and then offers him a bottle of booze in exchange for information about Joe. Cyrus lasts about 20 seconds before the siren song of brown liquor takes him, and he tells Devlin where he can find "the Phenom."
Later, at the motel,
Bruce David is ready to depart for Miami, so Joe immediately lays down a massive guilt trip about being illiterate, which David completely ignores. When that fails, Joe asks if David wouldn’t mind going over to the store across the street for some ice to soak his arm. David kindly agrees, then Joe also asks for a strawberry milkshake. Somehow this does not anger David.
When he returns to the motel, though, he finds Cyrus drunkenly laying in front of his car in the parking lot. An annoyed
Bruce David carts Cyrus to his room and is about to leave when the phone rings; it’s Cyrus’s editor, and he has a story due tomorrow! Wah waaah! (There is actual sad trombone music playing during all of this.) Cyrus drunkenly asks Banner to write the story, David refuses, and then Cyrus throws his notes at him and promptly passes out. And then David writes the fucking story. This also does not make him angry.
The next morning, after
Bruce David dictates the story over the phone to Cyrus’s editors, he returns to his room to discover Joe is missing (the fact that he got the ice and milkshake for no reason also inexplicably does not make him angry). He searches for Joe at the ballpark, but he’s not there either — although a grateful and hungover Cyrus is. Cyrus demands David take $100 for his work, and then asks if David would ghostwrite his column while he dries out. David refuses until Cyrus tells him he’s willing to pay $200 a week at which point David instantly accepts. Cure for the Hulk? Who fucking cares when he could be making $800 a month?! Oh, yeah, and then Cyrus tells him Devlin’s floozy probably took Joe to her sleazy apartment across town.
In that sleazy apartment across town, Audrey and Joe are having a breakfast of bourbon and milk (does a body good!). Joe, being an imbecile, is already in love with Audrey. Audrey is looking at her watch, waiting for Devlin to arrive. And later, when
Bruce David arrives at that same apartment, he is greeted by Devlin, Audrey, a drunken Joe who tells him to mind his own business, and two of Devlin’s goons, who grab David and toss him down the stairs through a glass door.
One quick note: Up until the physical assault, I figure it’s important to note that Devlin’s whole plan is to make Joe sign a contract where he gives Devlin a lot of money, which he’ll be able to pay because Devlin is going to get him a contract with a baseball team that gives Joe a shit-ton of money. Basically, this is what every single fucking agent in the history of ever has done. This is captialism and the free market at work, people, nothing more. You know, if everyone started calling me evil just for doing my job, I’d start having goons throw people who give me shit down stairs too.
Finally, after being tossed through a glass door makes
Bruce David angry, at about 28:00 of a 49-minute episode, the goddamn Incredible Hulk shows up. He literally pulls the carpet out from underneath the two goons, which is enough to render them unconscious (although I think they still get off pretty light since, you know, they tossed a man through a glass door). Inside the apartment, Joe — because Joe is a moron, you need to keep remembering this — tries to defend Audrey from the Hulk with a wicker loveseat. Hulk, likely more confused by Joe’s preposterous “weapon” than anything, just picks up Devlin, tosses him out the second-story window into the apartment complex’s pool, and leaves. Contract: unsigned.
Of course, when the Hulk appears, it’s time for
Bruce David (dammit!) to skip town. Cyrus finds him packing his bags, and tries to convince him to stay, but to no avail. Meanwhile, Joe and Audrey are having a heart to heart; Joe is completely bummed about allowing thugs to grab his friend and toss him through a glass door, while Audrey is completely floored that someone would try to defend her from a body-painted Lou Ferrigno, even if that attempt was pitiful and misguided.
Although the big game is today, Joe decides to completely abandon his baseball career and his one shot at stardom to apologize to the hobo he picked up a few days ago because Joe is just the dumbest motherfucker walking the Earth. Joe returns to their motel room, where David has — and I swear this is completely true — left the illiterate Joe a note saying goodbye as if it weren’t the biggest dick move in the entire world.
After a scene where Devlin pretty much reveals that Devlin is Audrey’s sugar daddy, Audrey says she wants out, and Devlin announces he's going to use his thugs to keep Joe away from the stadium so one of his other athletes can get the pitching position. And poor, dumb Joe, who cannot read signs or street names, and who has never been to West Palm Beach or Miami before, somehow comes across David trying to hitchhike to Miami.
Joe offers to take
Bruce David to Miami, and David refuses, telling him to get back to his damn game. Joe begs David to come with him and watch again, despite the fact that Joe was a total asshole just earlier this morning. For some godforsaken reason, David agrees. They arrive at Rooster Park, where they are immediately accosted by Devlin’s thugs; one tries to break Joe’s arm, and the other one basically says its time for Ferrigno to return to set.
The Hulk tosses the two poor bastards across the parking lot, and, in an episode, already weirdly fraught with romantic subtext, picks up Joe and carries him into the ballpark like a husband carries his bride over the threshold. The players, of course, freak out and scatter as the Hulk, that mindless beast fueled by rage, tenderly sets Joe on the pitcher’s mound.
One moronic player throws a bat at the Hulk; he catches it. Another one throws a ball at the Hulk, ostensibly to scare him off. You see where this is going, right? The Hulk hits a home run, at least if you could hit a home run from the pitcher’s mound in the opposite direction of the home run wall. Of course, things get even stupider when the Hulk has a faceoff with the Rooster’s mascot, a dude in a shitty rooster costume, who faints in an ostensible attempt at comedy.
In the end, the Hulk runs off, Devlin trips down the ballpark stairs (which is literally all the comeuppance he receives), Joe makes the team and then gets engaged to the prostitute he’s known for a single day (most of which she spent trying to help defraud him), Cyrus demands Joe learn how to read, and somehow no one makes the connection between the Hulk’s appearance and
Bruce David's absence. CUE THE SAD HULK WALKING THEME.
What Did We Learn?
• Having an IQ of 38 does not prevent one from becoming a major league baseball player making millions of dollars.
• Apparently being an agent is tantamount to skinning babies alive.
• If you want someone to do something for you, ask them, and then pass out in a drunken stupor before they can say no.
• The title of the episode comes from when Joe says that a baseball scout called him a “phenom,” and has to ask David Bruce what it means. David says that it’s short for “phenomenon,” a baseball term. Either Dr. Banner knows absolutely nothing about vocabulary and sports or he is totally fucking with Joe.
• Although this whole episode is about how awesome a pitcher Joe is, one of the three pitches he throws to Banner in the park is literally four feet to Banner’s right. During a game of catch. The Hulk staff did not bother to reshoot this two-second scene, because they just didn’t care.
• When we first meet Cyrus “The Wordsman,” he’s sitting in the West Palm Beach Arms drinking from a flask and reading his own articles. This is insanely self-centered and completely obnoxious and he should be ashamed of himself, and I know this because I read my own articles all the time.
• That said, if you call yourself “The Wordsman,” you deserve to have everybody you’ve ever met in the street over the course of your entire life come by and punch you in the kidney.
• By the way, this is what it looks like when Joe tries to sign the motel registry.
• When Devlin first talks to Cyrus, Devlin reminds him that his career is partially due to scoops Devlin has given him. But even though he’s only asking for his favor to be returned, he’s still giving Cyrus a nice bottle booze, too! While Devlin’s actions as a talent agent may be inappropriate, he’s clearly a kind and giving business associate.
• I cannot possibly stress how the tiny the shit was that Bill Bixby gave in this episode. Especially when he was acting opposite the poor bastard who played Joe.
• This Hulk episode rivals Star Wars for easily sexualized dialogue. A small set of examples, not even counting the weird David/Joe tensions:
Devilin: “I want him, Audrey.”
Cyrus: “He will cheat him, he will corrupt him, he will defile him.”
Coach: “I’d like to have a whole team of you.”
Coach: “You handlin’ him?
Devlin: “You know what I want.”
Devlin: “I bet we find out just how tight they really are.”
Audrey: “Of course, this is all if he wants you. And I think he’s gonna want you.”
• At point Bill Bixby says “Bye-bye” to another adult man. It’s super weird.
• The moral of the story: Try not to get overly attached to the men you pick up on the side of the road.