March 26, 2011

Automan, episode 10: "Murder, Take One"


"Tell me, does that collar require recharging?"

"No. But I do."

Oh, look. More rich white people fighting over money! Yay!

Our story this week is pure tinsel town trash, with love affairs, Hollywood scandal, and more deep kisses than you can fling a Cursor at. Our story opens with the murder of a scathing Hollywood gossip columnist. The lead suspect, and topic of his last few articles, is Veronica Everly (Michelle Phillips), a slithery actress who has no problem shouting threats against a person's life in the middle of a public street. In reality, though, the culprits are pretty typical for Automan goons: bland dudes in suits who use movies to smuggle drugs and launder cash. The only noteworthy aspect of these guys is that their ringleader, Michael Hagedorn, is Ed Lauter, who continues to be a prolific and instantly recognizable character actor to this day.

Surprisingly, everyone gets in on the action this week. We'll get to Automan in a second, but this is the third episode now where we've seen lovable computer geek Walter Nebicher take down a goon with a hidden load of martial arts kickass. He's done roundhouse kicks in the past, but here he actually springs off the side of a car into a spinning midair kick. I love that he can totally handle his own as a street cop, but I always thought Automan was meant to be a compensation for physical shortcomings. Either way, it's badass.

And then we get Lt. Curtis and Capt. Boyd who end the episode by declaring they're getting a little old for this. Curtis is kidnapped again, that's nothing new, but they do it in very impressive fashion this time by plowing into his car once, twice, third time's a charm with a massive garbage truck before leading him away at gunpoint. Sure, he breaks loose only to go down quickly with his usual glass jaw, but he gets to make up for it by disarming a couple thugs with hysterical flail kicks. A trained martial artist he is not. And Boyd, geez the man's a trooper. He leads one sting where he runs in before backup arrives and takes a bullet to the arm, then, while his arm is still bloody and the bullet has likely not been removed, he charges into a second warehouse where the thugs knock him to the floor and kick the shit out of him. How he became Captain with such blundering tactics is beyond me, but you have to give the man credit for getting back up again.

The only character let out of the action, as usual, is Roxanne. I know this is the 80s, and she's the "pretty girl cop", but she's been shown to be sharp and resourceful, and I'm really surprised at how little we've seen of her in the field. With a few exceptions, the extent of her role is being harassed by Cursor and rolling her eyes at Wally whenever Auto shows up.

So let's get to the main feature of this program, our holographic sentinel of justice and good hair. In this episode, Automan is instantly smitten with Veronica Everly when she's brought in for questioning, which wins him an invite to see the making of her latest film down on the studio lot. As you can guess, it's not long before Auto is suddenly acting in the film in a very prominent role. Because Hollywood totally works that way. Anyway, the main thrust of the plot is that, should they be unable to finish the movie by a certain time, Hagedorn looses a buttload of money which screws out investors and deals and makes him a dead man. So it's Automan to the rescue as he turns into a total diva to slow down production. He flubs his lines, takes elaborate lunches, wonders why he doesn't get a "motorhome", arrives late due to oversleeping, insists that lighting be reset to "improve" the stagings of scenes. And then he unleashes full chaos as Cursor creates a raging storm of wind, snow, and lightning inside the studio, set to "Ride of the Valkyries". For all the random plotting and uninteresting villains that bring the episode down, these sequences make it instant gold as Chuck Wagner delivers all the douchiness with his smiling sincerity.

So, in the end, not one of the better episodes. But when you cut Automan loose and let him have some fun, its hard not to experience a little of your own.


Jump the shark. Nuke the fridge. Fail. Pick your meme and slap it on this week’s episode. It’s the day the music died.

So, bye, bye, Mr. Automan guy
You went to the well once more but found it was dry
And those network execs in their shirts and ties
Singin' "This’ll be the day that you die.
This’ll be the day that you die."

I’ve grown fond of this show and its characters over the last two months, so it pains me to say that this episode marks the low point of the series thus far. It’s as if everyone involved knows the show is doomed, particularly the ones writing the checks.

Remember the globe trotting from the first half of the series? Gone. Remember the high speed chases in the AutoCar, the super sleek AutoCopter, or the amazing AutoPlane? Gone, gone, gone. It feels like belt tightening. Even setting most of the action in a movie studio seems done to keep from having to shoot on location.

And, worst of all, the cast seem to be going through the motions in this one, their trademark energy and snappy exchanges replaced by shrugs of indifference. The story is beyond tepid, with only fleeting glimpses at the humor we’ve come to enjoy from Wagner’s hologram-out-of-water character.

Maybe because we’re getting down to the end of the series I’m reading too much into this, but I don’t think so. Everything about this episode screams "dead man walking".

A list of thoughts, random but organized in a list of sorts.
  • Former The Mammas & The Pappas singer Michelle Phillips is wasted in a role that seems set up for something much larger but is quickly abandoned and forgotten.
  • Seriously, when did Walter learn Kung-Fu? I like that he’s never been portrayed as a weakling, but in each of the last few episodes, he’s been Kato to Automan’s Green Hornet.
  • I’m really disappointed that they haven’t figured out what to do with 80s hot Roxanne Caldwell. Is she Walter’s love interest or isn’t she? She’s the only person besides Walter who knows who (or what) Automan truly is, but they haven’t managed to weave that into the story in a way that makes her a central character.

White Guys Conspiring Around a Pool Count: Holding at 4.

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March 19, 2011

Automan, episode 9: "Murder MTV"


This week’s episode is entitled "Murder MTV", but before you get too excited, they’re not talking about the cast of Jersey Shore.

One of the more unique aspects of Automan is how it embraced the pop culture of its time. A full year before Miami Vice, Automan was lacing its soundtrack with contemporary pop music. That may be par for the course now, but it was pretty innovative back then.

In this episode, they take things a step further with guest star Laura Branigan. For whipper-snappers like Noel, the name Laura Branigan may only seem vaguely familiar, but in the early-to-mid-80s, she was one of the more successful female pop singers in the world, with hits like “Gloria”, “Solitaire”, and “Self Control” topping the charts. So, in 1984 terms, Branigan was a good get for the show.

Branigan plays Jessie Cole, lead singer of a female rock band who becomes the target of a hitman. Usually, when a singer or musician tries to act, the result is cringe-inducing, but Branigan holds her own against previous damsels of the week. Plus, she has a down-to-Earth relatability and an image that seems far less conscious than other pop stars of the time.

But, as usual, it's Wagner who truly shines. When the group’s guitarist doesn't show for a gig, guess who fills in. It's so ridiculously cheesy that you have to love it.

The plot is basic stuff, with what has become a standard twist near the end, but as there are no clues along the way, the twists always ring false or have little payoff. Twists are no fun if you aren't provided the clues to figure them out.

There’s not a lot of action in this episode, and the thin intrigue there is fizzles, but I enjoy the music, as well as the romance between Auto and Jessie.

Quick, Cursor, a bullet-list!
  • Three of Branigan’s songs are featured in this episode: her signature song, “Gloria”, is heard briefly, the lesser known “Satisfaction” ends the episode, and the main song (played several times) is “Hot Night”. The latter wasn’t a big hit and is primarily known for its inclusion in the movie Ghostbusters.
  • Sadly, Laura Branigan died in 2004 of a brain aneurysm at the age of 47.
  • The budding romance between Walter and 80s hot Roxanne is nudged forward a smidge. Early in the episode, Walter has her over for dinner, and later, when Branigan’s band mates are hitting on Walter, he shyly demurs. I thought this was a nice touch and shows that they clearly had plans to push the Walter/Roxanne thing further.
  • The whole notion of Automan not being able to operate during the day has become a maddeningly inconsistent crutch. The vast majority of this episode takes place during daylight hours and Auto does fine. But at the end, when the bad guy is getting away, it's then used so that Walter has to go it alone... only to have Auto re-appear in the nick of time to get the girl... sort of.
  • And about Auto getting the girl - they spend the entire episode setting up their romance, and when Auto comes dashing in to save her, they express their feelings for one another, kiss, and then... Automan tells her that they can’t be together and must remain “good friends”. What? Are you serious? She doesn’t even ask a simple “Why?” I mean we know why, but she doesn’t.

White Guys Conspiring Around a Pool Count: Holding at 4.


"What a remarkable place this is. You know, from a room like this, a hologram could rule the world."

"Easy, Auto. Holograms aren't exactly what you'd call an organized political party."

"Nor are the Democrats and Republicans, from what I can tell."

After the last episode, with its dirty sheriff and biker gang, I didn't think this show could get any better. That seemed to be the peak of unexpectedly crazy storylines.

Then comes "Murder MTV", an episode guest starring then singing sensation Laura Branigan, the late, great talent who gave us "Gloria" and "How am I Supposed to Live Without You". Here, she plays Jessie Cole, lead singer of Sweet Kicks, whose latest music video falls victim to an exploding speaker that takes out a dancer wearing a bear pelt. A threatening phone call follows soon after, but before you start expecting a show about obsessive youth culture and stalkers, let me tell you that this story is actually about Jessie's father.... That's right, a stiff white dude in a suit.

Yeah, yeah, they're falling on the old focus instead of trying something different as, yes, he has mob ties and is being blackmailed for something from his past. But hang on. They actually do a pretty nifty job of it. Though Michael McGuire comes off a little creepy at times, the threat against his daughter is very real and they pull off a father trying to shield his daughter from his past. Even to the point where he goes to his old friends to get a pair of mob goons to act as her bodyguards. The writers deserve strong points here by making these dudes capable professionals who never turn on their assignment. Even when they accidentally beat up the lovable Lt. Curtis after mistaking him for the threat.

And then, in a surprise twist, they take these two goons and viciously kill them. My jaw was on the floor when our baddie appears on a motorcycle, leads them to a cliffside road, then whips his bike to a stop, shoulders a machine gun, and opens fire on their car, sending one goon spilling out the door and leaving the other to drive off the cliff to an exploding death. Bad. Ass. Especially when he then walks up to the already fallen goon and empties the rest of the clip into the cooling corpse.

I'm conflicted about this development. On the one hand, it's really well executed and absolutely nails the threat Jessie's up again. On the other, this show is still trying to appeal to multiple audiences instead of finding its niche. Wanna get the teen girls to watch? Get a popular female pop star to appear. But we want the parents to watch, too! Then let's focus on her well-pleated father. Don't forget the boys! Machine guns? Motorcycles?

As with the first few episodes, they haven't figured out who they want their audience to be, so they try to appeal to everyone, and never really succeed. You can be with it for one scene, but then the next feels like its from a completely different show, so focus and attention is immediately jarred. It's not as glaring as those earlier episodes, but it's still there, and I'm still waiting for this show to find its footing.

Oh, wait! Our heroes! For some reason, Jack takes Walter into the field for this assignment, and his youth and charm instantly have the female pop band fawning over him. "Agent" Otto Mann is quick to the scene, of course, where he joins the band as their new guitarist, complete with his own glowing AutoTar. What I love about this show is that I don't even need to make up these gloriously absurd plots. The writers already did it for me. Case in point: this is the second episode in a row where Walter drops someone with a spinning Chuck Norris roundhouse kick to the jaw.

Random thoughts:
  • Though it's never developed beyond the opening scene, I love the idea of Walter being in a battle for the heart of Roxanne... against Cursor!
  • Speaking of Roxanne, this seemed like it would have been a great investigation for her to take point on. Missed opportunity.
  • Why did they have to have Automan make out with Jessie Cole? She's supposed to be a teen pop star, and he's a little too much older.
  • Great moment when Automan is running so low on power that the AutoCar hologram shatters just as it's being built.

Related Reviews:

March 12, 2011

Automan, episode 8: "Renegade Run"


After seven weeks of chasing nothing but white collar criminals, the show takes a huge unexpected turn to... white trash criminals? You see, in a corrupt little town called Bishop, which straddles the Arizona/Mexico border, the slimy Sheriff Clay Horton (reptilian legend Richard Lynch) is falsifying green cards for Mexican immigrants, smuggling them across the border, then mixing them into his chain gang of prisoners booked on trumped up charges which he uses as slave labor to constantly renovate his spacious estate. It's an all you can eat buffet of slimy deputies whacking people with shotgun butts and calling them "Boy!".

In the middle of this are a pair of grown siblings whose family farm is a required piece of land for Sheriff Horton's smuggling operation. Chico (Billy Drago) is a Vietnam vet biker who tries going the rebel route, only to end up on the chain gang. His sister, Teresa (Gina Callego), gets out of town and tracks down an old college friend for help... and wouldn't you know it that the friend is Walter. He heads down with her, completely solo, and is flabbergasted when he himself end up on the chain gang after a planted bag of weed is "found" in his car.

I love this episode. It takes every crazy "Southern Sheriff Gone Bad" cliche you can come up with, and, completely out of the blue, drops it in a show it has no business being in, yet that somehow makes it all the more delightfully unexpected. But wait, it gets better.

With Wally bagged and tagged and denied things like a lawyer and a phone call, Automan teams up with Detective Curtis to head down and investigate. That's right, Automan and Curtis, together at last, complete with Jack riding shotgun in the AutoCar, aghast after a 90-degree turn plasters him against the passenger window. That gag never stopped being funny with Walter, but it's a hoot with Curtis. Unfortunately, once they reach town, they part ways and Jack heads off to get a state bureaucrat who can sort out all the corruption. It's a missed opportunity for some more fun... but wait. They make up for it.

When Chico's biker gang, the Renegades, rolls into town with the intention of springing him loose, Auto decides the perfect move is to become the leader of this pack and use them to take the Fuzz down. So, yes, Chuck Wagner dons biker leathers, Cursors himself an uber-awesome AutoCycle, and then out stunts the leader of the gang, which makes him the main alpha, so he can lead the charge on the Sheriff's mansion and save the day.

This episode is freakin' insane, completely out of place, and packed up with every cliche in the book, and I loved every minute of it. It's a plot that would be bland and predictable on any other show, but by tying it to Automan, they found some zany ways to make it fresh and new. And you can never go wrong with closeup shots of Chuck Wagner pretending he's riding a motorcycle that's obviously parked at a dead stop.

Some random thoughts:
  • Our lovable computer geek Walter Nebicher leaps from the back of a motorcycle onto a moving truck. Then gets to take Sheriff Horton down with a Chuck Norris roundhouse kick to the jaw. Bad. Ass.
  • When we first hear about Teresa, we learn she helped Walters sort out some of the initial designs for what became Automan, but they never once pay this off. Hell, they never even have her spout any technospeak to back this up.
  • The lead Deputy, a sadist named stone, is none other than Terry Kiser, best known for the Weekends he spent playing Bernie.
  • Hey, we finally have a genuinely surprising reveal that a seeming hero is really a villain when town lawyer Gretchen Lewis is revealed to be one of several squeezes of Sheriff Horton.
  • I think the house band rendition of "Born to be Wild" is, by far, the worst generic rendition of licensed music this show has given us. And that's saying something.


Born to be mild.

Once may be a fluke, and twice may be a coincidence, but I sense a trend here. This is the second white collarless episode in a row and I’ve got to believe that, by this point, the producers were realizing the error of their ways. Next week’s episode will be very telling.

We begin with an obviously First Blood inspired prologue, with a Veteran on a motorcycle being chased by some smarmy, vaguely bigoted small town cops. Automan is nothing if not a pop culture mirror of its times.

The would-be Rambo is played by Billy Drago, almost unrecognizable trying to play a Mexican-American with his hair dyed with what looks like flat-black boot polish. The Sheriff, our main antagonist, is played by Rutger Hauer doppelganger Richard Lynch. Lynch gives us our first truly menacing bad guy of the series, as his Sheriff Horton is a delightfully dirty despot.

The plot centers around Teresa (Gina Gallego, dangerously curvy but otherwise a truly awful performance), an old school friend of Walter’s who enlists his help to free her brother (Drago) from the clutches of the evil Sheriff. We find out that Horton is luring illegal immigrants across the border with promises of a Green Card only to force them into slave labor.

Much to Automan’s chagrin, Walter decides to go it alone. Of course, Walter and Teresa are captured and it’s Automan to the rescue, but this time he’s bringing an old friend: rumpled, old-school Lieutenant Curtis... in the Autocar. Auto does this in his Federal agent guise, but it’s fun to watch Curtis and Auto work together, not to mention Curtis getting tossed around as the car makes its customary 90-degree turns.

But things are heading for a... Mexican standoff (forgive me, Father, for I have punned) because Drago’s biker gang, The Renegades, is on its way to spring their leader.

It has to be said now: the Renegades are the least threatening biker gang since Eric Von Zipper and The Rat Pack. Sure, they roll into town frothing at the mouth, but in the next scene, we see them hanging around outside of a burger joint as a generic version of Huey Lewis’ "Heart and Soul" plays in the background. Not even my dad would be caught dead listening to that in public. Naturally, Automan becomes their new leader.

What follows is a series of cool "follow the leader" stunts intercut with close-up shots of the gang on their bikes, obviously sitting still as dirt is comically flung behind them by a stage hand, all to the strains of a generic version of "Born to be Wild". It’s a hoot.

The plot takes a few twisty turns before the final showdown - which is, of course, absurd but fun - as the gang comes rolling in to save the day against the hapless cops.

Okay, so "Renegade Run" doesn’t feature any criminal masterminds and the stakes are again rather small (I know human trafficking isn’t a petty crime, but it’s something your standard, human law enforcement officer encounters and deals with, without the help of a hologram, every day), but Horton is a memorable villain and the stunts are fun.

Overall, a solid episode inching the series slowly, ponderously in the right direction.

And to end things, in honor of guest star Richard Anderson (aka Oscar Goldman from The Six million dollar Man), I shamelessly give you this post from my other blog.

White Guys Conspiring Around a Pool Count: Holding at 4. I'm starting to wish I’d kept count of the awkward freeze-frame group laughs instead.

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March 5, 2011

Automan, episode 7: "The Biggest Game in Town"


Hack the planet!

Okay, kids, lets hop in the WABAC machine and travel back to February 12th, 2011. Ignore the dog.