Television Turmoil is a look at the worst and weirdest series to make their way onto the small screen.
Superhero adaptations have been around almost as long as superheroes themselves. From the early Superman serials to Adam West’s Batman series and The Incredible Hulk, television has always been a home for daring adventures of the super powerful. This trend peaked in the 70s before quickly dying down only to find new life in the mid-90s. By then, syndication had become a go-to destination for programs that the major networks had little to no interest in. The successes of the Star Trek franchise and Baywatch had led to a significant increase in the number of programs airing on first-run syndication. This coupled with the success of superhero programs like Lois & Clark led to renewed interest in taking heroes from comics to the TV screen. All of this partly explains how a show like Night Man could end up on television.
Created by Glen Larson, a decade removed from the failures of his previous man-based series, Night Man follows the adventures of Johnny Domino (Matt McColm), a jazz saxophonist who is struck by lightning in a cable car accident and becomes the titular hero. As Night Man, Domino is “attuned to the frequency of evil,” allowing him to hear the thoughts of evil-doers and sense their presence. Equipped with a special suit that also grants him typical superhero powers like flight, invisibility and the ability to fire lasers from his eyes, Night Man battles crime along with his friend/tech assistant Raleigh Jordan (Derek Webster in Season 1, Derwin Jordan in Season 2). Also along for the ride is Domino’s dad, Frank (Earl Holliman) and his boss at the jazz club, Jessica (Felicia Bell).
So, how does Night Man’s odd blend of superheroics and smooth jazz work? Well, it is rarely boring, which is great. It is also rarely good, which is not as great. As is the case with a lot of syndicated fare from this era, this is a cheaply produced program and it shows in everything from the costumes to the special effects. The decision to give Night Man a wide variety of superpowers means that the writers have an out for any situation. It also means that the effects team has to find out how to make it look halfway presentable on screen, halfway is about as far as they get.
The writing is perhaps the most endearing part of this incredibly cheesy show. Most episodes focus on a new villain for Night Man to take down and the subplots usually revolve around Johnny’s career as a jazz musician. One week, Night Man is battling a witch who claims he has a higher purpose, the next he is at a ski lodge attempting to fake his own death to escape an old foe. There is no continuity outside of the occasional returning bad guy. The characters who don’t know of Johnny’s secret identity never even comment on the peril they are in on a weekly basis.
Of course even minor continuity is a bit too much to ask for a show that appears to be made with as little thought as possible. As long as Johnny plays his saxophone and we get a poorly choreographed fight scene, any idea that seems cool to the writers is fair game. Aliens, ghosts, even a crossover with Manimal are on the table. One episode even involves, “A descendant of J. Edgar Hoover freeing Al Capone, John Dillinger, and Bonnie Parker from suspended animation,” and those are just the episodes I know about! Even if the quality is awful, Night Man goes all out in pursuit of the most ridiculous ideas.
Night Man proudly claimed to be “Based on the Marvel Comics book.” A statement that is technically true, but also clearly a way to attract any sort of viewers they could find. In truth, Night Man was a property of the short-lived Malibu Comics, a company that was bought out by Marvel before the show went into production. Oddly enough, Night Man stands as the last version of Malibu’s myriad of heroes that we’ll likely ever see, unless Marvel gets very desperate in the future.
Perhaps that Marvel connection was useful. Unlike Larson’s other attempts at superhero action, Night Man ran for two seasons of goofy adventures, but at a grave cost. The incredibly meager budget was cut even more during Season 2, which saw production move to Canada, the removal or recasting of everyone not named Johnny Domino and the jazz elements toned down. The second season almost feels like an entirely different show, but thankfully the penchant for ludicrous plotlines continues. They even added in some more continuity with a recurring villain who controls something called the “Ultra Web.” None of these attempts to raise interest or save the show money worked out.
Night Man finished its run in 1999 and by the time the new millennium rang in, most had forgotten it. While it had minor infamy for its over-the-top intro, when the words “Night Man” come up in relation to TV, most think of the Always Sunny crew. After the show ended, Larson’s career mostly did as well. While his most notable work, Battlestar Galactica, enjoyed success under someone else’s guidance, his superhero output remains untouched. There is probably good reason for that, but if anyone ever gets the itch to reboot Night Man, please include the saxophone.
Next Time: We head to knock-off territory as we look at the Three’s Company imitator, We Got It Made.
If you’re interested in hearing a more long form discussion on Night Man, among many other things, you can listen to the latest episode of my podcast TV Tuners.
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.