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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