Television

'Automan' and '80s Neon Visuals

Light-reflective strips in this Tron TV knock-off could spook criminals into submission.


Automan

Distributor: 20th Century Fox Television
Cast: Desi Arnaz Jr., Chuck Wagner, Heather McNair
Network: ABC
Worldwide Release Date: 2015-11-10
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Millennials looking back now with a mixture of irony and genuine, cornball appreciation don’t really understand how important Tron was to kids growing up in the early '80s. From the visionary (if admittedly half-sketched) world-building to the cutting edge neon visuals, It was every bit my generation’s Metropolis, for better or worse.

The popularity of Tron vastly exceeded its modest ambition, not to mention its technical execution, but where there’s money there’s opportunity, and television uber-producer Glen A. Larson (Battlestar Galactica, Knight Rider) sniffed Uncle Scrooge-like bags of cash surrounding Tron producer Donald Kushner and his innovative new 3M technology.

The series resulting from this collaboration, Automan, was much more grounded in plot than Tron, essentially being a typical fish-out-of-water tale where the world’s first “automated man” (artificial intelligence in holographic human form) is digitally generated from what passed for state of the art computers at the time, i.e., a veritable room full of mainframes in constant danger of overheating.

Automan (Chuck Wagner) cheerfully feels his way around modern society with his sidekick, Cursor, the latter of whom can conveniently generate any digital contraption that either Automan or his creator, Walter Nebicher (Desi Arnaz, Jr.) are capable of dreaming up. You see, Walter is a nebbish (get it?) computer programmer for the police department who, in typical action comedy fashion, gets a little restless behind his desk and manufactures Automan on the sly to shepherd his way through a series of clandestine, off-the-books investigations.

Automan's glowing neon-esque suit was based on the same light-reflective technology used to create similar suits for Tron, and his Autocar -- a souped up early '80s vintage Lamborghini Countach replete with the same reflective strips -- turned quick, angular corners just like the light cycles in Tron (a recurring gag features Nebicher's face plastered against the passenger window every time Automan changes course). The same light-reflective strips would be recycled over and over throughout the series for a number of vehicles, including tanks and helicopters, giving each a ghostly, otherworldly appearance having the immediate effect of spooking the criminals into submission.

It’s all completely tongue-in-cheek, of course, with Automan’s only real weakness – the need for copious amounts of electricity to keep him from disassembling back into 1’s and 0’s – pretty much forgotten entirely by episode three. To make this dynamic duo all the more unconquerable, Automan soon reveals his ability to merge Walter into his own digital body for protection… you know, from those pesky guns that are the average criminal’s only source of leverage. So whereas in the early episodes Walter has to plan carefully around Automan’s power consumption lest the whole city find itself in a brownout, the producers quickly deduced that fans just wanted to see Cursor generate cool new neon toys with every episode, which defined the ceiling on what the series had to offer.

Automan boasted a number of notable guest appearances (Clu Gulager, Patrick Macnee, Mary Crosby) over its run but never won over enough viewers to justify its costly budget, and after 12 episodes of corny dialogue and sub-A-Team action sequences, ABC pulled the plug after a single season (a 13th unaired episode is included for the first time in this set).

The highlight of the extras on this collection is a 42-minute retrospective documentary featuring Arnaz, Wagner, co-star Heather McNair and even Glen A. Larson, who succumbed to cancer in November 2014. It’s an entertaining fluff piece but let’s face it, there’s not much gravitas to be gleaned from a second string Tron knock off, and one that’s made for TV, no less.

Ultimately a swing and a miss for Larson which, coupled with the miserable failure of his Manimal series that same year, turned out to be a rather crippling blow for his career. Larson would go on to produce a string of short lived, long-forgotten shows throughout the '80s and early '90s, but his resume would continue to be diluted by consecutive failures until he was brought on board as “consulting producer” when the Sci Fi Channel resurrected his Battlestar Galactica in 2003.

Series stars Desi Arnaz Jr. and Chuck Wagner fared little better, Arnaz Jr. more or less disappearing from the industry altogether before being called out of retirement to play his more famous father in the 1992 film, The Mambo Kings, while Wagner would find greater success in theater. Automan, unfortunately, is unlikely to find any newfound success with this comprehensive reissue outside Tron completists and apologists for corny '80s juvenilia. It’s fun enough for what it is, but with the exception of those with an almost academic interest in the era, most will find there’s more fun to be had elsewhere.

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