Automan: The Complete Series/Manimal: The Complete Series (Fabulous Films/Shout! Factory, NR)

automan sqScience fiction and fantasy, respectively, the short-lived shows briefly entertained legions of kids (and adults) with their out-there premises.

 

Sometimes it can be fun to revisit childhood favorites. The cartoons you watched on Saturday mornings and the cereal you ate while watching them are enticing to anybody looking to relive those carefree days. But the most endearing aspects of pop culture memories for most people are the shows we got caught up in after school. Those comedies and dramas we died to finish our homework in time to watch.

Automan and Manimal certainly fill that bill for some. Science fiction and fantasy, respectively, the short-lived shows briefly entertained legions of kids (and adults) with their out-there premises. Automan focused on nebbish police officer Walter Nebicher (Desi Arnaz, Jr.). His superiors think he’s only good enough for a desk job in the department’s computer room, but when Walter creates a videogame character in his spare time, and that character comes to life, his services soon become even more important to the department.

Walter’s creation is Automan (Chuck Wagner). He’s a super-intelligent superhero who glows with what looks like starlight and helps Walter solve cases. Along for the ride is Cursor, the small, bright sidekick whom only Automan can understand.

The plots are pretty basic, but they do hold up as detective stories. One of the most impressive things about the show is the special effects. They are relatively realistic and especially striking, considering that they were made in a time before green-screen suits.

The main problem with Automan is that he and Cursor are basically indestructible. Automan likes to remind us that he was created to be perfect. This is good news for Walter, since whenever they merge (yes, merge) Automan’s powers protect him. But, even Superman has Kryptonite, and with no vulnerabilities, Automan (both the show and the character) is kind of boring.

Cursor can create anything Automan needs, from clothes to make him look like a regular guy to the Autocar, and a fake phone company van filled with working surveillance equipment. Meanwhile, Automan can talk to any computer, feel coffeemakers and toasters being used, and shoot beams of electricity. He also has personal knowledge of Pac-Man and Donkey Kong.

The most glaring mistake from the showrunners seems to be the general tone of the show. Automan is essentially a live-action cartoon character, but they’ve filled the episodes with some heavy crime-series stuff. It was probably too silly for most adults and too serious for a lot of kids. Cursor even straight-up kills two bad guys in the first episode.

This DVD set includes some basic extras, and the best of them is the 42 minute “Calling Automan” featurette. It’s pretty complete in its description of the methods used to create Automan and the other effects of the show.

Manimal has the benefit of feeling more adult than Automan, even though the premise is still kind of wacky. Dr. Jonathan Chase (Simon MacCorkindale) has it all: He’s rich, good looking, and young, and has a great career as a professor of criminology. But he’s also a guy who inherited the ability to turn into any animal he wants. (He was cursed by a witch doctor, or something. I didn’t quite understand that part.)

Jonathan is also a consultant for the NYPD, and when police detective Brooke McKenzie (Melody Anderson) stumbles onto his secret, they team up, along with his Vietnam buddy Ty Earl (Michael D. Roberts), to solve crimes the Manimal way.

The pilot, which was done as a full-length movie, had a much more serious tone than the rest of the show. They switched actors for the Ty character, making him much more the source of comedic relief. Since Ty is black, his mugging and joking frequently comes off as a white guy’s idea of what a black man would be like, instead of actual character traits.

The show as a whole became slapstick-ier after the pilot, but even that episode showed some signs of going down the cheesy rabbit hole. One of the most cringe-worthy moments is a flashback to Vietnam in 1972: Jonathan and Ty are being held captive, and Ty remarks that it looks like their captors would like to eat them. He then says, “The only question now is which ones get the white meat, and which ones get the dark meat.” Ugh…

Ultimately, Manimal suffers much the same fate as Automan: He’s just too perfect. The man can turn into literally any animal that will best serve the situation. His favorites are the panther and hawk, but he can be a giant bear if need be, so how is any case or situation really a cause for concern?

Unfortunately, the special effects in Manimal are pretty terrible, especially when you consider what they were able to do with Automan. The transformation scenes look completely fake; I can’t remember if they looked that bad to me as a kid.

There really aren’t any standouts among the special features. There’s an interview with the producer, but he doesn’t give us any real insight into what it was like to shoot the show. Maybe that’s for the best. If this viewing has taught me anything, it’s that some things should simply stay in the past. | Adrienne Jones

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