March 10, 2012

Our Final Thoughts on Street Hawk


With a spray of gravel and a mechanical shriek, Street Hawk came hyperthrusting back into my life after a 27 year absence. For 13 weeks, the strains of Tangerine Dream's unforgettable theme music wrapped me in a blanket of warm nostalgia, and the rocket powered adventures of Jesse Mach, Norman Tuttle, and their hi-tech wonder bike ripped down memory lane, pulling me along happily in their wake. But that's not to say the road didn't have a few bumps.

There’s a saying that goes “Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades,” and so Street Hawk, being neither a horseshoe nor a hand grenade, gets only partial credit for proximity to greatness. The series, suffering from a lack of vision at the top, never lived up to its premise or the talents of those involved.

The stunt work was first rate and the action sequences were often thrilling and cinematic in their execution, but the stakes were simply too low, ultimately lessening their impact. Early on, I used the analogy of Street Hawk vs. the weekly parade of white collar criminals being akin to using a hammer to swat flies. In drama, a hero is only as good as the challenges he faces, and too often our heroes were a match and then some. This rarely effected my ability to enjoy the show, but it kept it from being all that it could be.

And what of the hero? In this case, we have two, and on paper, it's a well-worn dynamic. Jesse Mach, the fearless and headstrong brawn, and Norman Tuttle, the nebbish and uptight brains. Even their names leave no doubt as to their personalities. To make this work, you need the right actors. Not the best actors necessarily, but the right ones. Fortunately, Street Hawk had the right ones in Rex Smith and Joe Regalbuto. Hot-shot Jesse Mach could've been an insufferable prick, like Tom Cruise's Maverick character from Top Gun, but Rex Smith plays him with an easy, aw-shucks charm that makes him one of the more likeable small screen heroes of the era. Norman could've been just as grating, but Regalbuto finds strength and dignity in the character, even as he milks his insecurities for laughs. And the two actors work very well together. They have an easy chemistry, even more so than Chuck Wagner and Desi Arnaz from our first Showcase, Automan. It's a partnership that grows into a friendship and that ultimately becomes the foundation of the show's relative success. You may not care about the plot or the villain, but you want to see the heroes succeed. Preferably at 300 MPH.

Since we ended our run a few weeks ago, I've been pondering where Street Hawk belongs in the pantheon of 80s “Super Vehicle” shows. To be sure, it never achieved the dizzying success of Knight Rider or even Airwolf, but that doesn't mean that it has to sit at the kid's table when the Super Vehicles get together for Thanksgiving dinner. While Knight Rider was clearly the most successful show of the genre, I believe Airwolf - especially the first season, with its blend of cinematic visuals, rousing score and Cold War intrigue - is the best it had to offer. Knight Rider had its moments, but it was cornier than chicken stool. It starred David Hasselhoff for crying out loud! In the end, I'm compelled to put Street Hawk somewhere in between the aerial pyrotechnics of Airwolf and the four-wheeled terra firma frolics of Knight Rider.

I'm going to wrap things up with a Best/Worst list:

Best episode: "A Second Self"

Worst episode: "Dog Eat Dog"

Best guest star: Sybil Danning

Worst guest star: Mayf Nutter

Best moment: Jesse rides Street Hawk for the first time

Worst moment: Street Hawk vs. a bulldozer

The bottom line

I came into this particular Showcase with very fond memories of Street Hawk, and though the series was uneven at times, I not only leave with those feelings firmly intact, but with some new fond memories for the road.


I'll be honest, I didn't expect to like Street Hawk all that much going in. I'm not really a fan of 80s tv. I've never seen McGuyver, and only a handful of episodes of Knight Rider and The A-Team, with little compulsion to pursue more. The Fall Guy I really dug, for about half a season before the repetition started to grate. Sure, there's The Greatest American Hero and V, but I largely find myself disinterested with 80s primetime action tv. It just isn't my thing.

Street Hawk, though, that turned out to be my thing.

It is a show with a share of problems. Outside the main pair, the supporting cast is really week, with Lt. Altobelli having about 10 minutes of genuinely gripping material in half a season where he does nothing else but bark and down antacids, and Rachel, the PR head, is literally little more than the character who pokes her head into a room for a quick, quippy exchange, and then we never see her again. We have Jesse, the charming, roguish driver. We have Norman, the nebbish engineer. The two of them play marvelously off of one another as (returning to my old analogy) the two dads of their offspring invention, both of whom have opposing idea on how it should properly be cared for. They're great, but there's nobody else for them to really bounce off of in a meaningful way. We never see Norman's FBI contact outside of the pilot. There's never anyone investigating Street Hawk who's always just a minute away from uncovering Jesse's identity. This is a show that needed a team of sorts, an operation built around Street Hawk, but we're instead left with just two guys and the people Jesse has to avoid at work. The two guys are damned entertaining to watch, but it just feels like they need something more.

As for the storylines, I love that Street Hawk tried to tell genuine urban crime stories as a way to explore how this wondercycle, this tool, could be used to both thwart everyday crimes and deal with situations that have escalated beyond the abilities of the regular police. At its worst, we were stuck with an international assassin would couldn't trip an old lady, or a fat guy sneering from behind the wheel of a bulldozer, or a second rate gigolo who kidnapped a dead horse (seriously - that really happened). But at it's best, we got a showgirl on the run who threatens to bring down an entire criminal empire, or a mob enforcer so determined to catch his prey that he kills a detective and infiltrates the police as one of their own, or international terrorists intent on hunting down the Fed who once locked them away, or a band of vigilantes so stubbornly determined to clean up their streets that they often get in the way of their own best interests. And let's not forget Charles Napier with a giant laser. It doesn't really support my point, but it's still Charles freakin' Napier with a giant freakin' laser.

Did the show have stumbles? Yeah. Lots of them. But there's a sincerity and a thoughtfulness at work that I didn't expect. While the show got a bit lighter in the second half of the season, by episode 7, Jesse was directly responsible for the deaths of 14 people, 6 in that episode alone. This show acknowledges that, no, it's not always possible to clonk your foe out and leave them tied up with a pretty little bow. Sometimes, you need to kill them in the split second before they kill you. And every time it happens, you see the haunted look in Jesse's eyes, a gaze that acknowledges he had to go as far as he did, but he sure as hell didn't want to.

This is a solid show. The leads are great. The bike is amazing. The music, oh, the music. Especially that opening theme by Tangerine Dream which I've now absorbed into my DNA and hum every time I'm running late and have to get somewhere in a rush. And speaking of, I don't think I've ever consistently enjoyed a feature of a tv series quite as much as I do the Hyperthrust sequences. Racing down streets, at night and during the day, through full traffic, through woods, through deserts, along mountain trails, and, finally, across the entire span of the Golden Gate Bridge. The music, the blur of motion as Jesse just hangs on and lets the entire world race by... every single one of those scenes got me soaring.

So why was this show cancelled?

According to the actors on the featurette produced for the DVD, the show, which was a pricey one, given all the stunt work, crashes, and f/x, was designed to highlight the Monday evening schedule, but circumstances kicked it into the Friday Death Slot where, to this day, costly shows struggle against a quicksand pull against their ratings. That actually makes the most sense to me as, uneven though it may be at times, I really didn't get the impression that this show was any worse than other ilk of its kind that flourished for multiple seasons. It could be clunky, but it was also highly engrossing and the highs definitely outweighed the lows, so I just can't see how it would have failed to catch on had they kept it in its originally intended time slot.

Favorite Episode:

I'm torn. Part of me wants to say "A Second Self", the other part "Vegas Run". Both have equally appealing guest stars (George Clooney and Sybil Danning, respectively). The former has a more personal hook and a genuine gut punch of an ending. The latter is more rousing and consistent, with the biggest spectacle climax the series ultimately ever offered.

I'm siding with "Vegas Run". I loved the idea of the aging showgirl finally saying enough's enough and threatening to take down a criminal empire, the crimelord who still loves her so much that he's almost willing to let her do so, and the lawyer who knows he'll go down if his client goes down, so he makes the big push for her death. You've got Jesse exercising his detective skill outside the vigilante persona. You've got a huge chase sequences involving massive trucks and explosions and grenades hurled from a chopper. You've got Norman trying to hide his boner as he stares straight down Danning's cleavage. What more do you need?

Least Favorite Episode:

"Murder is a Novel Idea" and "The Arabian" are runners up, though I find the bad parts so bad that they're actually quite amusing. No, I'm going with "Dog Eat Dog", the tale of a pop star on the run with evidence that incriminates a record producer who then hires the lousiest international assassin money can buy. The initial setup is good and I like the pop star's backstory of why she hates cops, but the plot just falls apart more and more as it goes along, and they never figure out how to make Street Hawk an essential part of the narrative. It's awful.

Final Impression:

As I pointed out in my review of the last episode, and in my ramble above, I absolutely love that the second to the last scene of the show is Jesse diving into a celebratory Hyperthrust across the Golden Gate Bridge. This is a show that has gone gritty, that has focused mainly on everyday crime stories and the everyday people caught up in them, but it never forgot to capture the whimsy, the thrill of the ride, with the wind racing along you as you soar through the streets at 300 miles per hour. And any time things would get too heavy, you could always depend on Rex Smith to be there with one of his trademark boyish grins.

Man, I really dug this show.

Tune in on Wednesday when we'll announce the subject of next Saturday's Showcase.

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