Television Turmoil: Automan

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

It’s hard to say exactly where we would be in terms of special effects without the influence of Tron. The 1982 Disney feature was a modest success at the box office, but quickly captured the imagination of nerds everywhere. As one of the earliest films to use extensive CGI, Tron also captured the attention of the industry as a showcase for what current technology could accomplish. The impact was immediate and it wouldn’t be long before imitators began cropping up. None of them were as quick to draw as Automan.

Debuting a little over a year after Tron, Automan attempted to adapt the style of the film’s virtual world to the TV screen. Created by Glen A. Larson, a man very familiar with imitation, the show followed Walter Nebicher (Desi Arnaz Jr.), a neurotic police officer who mainly works in the precinct’s absurdly large computer room. Walter’s gifted programming skills eventually lead him to create a crime fighting A.I., the titular Automan (Chuck Wagner). Automan (short for “Automatic Man,” a strange choice when “automated” was right there), can generate his own hologram and enter our world to help in the endless fight against crime. Rounding out the cast, we have Walter’s love interest: Roxanne Caldwell (Heather McNair), Lieutenant Jack Curtis (Robert Lansing) and Captain E.G. Boyd (Gerald S. O’Loughlin). All of whom have increasingly useless roles as the show goes on.

Just imagine that bright blue hue on screen for about half of any given episode.

The defining feature of Automan was his reflective body. Using a costume made of tiny reflective balls, it could reflect nearly all the light shone on it. Add some polished plates and put chromakey effects all over it, and you pretty much have the finished product. While likely impressive for TV in the early 80s, the effects don’t hold up today. Most of that seems to be because of the chromakey, which often ended up spreading to Automan’s face in certain shots and is a pain to look at for longer than a few minutes.

In addition to his holographic body, Automan could also merge with Nebicher to become a singular being while keeping all of his invulnerability. In fact, the only real established weakness for our hero were the massive amounts of energy he used by existing in our world. This was used in the early episodes to explain why he only operated at night and then quickly forgotten about. Something that also happened with his merging ability.

Automan also had a trusty, and weirdly horny, sidekick named Cursor, a floating polyhedron who can draw the shape of an object and generate it. Despite only communicating in what sounds like Casio keyboard boops, Cursor never passes up an opportunity to flirt with a woman. Cursor’s typical role in the show is to draw Automan’s current preferred method of transportation. This is usually the Autocar, a Lamborgini with the same reflective patterns as Automan, but also capable of weaving in and out of traffic at high speeds and making sharp 90-degree turns similar to the Light Cycles in Tron. There is also a helicopter, motorcycle, and even a tank that all make appearances throughout the show’s short run.

With all of these fantastical ideas, the show must be packed with some fun storylines, right? Sadly, no, these abilities and tools are just the things Automan uses to catch the generic criminal of the week. In fact, if you took out Automan all together, the show would just be a goofier version of your standard 80s cop procedural. Despite trying to be a superhero show, Automan himself doesn’t get involved in many heroic situations. There is an episode where he takes up acting to catch a criminal and one where he becomes an erotic dancer to, you guessed it, catch a criminal, but he rarely does things of his own volition, which makes him a decent depiction of an A.I. but a bad superhero.

Behold! The wonder of the Autocar!

Debuting the same year as Larson’s other disastrous attempt at a superhero show, Manimal, Automan only fared slightly better lasting 12 episodes before getting the axe. In terms of actual quality, Automan is probably the most inoffensive show I’ve watched for this column so far. For one, it actually explains the concept to you, unlike Manimal. Sure, it’s corny and full of boiler plate storylines, but the chemistry between Walter and Automan really helps sell the copious amounts of 80s cheese. Plus, who doesn’t love seeing a shiny car or helicopter defy the laws of physics?

Its overreliance on cop show cliches isn’t the only thing it has in common with the other Larson program. Outside of the main duo, the cast might as well be played by cardboard cutouts for how much material they’re given. Similar to the animal transformations in Manimal, Automan’s vehicles always seem to pop up right as we are approaching an ad break. The shows even use the same exterior shots for certain scenes. You could essentially make an episode of either by switching some names and subbing in cars and helicopters for animals, or vice versa.

1983 was not a kind year to Glen Larson. In total, he produced four shows that made it to air that year. None of them were renewed, and in the years after, only two of his programs lasted longer than a season. Automan stands out as the show with the most potential. A light-hearted program with some goofy sci-fi that got saddled with having to be your standard hour-long adventure show. The rare program on this feature that deserved better.

Next Time: We dive into the modern age with a look at CBS’ foul-mouthed William Shatner vehicle, $#*! My Dad Says.

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.