In the annals of TV history, there are a handful of shows held up as the universal examples of shows gone horribly wrong – high-concept shows so preposterous as to flop and get cancelled extremely quickly. These shows live forever, but not as shows people remember, but as trivia items, because they were quickly cancelled and never seen again. Their names become punchlines and we can only imagine how bad these so-called bad shows truly were…even ones from eras in which TV was universally not very good. (Basically any time before 2007.)
Shows like My Mother the Car. Turn On. Cop Rock. Pink Lady and Jeff.
And of course, Manimal.
It’s at the top of this unique list, and not only because it has the most inadvertently awesome and hilarious title in TV history. Also on that list, even though it ran slightly longer than Manimal and maybe because it’s title isn’t as glorious: Automan. The shows are spiritual cousins, if not actual cousins, because they were created by the same man (Glen A. Larson), aired during the same TV season (1983-1984), and are also pretty much the same show. Both are about a guy with a weird superpower who helps the police solve crimes. Both have an incredibly high-concept premise so high-concept that the opening credits have a lengthy narration explaining the show.
Manimal is about Dr. Jonathan Chase. Portrayed by Simon MacCorkindale, he’s an international playboy with an amazing secret: he can turn into any animal he wants, at any time…although he almost transforms off-camera, because TV special effects were non-existent in 1983. If you’ve ever wanted to see Remington Steele go over there and turn into a panther (or a hawk, or a snake, a bull, a dolphin, but usually a panther), have I got a show for you. (You see, “Manimal” is a portmanteau of “man” and “animal.”)
Automan is about Walter Nebicher (Desi Arnaz, Jr.), a police officer, who although has accomplished all of the hard tasks one must do to become a police officer, he isn’t a good police officer, or least tough enough, because The Chief wants him back at the station. That’s where Nebicher (I can’t imagine it’s an accident that “Nebicher” sounds like “nebbish”) shines, because he’s really into these new things called computers. So with the highly advanced supercomputer his police station has for some reason, he creates an A.I. hologram that can enter the real world and fight crime when it merges with Nebicher and transforms into Automan, who wears a glowing Tron suit. (Automan was clearly created in the wake of Tron.)
Glen A. Larson created both of these shows and both aired in 1983—Manimal on NBC, and Automan on ABC. He had other shows going on at the same time, too: Knight Rider and Magnum, P.I. So many shows! Larson was the Shonda Rhimes of the early 1980s. And yet Knight Rider and Magnum ran for years and years and considered quality TV at the time, while Manimal and Automan were yanked off the air after 8 and 12 episodes, respectively. Which is kind of silly. You can’t tell me that a show about a guy who transforms into a crime-solving panther or a holographic Tron-cop is any cheesier than a show about a talking pile of chest hair and his prissy talking car. Both are wonderful, lost treasures of their time, before got TV took itself seriously (for better or for worse) and just aimed to entertain and overstimulate as many people as possible on a random weeknight.
But these forgotten, or misremembered shows, are precisely why DVD has invented. Cheap discs with high storage capacity make it so easy for companies to take a chance and put this stuff out there for the sake of TV history and to the delight of curious viewers. As is usually the case, Shout! Factory stepped up, and has released the complete runs of Manimal and Automan on DVD. Even the unaired episodes…of which there are quite a few.