Sunday, October 01, 2023

40 Years Ago: Manimal

Not a man; not an animal; Jonathan Chase (Simon MacCorkindale) was...Manimal

Forty years ago, NBC was suffering from the pre-Cosby Show doldrums and searching for new series -ANY new series to help the once-proud Peacock restore its ratings glory. Thus oddball series such as The Rousters (which promised to "sink the Love Boat!") were added to the prime-time line-up along with the short-lived superhero program from Glen Larson and Donald Boyle, Manimal

Manimal chronicled the strange adventures of Jonathan Chase, a man who, according to William Conrad's ominous introduction each week, had "the brightest of futures, the darkest of pasts." To wit, Chase had learned from his father the secrets of transformation; the secret that "divides man from animal, animal from man." 

Chase partnered with the NYPD and every episode would turn into animals such as a hawk or a black panther in the course of solving a crime. His sidekicks were Brooke Mackenzie (Flash Gordon's Melody Anderson) and Michael D. Roberts as Ty, another cop. The incredible Steve Winston was the magician behind the special effects, which looked a lot like the physical transformations spotlighted in such werewolf movies as An American Werewolf in London (1981) and The Howling (1981). 

Going back four decades, imagine a series in which every week, a hero gets in trouble, and at just the right moment, transforms into an animal to escape the predicament. It's kind of like The Incredible Hulk, only with a panther, a hawk, a bull, and the like substituting for the big green fella. 

That was Manimal in a nutshell. 

Unfortunately, because the special effects were expensive, the same dramatic (and occasionally impressive-for-their-time) transformations were repeated shot-for-shot in each segment of the series, which only stayed on the air for eight weeks. Soon all the stock effects footage was recognizable and boring.

The height of Manimal's absurdity came with an episode called "Breath of the Dragon," which aired December 10, 1983. In the series' de rigueur Chinatown episode (ever notice how every superhero show has an episode set there?) Chase had to fight a violent Chinese gang. He thus duly reported to his partners that the study of martial arts began with animals; in the observation of how they strike and defend. In keeping with that illuminating bit of sociology, the episode culminates in a straight-faced fight sequence in which series star MacCorkindale bounds absurdly about his opponent, adopting the movements and characteristics of a mountain gorilla. This is something that must be seen to be believed.

TV Guide named Manimal one of the 50 worst shows of all time in 2002 and noted it was "an astonishingly silly, unintentionally hilarious crime series." (TV Guide, July 2002, page 22). Meanwhile, People Magazine trenchantly asked "Would you believe a crime-fighting professor with the superpowers that enable him to turn into a variety of animals?" (October 3, 1983). 

As if Manimal wasn't enough, creator Glen Larson (also the man behind Galactica:1980) simultaneously provided audiences another strange superhero series in 1983: Automan! I'll confess, I've always enjoyed Automan more than Manimal. It had a certain campy charm, whereas Manimal - played woefully straight - is one of the most bizarre superhero TV shows of all time. It ran on NBC's Friday night for a few weeks but was mauled by Dallas. Then it moved to Saturdays when The Rousters got cancelled. 

Guess what sunk Manimal and The Rousters? 

The Love Boat...

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