Automan: Computerized Perfection That Never Stood A Chance

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Written By Sedoso Feb

Saying that a piece of media is incredibly “of its time” can feel passe, but some shows just scream the period they came out in. That’s Automan — almost to the letter. This program was an attempt at doing something close to superhero comedy with solid action in a police story, something that felt new, sleek, and sexy, capitalizing on the computer trend.

Automan was the perfect creation. But does that translate into good television?

The story follows Walter Nebicher (Desi Arnaz Jr.), a young police officer who specializes in computer sciences and does some game programming on the side. His creation starts as a video game, but after plugging in information on all of the great heroes of television and film, Walter creates a hard-light hologram with artificial intelligence named Automan (Chuck Wagner) and a small digital polyhedron helper named Cursor (as himself). This new construct is capable of learning almost anything, and Cursor can create everything from clothes and instruments to cash and vehicles to help out with cases.

Viewers also meet Roxanne Caldwell (Heather McNair), a fellow officer and Walter’s love interest. She’s the only other person who knows what Automan truly is and often must run interference for him. There’s Lt. Jack Curtis (Robert Lansing), one of the best cops in L.A., and the guy usually taking point on most of these adventures, but he tends to find trouble and needs Walter and Agent Mann’s (Automan’s alternate identity within law enforcement) assistance. To round out the cast, we have Captain E.G. Boyd (Gerald S. O’Loughlin), boss of the station who doesn’t like computers, has trouble giving credit where it’s due, and refuses to get Nebicher’s name right. That said, he seems like a secret softie and gets in on the jokes sometimes.   

Part of the show’s charm is the actors and the chemistry they share. Each of these characters interacts well with the others, having some solid moments, and according to Wagner, the three main actors are still close. The show also had a handful of notable guest stars for the time, some familiar faces for those who love ‘70s and ‘80s television. The soundtrack for the show was full of popular music, and a couple of episodes featured notable performers. The best example was Laura Branigan, who sang “Gloria.”

Songs like “Maniac,” “Sweet Dreams,” and “Beat It” pop up while keen-eyed observers may even spot someone from the “Thriller” music video in one episode. The Bee Gees get quite the mention, and John Travolta is highly regarded for his dancing, so much that Automan steals it from the movies. The score is enjoyable, jumping around in tone from pulp adventure to whimsical fancy and computer games. Since Automan started as a video game in the story, there are other quirky references, like the characters walking past a Joust cabinet, him appearing as an overlay to a game of Burger Time, and claiming to know Pac-Man and Donkey Kong quite well.

Automan is the main star here, and Wagner did an excellent job with him. The specialized hologram body made for an impressive look (even if it reflected on his face oddly at times) and the already tall actor wore additional four-inch heels to secure his imposing size. His singing, dancing, and other talents were mostly natural, as Wagner was trained in musical comedy and was quite familiar with theater work, though sometimes he was forced to use a double. The expressions and subtle acting he does with his eyes and facial features are well done, making him feel like someone who is still fresh and new to the world, but even though this character is supposed to be a bit inhuman, I can’t help but think he’s a bit creepy at times as well. A lot of Automan’s sub-plots involve romance, constantly being hit on by beautiful women, and it doesn’t help that Cursor is a bit of a pervert as well, analyzing women near their breasts.

The perfect man also needs the best wheels. Cursor ensures Automan has whatever he requires in any situation, whether that be a motorcycle, helicopter, tank, or that slick-looking jet. But the real attraction was the Autocar. It was a real car outfitted with reflective tape, a Lamborghini Countach owned by Executive Producer Glen A. Larson, so the actors had to be very careful, barely getting to drive it. A fake interior was made for shots inside the vehicle. The Countach has that classic wedge shape that would become chic, hugging the pavement so much it appeared to glide along the road, cutting through the air with its sharp lines and low-profile chassis. What made it exceptionally cool were those mounted hidden headlights and scissor doors, sealing it as a status symbol of money and style.

It isn’t all flash, though, as there is some substance to these episodes. Most are classic police stories dealing with high-level criminals. They aren’t hard to figure out, but a few episodes have some extra twists and turns, putting the characters in interesting situations. People die, main characters get roughed up, but the tone never gets too dark and there is usually a corny moment or two to laugh at. It’s dated in several ways, and won’t attract many new fans, but I found revisiting it to be quite entertaining.

Why did such an ambitious show with an amazing spectacle fizzle out after only thirteen episodes (the last one of which wasn’t aired)? It was expensive, of course. Automan apparently costs around a million dollars per episode, which had to be a hard sell for a show coming out in 1983. They were also put in an incredibly competitive Monday time slot up against other popular shows like Magnum P.I., Scarecrow and Mrs. King, and several sports events, at a time when networks were looking for cheaper shows to produce like TV’s Bloopers & Practical Jokes. The L.A.-based production didn’t have horrible ratings, especially by today’s standards, but its budget and lack of dominance doomed the perfect man to an early retirement.     

Larson admits to wanting to bring TRON’s visual stylings to the television and one of the film’s producers (Donald Kushner) was even involved with the show. The similarities were so thick at the time that some referred to the show as a kind of spiritual successor, but Automan was different enough to be its own thing. “Ours was a CGI concept before CGI effects, and a lot of the magic was done with old-school film tricks,” according to Wagner. The cast does an excellent job of explaining how the magic worked, but it sounds like at the time it took an outlandish number of hours for shooting and post-production to make it happen. This is another reason why the show was such a stand-out pre-green screen.

Automan made an impression. There was some merchandising; even if all of the toys weren’t released, we received some odd accessories. A 1985 game for the Commodore 64 by Bug-Byte Software was also made, which seems appropriate considering the character’s background, bringing everything full circle. Wagner says that Brent Spiner of Star Trek: The Next Generation fame based some of Data off of Automan, which is quite the honor.

There are still fans who remember these adventures and I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing what a modern version of something resembling this would look like (or did we already get that with Almost Human?). Automan was an advanced supercop protecting the streets in style, but sometimes the brightest programs crash prematurely — and that’s a shame.

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