March 31, 2007

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?

Automan and WalterThe 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.

Automan's collarOh, 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.)

Automan's carOverall 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.

16 Responses  
Dan Coyle writes:  

Fans of 24 and Space Above and Beyond will be pleased to know that James “Bill Buchanan” Morrison appears in one episode… as a male stripper.

Wagner’s performance was IIRC the best thing about the show- the stiffness worked for the character, who was trying to understand the world he was thrust into, and Walter wasn’t exactly the best guide. I bet Wagner didn’t have much fun wearing that costume, though.

Johanna writes:  

A male stripper?!? I must not have gotten to THAT episode yet!

Wagner’s clearly got a sense of humor about things, though, that shines through the character at times. I keep remembering how Automan interacts with a female bartender, flirting with him:
“What can I get you to drink?”
“I don’t drink.”
“Have some peanuts, then.”
“I don’t eat, either.” He says it like it’s the most natural thing in the world while doing something very neat with his eyebrows.

As for the costume, I dunno… it’s less revealing than those today, because all the glow tape cut into patterns means it allows for some give and take in terms of cut and fit. Or did you mean the glowing?

I am noticing how often the writers get him out of the costume, probably to save on cost and provide some variety. (Not like that, just putting him in a suit or designer jeans or a tux.) One of the episodes even cheats the cursor costume-change effect by having Auto ask Walter to close his eyes so he can surprise him with his choice of outfit. (See what I mean about the two seeming to flirt?)

I’m writing way too much about this, aren’t I?

David Oakes writes:  

“I’m writing way too much about this, aren’t I?”

You can never write too much about Automan. He is the 3D-Man of Television.

Johanna writes:  

Mmmaybe… but I bet no one wants to hear my idea about an Automan/Remington Steele crossover fic.

Geez, I can’t believe I’m contemplating writing fanfic. I haven’t done that since I was 15, and then I didn’t even know what it was called.

Dan Coyle writes:  

I’m talking about the glowing, but I also assume that stuff was heavy.

Johanna writes:  

Hmm, hadn’t thought of that. Could it have been that much worse than the leather pants and skinny pink tie he wore during the Laura Branigan guest-star episode?

Thom writes:  

How come Hollywood has not picked this one up for a theatrical updating???

Lyle Masaki writes:  

A male stripper?!? I must not have gotten to THAT episode yet!

I remember that one, mostly because nowadays I keep thinking how strange it was that Automan was able to go undercover as a popular stripper since he had that glow suit under his clothes… unless he had some kind of illusion that made him look like the other strippers that viewers didn’t see.

Johanna writes:  

That question leads one down all kinds of weird avenues… I kept wondering if they were ever going to have him confronted with a beach setting, but they only ever put girls in swimsuits. But you know what they say, the most important sex organ is the mind. And he was a rather good dancer.

I found the oddest thing about that episode (and here I’m going to spoil an almost 25-year-old show) that he kept stripping after the case was over! I know he was programmed as eager to please (speaking of dangerous mental avenues), but I guess it makes sense that a computer program wouldn’t necessarily have any hangups about sexual display.

I’ve watched all the episodes now, and that one and the Dallas parody are the two that stuck with me. Sad, that there’s no more to watch ever.

Be Patient With Me » Comics Worth Reading writes:  

[…] Two things have cheered me up. The first: I bought DVD sets of both Automan and Probe so I can watch them over and over. (Yes, I’m obsessed. I’m toying with the idea of an essay on why Automan is the best superhero ever.) […]

13th Carnival of Feminist Science Fiction & Fantasy Fans « Words From The Center, Words From The Edge writes:  

[…] Johanna over at Comics Worth Reading reviews the early 80’s t.v. show Automan: Automan can do anything he’s seen on the videotapes he watches (sometimes on his own chest […]

Heroes Con 2008 Report » Comics Worth Reading writes:  

[…] of mine) and bootleg DVD dealers (which allowed me to educate people who’d never heard about Automan). Seriously, the question did arise, if the program rules say “we don’t condone the […]

dude writes:  

wish they would put episodes on hulu that would be to cool

Orphan TV DVDs Include Anything But Love » DVDs Worth Watching writes:  

[…] the other hand, I’ve found bootlegs of other old favorites, like Probe and Automan, and I loved them, possibly because I kept my expectations low and was pleasantly surprised. […]

Audrey Sailor writes:  

I recently rediscovered this old favourite and decided to write some fanfics of my own, the first of which is on my site. There is also a trilogy of Automan fanfics on fanfiction.net written by user “autonwallyluvr” that is quite good, and I’ve referenced her work a few times in mine.

Tron: The Original Classic » DVDs Worth Watching writes:  

[…] and the glowing practical suits against the monochrome background. (I’m the one who loved Automan, remember.) The occasional creative shot idea — as when Jeff Bridges’ humanoid program, […]


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