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Posts Tagged ‘Half Nelson’

The relentless demands of a highly formulaic weekly TV show can, sometimes, result in the strangest of progeny. Yes, it’s time for another look at some episodes of The Incredible Hulk – on this occasion, beginning with The Harder They Fall, a story with almost too much going on for its own good, thematically at least.

The plot gets underway very briskly indeed, beginning with Banner going about his usual hitch-hiking business – this stuff usually goes on between episodes, but not on this occasion, for a simple and entirely random traffic accident results in our hero being hit by a car and hospitalised (the bump is clearly not hard enough to provoke a Hulk-out, but then the series is always just a bit vague about exactly what the trigger is: he often gets hit on the head without anything occurring, for instance). Somewhat shockingly, the prognosis of the doctors is not good: Banner has sustained permanent spinal damage and will be a paraplegic for the rest of his life!

Or, let’s face it, a fair chunk of the rest of the episode, at most: I don’t think anyone was under any illusions on this count, even when the episode was first broadcast in 1981. The big red (or in this case green) reset button was king, and the paralysis idea is a fairly hokey plot device anyway. Bill Bixby, naturally, gives a terrific, heartfelt performance as a man struggling to come to terms with a terrible psychological blow, and is easily good enough to make you temporarily forget that it’s a dead cert that Banner will be fully mobile by the end of the episode. It’s not exactly the most heroic or sympathetic of characterisations, either – Banner is clearly deeply in denial and retreats into himself, rejecting all offers of help in favour of deep self-pity.

In the depths of his despair, Banner eventually recalls the phenomenal healing factor of his emerald-hued alter-ego and actively contemplates intentionally triggering a transformation into the Hulk in the hope that this may help with his affliction. But memories of the kind of havoc and damage the Hulk can cause gives him pause – would it be right of him to unleash the beast for such selfish reasons? It’s a fascinating moral dilemma and offers the hope of a real insight into Banner’s personality – is he really the selfless, considerate man he always seems to be?

Sadly, the episode rather cops out when it comes to this particular angle, and moves on to be more about Banner’s relationship with his counsellor, another paraplegic named Paul (played rather well by Denny Miller). Paul is a former businessman attempting to get back on his – er, attempting to re-establish himself, but struggling in the face of patronisation and prejudice from the able-bodied folks around him. He is, at least, a good counsellor, and – another brilliant touch – Banner almost seems happier in the sequences where he makes progress with his physical therapy than in most of the rest of the series when he’s able-bodied.

Then, of course, Banner and Paul go out for a beer and – somewhat improbably – a fight breaks out between the guy in a wheelchair and a patronising drunk. Banner gets pushed down a flight of stairs, and, well, you can guess what happens next.

hulkchair

Or maybe you can’t: for in what’s surely one of the more striking Hulk-out sequences of the series, the creature is initially as paralysed as Banner, and the sight of the Hulk pounding his own own useless legs in fury is remarkably moving. But he’s the Hulk, after all, and while the exact extent of his invulnerability remains vague in the TV show, he can clearly regenerate a spinal column like nobody’s business. Soon enough the Hulk is staggering around and wrecking the joint as usual, before running off into the night.

Here, of course, the episode’s biggest plot hole opens up, for following the commercial break Banner is back in the hospital, his spine having somewhat healed as a result of spending time as the Hulk: he still can’t walk unassisted, but he’s got some feeling and muscle control back. How exactly did he get back to the hospital? Were there no awkward questions to be answered, concerning how a paraplegic managed to get from the bar to wherever it was that he de-Hulked, unassisted? One is almost tempted to assume the Hulk gives off some sort of gamma energy that makes everyone around him unbelievably dumb.

Oh well. The second half of the episode is really about society’s attitudes to the disabled – one of the slightly awkward things about The Harder They Fall is that, being made in 1981, it uses the word ‘cripples’ instead – and Paul’s travails trying to get a bank loan as a man in a wheelchair. It all gets a little bit histrionic, not to mention melodramatic. McGee turns up and, somewhat nonplussed, agrees to try and get his tabloid newspaper to run a story on disabled rights in return for Paul spilling the beans on the Hulk. In the end Paul decides to show society it’s wrong to underestimate the disabled by – good grief – staging a fake bank robbery, and of course it’s up to Banner to stop him. In an outrageous bit of plotting, Banner ends up stealing McGee’s car in order to stop Paul, and – but of course – trouble en route results in the car getting smashed, from the inside out.

Needless to say, the second Hulk-out completes the miraculous recovery of David Banner’s spine and at the episode’s conclusion he is back on the road, seemingly heedless of the various unanswered questions all this has raised. Again, is no-one at the hospital even slightly curious about this man’s spine spontaneously regenerating itself? Wouldn’t they at least keep him in for tests? And one thing the episode does rather neatly is reemphasise that the Hulk isn’t just a big green guy who growls a lot and smashes stuff up: he’s a superhumanly resilient and vital being, capable of more than just feats of strength. There’s surely a moral dimension here that the story doesn’t really address – one of Banner’s doctors actually comments on his miracle recovery and says there are lots of other people who could use the same thing. Shouldn’t Banner be trying to find a way to harness and control the power of the Hulk for the benefit of others, rather than just cure himself of his Hulkish tendencies?

This is a striking and memorable episode, with at least one outstanding sequence. And I can’t fault the intentions of the story, or the strength of the performances involved – but at the same time, the episode is a little bit melodramatic and obvious, going for the human issues surrounding what it means to come to terms with being paraplegic, rather than Banner’s more particular issues with his gamma-related condition. I can understand why they did that in a show as mainstream as this, but it’s still a bit of a shame to see the chance for a look at a different and perhaps less saintly aspect of Banner go somewhat underexploited.

Not much sign of such psychological complexity in Half Nelson, another mixture of heartfelt social commentary and uproariously contrived Hulk-outs. This was written by Andrew Schneider, the executive story editor on the series, who also wrote the very superior SF-horror episode The First. Half Nelson is not SF-horror. Instead, it’s… actually, I’m not entirely sure there’s a name for what it is. It starts with Banner pitching up in Baltimore, where he intervenes in a mugging being perpetrated on a dwarf. (For God’s sake, Banner! What are you thinking of, man? Don’t you know that’s how plots get started?)

hulk nelson

Oh well. Banner loses all his money but keeps his shirt and shoes, and befriends the victim, Buster (Tommy Madden), who introduces him to – dearie, dearie me – Baltimore’s seemingly-flourishing dwarf wrestling circuit. Buster may be short on legs but he has tall tales aplenty, to say nothing of braggadocio, and sure enough his big mouth gets him and Banner into trouble before too many commercial breaks have elapsed. Soon enough the mob not only believe that Tommy knows the identity of some wrestlers who ripped them off, but also that Banner is a famous money launderer in town to help dispose of the money.

The chased-by-mobsters plotline doesn’t really get going until after the first Hulk-out, prior to which the story revolves around Banner getting mixed up in the dwarf wrestling circuit and being the tallest person at parties on the dwarf social scene. (I was almost put in mind of that Garth Ennis-scripted issue of The Punisher where Frank Castle and Wolverine team up to fight a gang of psychopathic vigilante midgets, but even Half Nelson never gets quite that weird.) The look on Bill Bixby’s face suggests either a very deadpan comic performance, or an actor who can’t quite believe the script he’s being required to perform.

Anyway, the mobsters rough Banner up outside a dwarf party, with predictable results – predictable, that is, until the Hulk meets the little people. He seems rather baffled by and sweetly curious about the dwarfs and even gets into a fight with one of them (a trashcan lid rebounds off his shin), before the plot requires him to run off in slow motion. The second half of the plot sees McGee putting in his usual second-half appearance, where Jack Colvin’s reaction to learning the Hulk is now apparently hanging out with little people is not that dissimilar to Bill Bixby’s, and includes this episode’s bit of Proper Drama, where Buster laments the stereotype mainstream society has of little people. He never wanted to be a wrestler! He wanted to be a doctor, but he was afraid he wouldn’t be taken seriously, and so on. This all goes until the mobsters and McGee track Banner and Buster down to the wrestling area. This, of course, leads to another preposterous plot development where Banner ends up disguising himself as a masked luchador to evade the reporter, only to end up in the ring, with more predictable results.

(Here the format really creaks a bit: Banner hulks out in front of a crowd of hundreds of people and proceeds to throw a two-hundred-pound wrestler into the balcony, and yet we’re expected to believe that McGee is the only person involved in pursuing the Hulk, and is regularly mocked for doing so. On the strength of this episode, tracking down the Hulk should be a national obsession.)

Well, it is nearly all ridiculous nonsense, as you can probably tell, and even some of the principal players occasionally seem to be struggling to take proceedings seriously. But after a few quite seriously dramatic or actionly-adventurous episodes in previous weeks, it is at least genuinely funny at quite a few points throughout its running time. Still, this is such a bizarre fit for a show like The Incredible Hulk that it’s hard not to conclude that the series is showing signs of creative exhaustion. It is at least a fun way to get wasted.

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