Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Consolations of Junk Art, Part II: The Incredible Hulk Television Series

"Mr. McGee, don't make me angry. You wouldn't like me when I'm angry." – Dr. David Banner.

We continue this glimpse at the deep and satisfying consolations of junk art with a look at one of Your Correspondent’s favorite television shows as a boy, The Incredible Hulk (1978-1982).  And yes, I was once a child.

If the criteria for good junk art is that it provides some of the comforts and consolations found in high art, then, believe it or not, The Incredible Hulk fills the bill.  I had not seen it since its initial run, and seldom thought of it since.  However, when I spied a boxed set of the entire series for next-to-no money, the nostalgic impulse was too great and I succumbed.

Let me insert here my feelings, in general, on films and television shows adapted from comic books:  Your Correspondent could happily go to his grave without seeing another one.  Superhero films seem to support the entire film industry right now, crowding out films for adults, films of taste and subtlety and films that are, at least, different.  An orgy of CGI-generated destruction is not an orgy I wish to attend, thank you very much.

However, The Incredible Hulk television show dates back to a time that did not have the crutch of special effects to lean upon, and depended instead on story and character.  I opened the boxed set with a bit of trepidation: very often I have returned to boyhood favorites only to find that the memory was better than the actuality.

Oddly enough, with The Hulk, both were true.  The series is both cheesier than I remembered, and, in ways, more profound than I could have hoped.

For those of you unfamiliar with Hulk-dom, let’s recap the opening narration of the series:  Dr. David Banner: physician; scientist. Searching for a way to tap into the hidden strengths that all humans have. Then an accidental overdose of gamma radiation alters his body chemistry. And now when David Banner grows angry or outraged, a startling metamorphosis occurs. The creature is driven by rage and pursued by an investigative reporter.  The creature is wanted for a murder he didn't commit. David Banner is believed to be dead, and he must let the world think that he is dead, until he can find a way to control the raging spirit that dwells within him.

So, what we have is Les Misérables told as an episodic science fiction television show.  There is no reason in the world for this thing to work, but it does against all expectations.

Let’s look for a moment at the junk component.  The Hulk was not only a creation of its time, but a mirror of the obsessions of the 1970s.  There were episodes set in discos, amongst truckers and CB radio enthusiasts, in kung-fu schools and there were even digressions in ghetto-chick; tropes included bio feedback, ESP and mind-reading, pop psychology and past-life regression.  But even moving away from the preoccupations of a fairly tacky decade, the writing on The Hulk was too often doughy and simplistic even by network television standards, the problems too rote and elementary, and the resolutions too pat and easy.

And yet.  And yet…

There is something real and … emotionally moving going on in The Incredible Hulk.  Let’s start with the protagonist, Dr. David Banner (played with real sympathy and sweetness by Bill Bixby).  Banner experiments with gamma radiation after losing his lover in a car accident.  His researches lead him to the conclusion that some people in moments of extreme stress or anger find remarkable physical strength … and that those energies start at a cellular level.  Racked by guilt – why did he not have these resources of strength when he needed it? – he tried to duplicate the cellular variations on himself through exposure to gamma radiation.  The tests backfire, and now, in moments of stress, he mutates into a gigantic, green monster (Lou Ferrigno). 

In short, Banner is not a hero in the conventional sense, but someone haunted by the physical manifestations of his own shortcomings; he is tormented because he looked deep inside of himself and found himself wanting.

Every episode, Banner comes into the worlds of new people in new cities and new states, always seeking that elusive cure for his condition.  Because of his inherent decency and humanity, he is often with the underclass or downtrodden, using his considerable medical and scientific gifts to improve the lives of those around him.  And, with clockwork regularity, he leaves these new-found friends once his secret is out and his opportunity for a cure evaporates.  But the real tragedy of Banner is that he is a man running away from himself; the one thing no man can ever successfully do.

McGee (played with conviction by Jack Colvin), his nemesis, is not cardboard cutout, either.  Working for a cheap, tabloid newspaper (think the National Enquirer), McGee sees the Hulk as an opportunity out of the minor leagues and into the bigtime.  But, as the series progresses, the Hulk becomes both an obsession and a beacon.  An obsession because McGee will not let-go, even when in jeopardy of ruining his already shaky career, and a beacon because the Hulk comes to represent to McGee all that is marvelous and unexplained in the world.

Every episode ends with poor Banner once more hitchhiking to the strains of the “Lonely Man” theme by Joseph Harnell, a piano lament in a minor key.  But next week will be exactly the same, no matter how many people Banner meets, or how close he comes to finding a cure.  He will never unburden himself of his own weaknesses, his own fears, or of the monster he carries inside of himself.  It is a perfect existential tragedy.

The Incredible Hulk is junk but it is glorious junk because of the weight it bears – sometimes successfully, sometimes not so successfully.  It is not a comic book show, but a tragedy told in comic book tropes.  It is impossible to take in the whole series and not feel a sense of sadness, of sympathy or of empathy for the benighted Banner.

Yes, I will lose the respect of many of my readers, but The Incredible Hulk is not junk … and it may even be art.   Of a type.

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