We were pumped to check out a female-focused update of 1980s TV comedy The Greatest American Hero, but unfortunately, the reboot wasn’t picked up to series. However, the vintage version of the show is still packed with goofy delights well worth remembering—especially since we know just mentioning the title has stuck the preternaturally catchy theme song in your head (sorry not sorry).
The Greatest American Hero ran for three seasons back in the early 1980s, chronicling the misadventures of a mild-mannered high-school teacher named Ralph Hinkley (William Katt) who’s given a skintight magical supersuit by aliens—but then promptly loses the instructions. Ralph attempts to use his newfound yet unknown abilities to promote justice with weekly assists from blustery FBI agent Bill Maxwell (Robert Culp) and classy attorney/love interest Pam Davidson (Connie Sellecca), Ralph’s missions escalated over the show’s run, from catching crooks and helping ordinary people solve their problems, to tangling with mad magicians, space creatures, and other kooky adversaries. (Though he got better at rolling with the punches, his flying skills never did improve.) The weirdest Greatest American Hero episodes are, of course, still the most fun to watch. Here are our favorites.
The jovial teenage cut-ups in Mr. H’s class form a groovy band (with an ever-changing name) and Pam helps them book a gig performing for Charley Wilde, one of music’s hottest producers. The slick Wilde takes a shine to Pam, so of course Ralph freaks out and creepily uses his suit to spy on her. The kids are invited to join the bill at Wilde’s big benefit concert, but it turns out Wilde is in cahoots with an enemy agent named Hydra who plans to douse the crowd at the rockin’ anti-nerve gas benefit with... nerve gas. Fortunately, Ralph and Bill (but mostly Bill, who kicks terrorist butt in an open field while wearing a three-piece suit) step in at the last minute and prevent certain disaster—but still, the romantic-jealousy subplot oddly gets way more emphasis in this episode than anything else. (Season two, episode five)
Bill leads Ralph, Pam, and the kids on a tropical getaway to a fictional French-speaking Caribbean island, where he intends to meet up with an old pal who has a line on some sunken treasure. But once the group arrives, the locals are standoffish even before they get a load of Bill’s tremendous “ugly American” attitude... plus, Bill’s buddy is dead, his business burned, and there’s a voodoo doll stuck in the wreckage. Voodoo was a prevalent theme in 1980s horror—think The Serpent and the Rainbow and Angel Heart, both of which postdate Greatest American Hero, and there’s about as much cultural sensitivity and nuance here as you’d imagine in a major-network TV show from 1982. But as it turns out, the “voodoo” elements are supposed to be exaggerated—because the island’s new government is using it as a political smokescreen to scare everyone into submission. Of course, it’s nothing that a man in a supersuit can’t handle—and, all told, the most terrifying thing that happens in this episode is the sight of Bill in short shorts. (s2, ep. 14)
After receiving an anonymous tip, Ralph and Bill race to intercept a big rig carrying a shipment of amphetamines. What elevates this escapade from a standard drug bust is a) the goods are being smuggled in a truck in the service of fast food chain Hamburger Heaven; b) the informant is the guy who performs as “Captain Bellybuster,” the restaurant’s portly mascot, who happens to wear a red leotard and cape, just like you-know-who; and c) Captain Bellybuster also tips off a photographer who manages to catch Ralph in full superhero mode (the headline: “MAN FLIES.”) When Ralph and Bill try to convince the journalist not to out Ralph in his story, they find that Hamburger Heaven’s goons have gotten there first, with murder on their mind. Fortunately, the two capes make friends and the Captain teaches Ralph a thing or two about taking pride in one’s superhero uniform.... and Bill manages to bust the drug ring, thereby saving face with his exasperated boss at the FBI, and keep Ralph’s identity secret at the same time. Plus, hamburgers for everyone! (s2, ep. 9)
By the title, you sure wouldn’t be able to tell there are Nazis in this one. Aliens, perhaps. Nazis... not so much. Bill, clad in a “Happiness Is a Warm Pistol” t-shirt and absolutely giddy to be enacting one of his “scenarios,” has roped a pouty Ralph into helping him stake out a pair of bank robbers. Ralph storms out in a huff (sample lyrics of the song that plays over this part: “Who said that opposites attract? They probably think the world is flat”), flies back to help nab the crooks, then flounces off again—foolishly leaving his suit behind—just before some grudge-bearing American Nazis swoop in and Ralph gets hit in the crossfire. As they speed to the hospital, the “little green guy” (i.e., the alien who gave Ralph the suit) summons them to his spaceship, heals Ralph and tells him “You must be better,” and gives him another copy of the suit instructions... which he promptly loses again. So much for being better. At least he manages to get the suit back from the Nazis before anything else goes wrong. This is without even mentioning that Bill and Ralph spend most of the episode driving around a food-truck van outfitted with a giant hot dog, which isn’t really relevant but is still absurdly hilarious. (s3, ep. 1)
It originally aired in December 1981, but this is probably the most Halloween-appropriate Greatest American Hero episode ever. Ralph’s real-estate agent friend lets him, Bill, and the kids rummage through an aging mansion that’s scheduled for demolition. Their plan is to salvage materials that they can sell, but most inconveniently, the place is haunted by a vengeful spirit. Things go epically sideways when Ralph is attacked by a demon after his superpowers help him access a “trippy” inter-dimensional portal in the house—and Bill gets nailed by a falling chandelier and revives with a new eye color: beyond-the-grave blue. It’s pretty funny seeing casual misogynist Bill get possessed by a woman, but really? The entire episode is spooky as hell, even though the special effects couldn’t be any cornier, and the menacing ghost ends up being laughably easy to defeat in the end. (s2, ep. 6)
The space shuttle Columbia experiences a sudden power loss while in orbit is about to make a crash-landing in downtown Bakersfield. Bill orders Ralph to “grab that sucker and bring it on in,” which is easier said than done, and the feat ends up charging Ralph with a huge amount of electricity... then transforming him into the world’s most powerful magnet. Why? Ralph suspects a “cosmic vortex,” but the reality is there’s a space monster on the loose, an electricity-gobbling creature that would probably make best friends with Stranger Things’ Demogorgon. When the team rolls up to the showdown, Bill has a classic reaction (“That doesn’t look good! It’s dark... foreboding... it’s like those movies where the thing comes out and goes BLAAAGH and you drop the popcorn under the seat!”) before sending Ralph in by himself, as is tradition. Fortunately, the zapped-up intergalactic squid (which we never do get a good look at...) is defeated, and Ralph is de-charged, but the biggest moment is probably Bill admitting that even he was rattled by this supremely crazy close encounter. (s2, ep. 13)
One year after the fiery on-stage death of Carlini, a famous magician turned murder suspect, the gang heads to the man’s crumbling old manse to join his three biggest rivals for the reading of his will. Ralph—a magic enthusiast—is pumped to meet his idols, but there’s something very fishy going on behind the scenes, possibly involving Carlini’s overly devoted former assistant. There’s a certain amount of Scooby-Doo going on here, but things take a turn for the far more bizarre after the will reading turns out to be a trap; there’s a menacing doll, a costume party for which Bill is forced to don a luxurious fake mustache, a failed recreation of the “crematorium” trick that ended Carlini’s career, and the not-so-shocking reveal that Carlini has been alive this whole time and is behind all the madness. Oh! Also, having a supersuit makes you the best magician ever when it comes to daring water-coffin escapes, but you’ll still be a klutz when it comes to card tricks. (s3, ep. 4)
When the prince of a fictional Middle Eastern country goes missing while attending college in LA, his royal father specifically requests that Bill investigate the case. A politically-motivated kidnapping is suspected—with good reason since there are goons with bad intentions lurking around the campus—but Bill, Ralph, and Pam soon learn that the prince was heavily involved in a role-playing game called Wizards and Warlocks. A very young Bob Saget pops up among the kids who won’t help the trio find the prince because they’re all bound by the rules of the game. So they recruit the game’s exaggeratedly nerdy inventor—who’s petrified of bad press—to help them out; when he also goes missing while looking for clues in the sewer, Pam takes up the manual and tries to figure it out, while Bill stands in the corner and mutters things like “Ahhh... I’m dyin’.” Also, Ralph uses his superpowers to rack up insanely high scores on the Wizards and Warlocks arcade game, as you do. The climactic fight takes place on a fantasy-themed mini-golf course (home of the leprechaun statue seen in the screenshot at the top of the page) because of course it does—and even crusty ol’ Bill comes around to the magic of role-playing by the end of the episode. (s3, ep. 14)
Did we miss one of your favorites? There are a lot of gloriously weird episodes of this show packed into just three seasons. Share your picks below—and if you need to get inspired to revisit any of the episodes, you can watch all three seasons on Amazon.