“Somewhere in the vast multiverse, The Amazing Spider-Man was the biggest show of the 1970s.”
Having never seen the show, that was the headline I hoped would mark the 45th anniversary of The Amazing Spider-Man TV series, which debuted on September 14, 1977. But after watching the 90-minute pilot and two hour-long episodes, I’ve determined that the series is more than deserving of its current legacy as an obscure piece of Spider-Man history on par with the notoriously stupid Spider-Mobile.
If you’re fortunate enough to be unfamiliar with The Amazing Spider-Man, let me fill you in. It was Marvel’s first live-action TV show and, over two sporadically-scheduled seasons, it ran for a total of 13 episodes before getting canceled. Oddly enough, the show did well in the ratings and CBS only canceled it so that it wouldn’t become known as a network dominated by superhero shows — CBS was also running Wonder Woman and The Incredible Hulk at the time.
The Amazing Spider-Man starred Nicholas Hammond as Spider-Man and Robert F. Simon as J. Jonah Jameson. Those two were the only characters from the comics who were regulars. Everyone else was a new character. It also occasionally featured Aunt May, but she was deemed so unimportant that she only appeared twice and was played by two different actresses.
The show was structured around Peter Parker’s time at The Daily Bugle, where, as a photographer, he would get caught up with the stories of various criminal doings and, as the action progressed, he’d jump back-and-forth between the roles of Peter Parker and Spider-Man and rescue people as needed. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s precisely the way various Superman shows have operated from George Reeves’ Adventures of Superman to Dean Cain’s Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.
Indeed, rather than make use of Spider-Man’s well-established drama with his love life, the story of Uncle Ben, him caring for his Aunt May, or even just struggling to pay the rent, the show decided that Superman’s story was more compelling that Spider-Man’s, so it just opted to use that instead. It also transformed the fiery J. Jonah Jameson into more of a brusk-but-likable Perry White-type character. And even though Peter Parker is a junior freelance photographer, he somehow ends up “on the case” over and over again.
In losing Peter Parker’s story, the show also loses Peter Parker himself. While he’s playing a grad student in college, we hardly ever see him there, so there’s none of the nerdy social outcast aspect to Peter’s character that is so important to making him the “everyman” superhero. Instead, he’s more of an earnest young man with a keen eye for reporting.
The portrayal of Spider-Man is even worse, with none of the wise-cracking or whimsy that makes the character fun. Instead, he’s silent the vast majority of the time and all we can hear is blaring disco music for the score. Hammond’s acting — both as Peter and Spider-Man — is fine but not remotely memorable, which is probably worse than it being bad because at least bad can be fun.
Which brings me to the biggest reason why The Amazing Spider-Man is entirely without merit: its tone. Given the constraints of the time period — and because it was for television — an hour-long Spider-Man show could have gone one of two ways, it could have been a straight, serious drama like The Incredible Hulk, or it could have been a campy bit of fun, like the 1960s Batman show. Instead, it does neither, which makes it really bad. But not so bad that it’s fun — it’s just bad enough to be really really boring.
While it’s certainly dated by today’s standards, The Incredible Hulk was a successful TV drama and there was good reason for it at the time. While it didn’t feature supervillains, the Hulk is a character full of pathos and there’s plenty of Jekyll-and-Hyde, duality-of-man kind of drama for the show to delve into. Spider-Man can have that too, of course, but this show was considerably lighter in tone and opted to give Peter Parker Superman drama, not Spider-Man drama, so it wasn’t nearly as personal as it could have been.
Spider-Man also could have gone the Batman route and maybe that would have worked. The brilliance of Batman was that it was fun to watch for kids and adults. For kids, it was a straight-up superhero show, but for adults, the show was a fun romp with truly hilarious performances by the likes of Cesar Romero as the Joker or Burgess Meredith as the Penguin. The Amazing Spider-Man, however, went the Hulk route with no supervillains, which eliminated a lot of the fun it could have had.
I mean, try to imagine the scenery that could have been chewed with Al Lewis (Grandpa Munster), as a cheeseball live-action Doc Ock? That’s a show that would have been a lot of fun, but The Amazing Spider-Man had none of that and almost no personality as a result.
Honestly, if you’re looking for a way to describe the tone of The Amazing Spider-Man, just imagine Batman, minus all of the hilarious villains and minus Adam West’s considerable charm and comedic chops, then you’ve got The Amazing Spider-Man.
So, despite my best efforts, there’s truly nothing to love about The Amazing Spider-Man TV show. I might even go so far as to say that nowhere in the vast multiverse was this show ever successful, but, with infinite timelines, it’s possible that Grandpa Munster played Doctor Octopus in at least one potential reality, isn’t it?