Mitch Haddad
Jeff Jensen
February 11, 2008 AT 05:00 AM EST

To a Gen-Xer prone to ’80s-TV nostalgia, visiting the set of NBC’s new Knight Rider TV movie can be a deflating experience. In real life, not only can the crime-fighting smart car known as the Knight Industries Three Thousand (a.k.a. KITT) not talk, it can’t drive itself, either. Three crew dudes push the sleek black Mustang from behind while Knight Rider‘s neo-Hasselhoffian star, Justin Bruening, pretends to steer. But instead of hitting its mark gracefully, the car comes to a lurching stop. ”Dammit, KITT!” jokes a jostled Bruening. ”Your driving sucks!”

The car may be slow, but the Knight Rider production was a zero-to-60 job. Last September, NBC’s newly installed entertainment co-chairman, Ben Silverman — who earlier this year scored a hit with another blast from the past, American Gladiators — greenlit the two-hour movie (airing Feb. 17 at 9 p.m.), planning to turn it into a series if the telefilm did well. Developed by film director Doug Liman (Mr. & Mrs. Smith, the upcoming Jumper) and his producing partner Dave Bartis, the new Knight Rider model comes fully loaded with of-the-moment relevancy. KITT, voiced by Arrested Development‘s Will Arnett, can morph and accessorize thanks to fancy nanotechnology. [UPDATE: After this article, which first appeared in issue 978 of Entertainment Weekly, went to press, Arnett left the project due to a contractual conflict; Val Kilmer has been cast as the new voice of KITT.] Behind the wheel is Mike Traceur (former All My Children star Bruening), a disillusioned Iraq war vet recruited by the daughter of KITT’s inventor (newcomer Deanna Russo) and told of his secret heritage. Yes, he’s the son of Michael Knight, and yes, the Hoff has a cameo. Not returning, however, is original creator Glen A. Larson, who has pursued developing his own Knight Rider feature film. (Calls to Larson’s management were not returned.)

Silverman, 37, proudly admits he was weaned on ’80s-era NBC, but says nostalgia didn’t prompt the Knight Rider revival. Like Gladiators, it reflects Silverman’s belief in ”brands with presold awareness. Viewers have a cacophony of choice; you have to be able to break out of the pack.” Moreover, he sees the reboot as an attempt to bring to TV the same pop fizz that sells movie-theater tickets. ”The biggest movies last summer were based on a toy, a super-hero comic, and a theme-park ride,” says Silverman. ”We wanted the same kind of blockbuster franchise for TV as you see in today’s movie theaters.”

Fulfilling Silverman’s vision wasn’t easy, what with only five months to make it real. David Andron belted out a script in 12 days — not a lot of time to brainstorm new mythology for an old franchise. (That’s difficult even with ample development time. See: Bionic Woman.) And because of the strike, Andron couldn’t tweak the script during filming, even though he was on set (in a WGA-approved producing capacity) while his fellow scribes were picketing. ”I was like, ‘Am I going to abandon this?”’ says Andron, who would likely serve as one of the showrunners if Knight Rider goes to series. ”I’d like to think that if I wasn’t here, it wouldn’t be as good.” The strike, however, could end up benefiting the movie given the scarcity of other scripted competition. ”There’s definitely an opportunity for greater sampling,” says Silverman, whose marketing team has been hyping Knight Rider as a pop culture event, complete with theatrical trailers and a mysterious teaser campaign. ”Because of the strike, I’m working even harder.”

Nonetheless, Bruening is confident that the final product is good enough to score with viewers, even if it weren’t a strike-hobbled year. ”I’d like to think people would want to watch our series anyway,” he says, then catches himself. ”Not series. I mean pilot. Movie. Whatever. I’m always getting ahead of myself.” Well, if the man’s looking to speed things up, he certainly has the right car for it. On screen, at least.

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