Tune in Tonight: "Manimal"
We live in frightening, uncertain times, my friends, when the news cycle changes so fast and is so relentlessly bleak that trying to keep up with it is both impossible, and bad for one’s emotional well-being. It seems impossible to believe that, in another time, not so long ago, the weirdest thing we talked about was a short-lived TV show about a millionaire who turned into a panther and solved crimes.
Manimal is one of those things where you know the title was thought of long before anything else, probably by some network executive in the middle of taking a shower or stuck in traffic on the L.A. Freeway, and then someone else was tasked with trying to make something out of it it. “He’s half-man…he’s half-animal…he’s a…MANIMAL!” That’s a million dollar idea, take this gram of coke and work it out.
As a matter of fact, it took six someones to make something out of Manimal (twelve if you count the episode directors too), and being that it was scheduled against the wildly popular Dallas, evidently NBC had a lot of confidence in the final product. Alas, America was still in the midst of its passionate love affair with J.R. Ewing, and not all that interested in a meant to be classier, yet somehow cornier take on The Incredible Hulk, and it was canceled after just eight episodes. In fact, not one new TV show NBC premiered in the fall of 1983 made it past its first season; thankfully everyone’s favorite sitcom dad/repeat sex offender Bill Cosby stepped in to save the day the following year.
The Manimal in question is Dr. Jonathan Chase, a professor/world traveler/handsome playboy with a mysterious past. Chase, who his friends refer to as “J.C.,” because of course they do, is played by Simon MacCorkindale, a sort of discount James Bond probably best known, to U.S. audiences at least, as the guy who gets the most brutal death in Jaws 3D. Chase has the ability to shapeshift, which involves making a face that looks like he’s thinking real hard, then slowly…really slowly…so slowly you don’t know how in some situations he isn’t just killed before it happens, he turns into an animal, usually either a hawk or a panther (though occasionally also a snake, horse, and even a dolphin!).
It’s never really explained how Chase gained this ability, other than it’s an “African technique,” but he uses it to help the police, along with his buddies, Comic Relief Black Guy (Michael D. Roberts) and Pretty Blonde Detective (Melody Anderson). They have names, but it doesn’t really matter.
In the episode I watched, the second in the series, Chase and his friends investigate a Bulgarian ambassador who’s involved in the smuggling of illegal goods, and may be connected to the death of a magician. The ambassador is played by Richard Lynch, whom you’ll recognize as having played the villain in roughly 850 movies and TV shows during the 80s and 90s, with titles like Alligator II: the Mutation, Cyborg 3: the Recycler, and Corpses Are Forever. There’s no explanation as to who this character is, what kinds of “illegal goods” he’s smuggling, or what any of it has to do with a magician getting murdered. But again, like the names of any of the supporting characters, it doesn’t really matter. When you watch a TV show with a concept like Manimal, characters and plot are irrelevant, it’s the spectacle that counts. And yet…
Manimal isn’t cheesy so much as boring and clumsy. The shapeshifting sequences, which should be the dramatic highlights of the episode, are amusingly unexciting. It just involves a tight closeup of Chase’s face, looking like he’s wondering if he left the iron on, then a closeup of a rubber hand with that “bubbling skin” effect made famous in An American Werewolf in London, then another closeup of Chase’s face, now heavily covered in latex and sprouting either fur or feathers, then another closeup of the hand turning into a hawk’s talons or a panther’s paw. Amazingly, the special effects were created by Stan Winston, just a decade before blowing audiences’ minds right through their fucking hats with Jurassic Park.
It doesn’t really get any more exciting when Chase is in animal form. When he’s in hawk form, he just flies around following cars and listening in on conversations with his super-powerful hawk hearing. When he’s in panther form, he mostly just walks around and growls. Probably due to insurance restrictions, the panther is almost never on screen with a human at the same time, so rather than attacking the bad guys it merely intimidates them from several feet away. The final showdown in this episode takes place in a warehouse full of circus equipment, leading to an incredible bit where one of the villain’s henchmen somehow falls into a prop cannon, then a disembodied fake panther paw pops into the frame and hits a button, launching the henchman across the room. What’s the point of being able to morph into a panther if you can’t tear someone’s throat open? You might as well shapeshift into a slug, or an opossum, or something equally useless.
However, Manimal’s special effects are Avatar-level quality when compared to the dialogue. Initially my favorite moment was when Pretty Blonde Detective’s boss says to the Bulgarian ambassador “You can bet your last mark…or whatever it is you use in that country, that I’m personally gonna see my friends in Immigration boot your butt so high you’re gonna need a heat shield to come back down!” That was later topped by this exchange, between a father and son who catch Chase in hawk form in their fishing net:
SON: “I got him! I told you I could!”
FATHER: “That sure beats catching fish, son! But what do we do with him?”
SON: “Call the zoo! I bet they’d love to have a hawk like this!”
(Father calls the zoo, when he returns the hawk appears to be deceased)
FATHER: “What’s wrong?”
SON: “He…he just kind of collapsed. I didn’t mean to hurt him, honest!”
FATHER: “I’m sorry, son. He looks dead.”
(Hawk escapes from the net and flies away)
FATHER: “Looks like he fooled us, son!”
SON: “I’m glad, Dad. I really am.”
Both the dialogue and the delivery of it in that scene is so stiff and phony sounding that it seems almost intentional, like something out of The Naked Gun, and yet Manimal is endearingly and bafflingly earnest, right down to the dramatic introduction narrated by William Conrad. Some of the cast members look like they know exactly what kind of show they’re in, and are clenching their fists to keep from breaking into laughter. Others, like Simon MacCorkindale, play it very straight, and the show suffers from that inconsistent tone. It’s actually more entertaining when it’s meant be serious, and the audience is supposed to treat the sight of a man with a bird’s beak where his nose should be as high drama, and not some Dr. Moreau camp nonsense.
A theatrical version of the series has reportedly been in the works since 2012, but as of this writing seems to be stuck in development hell with Will Ferrell’s production company. This is good, because, like a lot of 80s nostalgia, save for the reverential Stranger Things, comes off as a little smug, a little “Can you believe how stupid this is?” We know. We were there.