Dead Air: The Highwayman

Glen Larson is watching you watch his show about crime fighting vehicles.

By Chris Stewart
April 03, 2003
Sometimes it’s pretty clear why shows die, never to return. Sometimes the idea is just sooooo bizarre, it’s not “before its time”, rather “it’s from another planet where up is down and laughter is pain.” The Highwayman is one of those shows.

Basically, a series of things converged at once in the mind of a deranged TV writer to produce this 1988 show; M.A.S.K. (you know, that Mobile Armoured Strike Kommand cartoon, and their transforming semi-tractor-trailer — only it’s not Transformers), Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (with its tough guy in black leather, riding the highways), Jocko (this Australian footballer who used to sell us batteries by yelling, “OY!” at us. Only marginally less annoying than the bunny that took over for him), and the seemingly endless ratings bonanzas available to action/crime fighting/detective shows on TV at the time (like, say, Magnum PI. Only really old people remember him). I don’t know what three-martini lunch brought these seperate elements together, but – Oh wait, I do know; Glen Larson.

If you’ll harken back to my first Dead Air, I introduced you all to Mr. Larson. Mr. Larson is the key to winning any game of six-degrees-of-television, simply because behind practically every television show ever produced, you’ll find Glen. OK, I’m exaggerating — I don’t think he did M*A*S*H, but that’s about it.

Glen, you see, did a lot of shows in the 80s, like Magnum P.I. and he’s a man who will produce anything, from sci-fi to mysteries, and in the case of The Highwayman, a sci-fi mystery show. With a tough guy in black leather. Who drives a transforming semi. Along with his partner Jocko. Oh, you think I’m kidding?

Set in the present (or near present) the nameless Highwayman, scruffy right-hand-man Jacko (can footballers not pretend to be called Brent or maybe Lance?), and Tuvok (well, Tim Russ, earning his pre-Star Trek: Voyager dues) wander the land, looking for trouble and then beat the shit out of it. And when that didn’t work, they’d transform the semi into a helicopter, fly over to the trouble (now stunned by the sight of a flying tractor trailer), and then beat the shit out of it. That was the show in an unkind nutshell).

Now, television is even worse than movies when it comes to eating its own poop. Twelve years after The Highwayman hit, skidded into oncoming traffic, and jack-knifed onto the airwaves, came 18 Wheels of Justice, about a new semi-drivin’ crimefighter. 18 Wheels was produced by (in part at least) Scott Levitta…

…who also co-produced The Highwayman with Glen Larson.

How does crime fighting in a semi work? Sure, Knight Rider (another Glen Larson special) had a semi, but they used it to drive their very expensive, AI controlled, laser shooting car around the country. They would leave the big, conspicuous semi and take the little car into town. But when you take the semi into town, I don’t think it works as well.

Two shadowy figures meet in an abandoned warehouse…

Thug One “You got the goods?”

Thug Two “Yeah. You got the mon… wait! Did you hear something?”

Thug One “There’s no one here but us. And that semi over there.”

The massive engine roars to life, the head lights snap on, and the air horns blares.

Thug One “Cripes! Roaming crime fighters! Run!”

Thug Two “Look out! It’s turning into a helicopter!”

Jocko “OY!”

There are a few, less painful aspects of the show I should point out in fairness. I mentioned Tim Russ, who sadly gets to play the hip sidekick. The Highwayman was played by Sam Jones (Flash Gordon), which is both cool and sad all at the same time. The diesel gang gets their marching orders from Jane Badler (whom you’ll remember as Diana in V). And Rob Bowman, who is a mini-Glen Larson in his own right (having directed everything from Stingray to the X-Files) directed a couple of episodes.

With nine episodes and the initial pilot movie, this series died before the year was out. A desperate person could argue that the winter Olympics stole viewers, but that would be dumb. Glen Larson, however, is still at large and rumored to be working a semi into Super Knight Rider 3000 (I wish to God I’d made that title up).

Wanna see The Highwayman on DVD? Fat chance! I think monkeys will rule the Earth before that happens, but you can let the studios know at Just in case.