Monday, August 24, 2009

CULT TV FLASHBACK #88: Automan (1983 - 1984)

From Glen Larson -- the man who brought the world Manimal (1983) and Nightman (1997-99) -- came this short-lived 1983 ABC series, an hour-long dramatic superhero adventure entitled Automan.

The series ran for 13 hour long episodes before untimely cancellation. The final Automan episode actually went unaired until a 1990s broadcast on the Sci-Fi Channel (now Sy Fy).

This vintage series starred Desi Arnaz, Jr., as Walter Nebicher, a computer expert and nerd working at the L.A. Police Department. Nebicher dreamed of action, adventure and romance, but his cranky superior, Captain Boyd had other ideas and wanted the genius to stay at his desk in the Computer Room.

So -- in rebellious desperation -- Walter spent his free time creating a heroic, handsome alter ego, Automan (Chuck Wagner), a computerized hologram that looked, sounded, and felt real: the world's first “truly automatic man,” (hence the handle Automan.) So special was Auto that he actually considered himself perfect. “On a scale of one to 10, think of me as an 11,” he boasted in one episode.

This unique superhero didn’t wear a costume—he was the costume, and his torso glowed bright blue with powerful "holographic energy." Automan also boasted a helpful sidekick, a buzzing computerized pal called Cursor, a hologram generator that -- in the lingo of the program -- could “rezz up” anything needed to pursue the bad guys of the week, particularly customized transportation. Cursor outfitted Automan with a zippy Autocar, an Autocopter and even an Automotorcycle!

Automan also had one defensive capability in his crime-fighting arsenal. In times of extreme danger, he and Walter could merge into a single unified entity (“The Great Pretender”) to avoid death or catastrophic injury. This perfect symbiosis allowed Walter to actually become the hero he had created.

But Automan was a successful police detective for another reason: he could interface with computers and mechanical devices of all shape and sizes, including slot machines (“Staying Alive While Running a High Flashdance Fever”), thereby permitting him access to a whole new kind of “street” informant. On one occasion (“Zippers”), Auto even seduced a female super computer, scandalously boasting that he would “penetrate” her memory core! A braggart, Automan was also prone to spontaneous and bizarre declarations such as, “I suddenly sense the presence of a microchip!”

Automan even had his own Achilles heel/Kryptonite, originating from the fact that his complex program required a tremendous amount of power. Sometimes, he was unable to operate during the daytime -- when demands on the California power grid were especially high. Luckily, Auto could re-charge himself via proximity to electrical outlets, sucking nourishing power through his fingers (“The Biggest Game in Town”).

Automan’s other major weakness was a psychological foible based on his personality. Like Lieutenant Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987–94), this artificial life form a literal thinker. Although he fancied himself the “finest deductive reasoner on the planet,” he did not comprehend human nature. Instead, he would sort of mindlessly receive pertinent input (often “downloads” of movies and TV series) about human nature, and then he would studiously mimic that behavior to catch the bad guys. Think Neo in The Matrix (1999)...only sillier.

In the episode “The Great Pretender,” Automan absorbed data on gangster movies such as The Godfather (1972) and out-gangstered the bad guys... as a new mob chief called “Otto.” In “Staying Alive While Running a High Flashdance Fever,” he viewed Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Flashdance (1983), and these MTV-age productions provided our hero with studly moves on the dance floor; right down to his John Travolta white-suit.

Automan and the Tinkerbell-ish/R2-D2-like Cursor represented the only fantasy elements featured on the series, and the bad guys were run-of-the-mill “crooks” and thugs. In “The Biggest Game in Town” there was a trio of gamers conducting high-tech extortion; in “Renegade Run,” a corrupt sheriff (played by the ubiquitous Richard Lynch...) threatened Walter. No costumed freaks or aliens here, thank you very much. There wasn't even an evil holographic twin for Automan to combat.

Although it was far more entertaining and droll than Manimal (Glen Larson’s other superhero series of the same vintage), Automan did not fare well in the ratings sweepstakes. It aired for one month (December) in 1983 on Thursday nights from 8:00 to 9:00 and was crushed by the competition, the mega-hit Magnum P.I. on CBS and the Nell Carter comedy Gimme a Break on NBC. Then it was shuffled off the ABC schedule until March of 1984, where it lasted barely another month on Monday nights at 8:00, this time competing against Dick Clark’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes (NBC) and Scarecrow and Mrs. King (CBS).

Still -- in some ways -- Automan seemed the right superhero at the right time. In the early 1980s, home computers had started to supplant the Atari 2600 as the technological gadget of choice in American dens, and the hologram Automan seemed tailored to prove that high-tech gadgetry was helpful and "user friendly." Unlike the Terminator, Automan showed that mankind could control his tools and harness them for beneficial purposes.

These days, Automan functions best, perhaps, as a time capsule of the 1980s. The series was surely inspired by the 1980s Disney epic, Tron, which likewise had been set in the world of computers and featured "computerized" dramatis personae and environments. Another Reagan Age touch the late Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” plays in the background of “Staying Alive While Running a High Flashdance Fever" episode set entirely inside a disco. And stylistically, each story culminates with a humorous (and hackneyed) “freeze frame,” an old television tradition that was lampooned in comedies like Police Squad. Also unlike TV series of today, Automan consisted entirely of interchangeable, standalone stories that could pretty much be viewed in any order desirable.

With Tron 2.0 on the horizon, I predict it's just days now before Automan is re-booted as Automan doubt to be directed by Bryan Singer. This time, Auto will be a shaggy-haired, brooding, anger-prone hologram...with a computer-generated hook for a hand. Or something like that...


  1. Oh man, this is a flashback from the past! I used to love this show as a kid... probably because of Automan's visual resemblance to TRON. I'd love to see this get a proper DVD release... or for SyFy to show a marathon run of episodes some day.

  2. No, please, leave this show in the past-it's not as half as good as Tron, or for that matter, Virtuostiy.