Television Turmoil: Manimal

Television Turmoil is a look at the worst and weirdest series to make their way onto the small screen.

While we often overlook it, the title of a work does a lot of the heavy lifting with our first impressions. A bad or misunderstood title can immediately give a potential audience the wrong idea (just ask Cougar Town about this). In the realm of TV, there might be no better example of the effects a bad title can have than Manimal. This clumsy shorthand for the lead character’s shape-shifting abilities conjures up images more akin to a Rob Schneider feature than the adventure drama it attempted to be.

Created by prolific producer, Glen A. Larson, the mind behind Battlestar Galatica, Magnum P.I. and, most importantly for this topic, Knight Rider. Manimal follows Dr. Jonathan Chase (Simon MacCorkindale), a man with the ability to shape-shift into any animal he chooses. He apparently has an affinity for panthers and hawks, as those are the two animals he transforms into every episode. As you might expect, he uses these incredible powers to fight crime, but he doesn’t do it alone. Aided by such engaging characters as “female cop who he occasionally flirts with” (Melody Anderson) and “black man who is there to make quips” (Michael D. Roberts), Chase solves a myriad of crimes that range from drug trafficking to stolen horses.

The look on MacCorkindale’s face seems to suggest he just discovered the title of the show.

The show of the era that seems to best define what Manimal was attempting is Knight Rider. A program that also has a fantastical premise, but largely succeeded thanks to Hasselhoff and a cool talking car. Manimal has neither of those, instead relying on cheap special effects to keep viewers interested. The show was largely uninterested in exploring the nature of Chase’s powers and used them mainly as a fun twist on the run-of-the-mill stories that made up the program.

Seemingly 90% of an episode could get recycled and used on similar 80s adventure programs. Sure, you’re not gonna see anyone on The A-Team transform into a horse and then get rode by an attractive woman while in pursuit of criminals, but you could easily see them involved with a similar case. It doesn’t help that anytime Chase transforms, usually twice an episode for perfect act structure synergy, we have to get an agonizingly long transformation sequence. Perhaps if the goal was to show how painful and laboured this process is, it’d make a bit more sense.

As you might expect from an early 80s program, the special effects work leaves a lot to be desired, even by the standards of the time. While the attempts made are noble, the brief glimpses we get of mid-transformation are either terrifying to look at or downright hilarious. Such as a scene in the pilot where Chase looks at his hand after it has transformed into a furry panther paw. It doesn’t help that MacCorkindale has to be in a three-piece suit for seemingly every panther transformation so that we can get a shot of it ripping off his back. Don’t worry, the suit is back on and in pristine condition when he transforms into a human again, The Hulk could learn a thing or two from this guy.

Oddly, the 90-minute pilot episode finds zero time to explain exactly how Chase got these powers. Future episodes in this short-lived series aren’t any more forthcoming with details. The most we recieve is a bizarre opening narration by William Conrad that seems to suggest he inherited them from his father who might have ties to African missionaries. In fact, most of the show is uninterested in exploring our lead character’s life at all. He’s wealthy in a way that most doctors are not and seems to work with the police based solely off his career in medicine. Thinking about it more, I’m not even sure what type of doctor he is. The titular Manimal simply exists, and that should be enough to satisfy the viewer.

I regret to inform you that this is very real and very terrifying.

Even without these obvious flaws, the show seemed destined to fail from the start. Manimal was part of a notoriously awful NBC lineup in 1983 and relegated to Fridays directly against the #1 show in the country, Dallas. There would have been little hope for the program, even if it was quality. Manimal ended up being one of eight new programs to be canned by NBC throughout the season.

Which is perhaps the strangest part of this undeniably weird show, take away the over-reliance on cheap special effects, and you have a show that isn’t radically different from much of what was on at the time. In another time slot with a change in focus, this show could have potentially found a niche for itself. Sure, it would still have to contend with that truly awful title, but stranger things have happened.

As it currently exists though, Manimal deserves its place in television history as an example of the doldrums this era of NBC faced. Are there worse shows? Absolutely, but none have the right combination of cheap production, lackluster acting and a concept worthy of scorn. It is the rare show that fails at even producing light entertainment. Sometimes a name tells you exactly what you need to know.

Next Time: We head to the new millennium for another poorly titled program, the “edgy comedy” Shasta McNasty.

As always, thanks for reading! If you have any suggestions for future shows you want to see covered, leave them in the comments below. For more great content, follow me on Twitter @JesseSwanson.