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.

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Stewball said...

Laura Branigan was 52 when she died. She was born 1952. It was her little brother who was born 1957, Feb 28 to be exactly.

"Sadly, Laura Branigan died in 2004 of a brain aneurysm at the age of 47."

Tony Williams said...

Good catch, Stew. We'll have a word with our ombudsman... as soon as we get one.