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Automan Was the Best Show You Never Saw
Action, mystery, comedy, romance, futuristic technology, and kickass special effects!
Automan and I were born within just a few days of each other in December of 1983, almost as if the show was made just for me, and I sort of feel like it was. Produced by TV legend Glen A. Larson (known for Knight Rider, Battlestar Galactica, and Magnum P.I., among others), Automan had everything you could want in a sci-fi series: action, mystery, comedy, romance, futuristic technology, and kickass special effects. It packed a whole world of awesomeness into 13 episodes (only 12 of which were originally aired). It was the best show you never saw. Here’s why...
The traditional camp feel of this early-80s series was elevated by the performances of its two stars: Desi Arnaz Jr. (son of Desi Arnaz of I Love Lucy fame) and the relatively unknown Chuck Wagner, who made his mark mostly in theater. Arnaz played Walter Nebicher (pronounced “nebicker” but often ironically mispronounced as nebbish, a Yiddish word for a timid, ineffectual person), a computer whiz cop who created a holographic superhero called Automan, played by Wagner. These two characters perfectly complemented each other as a classic odd couple: one a neurotic, uptight intellectual and the other a laid-back, fun-loving scamp. Together, they formed a unique buddy cop duo that used holographic technology to solve crimes while struggling to keep Automan’s existence a secret.
Chuck Wagner: Automan
Chuck Wagner was the perfect choice to play a computer-generated superhero. He’s tall, chiseled, and handsome, with a winning smile and a deep, commanding voice. He settled comfortably into any wacky situation the show created, from dancing in a disco club to acting in a soap opera to going undercover as a mob boss, (he even once posed as a stripper *wolf whistle*). He projected an air of extreme confidence bordering on arrogance that perfectly reflected the character’s combination of impressive athletic ability and genius IQ. Despite the fact that Automan was a hologram, Wagner expressed subtle emotions while still remaining cool and composed through all of his wild adventures.
At times, Automan and Walter merged together, and Wagner would play both roles, sometimes speaking with Automan’s voice and other times with Walter’s. He effortlessly switched between the two characters, alternating Walter’s nervous anxiety with Automan’s relaxed self-assuredness.
Desi Arnaz, Jr.: Walter Nebicher
While his character was more of a “straight man,” Desi Arnaz Jr. is certainly no slouch either. He was completely convincing as the geeky, shy cop who was desperate to see some real action on the streets, but was confined to the computer lab by a luddite captain who thought technology had no place in policework. Arnaz’s expressions, inflections, and mannerisms made his performance seem 100% genuine, and his comic timing never failed to entertain, whether he was being tossed around inside the super fast “Autocar,” rolling his eyes at Automan’s antics, or enduring one of the captain’s angry rants.
Of course, every perfect superhero needs one weakness, and Automan had a big one: he needed energy. He had to charge himself like a cellphone so he could project his cool holographic suits and vehicles. If he didn’t stay charged, he would fade out of existence, leaving Walter to deal with the criminal element alone. This allowed Arnaz to shine as the skilled cop Walter really was, investigating crimes, interrogating suspects, and just generally kicking ass.
Automan’s sidekick was a little twinkling orb named Cursor, who was billed as “himself” in the opening credits. Cursor was responsible for “rezzing up” Automan’s various holographic outfits and vehicles, but he was usually more interested in ogling women. Yes, this little ball of light not only had a gender but was a bit of a perv. He was often found flying around women’s busts and freaking them out. Find me another show with a character like that. You can’t.
Automan followed a popular formula that was very familiar to audiences of that time period due to shows like Knight Rider, The A-Team, and The Incredible Hulk. It featured a hero with a secret that he used to help people, solve mysteries, and bring criminals to justice. Michael Knight had his high-tech talking car and former identity as a cop killed in the line of duty, the A-Team had their expert commando skills and past as wrongly convicted criminals-cum-prison escapees, David Banner had his mutant alter-ego and a reporter out to get him for a murder he didn’t commit, and Walter Nebicher had a holographic partner who often disguised himself as a government agent named “Otto J. Mann.”
Each episode featured a different standalone story with a victim in need of assistance and a criminal in need of capture. The differences were usually found in what the victim did for a living. This was where the show employed many of the common TV tropes of the time, like a biker gang, rock band (featuring real-life rockstar Laura Branigan), fashion designer, and glamorous actress. Automan could process data tapes and videos to learn about and insert himself into any world, which made for endless possibilities that could have kept the show running for years.
Stunning Special Effects
Sadly, one of the best things about Automan was the main reason it was canceled: the kickass special effects. Back in the early 80s, computer animation was in its infancy, so TV shows used practical means to generate their special effects. Automan employed a combination of traditional animation, resourceful props and wardrobe, and clever editing, much of which was pioneered in the film Tron, (Donald Kushner served as producer and special effects consultant on both).
Automan’s glowing “Autosuit” was created using dozens of light-reflecting panels. His holographic vehicles, like the “Autocar” and “Autocopter,” were created using miniature models lined with reflective tape, and they were generated on the screen using layers of wireframe animation. The time and effort required to create these eye-popping effects made Automan the most expensive TV show to produce at the time (over $1 million per episode), ultimately leading to its cancellation.
As a computer geek myself, I found the technology of Automan particularly endearing. Walter’s lab was filled with clunky computers and massive servers covered in blinking lights emitting random beeps and blips. Automan gathered information by communicating with computers of all kinds, like automated phone systems, ATM machines, and even elevators. In one episode, Walter attended a video game convention packed with arcade cabinets, many of which were recognizable early-80s games, and Automan found himself inside one of them. In another, Walter and Automan met a cute little robot who followed them around like a lost puppy. At a time when people were just starting to adopt computer technology, these details made the show unique and exciting.
This high-tech show came with an equally high-tech theme song composed almost entirely of '80s synths and digital sound effects. The song was written by Desi Arnaz Jr.’s good friend Billy Hinsche, who joined Arnaz and Dean Paul Martin to form the band Dino, Desi & Billy. Hinsche was best known for his time with the Beach Boys, during which he played keyboard and lead guitar and provided background vocals both on tour and on studio recordings.
But the show’s intro didn’t rely on the awesome theme song alone. It also featured a sequence that explained the premise for anyone who was just tuning in. It was cheesy, way too long, and probably unnecessary, but it cracks me up every time I watch it. My favorite part is Walter’s face when he sees Automan for the first time. It’s a combination of pure shock, surprise, and joy that has never been duplicated as convincingly by any other actor.
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