April 9, 2011

Automan, episode 12: "Death By Design"

"Automan, isn't it true that you can take literally thousands of facts and assimilate them instantaneously?"
"That's right."
"And that you have the deductive abilities of the world's most brilliant detectives?"
"So tell me, why can't you take a hint?"
I'm... really not sure what to make of this episode. I can't tell if it's a jumble of separate ideas lazily dropped together, or if it's a masterpiece of outside-the-box thinking and unconventional plotting.

Up front, I should point out that the primary focus of this story is on Lt. Jack Curtis, meaning Robert Lansing gets to steal the spotlight with his unique delivery and mannerisms, and a flailing punch or two. We open with Jack on a late night stakeout with his old academy buddy and dear friend Nate Hester (Edward Mallory). From their banter about the good old days, you just know things are going to end up bad and, sure enough, they trail suspected mob enforcer Eric LeBlanc (Luke Askew) to the offices of Sylvana Fashions, where Nate and the company's owner are gunned down in cold blood while Jack is waiting outside for backup. They do eventually bring LeBlanc in, but have to release him due to a lack of evidence. This doesn't stop Jack from clocking the goon on the jaw and vowing "You just keep lookin' over your shoulder because I am going to be there."

Let's tangent for a moment to the subplot that gave our title the word "design". Our story cuts rather quickly from grim cops and the gritty streets to a pair of swimsuit models splashing around with a beachball in a kiddie pool, set to "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun". Jack's reaction at walking in on the scene is priceless. Supervising the photoshoot is Tracy Morgan (Anne Lockhart, daughter of June), the business partner of the slain Sylvana, is trying to keep the company going in the face of his death. It seems the plot of this episode's rich white guys in suits is that the mob is claiming half ownership of the company, despite Sylvana having paid up the debts he owed. Regadless, Tracy bravely decides to stand her ground in the face of their continued threats and demands.

So in comes Automan. From the setup and title, I was wondering if he'd take the guise of a male model or an eccentric designer of glowing electronic fashion. But, no, the fashion industry is little more than a backdrop featuring a double-d cup load of bikini clad women. For his main guise, Auto takes on the trope of a gritty street cop out for vengeance. Hell, they concoct a series of Dirty Harry-esque films called Nasty Eddie - complete with the tagline "Go ahead, do the world a favor." - for him to become an eager fan of, before he hits the streets with a squinting grate to his voice and a glowing AutoMagnum in his holster. And Walter, with the blessing of Capt. Boyd, even goes so far as to create false police reports of crooks being gunned down by a rouge cop named Mad Dog, so as to trick the crooks into panicking.

While it doesn't stray too far from the gritty white collar crime stories Automan has dealt with in the past, this episode was such an unexpected surprise filled with great little moments. Like Chuck Wagner hilariously failing to be threatening with his gravely voice, because he's still so damn pretty. Or Auto brutally gunning down a newsstand bookie right before Walter's eyes, only for it to be revealed as a bit of Cursor magic. Or the AutoChopper being outfitted with a swanky new laser cannon. Or a romantic moment, cruelly interrupted by Auto and Cursor, where Walter and Roxanne finally hook up and share their first kiss.

"You know, Wally, I have grown quite fond of you."
"I know, I know. But you don't want romance to get in the way of our friendship."
"As a matter of fact, I don't want our friendship to get in the way of romance."
That, my friends, is what we call victory.

On a final note, I'm intrigued by this episode's introduction of Tom Sholes (David Spielberg, no relation to Steven), a crime reporter with a beef against the police force, which he often smears as sadistic and corrupt. It's through his articles that Wally spreads the false rumors of a vigilante cop, but what really has me curious is his promise to not stop until he gets to the truth behind Agent Otto Mann. Is this a new recurring character being added to our cast? We've got one episode left to find out.

But as I said, I still can't figure out if this episode is great or awful. What does the fashion industry have to do with Jack losing an old friend? Nothing. Why even have the fashion industry if Auto's going to go on a vigilante spree? No reason. Why even have Auto go nuts and start cleaning up the streets if you aren't going to make Walter terrified of losing control? Missed opportunity. And, yet, I was still riveted the whole time, and had absolutely no idea what was going to happen next. So I can't say if it's a good episode or not, but I sure liked it.

This week’s episode shoots holes in my theory that everyone involved knew the show was doomed by this point. Not so much because it’s a great episode (it’s not), but because they seem to be setting up characters and plots for the future. A future that would never come (insert dramatic music here).

"Death by Design" represents the twelfth and final episode of Automan aired during its original U.S. run. I say "aired" because there were actually thirteen episodes filmed. That episode, "Club Ten", wouldn’t be broadcast on American TV until years later.

So what do they set up? The “Will they or won’t th--, ah, who cares?” relationship between Walter and 80s hot Roxanne Caldwell finally takes the next step. I haven’t seen a guy take this long to get to first base since John Kruk played for the Phillies.

Next is the introduction of a sleazy crime beat writer who immediately finds himself on the wrong side of our heroes, and the episode ends with a hint that he has taken a special interest in Auto’s Agent Mann alter ego. It could’ve been a fun addition.

Back to the episode... ehhhh, it’s flatter than a 13th century globe. You’d think watching Wagner sneer and squint his way through a Dirty Harry impression would be fun, but the jokes and the scenarios lack the necessary creativity to give it... wait for it... Magnum Force. Or is that.... wait... for... it... Sudden Impact.

I did enjoy one of my all-time favorite actors, Lance Le Gault, working his vocal magic. Not to mention the lovely Anne Lockhart (Sheba to all you original Battlestar Galactica fans out there). But even they can’t save a weak script that gives them nothing to do. As if to underline how dull the episode had been, it ends with a pyrotechnic show worthy of an 80s hair band. It was a fun bit of razzle-dazzle, but it didn’t really fit the episode at all.

It’s not a lemon or a lime,
I only said that because it rhymes,
it’s Lance Le Gault fun fact time!
  • Lance Le Gault began his career as a stunt double for Elvis.
  • Le Gault appeared twice on the Glen Larson produced Knight Rider, playing a different character each time.
  • Le Gault would out do him self on the 80s series Airwolf, where he appeared in three different episodes, playing a different character in each. All five characters were bad guys.
White Guys Conspiring Around a Pool Count: 6
White Guys Conspiring Around a Fern Count: 1

Tune in next Saturday Morning for our final exciting adventure with Automan in "Club Ten".

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