For a brief eight episodes in the fall of 1983, Manimal found its way into American living rooms the way that squirrels and various other pests often do: it snuck in. The show was on NBC, a network that was down on its luck during that pre-Cosby era; it was a network out of step with the times and would have been in danger of disappearing if there had been more options for television audiences back then. An Andy Warhol-driven sitcom might have been in order for NBC back then as there was a tendency for the network to take on weak material.
Make no mistake: Manimal wasn’t exactly inventive. It was based on a dual identity crime fighter premise and had a dashing young actor with a British accent and locales that wanted desperately to be exotic but it’s glaringly obvious always Burbank or somewhere close by. The show’s legacy is that it’s one of the worst things to ever hit the small screen but viewing it now, in the cold hard light of 2015 when Dexter threatens to make a comeback and network TV is largely a foreign concept to anyone weaned on Netflix and YouTube, it’s not so bad.
The late Simon MacCorkindal steps in as Dr. Jonathan Chase, an academic who specializes in animal behavior and criminology (or something like that; it makes sense if you absolutely don’t think about it) and, through a series of clumsily handled events that stretch the limits of belief, becomes paired with the lovely Brooke Mackenzie (Melody Anderson, relatively fresh from Flash Gordon), a cop whose fresh out of an actual fellow badge holder to partner with. Chase is no ordinary professor, however, (or perhaps he is, we don’t see a whole lot of him in the classroom); he can shape shift into any animal he’d like and those shape shifting episodes help solve the crime faster than you can shut down a white supremacist’s Go Fund Me page.
Perhaps inspired by the transformation sequences carried out in An American Werewolf In London, the good folks at Manimal tried to replicate some of the sheer terror and power that Dr. Chase must have had to go through in his transformation. Shape shiftin’ ain’t easy and it sure ain’t easy to watch: if there were problems with plot believability and the like the transformation sequences ask us to believe that we’re not looking at paws and claws that were purchased at the local department store. It needn’t be high tech but it needn’t be comedic, either.
The animals were often ludicrous as well: A camera stealing hawk? No one found it suspicious that a hawk would be after a camera? (Then again it was a nice camera. Nice lenses and all that.) There’s one other small problem with all the transformations going on: Where in the world did Chase leave his clothes? Never do we see a torn tuxedo (and we do see him wearing a tuxedo more often than most profs can or would) or any other clothes that have been shredded in the name of shape shifting. What gives?
Of course the suspension of disbelief is paramount and so some of those things we have to let go of as surely as we have to let go of the hope that the show’s tone would right itself at some point, but it never quite does. It’s funny at times, but rarely do we find ourselves gripped the way that a good crime procedural should. (Heck, even Quincy, all these years later can move us to the edge of the couch.)
The acting here isn’t… bad. MacCorkindal and Anderson acquit themselves nicely even if their chemistry doesn’t set the screen on fire. Either of them could have sustained their roles quite nicely if the network had seen fit to keep the show afloat. But of course it didn’t, because the ratings were weaker than the material, and before Manimal could work out its quirks and become the show it had the potential to be it was off the air.
Watching these episodes, it’s easy to see where the show might have corrected itself or even been viable for a revival a decade or two later (with some tempering of the more, er, imaginative elements) and maybe one day it will be.
This collection gathers all those episodes in a package that includes a handsome booklet with photos from the series and modestly illuminating text, summarizing the plot of each episode. It’s a nice touch, since a number of such packages lack anything of the sort. Extras include concept and production notes, cast biographies, galleries, and an interview with series creator Glen A. Larson.
Really, Manimal is not as bad as you’ve been told. It’s a decent way for a TV junkie to spend some time with their favorite medium.