After being reminded of this show by my readers, I was able to find a set of Automan episodes online. There were only 13 of them, aired in 1983-1984.
Automan puts a slight science fiction overlay onto the traditional hour-long cop show. Desi Arnaz, Jr. plays Walter Nebicher (a name that exists only so people can “accidentally” call him Nebbish), a police officer who’s stuck in the computer room when he wants to be out fighting crime. (And I do mean room — this is from the era where a computer filled one, and you communicated with it through a terminal desk. Kind of weird watching it on my laptop that has more power than all of that.)
So Walter creates Automan, an “automatic man” who’s a living, solid hologram played by Chuck Wagner. And Cursor, a blinking ball of light who’s capable of creating a car or a helicopter or a plane or a disguise for Automan just by drawing their outlines in the air. Cursor was kept in a breast pocket handkerchief or digital watch when not needed, and it was also girl-crazy, hovering around whatever cleavage was near.
Automan can do anything he’s seen on the videotapes he watches (sometimes on his own chest display) and talk with any computer system. Sometimes these abilities were taken a bit too far — I can understand disappearing and reappearing in a new location, and maybe the electric hand blasts, but I’m still unsure on how being a hologram makes you able to get whatever dice roll you want at a craps table.
After a while, I think the writers just treated him as magic. Especially when Walter needed protection. Walter would walk into Auto, “merging” with him, and then Auto could go ahead and walk through a wall or let bullets pass through him without harming Walter. I wonder where Walter’s mass went.
Automan’s Kryptonite was power. Electric power, which he used a lot of to exist. When he appears, the lights blink on and off and the room shakes, like in an old movie when they throw the switch on the electric chair. When they needed to put Walter in danger, the writers sent them to a location with spotty electric coverage, which made Auto go poof. Recharging him resulted in a shower of sparks and minor explosions. Makes you worry about the state of the power grid, really. And who’s paying the electric company for all this?
The rest of the cast were wooden and forgettable. There was the crotchety chief who kept sending Walter back to the computer room, until he saved the day anyway; the detective, whose function was mainly to bring in the cop cavalry; and the girl cop, who was treated more like a secretary. She was there to provide a love interest, although that was unbelievable as well.
I think she was just a beard. There’s a certain amount of boy-boy bonding between Walter and Otto that can be easily misread by those with a bent for such things. (I’m not the only one who thinks that way; the only Automan fanfic I found online was slash between the two.)
I mean, almost every episode has a scene where Auto is demonstrating some ability he picked up from the movies, such as limboing or disco’ing like John Travolta, to an adoring audience. Auto gets carried away and takes off his shirt and jacket, revealing his glowing computer torso, and Walter runs up, fussing at him. Walter then covers him up and leads him off somewhere private so the two can “discuss the case” confidentially.
Oh, I didn’t mention the glow, did I? That’s perhaps the most distinctive thing about the series. Automan had an unearthly blue glow, caused by using reflective tape and black lights instead of post-production effects. It’s still impressive as a visual. Even when dressed “normally”, the character’s collar glowed.
There’s an air of jealousy around Walter, as though Walter wants to keep the gorgeous, talented man all to himself. That’s understandable, since Auto was his creation, and he was built to be everything Walter wasn’t. Add in the “merges”, and you have some indications of a very close friendship. Then there’s the episode where Walter winds up with his head in Auto’s lap… The car made 90-degree turns and moved like it was in a video game. Normally, this threw Walter up against the window, but at least once, he went the other way. (The car is reported to have been the only use of a Lamborghini Countach on TV.)
Overall the show is cheesy, and wooden, except for Wagner’s performance. Well, that’s stiff, too, but in an old-fashioned Hero way that works for him. The actor’s Automan page has tons of press clippings and photos. That’s where I found this great summation of the show’s appeal from SFX magazine in 2005.
There was also an action figure! The rest of the proposed line were three interchangeable guys in suits, which sums up the show to me. A glowing peacock of a man stuck in a drab, predictable setting: he was incredibly tall, classically gorgeous, and quite shiny. It’s lots of fun watching him pretend to be Paul Newman (as The Hustler) or Humphrey Bogart (gangster boss) or Rhett Butler or even JR Ewing, in a Dallas parody episode guest-starring Delta Burke.
They also had some nice usage of 80s pop hits to emphasize the settings, too, including Human Touch, The Tide Is High, Beat It, and Magic. Ah, for the days when TV credit sequences and premise introductions took three minutes. I do like the way Wagner says, at the end of every show’s beginning, after talking about how much of good guy Automan is, “Automan. That’s me.”