“Knight Rider”
Wednesdays at 8 p.m.
NBC
3 out of 5 Stars

If a show’s quality could be determined by the first seven minutes of its pilot episode, then NBC’s “Knight Rider” would stink. Jam-packed with cheap ploys like a car’s interior rising to such a dangerously high temperature that the hot girl must take off her clothes to survive, “Rider” ’s opening sequence probably caused most self-respecting television watchers to quickly change the channel. Surprisingly, though, “Rider” is deep — it boasts a complex main character and dares to break from its parent series — and that’s something that takes more than seven minutes to realize.

On the most basic level, “Knight Rider” is about special agent Mike Traceur (Justin Bruening, “All My Children”) and his car, an artificially intelligent Ford Mustang Shelby GT500KR nicknamed KITT (short for Knight Industries Three Thousand). Together, man and machine pursue international terrorists and are employed by Knight Industries, a secret organization that’s also dedicated to this goal. In this way, the current “Rider” mirrors its predecessor — which ran from 1982 until 1986 and starred David Hasselhoff, partnered with his own KITT, a talking Pontiac Trans Am.

It’s clear the new “Rider” only needs to present itself as an updated version of a show that had a long, prosperous run and loyal fan base — which was evident in the large audience the made-for-TV movie (which had the same cast) attracted last winter — to have some success. Yet, admirably, the new series takes steps to forge an identity of its own — something that will probably pay off in the long run.

The most compelling element of our generation’s “Rider” is its central protagonist, Traceur, who’s haunted by his experience fighting in the Iraq War. Like other heroes in contemporary action dramas (such as “Jericho”), Traceur’s life at home continues to be damaged by unspeakable things he did in Iraq. But his situation is a bit more complicated than the others: His memories have been mysteriously erased, and for reasons unbeknownst to him, people he served with in Iraq are now trying to kill him. Adding to all the confusion is the revelation at the end of the pilot, which suggested that one of Tracuer’s superiors at Knight Industries was behind the wiping of his memories.

By going with this storyline, “Rider” evolves from a show about some dude and his cool car to a suspenseful drama about a man trying to recapture his life from those who he thought were his friends. No disrespect to the original series, but it now takes more than a talking car to make a lasting impact on audiences, and the complexity of the Traceur character helps achieve this goal.

This doesn’t mean that “Rider” is radically different from the original series, as it dutifully continues the franchise’s trademark use of KITT as both a supporting character and the focus of more eye-popping action scenes. This frequently occurs in the pilot as KITT shoots at enemies with lasers, transforms into a truck and even bandages up a man’s bleeding hand. (Don’t ask.) The point is, the car can do just about anything. One thing remains, though: In this version of “Rider,” Traceur is the main attraction and everyone, and everything, else — including KITT — takes a back seat.

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