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A vehicle suitable for the task

'Knight Rider,' whose super car has learned new tricks, isn't demanding fare. But who wanted that?

September 24, 2008|Robert Lloyd | Times Television Critic

Twenty-six years ago a man named Hasselhoff rode into television history in a talking car called KITT. Tonight, someone else will ride into television in another car called KITT, though whether he rides into history or quickly is history remains to be seen.

Picking up from February's pilot-cum-TV movie, the renascent “Knight Rider” finds Mike Traceur (Justin Bruening), the son of the original Michael Knight, working as a secret agent for an agency whose name I frankly did not catch. The FBI is involved, in any case.

Tonight's episode begins with a James Bond-style cold open at what a superimposed title identifies simply as "Foreign Consulate, USA." Traceur -- trailing a woman called only "Smokin' Hot Beauty" in the end credits -- has gone undercover in evening wear to claim some kind of "package." Ex-girlfriend and fellow agent Sarah Graiman (Deanna Russo) finds herself detained in the consulate basement, where she is being threatened with a large hypodermic needle.

KITT (voice of Val Kilmer) waits outside, using its artificial intelligence, encyclopedic knowledge, long-range sensors and radio-broadcasting technology not only to help guide Mike through his mission, but to criticize his lifestyle: "Probably you could move faster if you ate a healthy diet, decreased your alcohol intake and reduced the extracurricular activity with your lady friends." (KITT, who sounds to have shared a vocal coach with Hal 9000, is a bit of a My Mother, the Car. "Please be careful," it tells Mike when he goes off into a mess of trouble, and "I was worried about you," when he returns, even though worry, as KITT itself admits, is technically beyond his circuitry.)

What follows is a lot of running around and driving fast, broken up by trips to the secret headquarters. Here we meet the rest of the cast: Yancey Arias (the tough boss); Smith Cho (smokin' hot office administrator); Paul Campbell (the smart one -- there's always a smart one); Sydney Tamiia Poitier (smokin' hot FBI agent); and Bruce Davison, wearing Christopher Lloyd's "Back to the Future" hair, as Sarah's father and the designer of the original Pontiac-based KITT(2000) and the new Ford rebuild(3000). (The acronym, which first stood for Knight Industries Two Thousand, now stands for Knight Industries Three Thousand.)

The car has developed a lot of new tricks -- it shifts shape, its windshield turns into a computer screen (which I pray never becomes standard equipment). In a day when cars do talk -- you can now own a Knight Rider-themed GPS system, and let original KITT voice William Daniels guide you turn by turn to Uncle Harry's for Thanksgiving -- a few modifications would of course be necessary.

But the changes are essentially cosmetic: Unlike the darkly reconceived "Battlestar Galactica" or the also darkly reconceived but ill-fated "Bionic Woman," and notwithstanding an ominously dark hole in Mike's memory, the remade "Knight Rider" is fundamentally of a piece with its predecessor. As drama and as spectacle, and with a remarkable lack of irony, it re-creates the cheesy sci-fi adventure from the 1980s.

With its cars and noise and the occasional half-dressed woman, "Knight Rider" is something for 12-year-old boys (and 12-year-old-boys at heart), undemanding, unsophisticated, no deeper than the thickness of a comic-book page. (The most well-realized relationship here is the one between a man and his automobile.)

You wouldn't want to judge it by any more rigorous measures, but it does fine by the less.



'Knight Rider'

Where: NBC

When: 8 tonight

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with an advisory for violence)

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