'Knight Rider' Is Stuck in Low Gear

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Say what you will about Justin Bruening and Deanna Russo, the two young stars of NBC's revived but not revitalized version of "Knight Rider," but you have to admit: They're hot. Of course their car is covered in flames and the temperature inside is approaching 200 degrees; that might have something to do with that.

Off with them clothes, kids! And sure enough, garments are hurriedly doffed as that neurotic bucket o' bolts known as KITT sputters and mutters about the difficulties of being ablaze while streaking down a road to nowhere. Eventually, it is decided that the best way to douse the flames is to -- oh wait, we might be giving something away.

After all, surprises from this lumbering vehicle aren't exactly plentiful. The first scene, in which our hero (the driver, not the car) tries to look suave at a fancy-dress party in a U.S. consulate, seems exceedingly similar to the opening sequence in "True Lies," with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

NBC got a big tune-in last season when it aired a two-hour movie based on the old "Knight Rider" series, a moderate hit starring David Hasselhoff back in the '80s; those who made a point of watching the movie probably felt some sort of sentimental attachment to the old buggy. That kind of casual attachment probably won't be enough to keep people watching through an entire season of weak weekly episodes.

KITT (for "Knight Industries Three Thousand") has been souped up for the 21st century, but not very dramatically. It might as well have been souped down, really. Its one major new talent was borrowed from "Transformers": the ability to convert itself into a pickup truck or an SUV or whatever while zooming along the boulevards and avenues of some big city.

The transformation trick comes in handy when the car is being chased by the bad guys, as often happens, but otherwise it's more bore than boon. That applies also to the humans in the front seat. As Mike Traceur, young Bruening is boyish but inexpressive; he always looks as if he wants to change the channel to something more exciting (he's a viewer ombudsman in this sense).

As for our hero, various characters take stabs at pronouncing his name. When one man asks "Where's Mike Traceur?" he sounds as if he's saying, "Where's my treasure?"

Russo tries to pick up the gaping chasm of slack and get a little energy going, but she just looks embarrassed to be yelling at a car, arguing with a car, flirting with a car, whatever. Not that I haven't been known to talk to mine -- in words not fit for a family newspaper, as it happens. But the conversation is mercifully one-sided.

William Daniels was the voice of KITT in the '80s; that auspicious duty has been taken over by Val Kilmer, which tells you a little something about how his career is going. The car is a terrible nag and nuisance; he always has to be right about everything. Without his blinking lights and jazzy display panel, he'd be just another Detroit clunker.

Holding the fort at Knight Industries -- which appears to have been infiltrated by saboteurs and moles -- is a perpetually worried Bruce Davison, looking ever so much older than when running the charitable foundation set up in the name of George Costanza's dead fiancee in "Seinfeld." Davison's big crown of white hair gives him a certain dignity, and on this show, the actors have to scramble for any little shreds of dignity they can get their mitts on.

Kids might like it, yes -- but if the family car is outfitted with a GPS system, DVD playback with screens embedded in the backs of the front seats, or folding down from the ceiling, and other gee-whiz gizmos, chances are they are not going to be knocked for a loop by KITT. They're more likely to wonder what the fuss is about and, taking their cue from Bruening's dazed and searching expression, embark on a channel safari of their own.

'Gary Unmarried'

Ed Begley Jr. steals every scene he has in the new sitcom "Gary Unmarried," but stealing scenes on this show is petty theft indeed.

Begley plays a marriage counselor who has become engaged to the female half of a couple who consulted him. This displeases the male half of that couple no end, but you can hardly blame the wife for having fled.

The series, premiering tonight on CBS, nominally stars Jay Mohr as Gary Brooks, a painting contractor divorced for three months from Allison, his wife of 15 years, played by Paula Marshall. The most noticeable thing about Mohr is how much beefier he is than when he was a cast member of "Saturday Night Live" in the '90s. He hasn't gotten any funnier, however; too bad about that.

Millions of American men and women will be able to identify with Gary and Allison and the rocky roads to and from what Walter Winchell called Splitsville. Attempting to deal with his 14-year-old son Tom's apparent fear of females, Gary tells his ex: "He should be afraid of girls. They pretend to like you, and then they take all your stuff."

When the divorced couple get into the delicate and very often painful matter of custody arrangements (they also have a daughter, Louise, who adores Al Gore and Gandhi), the electronically amplified audience roars with laughter. But at such points, "Gary Unmarried" treads into areas perhaps unfit for sitcomedy. Begley brightens things up when, as the marriage counselor, he condescendingly tells the angry husband, "I validate your rage, Gary."

There are errant laughs floating around, but for the most part "Gary Unmarried" is Gary Unfunny.

Knight Rider (one hour) debuts tonight at 8 on Channel 4. Gary Unmarried (30 minutes) premieres tonight at 8:30 on Channel 9.

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