The Greatest American Hero TV Poster Image

The Greatest American Hero



'80s series is more comedy than drama but has heart, too.
  • Network: ABC
  • Genre: Comedy
  • Release Year: 1981

What parents need to know

Positive messages

The series has fun with the typical superhero story, centering on an average guy who's thrown into the position against his own wishes. He likes to help people and nab the bad guys, but he doesn't care for the trappings of being a hero. Good and bad are easily identified, and the law (or the FBI, in this case) defines the two sides. Women (especially the pretty blondes) are often referred to as "bimbos" and assumed to be unintelligent.

Positive role models

Ralph is an all-around great guy, both personally and as a superhero. He always tries to make a difference in the lives of everyone he meets, even when it's at odds with what Bill wants him to do, and he prefers to diffuse violence with nonviolence. Pam is a strong, smart women in sharp contrast to the rest of the female characters on the show who are often depicted sexually or stereotypically.


Plenty of shooting, guns, and some death, but the violence usually isn't very bloody or graphic. Kidnappings, death threats, and plans for hits on enemies are common, and innocent bystanders are often caught in the middle of the violence.


No sex is shown, but there are implications of it. Women make blatant passes at Ralph, insinuating they'd like to sleep with him. He's usually shy and polite about the attention but doesn't encourage it.


Rarely "hell" and "damn."

Not applicable
Drinking, drugs, & smoking

Adults often drink and/or smoke, but it's more a sign of the times than a plot point.

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that The Greatest American Hero's content is pretty tame by modern primetime drama standards, but you'll still see shootouts, kidnappings, death threats, and some injuries. The protagonist is a mild-mannered teacher-turned-superhero whose altruistic priorities don't always mesh with his hardened FBI boss', which makes him all the more endearing. Expect to see some drinking and smoking indicative of the times of this '80s dramedy, as well as some allusions to sex, but nothing physical.

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What's the story?

High school teacher Ralph Hinkley (in later episodes, Hanley) (William Katt) becomes the world's most unlikely hero when a team of aliens bestows on him a special red suit with superpowers and he partners with seasoned FBI agent Bill Maxwell (Robert Culp) to round up bad guys. Freethinking Ralph isn't an instant fit for the role, and he's often distracted by what's going on in his own life; with his girlfriend, Pam (Connie Sellecca), who's in on her boyfriend's secret identity and often lends a hand on assignments; and with his students. To make matters worse, Ralph loses the suit's operations manual and has to learn how to control it (literally) on the fly.

Is it any good?


THE GREATEST AMERICAN HERO is billed as a drama/comedy series, a dual identity that likely was closer to reality in the early '80s than it is now compared to significantly darker modern TV dramas. It's difficult to take any of the show's dramatic content at face seriously given the overall lightness of the mood (and of the violence), especially when Ralph sports his comic book-style caped body suit. Happily, though, the show doesn't even take itself too seriously, working in a lot of self-deprecating chuckles at the expense of the characters' personalities and, especially in the early stages, Ralph's ill-fated attempts to control his new powers. What's more, it boasts one of the best and most celebrated theme songs in TV history.

The flipside of The Greatest American Hero's age-related comically bad stunts and special effects is the care it gives to developing quality characters. Much of Ralph's charm stems from the fact that he's a hero out of his suit as well as in it, a teacher who goes out of his way to inspire troubled students, and someone who drops everything to help a friend in need. Likewise, Pam is far more than just a pretty face; she's a whip-smart attorney who represents a new (at that time) generation of independent women, deliberately contrasting other females in many of the stories. Given its relatively mild content and the intriguing characters at its heart, this series is a fun escape from today's heavier dramas and can be fun for families to watch together. 

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about what determines a show's entertainment value. What do you look for in a "good" show? Interesting characters? Mystery? Suspense? Why do some shows stand the test of time and others don't? How does this one rate?

  • What aspects of this series reflect the time in which it's set? How do the characters' mannerisms or values relate to their time? If someone arrived in our society right now, what would they make of our priorities and the tone of our culture?

  • If this series is to be believed, then people in authority are usually the good guys. Do you think this is true? Are our community and national leaders always the best and the brightest? Is it possible to know a person's true motivations?

TV details

Premiere date:March 18, 1981
Cast:Connie Sellecca, Robert Culp, William Katt
Topics:Superheroes, Great boy role models, Great girl role models
TV rating:NR
Available on:DVD, Streaming

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