January 22, 2011

Automan, episode 1


I hadn’t seen Automan since it initially aired. I had strong memories of the show’s iconography - the Automan suit, the car, Cursor - but the finer details were buried under mounds of accumulated pop culture trash.

So, let’s start at the start, shall we?

The theme. The glorious, synth-driven theme. The show already has me won over. Seriously, the next hour could be Wilford Brimley doing naked Tai-Chi and I’d still give this episode a 10/10. It’s a theme that says “The hero is going to win, the bad guy is going to lose, and we’re going to end on a freeze-frame after an awkward joke.” Damn, I miss certainty.

A prologue montage introduces us to our heroes (you have to remember, this was the 80s and exposition was for Commies). Walter Nebicher (Desi Arnaz Jr.) is a young police computer programmer who desperately wants to use his talents to make a difference. To that end, he creates Automan (Chuck Wagner), a dashing, supremely confident crime-fighting computer program that manifests itself in the real world via a hologram.

Arnaz plays Walter as geeky and awkward, but never pathetic. In fact, he has a lot more pluck than I expected. At one point, he stands up to a group of tough guys (including Sid Haig!) because they’re making lewd comments to his would-be date. Granted, he’s ultimately saved by Automan, but Walter had no idea he’d appear.

The gem of the show is Chuck Wagner as Automan. He looks like a Ken Doll trick-or-treating as Tron with Shadoe Stevens hiding in the bushes providing the voice. His deadpan delivery is more magical than a forest full of unicorns.

As the show rolls along, we’re introduced to three more characters who will become principles: rumpled, old school detective Jack Curtis (Robert Lansing); generically 80s hot Roxanne Caldwell (Heather McNair), a fellow officer; and Captain Boyd (Gerald O’Loughlin), the gruff but dedicated boss... because all police Captains have to be gruff but dedicated. The characters are, of course, two dimensional, but the actors really bring them to life.

But, I can hear what you’re saying... no, seriously, I’ve bugged your house. I can hear everything that’s going on there... “Tony, the plot. What about the plot!?!?” The plot, of course. The plot. Well, the plot is... well, it’s about these guys.... Hell, I don’t know what it’s about. Some white guys in suits kidnapped some other white guys in suits and they took them to some resort and-- Would you tell your Aunt Mildred to turn down the TV please? I can’t hear myself think.... Thank you... like I was-- I heard that, old woman!.... Like I was saying, white dudes, suits, resort. All I know is Patrick Macnee shows up like ten pounds of class in a five pound bag.

Okay, so the plot is forgettable. That doesn’t mean that the writing is bad. Helped greatly by the performances of the actors, there’s a lot of fun banter between the characters. In the 80s, plots were really just vessels that allowed colorful and outrageous characters to be colorful and outrageous. The drama was superficial and the character development was nil. This doesn’t bother me because that’s what I was weaned on, but I know that Noel will likely have an issue with it.

I may or may not stick with this closing format but, for now, here’s a “What worked/What didn’t work” wrap up.

What worked:

  • A Casio-tastic theme.
  • Arnaz and Wagner have a wonderful 80s bromance brewing.
  • Solid cast, including guest actors.
  • Good production values and special effects.

What didn’t work:

  • The plot. You want to start a show like this off with a bigger threat than some engineers being kidnapped by Patrick Macnee. Honestly, that doesn’t sound that bad to me.
  • There’s surprisingly little action. Yeah, they make use of the various Automan-mobiles, but nothing that gets your heart pounding.

The bottom line:

Like any pilot, it’s a little clunky at times. Relationships haven’t been built, characters aren’t fully formed, and the premise is still a work in progress. Still, there are flashes of wit, and the chemistry of Arnaz and Wagner has the potential to be special.

I’m looking forward to episode 2.

White guys in suits conspiring around a swimming pool count: 1


The phenomenon of Tron is an interesting one. The film itself is a flawed mess and was a huge flop at the box office, but there was something about the look of it that stuck with people. Even those who haven't seen the film instantly conjure the image of characters imbued with an electronic, inner neon glow at the mention of the title. And let it never be said that Glen Larson can't spot a trend and try to milk it for all it's worth. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid becomes a huge success, Glen wheels out his own buddy-cowboy series, Alias Smith and Jones. Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood bring a southern sheriff to the Big Apple in Coogan's Bluff, Glen hires one of the film's writers to do the same with McCloud. Star Wars brings the classic tropes of adventure tales to a setting among the stars, Glen dives into the Book of Mormon for Battlestar Galactica.

So I guess it's no surprise that Glen saw the glowing imagery of Tron and said, "Hey, I can make a series out of that!" Hell, he even brought in the young producer of the film, Donald Kushner, as well as animator Bill Kroyer, just to make it seem official. Thus was born Automan.

Walter Nebish-- Nebicher is a hapless nerd. A master computer programmer, he's the lone occupant of the police's new computer department, imputing data in search of connections and connecting to other computers through these magical things called modems. Walter's dream is to go out in the world and be a real cop, but the Captain of the station, Boyd, is bitter of the federal mandates that forced him to install all this techno-doohickery, and focuses all his attention on the bumbling but well meaning Lt. Curtis... who, in turn, often falls on Walter for the solutions to his own hangups.

As a bizarre externalization of male fantasy and self doubt, Walter has cracked the secret of free-moving and solid holographic technology and uses it to create a being who's everything he isn't. Automan - short for Automatic Man - is tall, dashing, smart as a whip, and filled with such a calm confidence that he thinks nothing of walking down the street and into a diner despite being covered with vibrantly glowing blue polygons. He can tabulate massive amounts of data; he can shift his molecular structure so that he's hard as a rock one moment, wispy enough to pass through a wall the next; he talks to machines, politely, with maybe a little flirting thrown in to make them extra receptive; and he has a horny flitting pixel of an aide named Cursor (the opening credit is literally "and Cursor, as Himself") who can "draw" solid objects and vehicles into the real world.

I'll admit up front that there's a lot of silliness going on. The story will be dramatic and serious, then Automan appears, and even a biker played by Sid Haig gapes in comic wonder as the score toots out an 8-bit giggle of a cue. Automan's powers are also a bit inconsistent. I like that they've made daylight his Kryptonite, since that's when everyone wakes up and kicks the power grid into high gear, but then he hops into a plane and flies over the ocean... where I'm pretty sure there's no central power grid to tap into. And it makes sense that he can alter his density, even that he can wrap himself around Walter to shield the man from harm, but this somehow also allows Walter to walk through solid walls, despite the fact that he should still be bound to the laws of physical matter.

But it still largely works, thanks to the great chemistry of Desi Arnaz Jr. and Chuck Wagner. Automan is Walter's fantasy of perfection, but he still has deep flaws in his programming, and the real heart of the show is Walter realizing he still needs to take the ball at times and go out there and be a cop. Which he does, as he apprehends a suspect, infiltrates the villain's headquarters, and awes one of the bad guys into becoming his Gollum-esque guide.

The central plot is an odd yet interesting one. Patrick Macnee runs a conglomerate in Switzerland that is kidnapping all kinds of geniuses - scientists, stock brokers, engineers - to form its own enforced brain trust. The people can't leave, but they'll get all the booze, pool parties, and loose women they want if they cooperate; a jail cell, torture, and maybe a public execution if they don't. It's cleverly handled, and surprisingly gritty at times as Curtis and a female Interpol friend of his are violently added to the captured collection. But, again, the tone takes a complete 180 into Golly Gee Whiz fantasy mode when Automan and Walter show up.

The tone is the biggest problem I have with the show. It's trying to balance a line between bright techno-whimsy for the kids, and something gritty and crime-based for the parents. The clash is best demonstrated in a chase scene. There's a pair of goons who, up to this point, have been cold, capable, and efficient. Then they get into a chase where they follow our heroes, who have taken to the road in their neon AutoCar. The AutoCar suddenly takes an instant 90 degree turn and disappears.

GOON: "If he can make that corner, I can make it."

Of course, they go into a skid, crash into a storefront, and these two hardened criminals are left in a comical stupor. These are the same thugs who calmly conned brilliant men into being kidnapped. The same thugs who we earlier saw whip out guns and plug a bullet in Curtis's arm. And now they're mugging like the Coyote after yet another failed ACME device.

To put it simply, this show doesn't know what it wants to be or what audience it's aiming at. It's almost as though Glen decided to approach both angles, see what stuck, and follow that course down the road, meaning I'm very interested to see where it goes from here. Either way, any time Arnaz and Wagner are on screen, I'm lit up with a smile on my face. You can't go wrong when they're together.

Some additional thoughts:

  • The AutoCar is amazing. Sleek and well designed, I love the clever way the editing blips it from lane to lane or instantly cuts a 90 degree turn. Even better, Walter is still bound to momentum and gravity, so I got a chuckle every time he'd slam up against the window like a suction cup Garfield.
  • In a strange twist, the origin story is related to us in the form of a 2 minute opening montage. I wonder if this was from an earlier pilot, or just some pitch film Glen used to sell the project on. It's interesting to jump into the main story with Automan already established, but I would have enjoyed seeing that initial introduction in greater detail.
  • In yet another strange twist, while everyone else at the department is still clueless about Automan, Walter's love interest, a cute blonde named Roxanne, is actually in on the secret. She still only half believes it, but not only did Walter lay out for her the intentions and history of his creation, but she gets to see Automan in the "flesh".
  • If you think the AutoCar is awesome, wait until you see the AutoPlane.
  • Why are Automan's panels arranged so that he has no ass and a strangely vaginal codpiece?

Tune in next Saturday Morning for the second episode of Automan: "Staying Alive While Running a High Flashdance Fever". Yes, that's the actual title.

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