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Manimal: The Complete Series
The TV Series:
A dashing, crime-fighting hero able to shape-shift into any animal he wants - how could it possibly go wrong? As it turned out, Manimal (1983) became a by-word for monumentally terrible TV, like Cop Rock (1990) and Britney & Kevin: Chaotic (2005). But is it really as bad as all that? For the morbidly curious vintage TV fan, Shout Factory has come to the rescue and made all eight episodes of Manimal officially available as a nice Complete Series three-DVD set. As with many notorious bombs of screens large and small, this show turns out to be a pretty decent effort dwarfed by its stinky-poo reputation.
As a middle-schooler, I remember being intrigued by Manimal's description in the hotly awaited 1983 Fall Preview issue of TV Guide. Even the folks at that venerable magazine couldn't help but snark over Manimal's ridiculous concept, however:
He is now a professor of animal behavioral sciences. But once upon a time, Jonathan Chase (Simon MacCorkindale) learned the amazing secret of transforming himself into various beasts. With the entire animal kingdom to choose from, Jonathan could have become a sooty albatross, a duckbill platypus, a snail darter - but no-o-o! In the pilot he chose only a black panther, a hawk, a kitty cat and a shark.
True to form, Manimal does come as a letdown for a multitude of reasons - including the hero's complete lack of imagination when it comes to which animal to morph into. Producer Glen A. Larson (Battlestar Galactica; The Fall Guy) hit several stumbling blocks in adapting this wild and wooly concept to a reliable, cops-and-criminals format. The suave, handsome Simon MacCorkindale has something of a playful, James Bond-like quality as Chase, while Flash Gordon's Melody Anderson brings a lot of sass and romantic interest as Brooke McKenzie, the determined police detective assigned to accompany Chase on cases where his animal-friendly abilities would come in handy. Besides McKenzie, the only other person aware of Chase's incredible talent is his easygoing old war buddy, Ty (Cooley High's Glynn Turman in the pilot; Michael D. Roberts in the remaining episodes), who accompanies the two on missions. The cases are overseen by Brooke's skeptical, stereotypically New Yorkish commanding officer, Nick Riviera (Reni Santoni).
Manimal predictably got savaged by the critics, while its Friday night slot against peak-era Dallas ensured that whatever audience it got would stay miniscule. NBC put it out of its misery after eight episodes, all of which are included in this DVD set. The thing is, given half a chance and a few crucial tweaks, this show could've been a cheesy, Knight Rider-like success. Throw away the show's ill-conceived, draggy pilot episode and you actually have a half-decent kiddie adventure show with an overlay of "be kind of animals" conscience. If the scripts were patchy and uninteresting, the attractive cast and novel concept at least kept it from being a total washout.
Although Manimal unfairly got put to sleep after eight episodes, it held enough potential to be salvaged. With little effort, NBC could have had Larson hunker down and correct a few flaws that dogged the first episodes, namely:
- Never-ending transformation sequences. For Jonathan Chase's man-to-animal transformations, Larson enlisted the talents of special effects legend Stan Winston. The resulting segments of bubbling latex skin, noses stretching into muzzles, and sprouting fur and feathers may have looked fancy, but they sent the show's momentum to a screeching halt. It also meant limiting the animals Chase morphed into (panther, hawk, and, later, a python). If the producers of Wonder Woman could convey a change with a twirl and a flash of light, why did Larson need to blow a good portion of his budget on these labored, ineffective sequences?
- The clumsy melding of Sci Fi and Crime formulas. Although grafting science fiction elements onto procedural crime drama is now a pretty routine occurrence (Fox's Minority Report), in Manimal's day it was a rarity - and the awkwardness shows. For the first few episodes it appears as if Larson and Co. merely took existing crime drama scripts and wedged in Jonathan's shape-shifting abilities. While the genre-blending improves a lot over the next few episodes, they never got it entirely right.
- Lack of explanations - for everything. Whenever Jonathan changes into an animal, his clothing magically disappears. After reassuming human form, his dapper clothing returns to the way it was (despite some special effects showing him ripping out of his suit). The pilot episode never adequately explains where Jonathan got his powers, and the addition of a vague prologue on the regular episodes provokes more questions than answers. Despite being set in Manhattan and the surrounding areas, they didn't do much to disguise how Manimal was filmed in the wide, sunny streets of Los Angeles.
Shout Factory's DVD edition of Manimal: The Complete Series consists of the following eight episodes, spread over three discs:
1-01 ____ 09/30/83 ____ Manimal *
1-02 ____ 10/14/83 ____ Illusion
1-03 ____ 10/21/83 ____ Night of the Scorpion
1-04 ____ 10/28/83 ____ Female of the Species
1-05 ____ 11/04/83 ____ High Stakes
1-06 ____ 12/03/83 ____ Scrimshaw
1-07 ____ 12/10/83 ____ Breath of the Dragon
1-08 ____ 12/17/83 ____ Night of the Beast
* 90-minute TV movie.
Manimal: The Complete Series comes packaged in a standard-width clear plastic case. It appears that Shout Factory is taking a slightly different packaging tact with this release, since the clear standard-width case sports a sturdier hinge that holds the three DVDs in better (you practically have to bend the discs to get them out). Instead of having episode titles and plot synopses printed inside the liner, Shout has included a nice, 20-page booklet with vintage publicity stills and behind-the-scenes photos of MacCorkindale and Stan Winston along with the titles and detailed plot descriptions (curiously, no original air dates are included).
The 4:3 image is adequately done and typical for DVD transfers of early '80s-era television. Colors are slightly faded but adequate, while there are some splotchy textures and edge-enhancement with the brittle mastering job. While the opening credits haven't held up well in the quality department (created on videotape and transferred to film), overall it's an appealing looking image given the age of the source materials.
Each episode's mono soundtrack sports a limited dynamic range. The sound is serviceable enough, however, with no outstanding examples of distortion in the non-opening credits sequences. No optional subtitle track is included.
A decent amount of bonus features have been included on this set's third disc, highlighted with Man to Animal: An Interview with Glen A. Larson. In this 20-minute chat, conducted in 2012, the producer goes into detail on Manimal's conception, production and reception. Larson's recollections are warm if somewhat deluded, blaming the show's failure entirely on the network scheduling it opposite the popular Dallas (no, no, no). It's an interesting talk. Other extras include Concept & Production Notes written in 1983, Biographies, Galleries, Shout Factory's trailer for Automan, and that 20-page Episode Guide Booklet.
Form of - a panther! Shape of - a hawk! Notorious for being among series television's worst-ever ideas, Manimal surprisingly held a lot of potential underneath its bubbling latex skin. Shout Factory's Complete Series 3-DVD set allows the curious to re-experience what went wrong with this enjoyably silly variant on '80s Cop Show formulas. Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.