By Cory Barker, Les Chappell, Noel Kirkpatrick, Whitney McIntosh, and Cameron White
The Incredible Hulk
Season 2, Episode 9: “Stop the Presses”
Original airdate: Nov. 24, 1978
Noel: It’s been a while since I’ve seen an episode of The Incredible Hulk, so I was pleased to find that, at least with this episode, I still liked the show, even if it may just be a case of nostalgia goggles. And, Cory, after a slog of (acknowledged) blah-ish episodes for this roundtable theme, I think you picked a solid episode, even if I can’t speak to how it fits in with the rest of the series overall. But I have to image that with Kenneth Johnson, he of The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, V, and Alien Nation fame (I won’t mention his OTHER comic book superhero adaptation out of respect), that the series always chugged along as smoothly and as entertainingly as “Stop the Presses” does.
I don’t want to suck up a lot of the discussion oxygen as I think the episode is pretty ripe for discussion, from the newspaper setting (can you imagine this episode today? No one would know what the hell the printing presses are, but it’s a hell of a great location!) to the ladies of Bruno’s (Julie Cobb and Mary Frann, the latter of whom who was was more lively here than I’ve seen her in my recent Newhart watching) and the mixed sense of representation as two women who run a business, but are totally inept at it AND are both smitten with the new dishwasher instead of Pat Morita to the wonderfulness that is Jack McGee (Jack Colvin).
Instead, I just want to focus on how the Hulk isn’t really a bad guy here, or on the show in general from what I can recall. Yes, he’s a rage monster who ruins all of Bruce’s David’s shirts, but he doesn’t demolish Bruno’s or the newspaper building, even if both the restaurant’s freezer and the newspaper’s printing press are out of commission for a bit. Other representations of the Hulk would have shown that he’d razed Bruno’s and done much more damage to the newspaper building. Here, though, he’s a gentle giant who is angry that he’s been awakened from inside David Banner (I forgot how much personality Bixby gives Banner, who sometimes is just depicted as or thought of as too much of a milquetoast to serve a contrast to the more violent Hulk). Yeah, it’s more family friendly for sure, but it’s nice take on the Hulk who is all too often just is a violent id. Much like David, he’s just trying to do what he can and not cause a big scene.
What did you all think?
Cameron: Along with Cory, I wrote about The Incredible Hulk‘s pilot for Test Pilot last summer, when The Avengers was making enough money to make people write glowing headlines about how much money it was making. To summarize, the point I made in regards to the series was how it was defined by David Banner’s attempts to accept loss (in a literal, emotional form with his entire life slowly chipped away over the course of the episode, as well as the figurative loss of control associated with his green alter ego) and how that journey of accepting loss played into Mark Ruffalo and Joss Whedon’s depiction of the character in that summer blockbuster movie written by some dude who likes fuzzy monsters on the end of his pencils and some guy named Mark Ruffalo.
“Stop the Presses” is equally engaging with regards to Whedon’s characterization of the Hulk, but from a different angle. In the film, Ruffalo’s Banner recounts to Tony Stark his darkest post-Hulk moment, when he attempted to commit suicide and “the other guy” (one of Banner’s favorite euphemisms for the Hulk) spit the bullet back out. Stark comments that it seems the Hulk saved his life, an assessment he has similarly made about the tech that keeps the shrapnel in his heart from killing him. But that point of self-preservation is particularly poignant, because it doesn’t paint the Hulk as an obstacle to be overcome, but an ally to be gained. The Hulk’s individual fate is tied to the fate of Banner, and so he has a very good reason for wanting to keep him alive and unharmed.
What’s most revealing about this representation of the Hulk in pop culture is that it’s all really a matter of perspective. “Stop the Presses” does this primarily through David’s own personal stakes in the story (namely, to keep the Hulk out of the newspapers, even smaller ones like the National Register, reflecting David’s perspective that if he were caught he’d lose complete control of his own destiny, as would his green friend), but it also engages the theme through Jack McGee, the reporter who’s been tracking the Hulk from the very beginning. Here, McGee is shown working side-by-side with Joe Arnold, a “reporter” who engages in the extremely shady business of tossing trash around restaurant kitchens, then taking pictures and showing them to the Department of Health. Joe reveals his ambitions to Jack in a nice scene right before the climax, and Jack reveals that while it’s true his relentless search for the Hulk has left his reputation and finances in a mild state of disrepair, he still sleeps easily, implying that the same can’t be true of a reporter who engages in unethical practices for the sake of stories, fame, glory, and the eventual windfall of money that comes with those three things. Whether or not Jack’s intention of tranquilizing the Hulk in order to finally nab a solid photo is somehow crossing an ethical line could also be considered a matter of perspective, albeit one the show leaves for another time.
I realize that once again I’ve talked my ear off about this damn show, but for some reason, I really respond to it and to the way the writers present the material. It is still a stark contrast to most superhero television shows, but that’s as it should be, because The Incredible Hulk does the one thing that so many writers of superheroes (in all mediums) fail to do: it writes to the Clark Kent, not just to the Superman. It was an unusual decision even at the time, but it’s still no less the right one for a superhero adaptation.
Les: In an era where superheroes are basically printing money for the studios and establishing respectable mythologies on the big screen, I feel a little bad for the Hulk compared to his Avengers brethren. He’s been played by three separate actors in as many films—the first of which is possibly the dullest superhero movie I’ve ever seen—so he hasn’t had the opportunity to establish the same connection that Iron Man or Captain America has, even though in The Avengers with the Joss Whedon/Mark Ruffalo pairing it feels like they’re on the right track. And as a character the Hulk on the whole lacks depth—Banner’s backstory makes him one of the more inherently tragic heroes, but once the Hulk persona takes over he’s essentially a green wrecking ball and nothing else.
As such, it’s a great comfort to see that while the Hulk’s transition to the big screen has been somewhat rocky, his portrayal on television is far better than most of what we’ve seen to date. The Incredible Hulk is, at least on the basis of one installment, a fine, solid superhero show, one that has a reliable weekly structure as David has to travel from town to town to keep from being recognized as the Hulk and gets pulled into various adventures in each of his stops. I thought Bill Bixby was great as David, able to convey the human side of the character—a bemusement at Jill and Karen’s crushes, a dread at being exposed in the newspaper, and a resolve that led him to infiltrate the printing presses to steal the plates.
And once the monster took over, I remained impressed. We’ve seen plenty of evidence how cheap special effects can be in TV superhero depictions, but this was a steady approach that worked well in terms of transformation. Lou Ferrigno is large and imposing as the Hulk, the makeup wasn’t too distracting and didn’t look fake, and while the slow-motion got on my nerves a bit at times they made it entirely plausible that this thing they created could be hurling printing press equipment and pushing over 500-lb rolls of newsprint.
The episodic story was fun as well. You’ll recall from our Green Hornet discussion that I’m a sucker for journalism plots, and the antagonist here—a sleazy tabloid reporter faking health code violations for a story—was a good down-to-earth storyline. Not every bad guy needs to have a grand desire to recreate an Egyptian court or an outlandish sports betting/arms deal conspiracy, there’s a lot of everyday villains that need to be taken down to size. Joe Arnold and his ex-wrestler stringer goon were easy to dislike, with reprehensible ethics and attitude towards women that has you rooting for him to be punched in the face from the first minute. It was a problem that let David be a hero without needing to use his powers, keeping with the Average Joe feeling we had last week on The Greatest American Hero.
And Noel, I’m right on board with you as to the wonderfulness that is Jack McGee. This is a superhero trope we haven’t seen much of this roundtable, that of the interloper always trying to expose the superhero’s identity, and this character was a great version of that plot point because he’s an everyman as opposed to an enemy. This isn’t Lex Luthor or the Riddler trying to expose their archnemesis, this is a reporter so desperate to prove his theories right that he toys with violating newspaper ethics and keeps a tranquilizer gun on his desk at night. He was humanized early on in his clash with his editor, and he also made a good opposite to our villain Joe Arnold—I enjoyed the speech he made to Joe when they were feuding over photos: “Well, I sleep good, I shave with my eyes wide open, I have friends. I feel a little sorry for you, Joe.”
McGee’s search for the Hulk was a recurring element of the series, and if I watch more episodes I can easily see myself rooting for McGee as much as David. Because in their own way, they’re kindred spirits: two men who can’t rest until they’ve solved the mystery of the Hulk.
Cory: I chose this episode because I thought it’d be cool to check in with a program featuring at least a semblance of serialized storytelling, and happy with the results of “Stop the Presses.” Although McGee’s search for the Hulk doesn’t technically dominate the episode in a way that requires us to have seen all the previous efforts, it serves as a nice framework for the relatively solid action that comes once we meet the sleazy Joe Arnold.
It’s kind of weird to think of The Incredible Hulk, the show featuring its lead character traveling from town to town looking to avoid trouble but always finding it, is the first we’ve watched to really engage with ongoing stories. This is the most procedural-y premise of the lot and yet it manages to nicely weave in McGee and Banner’s histories in a simple but effective fashion. As some of you have touched on, Hulk is surprisingly adept at getting inside the head of its Banner, but this episode reflects that kind of muted touch in the characterization of McGee as well. This really does feel like a two-hander (or I guess a three-hander if we include Big Ugly) about men looking for answers so they can finally rest.
In general, surprising is a fine word to describe this show. It’s so earnest, yet never careens into cheesy or obnoxious territory, nor does it ever feel especially self-serious. The newspaper plot is pretty silly, but Arnold’s behavior walks right up to the stupid barrier without ever going over it. The women are sort of stuck in that weird 1980s place where it’s supposed to be cool and progressive that they’re professionally successful but the show cannot help but put them in jeopardy because that’s just how it is, or something. But even there, the representation of the women isn’t anywhere near the more embarrassing things of the time.
Who would have guessed that the show about a green dude smashing stuff would be the the most assured and well-constructed?
Whitney: Les, you made a good point about how The Hulk is generally one of the most tragic of the more popular super heroes and I think this episode and this show as a whole did well to represent that side of the character. This is a man who can’t control himself as soon as he gets emotional, so he takes hold of what little control he does have over his existence by making sure he is never discovered. His story has a tinge of Sisyphus’ fate to it, always experiencing an uphill battle hoping that one day there is a solution but consistently having to start over. Bixby does a better than average job of portraying what David has to deal with and his performance was probably the most pleasantly surprising part of the episode.
I was really hoping when the two girls were introduced early on that they would come close to passing the Bechdel Test but alas, not even close. However for an episode that aired more than 30 years ago their portrayal was probably the best anyone could hope for all things considered. As soon as they realized what would happen to their hard-earned and successful business if the pictures were released they took initiative and went down to the Register themselves to get them back. True, in the end David saved the day, but both girls were part of the story throughout and occupied a space just far enough on the right side of the “damsels-in-distress” line that it made them seem like more fleshed out characters for a pair that were presumably only in one episode.
What I think I liked most about the plot was that even with David saving the day, he isn’t an outright hero of the story in any sort of traditional manner. He only volunteered to go after the copy plate once he realized that one of his pictures had been chosen to run the next day, revealing his identity in the process. Wanting to help the girls solve their problems is one thing, putting himself into unnecessarily risky situations to assist people he barely knows is something entirely different. In the end he chooses to help but from a partially selfish place. Again, Bixby was able to emote these mixed feelings almost to a T, rounding David out as a character even without the benefit of a more serialized structure. I was looking forward to this episode the most out of the shows we’ve discussed so far and I wasn’t disappointed. I even laughed at most of the campy pieces like McGee having a tranquilizer gun on his desk at the ready. All in all, one of the most well confident shows we’ve watched both in the way it treated each character and how it balanced plot and substance with some goofy moments.
Plus, I got to yell “It’s Lou Ferrigno!” at my TV once or twice, which is always a bonus.
The superhero roundtable finishes up next week with The Flash and “The Trickster,” (S1E12, Amazon Instant). After that we’ll be adopting our secret identities to come up with a new roundtable topic, which you’ll be hearing about in the near future.