Tuesday, January 26, 2010

CULT TV FLASHBACK #98: The Incredible Hulk: "Married" (1978)

Even as late as 1978, superhero television was still attempting to escape the gravitational pull of the campy but highly-entertaining 1960s Batman series starring Adam West and Burt Ward. That watershed ABC series -- undeniably a prime example of colorful, counter-culture pop art -- had so shaded the format requirements for superhero and comic book TV initiatives that a new template -- sans "BAM!" "POW!" and "WHAM" -- was required.

Resourceful and literate, writer/producer Kenneth Johnson crafted that new template when adapting Marvel's The Incredible Hulk comic-book for television. Instead of depending on dynamic super criminals, tongue-in-cheek dialogue, and out-of-this-world swashbuckling, Johnson grounded his new hero, David Bruce Banner (Bill Bixby), in a more familiar, less over-the-top world.

As author Gary Gerani observed in TV Episode Guides Volume 2 (1982, page 64), "he [Johnson] turned to a more intelligent and dramatic approach of a man whose life is upset by the fact that he can become this uncontrollable monster."

Series producer Nick Corea was even more specific about the program's approach: "Any writer who comes in with clones or extraterrestrials, we steer in another direction." (John Abbot, SFX #18, November 1996, page 76).

Today, we happily take costumed and colorful heroes at face value, as part and parcel of the superhero genre. We want to see super villains and super feats. So the superhero stigma once associated with the camp 1960s Batman is finally gone. And in something of a turnaround, we actually gaze at TV's drama The Incredible Hulk -- which rigorously followed a format similar to The Fugitive -- as a bit of a relic; as a time capsule of a different era.

Times change. Tastes change.

Yet The Incredible Hulk ran for four successful years on CBS because of Johnson's dedication to the "human factor." A latter day Jekyll-Hyde story, The Incredible Hulk explicitly concerned the divide between human emotions and human rationality.

Think about it this way: we exist day-to-day by controlling our emotions; by keeping them firmly in check. Yet in the person hood of the raging Hulk (Lou Ferrigno), our impulses are free...unfettered. For David Banner -- living in the last days of disco -- the struggle was an internal one; to manage that provoked Id; to restrain the instinct-based beast inside all of us who wants to react to every challenge, fear, and pain with raw emotion and brute force. Hulk smash!

One of the best and most touching episodes of The Incredible Hulk was the second season opener, "Married" (written and directed by Johnson). A two-hour tale, "Married" originally aired on November 22, 1978, and guest-starred Mariette Hartley as Dr. Caroline Fields.

Caroline is a brilliant psychologist facing her own internal struggle: a terminal disease (like Lou Gehrig's Disease) that has reduced her expected life span to just six weeks.

Our protagonist, David Banner, arrives at Caroline's medical practice in Hawaii to seek her assistance in controlling his "monster," unaware of her own debilitating condition. In particular, Caroline is an expert in hypnosis, and David believes that she could hypnotize his conscious mind into trapping the Hulk within. In other words, he hopes to cage the Hulk with his brain.

Over a few weeks, David and Caroline fall in love...and are married. David tries to cure Caroline's disease, and Caroline tries to cure David of his affliction. And impressively, much of the episode's "action" occurs inside the mind-states of these two individuals.

As David is hypnotized, we see him physically encounter the Hulk in a barren, desert landscape. First, David tries to restrain the Hulk in heavy ropes. But the Hulk breaks out.

Then David tries a cage with steel bars. Again, the Hulk breaks free.

Finally, David attempts trapping the Hulk inside the mental construct of an impenetrable vault. But even here, the beast within him cannot be contained.

Meanwhile, Caroline attempts to use the mind-over-matter hypnosis technique to cure her defective "mitochondria" of the invading disease lesions. She envisions her put-upon cells as an Old West wagon train; and the lesions there as invading Indian raiders surrounding it. When David formulates a new drug (taken from the Hulk's skin sample...) Caroline imagines the drug as the cavalry, coming over the hill. This is all weird and wonderful stuff (and fits in perfectly with the 1970s obsession with hypnosis).

The Incredible Hulk always concerned the ways in which our mind responds to external stimuli. We can choose to respond with rage; or we can choose to respond calmly. We can choose to respond with violence; or peaceably. "Married" is very much on target in terms of the series' overriding themes then, since virtually every major scene concerns the way our brain faces conflict and interprets challenges.

Today -- 32 years later -- "Married" has indeed dated somewhat. No doubt there. There are two worrisome scenes during which Bill Bixby and Mariette Hartley speak in atrocious Pidgeon English (talking about Chinese food...) and then perform bad John Wayne imitations. This is what seemed like witty and romantic banter in the 1970s, I guess, but today's it's just sort of cringe-inducing.

And also, "Married" evidences a big flaw common in many Incredible Hulk scenarios That flaw: the Hulk's presence isn't entirely warranted given the less-than-threatening circumstances.

For example, in "Married" two on-the-make "groovy" swingers (wearing polyester pants two-sizes too small...) pick-up a drunk Caroline and take her back to their bachelor pad (along with a floozy...) for a night of casual sex. David arrives to take Caroline home, and then these two swingers suddenly become violent. They push David around. They pop a champagne cork in his face (!). Then -- all kidding aside -- they violently hurl him from their second-story bedroom balcony...into a glass coffee table, below thus precipitating an appearance by the Hulk. The un-jolly green giant then proceeds to tear the bachelor pad to pieces. It's an impressive-enough action scene, but entirely unnecessary. Not to mention unmotivated.

Why would two relatively harmless guys with sex on the brain suddenly turn egregiously violent? (And destroy their own apartment in the process?) This sort of thing happened a lot on the show: people who you wouldn't expect to immediately turn to violence suddenly become a HUGE threat so that the Hulk can appear and save the day.

But leaving aside these dated elements, "Married" remain an outstanding episode of the CBS series. Perhaps because of the two-hour running time, Caroline feels like a "real" person and not just the guest-star/love-interest-of-the-week. And the relationship she shares with David doesn't feel forced or silly. It's clear that Caroline and Bruce are both suffering terribly, and sharing what little time they have left together eases that pain. That's as good a reason for marriage as any, isn't it?

There's also one incredibly dark moment in "Married." With only two weeks to live, Caroline plays frisbee with a little boy (Meeno Peluce of Voyagers!) on the beach. The scene is much longer than it need be; and focuses a great deal on Hartley in close-shot. There's almost no dialogue. The scene is mostly silent. But inscribed on her expression is the agony and regret of the life Caroline will never experience. She will never be a mother; never have children, as she once dreamed of. This is an issue "Married" raised early on, but then returns to with this unexpectedly sad and restrained moment. I can't deny "Married" is a tear-jerker, either, but then that was a perpetual quality of The Incredible Hulk too: it was, overall, a pretty lugubrious, melancholy show.

What I admire most about "Married," however, are those "dream state" sequences occurring in the desert of Banner's mind; as David and The Hulk face each other down. It may not seem like much of a comic-book-style adventure -- there's no Marvel-style mythology or continuity in place -- but the human drama is nonetheless fascinating.

We don't like ourselves when we're angry. We don't like ourselves when we're bad tampered; when we let our "Hulks" out to roam. The Incredible Hulk's impressive "Married" externalizes and literalizes the idea of the emotional battle raging within each of us, the battle for control with our barely concealed monsters.


  1. <>

    Obviously, the Television Academy agreed with you, since they gave Hartley an Emmy for Best Actress, a then-controversial decision, since she was only in one episode, leading to today's category of "Best Guest Performance" award.
    Also great to see those images of the caged Hulk in your review. I remember that they released a poster of the Hulk breaking out of the cage, using a shot from the same episode.

  2. Confession: This episode of the Incredible Hulk made me stop watching the show.

    It's silly really, but that scene at the beginning with Hartley at the swinger's house is too upsetting. When this originally aired and I saw the Hulk throw the guy and rip off his hair piece, I thought it was his real hair and that he was basically scalped. I was HORRIFIED and thought it was really mean of the Hulk to do that. I became scared of him and didn't watch the show for about 30 years. Last year I watched a few and feel much better about the whole thing now! :)

    I actually only watched part one of Marriage and about 10 minutes of the second part (facing my fear with the swinger scene), but another thing I remembered from the episode was how sad it was. I just couldn't make myself watch the whole thing.

    Bill Bixby was a treasure. He was a wonderful actor that I think of often.

    Thanks for bringing back my childhood fears! :)

  3. I used to love this show. I think Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno were great. I also think the big flaw in the recent Hulk movies was making the creature all computer generated. I think it would have worked much better if they cast a living actor to play the Hulk and maybe just used some CGI to enhance the effect rather be the entire effect.

    -- Nick

    City of Kik

  4. I love the TV Hulk. I watched it as a kid and have been introducing my wife to it for the past year (we watch an episode a week on DVD.) Bill Bixby was great in this role.

    This episode does have one of my all-time favorite "Hulk-outs" - which occurs during a nightmare about Caroline dying. Very well-done.

  5. Ah John, you've tapped into ANOTHER of my massive loves, the Incredible Hulk. Not so much the comic but the TV series (and the 1982 cartoon, but perhaps that's not something to admit to).

    I always found it astounding how so few Hulk performances seemed to miss the very crux of what makes the Hulk fascinating - he is what we want to be in those situations we can't be. And yet, so few stories (especially the recent films) really used the potential of the media to really bring it to life - even in this show there was a tendency to just have Banner punched and thrown into a secluded corner.

    But when this show did hit this empathy button it did so very well. In the pilot, possibly the best example ever of a hulk out was the tyre repair - the first hulk out - and the build up of frustration the audience could really grasp and empathise with. And in "Married" we have the dream Hulk out, where Banner's fears are realised with and you can feel that crescendo coming.

    Beyond the beauty of Married, it's the crescendo that is what makes the Hulk for me, far more than the Hulk. It's like the will-they-won't-they dynamic in TV shows is always more satisfying than the "get together".

    It's the Banner bits that makes the Incredible Hulk the memorable treasure, and Bixby's ability to create a sad, sensitive but strong persona that I think makes the likes of "Married" such a joy to watch. In fact, I'd happily edit out the Hulk bits and I think just having the show from Banner's perspective would be as good. And in "Married"'s case, given the stupid sex pad scene, it would have been better.

  6. James: You've hit the nail on the head, my friend! The one thing I really missed in The Hulk (2003) and The Incredible Hulk (2008) was some sense of humanity; of the human experience and the "meaning" behind the hulk out. These were movies about green monsters; the TV show was about a man with a green monster inside him. And that made all the difference.

    The Incredible Hulk is still my favorite incarnation of the Hulk on film and television too. And "Married" is pretty much top of the episode roster, besides the amazing pilot, which you also referenced.


  7. Anonymous8:01 AM

    The Incredible Hulk is the best superhero tv show ever and Married is one of the finest hours of any tv drama. The scene with the swingers did drag a bit but I didn't really find it unbelievable.

    The scene on the beach with Hartley and the child didn't strike me as dark, (sad yes but not dark) but the scene with Bixby farewelling her as she boarded the bus only to see the driver was the freaking Grim Reaper (!) scared the beejeezus outta me.

    What I always liked about this show was the way it could be seen as an analogy of a man with a terminal illness, doing everything he could while he could. Ridiculous as it may sound, The Incredible Hulk is more mature and human than 99% of shows today.


  8. No thanks to the watching of this show (with the exception of the episode where Banner/Hulk help a young girl.)

    I'd rather see both of the recent Hulk movies, or read the comic book-both have got better stories.

    Am hoping for a movie sequel where the Hulk takes on Iron Man (or takes on The Leader with the help of Iron Man and War Machine!)

  9. Lionel, I agree that many of the Hulk TV show's episodes were formulaic and uninspired, but the performances were great, and there were great stories along the way if you stuck with it. "The Other" in which Banner meets a guy who also turned into a Hulk-like creature, "Prometheus" in which a radioactive meteroid causes Banner to be stuck in mid-transformation and then he's captured by the government. There's also the episdoe told from the reporter Mr. McGee's point of view. There's the episode with the forest fire and Banner has amnesia, and McGee learns that the Hulk is really a man who transforms into the creature. There are lots more that are my favorites.

  10. To each his own, of course, but I do prefer the TV series and the sense of character development there over the Ed Norton 2008 movie...which I thought was thematically and narratively empty. It was also boring as all Hell.

    I very much need to go back and see the 2003 Hulk from Ang Lee again. I did not like it the first time I saw it, but I've been thinking about it a lot lately and I wonder if I reviewed my expectations and not the movie offered. I should try it again, with an open mind.

    best to all,

  11. Again, sorry gentlemen, but what I said still stands.

    The Hulk is about a superhero who kicks the crap out of the big bad while being a monster himself-it is not about a man constantly on the run (in the case of the show, I don't know what, since nobody knew that he even preformed the experiment in the first place!) like Richard Kimble (although the Hulk did that for a while in the comics, too.) The show could have and should have been like the comic book it's named after, but wasn't for some reason (perhaps Glen Larson had spent all of the money on Battlestar Galactica and had no money left to make The Incredible Hulk what fans expected!) The way this show is set up is also a reason I don't like Smallville or Lois & Clark-shows based on fantastic characters that take the 'fantastic' out of them because they don't have the money to afford the FX or won't afford the money for whatever reason.

    If the producers want people to see The Incredible Hulk as being based on the comic book, then they should just do the comic book! Either that, or let the characters in question be animated or left for the big screen, as was shown with the Hulk. But giving most of us a half-assed version of The Hulk (or Superman) doesn't cut it anymore, and the fans have obviously spoken-they made The Hulk a box-office winner.

    I would suggest that both of you gentlemen acquaint yourselves more with the Hulk of the comic books and less with the Hulk of the TV show-you'll be less disappointed in future versions of the Hulk that are based on the source material and not on your preconceptions of a 40-year old flawed derivative TV show version.

  12. Lionel,

    Glad you enjoyed the Hulk movies and found them to your taste.

    But your last comment makes an assumption. How do you know I'm not already a reader and fan of the Hulk comics, and still prefer the TV-series to the films?

    Remember, even in the comics, Hulk has changed a great deal over the years. Gray Hulk. Green Hulk. Talking Hulk. Not-talking so much Hulk. So which iteration of the Hulk are the movies adhering to?

    It seems to me most people complained that Ang Lee's Hulk was not faithful enough to their memories of the comic book. I am certainly willing to see it again and set aside any pre-conceived notions, however. I think that's a very good point...it's actually the point I made in my last comment...that it probably deserves a second shot.

    But the Ed Norton movie still stinks.

    Thanks again for commenting.

    best wishes,

  13. I'm a big fan of the comic book too and wasn't comparing the TV show to the comic, just to the two allegedly live action movies. My opinion still stands too -- I'll take the Lou Ferrigno Hulk over the two bland computer generated versions of the Hulk anyday.

    -- Nick

  14. Hey Nick!

    Thanks for the comment too. I think that's how we both see things. And no one should forget that the TV series was enormously successful too: it won multiple awards and lasted four seasons.

    So it's not exactly true that people don't like the TV series and did like the movies. The TV series was (and is) beloved by many. many people...including those who hand out Emmy Awards.


  15. John,

    What a terrific review. It's scary how much we think alike.

    The human element to this series made it something special.

    I've actually done a rough work up on the Pilot and will be presenting it soon. I just need to put the finishing touches on it.

    Your flashback is excellent and insightful as always. I love the image of Hulk and Banner in the desert. It's that kind of visual poetry that truly set the Hulk apart from so many superhero series. It's a very, as you put it, "literate and resourceful" work from Johnson.

    As you point out, I also loved those basic human themes found in the Hulk- control, facing adversity, loneliness. It's all well-executed on an emotional level.

    I think your points about the series flaws are completely valid and fair. Glad you mentioned them, but getting past those elements it's the cerebral, human scenes that always won me over as they did you.

    It was a terribly emotional and somber series at times. It definitely pulled this child in to watch based on those factors alone. Not sure why?

    Also, it's clear from your analysis that this is NOT the comic book and that you are familiar with the comic book mythology, but that this series taps into a "human drama" that is mesmerizing. Anyway, terrific!