Automan is not a good show. Let's get that out of the way right up front. They had this great idea of a scientist who creates a superheroic embodiment of everything he wishes he could be... and they felt the best place to stick that concept was in a bland, second rate crime show? As Tony and myself pointed out time and time again, far too many episodes are about bland rich white men in suits operating a business as a front for their criminal money schemes. Automan himself is such a large scale character with magnificent powers, but he's too often going after the stiff who's smuggling diamonds or laundering money, and it's boring. There's an episode with a super computer, and it goes out quickly on a joke so we can get to John Vernon's stolen list of people in the witness protection program. There's an episode about hackers, but it to quickly descends into the stiff guy who looks like an accountant wanting to blackmail the city for money. It says so much about the plotting of this series that the most interesting it gets is when Chuck Wagner has to pose as a hologram posing as a male stripper.
And then there's the hero himself, Automan. Initially, he's supposed to be the opposite of his creator, Walter; the over-the-top compensation for the qualities of himself that Walter feels are shortcomings. Very little of this continued into the series as Walter suddenly became an extremely capable street detective in his own right, complete with jumping spin kick displays of martial arts. And then there's the rules of how Automan operates. Half of his abilities don't make sense, and a good chunk of the rest are retconned over the course of the show's development. Nobody really sat down to work out the specifics of what he can do and what he can't. They just make him capable of nearly anything, which makes him so powerful there's no dramatic tension, even when they artificially work in a random plot device to weaken him.
Yet, all that said, I still really enjoy this show. The clash of tones doesn't work, but there's still something charmingly different about seeing two completely different styles of crimefighting constantly dancing around one another. The powers might not make sense most of the time, but they always look fantastic with the simplicity of Automan's reflective polygonal suit being a striking, always delightful image. And then there's the rousing moment they break out the AutoCar or AutoChopper or AutoPlane, complete with the laugh moment where gravity flings Wally up against the window. Jack Curtis and Capt. Boyd make for a great supporting players, the crusty old guy cops who represent the way things used to be before these strange new kids showed up with their fancy doohickery.
And, of course, there's Desi Arnaz Jr. and Chuck Wagner. The dynamic wasn't always there, but the bond and interplay between them was. Auto is an absolute hoot as he charges into situations with unending sincerity and confidence, even though he's not always are of what the hell he's doing. And Wally is equally split between moments he's gaping in horror at the results of Auto's actions, and gaping in wonder at the magic he's brought to life. Even when episodes were at their weakest, give these two a couple minutes to play off one another, and it becomes gold.
There's another major weakness, though, worth mentioning in the form of Roxanne Caldwell. I know times were different back then, but she's probably the most thankless female cop I've ever seen on screen. There's great potential there in how she cares about Wally but thinks he's endangering himself and his career with his antics with Automan, but the entirety of her role is to look pretty and roll her eyes. Getting and staying on the force was probably a tricky thing for a woman back in the day, but they never let us see her abilities or intellect at play. Maybe they would have gone there if the show had continued, but I doubt it.
In the end, it's a fun show. It'll never be a good show, but you get the sense nobody making it honestly thought it would be. They had fun making it. Not enough to give it an absurd sense of self parody, but just enough to make it charming. It's probably best explored as a curiosity, an immediate pop culture response to the striking yet surprisingly brief influence of the film Tron. However, while often no sillier than that film itself, it still lacked at its heart the genuine ideas and exploration that were ahead of their time. Automan is entirely of its time. It's the product of a mediocre producer struggling to figure out what kids are into these days, and mostly fails to hit that mark.
Well, here we are. Our first wrap-up. When we started, Automan was nothing more than a few images burned into my memory. A brief pop culture pit stop from my youth. I can’t say that riding along with Auto and Walter these past four months has jogged any memories. Aside from the iconography, it felt as if I were watching these for the first time. But it did manage to stir up feelings of nostalgia. I grew up on shows like Automan, and the genre conventions of the era felt like a big, warm hug.
But let’s not confuse comfort food with good food. Automan is, at best, an average example of 80s genre television, well below Knight Rider, Airwolf, and perhaps even other short-lived series like Street Hawk. It’s an intriguing premise, with a first-rate cast, undone by lazy, repetitive plots and a general lack of action.
I think Automan’s undoing was that it tried to be all things to all people. The vehicles and the f/x wizardry tried to hook the 12 and under crowd (which included me at the time it aired), the music seemed as if it were trying to appeal to the teen audience, and all of this MTV-era razzle-dazzle wrapped itself around plots lifted from shows like Colombo, so it was safe for parents and grandparents. It was like your great uncle Ned wearing a Beat It jacket and parachute pants to bingo night at the local VFW hall.
- A very solid cast with just the right mix of talented new-comers and old pros. Chuck Wagner shines brightest, and that’s not just because he wears a glowing costume. It’s hard to believe he didn’t go on to bigger things.
- While the stories often lacked any real drama, they typically nailed the humor, most of which was character driven.
- The special effects were quite well done considering the era and the budgetary limitations.
- The 80s really was the decade of great theme music, and Automan is no exception.
- Old white guys. Hey, I don’t have anything against them. I want to be one some day. But week after week after week after week some middle aged man in a suit sat by a pool plotting a Ponzi scheme of some sort.
- The show lacked focus and direction. One minute Walter was a timid geek, the next he’s going all Kung-Fu Grip™ on the bad guys. What are Automan’s powers and what can and can’t he do? It seemed to change week to week to suit the episode’s needs. And they struggled to include rumpled Lt. Curtis and 80s hot Roxanne Caldwell into the story.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Automan is a very mediocre 80s genre show with a talented and game cast trying very hard to make you smile and forget about [insert here] for an hour or so, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If you like shows like Knight Rider, The A-Team, and Airwolf, you'll probably like Automan, too. Just less so.
The show: 5.5/10
The experience: 8/10
- Automan, episode 1
- Automan, episode 2 "Stayling Alive While Running a High Flashdance Fever"
- Automan, episode 3 "The Great Pretender"
- Automan, episode 4 "Ships in the Night"
- Automan, episode 5 "Unreasonable Facsimile"
- Automan, episode 6 "Flashes and Ashes"
- Automan, episode 7 "The Biggest Game in Town"
- Automan, episode 8 "Renegade Run"
- Automan, episode 9 "Murder MTV"
- Automan, episode 10 "Murder, Take One"
- Automan, episode 11 "Zippers"
- Automan, episode 12 "Death by Design"
- Automan, episode 13 "Club Ten"
- Automan merchandise
- Automan pilot novelization