If you want to remember the '80s and early '90s, or even learn about this era for the first time, there's nothing like watching a made-for-TV movie based on one of the period's most resonant shows.

Knight Rider 2000 premiered on NBC on May 19, 1991, and managed to almost perfectly encapsulate the views of good guys and bad guys, along with the strange meditations on the things that dominated the era.

The original Knight Rider show ran from 1982-86. It jump-started the career of heartthrob David Hasselhoff, who had up until that point been toiling away on the soap opera The Young and the Restless, playing a doctor by the name of "Snapper" Foster.

Watch 'Knight Rider''s Original Show Intro

In Knight Rider, Hasselhoff played Michael Knight, a onetime police officer who is saved from dying by billionaire Wilton Knight and recruited into Knight's Foundation for Law and Government (or FLAG). Michael ends up as half of a crime-fighting team; the other half is a talking Pontiac Trans Am named KITT (or the Knight Industries Two Thousand). Along with driving fast, KITTT can do things like withstand explosions and blow up bad guys and has access to all kinds of technologically advanced wizardry.

The show was a sensation, both wildly popular and culturally influential. So, five years after it went off the air, a follow-up movie was made. (A second film, Knight Rider 2010, appeared in 1994.)

Watch 'Knight Rider 2000' Trailer

In Knight Rider 2000, it's the year 2000 and America has changed its views on policing. Handguns have been banned and cops carry ultrasound blasters that incapacitate criminals. And the criminals themselves are no longer incarcerated; instead, they're just cryogenically frozen for the duration of their sentences.

Depending on your point of view, this might sound like a salutary or terrible situation, but the police in that far-off year of 2000 hate it. At the start, the mayor of San Antonio is killed by an assailant (Mitch Pileggi) with a real gun, which reinforces the cops' view that their lack of actual weapons puts them at a disadvantage. To remedy the situation, the new mayor (Lou Beatty Jr.) asks the Knight Foundation to accelerate the development of its new project, a follow-up to KITT called the Knight Industries Four Thousand.

Worried that they won't be able to deliver, Knight Foundation head Devon Miles (Edward Mulhare, reprising his role from the original show) convinces Michael Knight (a returning Hasselhoff) to come out of retirement. When Michael agrees, he discovers that most of the original KITT has been disassembled and sold off for parts, so he rebuilds the car's AI and installs it in his 1957 Chevy. After a couple of initial malfunctions – including the mistaken apprehension of James Doohan, playing himself and immediately recognized by Michael as Scotty from Star Trek - this new super-Chevy seems to be working fine.

Meanwhile, a fresh-faced young female officer named Shawn McCormick (Susan Norman) discovers that the gun the mayor killer used was a model that used to be issued to police. This leads her to discover that the cops themselves are behind the killing and are hoping to stir up enough unrest that they'll be given their guns back. For her troubles, she gets shot in the head, only to be saved by a revolutionary new procedure that allows doctors to implant a Knight Industries chip in her brain.

She and Michael team up against the corrupt cops. They eventually wreck the Chevy and have to install KITT's mind into a new Trans Am (red this time, instead of the original show's black). In the end, they're triumphant, ridding the police force of its corruption and preventing the reintroduction of real guns to the world. And Michael, Shawn and KITT decide to keep fighting crime for the Knight Foundation.

Watch Climactic Fight Scene From 'Knight Rider 2000'

For a 1991 made-for-TV affair, the show is passably entertaining. Hasselhoff had, at that point, long since begun doing little more than playing himself onscreen, and he does it well. The rest of the cast is game, KITT gets in some of his trademark family-friendly snark and the plot moves briskly enough that we don't really care that we know everything that's going to happen after about 10 minutes.

But Knight Rider's real allure is in the way it captures its moment. The '80s and early '90s famously saw a crest in the rates of violent crime in America, a trend that has been attributed to everything from economic distress to leaded gasoline to Roe v. Wade.

Regardless of its origin, this caused a spike in shows about cops battling criminals, from glossy affairs like the original Knight Rider and Miami Vice (1984-90) to attempts at realism like Hill St. Blues (1981-87) and Law and Order (which premiered in 1990). On the big screen, movies followed suit, with everything from 48 Hours (1982) and Lethal Weapon (1987) to Reservoir Dogs (1992) presenting their visions of a crime-filled America. All of these fed on, and fed into, a society afraid that street crime was ineradicably threatening to take over.

Watch 'Robocop' Trailer

Alongside this, movies began to appear that used futuristic approaches to comment on what crime and crimefighting said about the ills of our culture. It's exactly in the middle of these two trends – crime show and what-ails-our-society movie – that Knight Rider 2000 falls. Like Robocop (1987), it presents a world in which cybernetic technology promises a cure for both crime and the corruption of crime-fighting bodies. Similar to Demolition Man (1993), it raises the question of whether we are being soft on crime and the idea that it would be more humane and cheaper to simply cryogenically freeze criminals instead of incarcerating them. And in the vein of things like Witness (1985) and The Professional (1994), it speculates that one of the effects of all this crime might be to turn the cops into criminals themselves.

All of these shows and movies circle around the same issues: Why does our society feel so dangerous? What is this crime doing to us? And what can we do about it? They all have their own perspectives and answers, and once you become alert to this, the call and response interconnections between them become fascinating, particularly in the ways that they extend into our present moment.

None of which is to say Knight Rider 2000 is a penetrating or even important movie. But sometimes you can learn a lot from remembering what was on television on a Sunday night in 1991.

 

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