Tune in Tonight: "Automan"
Maybe the problem with Holmes & Yoyo and Future Cop was that the future cops in them just weren’t “futuristic” enough. Maybe having a built-in, nose-activated camera, or the ability to automatically detect gunpowder residue from a distance just wasn’t good enough for viewers. Perhaps the best way to draw in an audience for a TV show about a future cop was to base his design on a movie that flopped hard at the box office, but certainly looked cool.
Such was the basis for 1983’s Automan, and thank goodness that it aired on ABC, because the titular character looks so much like a character from Tron that Disney would have sued the entire network out of existence. For some reason, the only copy of the first episode I could find was dubbed into Portuguese, so I had to jump in with the second. Don’t worry about going in blind, though – just like Knight Rider and The A-Team, a narrator explains the plot of the show at the beginning of every episode. The narrator is Automan himself (Chuck Wagner), the creation of Walter Nebicher (Desi Arnaz, Jr.), a bumbling cop demoted to work in the computer room of his police precinct, because this was back when “working with computers” was something to be looked at with pity and derision.
Going by the narration, Walter just sort of created Automan by accident, with a few strokes of a keyboard. But what an accident it is! Robot cops are passé, we’ve moved on to holograms. My brain Mandela Effected me into remembering that he was called Automan because he turned into a car, but alas, no, it’s short for “automatic man.” He can make a car appear out of thin air, though, and a helicopter and airplane too, with the help of a Tinkerbell-like creature named Cursor. Despite having no dialogue and being about the size of a lima bean, Cursor serves as the show’s “comic relief” by drawing hearts around a bikini pinup, and ogling a bartender’s cleavage while making appreciative “beep boop beep” noises.
Though he looks like a Ken doll brought to life through voodoo magic, Automan at least has slightly more charisma than Haven from Future Cop (which, granted, isn’t saying much). In addition to being able to make cars and helicopters appear at will, he also has x-ray vision and can shoot blasts of electricity out of his hands, like Raiden in Mortal Kombat without the racist coolie hat. On the other hand, like his predecessors Yoyo and Haven, he takes everything said to him literally, a gag that never gets old. It’s fascinating that in all three shows I’ve watched for this theme so far, none of the future cops’ designers thought it necessary to teach their creations how to understand and respond to human speech patterns, which might be necessary in a job working with the public. But, eh, why bother with such minor details when this guy can make a Lamborghini appear out of fucking nowhere?!?
This episode, which involves some sort of overly complicated money laundering scheme meant to entrap a judge who’s notoriously tough on the Mafia, takes Automan and Walter to Las Vegas. Walter has made the baffling decision to program Automan to learn more about “how young people feel about things” by uploading a copy of Saturday Night Fever into his operating system, so when Automan needs to disguise himself, he switches into a white disco suit. He looks like he’s wearing a Halloween costume, but somehow draws no attention to himself, except on the dance floor, when he breaks into a Tony Manero-esque solo number. Given that it was six years after the release of Saturday Night Fever, and three years after disco itself had been declared dead as, well, disco, it’s unknown if this scene is meant to be funny or taken seriously, but the other folks on the dance floor seem appreciative of Automan’s talents, going by the looped in, completely natural sounding comments of “Check out this guy!” and “Totally awesome!”
Anyway, Walter and Automan manage to uncover the money laundering plot and catch the bad guys. As was the case with Holmes & Yoyo and Future Cop, despite its premise, Automan somehow manages to be very, very boring. On the plus side, the production values are decent, particularly for the time. On the minus side, the most exciting the episode gets is when Walter commandeers an electronic cash register to send Automan a distress call. It feels a bit like a promotional video for a hologram cop manufacturer—here are all the cool things our hologram cops can do, now just imagine what it would be like in action! Sure, that would be pretty neat, I suppose. If only there was a way that you could, oh, I don’t know, show us or something.
Original airdate: December 22, 1983