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Automan: The Complete Series
This is the story of Walter Nebicher doing what he likes best: fighting crime in the streets. You see, Walter's a policeman. Unfortunately, the Chief doesn't want Walter on the streets. So Walter must fight crime in his own way: in the computer room. That's where he's an expert. Fortunately for me, Walter's advanced knowledge of electronics led him to experiment with what is called a hologram. That's a very fancy word for a three-dimensional picture that, when perfected, can be made to look real, sound real. As a matter of fact, given enough power, it can even be made to feel real. That's kind of what got me into this work. My name is… Automan.
So went the opening narration to Glen A. Laron's ABC TV series Automan that ran thirteen episodes (though only twelve were actually aired) between 1983 and 1984. The series revolved around Walter Nebicher (Desi Arnaz, Jr.), a scientist/cop that managed to create his own artificial intelligence program that he was somehow able to turn into a holographic crime fighter eventually dubbed Automan (Chuck Wagner). Capable of leaving the computer to fight crime in the flesh and blood world, our hero had some pretty odd adventures in his day, all of which are contained in this four disc collection from Shout! Factory.
Not surprisingly, the first episode introduces us to Walter, forced to work a desk job by his grumpy boss, Captain Boyd (Gerald S. O'Loughlin). Why? Because Walter is a computer whiz, obviously, so yeah, Walter winds up creating the Automan program and as Automan figures out how to pop into the real world, using the clever alias of Otto J. Mann (again played by Wagner), he and Walter realize that they can fight crime in interesting ways, especially since a weird droid named Cursor can help them out by pretty much creating anything they need it to create. There's a catch though… because Automan needs so much power to work outside the computer, he can only enter the real world once the sun goes down. This also allows for the series to use awesome glow in the dark effects and props that were very clearly meant to look just like those used in Tron.
All of this goes pretty well, especially when the mob kidnaps foxy Roxanne Caldwell (Heather McNair), holding her hostage until Automan can come to the rescue. As Auotman gets better at fighting crime, another grumpy cop named Lt. Jack Curtis (Robert Lansing) occasionally gets pulled into the cases. Other adventures/cases include an episode where Automan has to stop some counterfeiters, a trip to San Cristobal to rescue some missing Americans from imminent danger, an issue where Internal Affairs thinks Walter had something to do with this death of his friend and fellow cop Frank Cooney, and of course an episode where Walter has to take on a fellow computer genius named Ronald Tilson! They also take on crooked cops, save a group of girl rockers called The Sweet Kicks from a murderer, solve the murder of a Hollywood gossip writer and in a series highlight, an episode where Automan goes undercover as a male stripper!
The performances here are fun. Desi Arnaz Jr. is pretty good as the fairly nebbish Walter. He's nerdy but not so nerdy as to be a total cliché and Arnaz is genuinely fun to watch in the part. Chuck Wagner is equally enjoyable as Automan/Otto Mann. He's charming and amusing and just cocky enough and at just the right times to be the right casting choice here. Aside from the amusing performances from the leads, the series also has a pretty interesting array of guest stars, so be on the lookout for appearances from Patrick MacNee, Sid Haig, Clu Gulager, Delta Burke, Michelle Phillips, Glenn Corbett, Richard Lynch, Ed Lauter, John Vernon, Billy Drago, Brett Halsey and even a small roll for Andy Sidaris regular/Playboy Playmate Dona Speir (as a bikini girl, no less!). Truly, all the stars came out for Automan.
The Tron inspired effects work is definitely dated, there's no way around that, but that's half the charm of a series like this (it's very much a time capsule of sorts). There's all sorts of enjoyable weirdness packed into this short-lived series, from the screwy vehicles that Automan gets to drive around in to the preposterous plots to the incredibly skewed eighties take on computer technology and its abilities and it's all delivered with the right mix of action, adventure and good natured humor. It's seriously goofy stuff, but it's a whole lot of fun.The DVD:
Automan arrives on DVD framed at 1.33.1 fullframe, just as it should be. While this isn't going to blow your mind with super intense fine detail, for a standard definition offering of an early eighties TV show, it looks just fine. Colors look pretty nice here and black levels are decent if never reference quality. As the thirteen episodes in the series are spread across four discs there's a decent bit rate so compression artifacts are never really a problem. Again, this looks like the early eighties TV series that it is, but there's no shame in that. If you're familiar with the series you should be pretty happy with the quality of the image here.Sound:
The English language Dolby Digital 2.0 audio mixes for each and every episode of Automan are fine. Balance is decent, dialogue stays clean, clear and easy to here and while these aren't super dynamic sounding tracks, they definitely get the job done. There are no problems with any hiss or distortion and the score and sound effects come through nicely. There are no subtitles or alternate language options provided.Extras:
The main extra on the disc is an all new forty-two minute long featurette entitled Calling Automan": The Auto Feature which is comprised of interviews with Chuck Wagner, Glen A. Larson, Desi Arnaz Jr. and Heather McNair. This is an interesting and reasonably in-depth look back at the making of the series, where the ideas came from, casting the show, the effects work that was such a big part of it and, eventually, why the show went off the air.
Outside of that we get a piece called The Story Of Automan (which is a look at how the series was announced to the press, Feature Story (press kit excerpts), some cast and crew biographies, a still gallery of Automan collectibles, a still gallery of promo materials, a trailer for Manima, menus and chapter/episode selection.Final Thoughts:
Automan was short lived, but remains a pretty interesting oddball cult TV curio all these years later. This is really one of those shows that only could have existed in the eighties, it's pretty out there, but it's still a lot of fun. Shout! Factory's DVD release of the complete series will certainly be appreciated by the show's fan-base and if you're in that demographic, consider this set recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.