“On a scale of one to ten, think of me as an eleven.”
After the success and/or notoriety of 1982’s Tron one of that film’s producers teamed with veteran TV showrunner Glen A. Larson (Knight Rider) for a video game-ish Tron-like experience for television. Thus in the fall of 1983 we got Automan, a digital superhero for the earliest days of the computer age.
Walter Nebicher (Dezi Arnaz Jr., The Mambo Kings) is the LAPD’s official computer expert, who longs for action in the field. He creates a program that is a model of the perfect crimefighter. Thanks to hologram technology, this program escapes the computer and takes on physical form, named Automan (Chuck Wagner, America 3000). Now, Automan and Walter catch the crooks in secret, with coworker Roxanne (Heather McNair, Madhouse) in on their secret and veteran cop Jack Curtis (Robert Lansing, Empire of the Ants) taking credit for their victories.
Automan isn’t a good series in any sort of highbrow criticism sense, but boy is it a lot of silly fun. All the computer talk is hilariously outdated, with computers being seen as something newfangled and mysterious. Walter is the only person who knows how they work or even what they are, and this makes computers akin to magic — able to do anything the writers want them to. This extends to Automan — short for “automatic man” — who is always tweaking and adding to his programming, with a ridiculously long list of powers and skill sets. We also have Cursor, an actual cursor from the computer screen come to life, which can summon vehicles, clothes and weapons for Automan.
Just how powerful is Automan? Let’s see if we can compile a starter list:
-The combined knowledge of hundreds of real and fictional crimefighters, including Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, and Magnum, P.I.
-He can turn incorporeal, so bullets pass through him and he walks through walls.
-He and Walter can merge into one person, protecting Walter from danger.
-He can fire electricity from his hands, shorting out electronics and stunning enemies.
-He can talk to computers, convincing them to do anything he wants.
-With Cursor, he can summon a number of futuristic vehicles out of thin air. These are usually the cool Autocar or Autocopter, but there’s also an Autobike and Autoplane.
-Cursor can turn into devices to help Automan, such as a high-tech gun or even a rockin’ electric guitar.
-Cursor can create any type of clothes for Automan, allowing him to fit in while undercover.
It seems to me that just any one of the above bullet points is enough to make Automan an awesome superhero. With all the above — and more — combined, he’s entered Superman-level “he can do anything” territory. He occasionally needs to recharge, so there’s some weakness, but overall Automan is so powerful that the villains of the week don’t stand a chance. There’s almost a sitcom-like feel to the crimefighting, so that the final battle in any given episode is not cool action but a comedic “what crazy way will he stop the bad guys this week?” feeling.
Dezi Arnaz Jr. seems like a likable, down-to-Earth guy, but he and the show’s writers don’t seem to have a handle on Walter. He’s originally portrayed as the nerd — brainy yet awkward. He’s the comic relief, but never quite acts as the comic relief. As the show goes on, Arnaz plays Walter less like the nerdy sidekick and more like Mannix. Walter is too often the tough guy, even busting out acrobatic karate moves against thugs. I can’t fault the actor for wanting to be the heroic lead, but I feel the series loses sight of who Walter is as it goes along.
As for our title hero, Chuck Wagner plays Automan with a straightforward, almost childlike earnestness. Despite his supposed ultra-genius intellect, he has a lot to learn about human interaction. Therefore we get a lot of “he doesn’t understand basic emotions” stuff, like what they always did with Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation. A few times, Automan waxes philosophically on the nature of humanity and technology, but mostly he’s about doing good deeds and trying to pass as human. This is where most of the show’s humor and even its plotlines come into play. The villains-of-the-week are generic crooks, and the crime cases exist only to get Automan and Walter in a new situation each week. See Automan go to Vegas, see Automan tangle with bikers, see Automan join a rock band, see Automan become a male stripper (no really), and on and on. Actor Chuck Wagner is a big musical theater guy, so the writers and producers gave him plenty of chances to show off his dance moves. This speaks to Automan being more of a comedy superhero than a hardcore crimebuster.
For the supporting cast, they’re not given as much to do as our heroes, but they get some moments to shine. Heather McNair is adorable with her big ‘80s hair and even bigger ‘80s shoulder pads, but it would have been nice to see her get in on the action some more. Gerald S. O’Loughlin (In Cold Blood) plays the angry shouty police chief. He gets plenty of laughs by not understanding computers, calling them stuff like “that box of bolts.” There are plenty of recognizable faces among the weekly guest stars, including Patrick McNee of the original The Avengers, go-to villain Billy Drago (The Untouchables) and singer Laura Branigan performing her song “Hot Night.”
The other co-stars are, of course, the vehicles. These were — and probably still are — the big selling point for age 10 and under male viewers. The Autocar was a sleek Lamborghini Countach, and its super-speed and lightning-fast 90-degree turns were mostly created in the editing room. The Autocopter was a Bell Jetranger, done up to appear in the same blue-and-black style as the car. The Autoplane, meanwhile, was entirely a special effect. Speaking of which, mention must also be made of Automan’s glowing blue suit, which was a nice combination of effects and costuming, — though he doesn’t wear it as often as you’d think. All these vehicles and effects made Automan one of the most expensive TV shows on the air at the time, which is what led to its Season One cancellation.
All thirteen episodes that make up the entire series are on this four-disc set from Shout! Factory, the connoisseurs of all that is pop culture cool. Picture quality is mostly good, if a little soft. Audio can be flat at times, but never disastrously so. The highlight of the extras is a 42-minute documentary about the show, in which actors and the show’s creators talk about it with much affection while also being open about what didn’t work. From there, we get three onscreen text pieces where you can read more about the show, two stills galleries, and a trailer for fellow ‘80s series Manimal, which shared some stock footage with Automan.
I’ve written a lot of negative things about Automan here, but the truth is I got a real kick out of the show. It’s flawed, but also endearing in how earnest it is. It’s the finest of ‘80s cheese.