Growing up in the 80's invariably meant watching a lot of television. This was a time when VCR's and Cable Television were still fairly new and nowhere close as competitive with broadcast TV as they are now. Prime Time television was still king, and this meant that the fight for the hearts and minds of America's young viewers was still going strong.
The big difference between then and now, of course, is that Prime Time in the 80's was usually geared towards kids. While TV shows at 8:00 these days are either game shows or reality shows that do their best to keep the adult material down to a minimum, the eighties Prime Time was at least fifty percent kid's shows disguised as hard-hitting action or mystery series.
A perfect example of this? AUTOMAN!
I remember watching Automan as a kid, and yes, I remember loving the Hell out of it. With computer technology slowly emerging as the dominant talking point of the time period, it was becoming more and more popular for films and tv shows to play on the country's love (or paranoia - this was the same year that WarGames hit the big screen) of everything computer related.
In a time when home computers were slowly becoming affordable for commercial sale, yet were still less widespread than home swimming pools, ABC decided that their younger audience members would jump on board if they could somehow turn the cold, impersonal world of electronic data into a handsome hero with a cute little sidekick. Automan was thus born.
The cast of Automan is pure 80's. You've got Desi Arnaz, Jr as the geeky computer expert who works for the police department and designs video games on the side.
His passion for crime fighting and DOS leads to the creation of Automan, played by the hunky Chuck Wagner, who spends most of the show acting naive and looking handsome in a glowing suit blatantly ripped off from Tron, which had taken over the box office the previous year.
Filling out the cast are Robert Lansing as the actual cop who tags along, Gerald S. O'Loughlin as the computer-hating Captain, and Heather McNair as the designated female sidekick/love interest.
Combined, the careers of these actors is a complete cross-section of 80's television. Name a TV show you remember from back then, and odds are one of them starred on an episode.
But they aren't why you remember Automan. You remember Automan as the quintessential 80's TV show with big-budget ideas yet no real money for special effects. Much like the original Battlestar Galactica in it's waning years, later episodes are almost always guaranteed to reuse special effects scenes from the pilot, which actually had a budget. Combined with off-screen happenings, the special effects ratio would invariably end up being one costly effect per show.
The concept might have been big-budget, but that doesn't necessarily mean high-concept. For example, look at the name of the show. Automan is supposed to be a reference to the Automated age of computers, yet for kids watching a show about a glowing guy driving around town in a cool car, the Auto just stands for Cool Car. I'm not saying Electroman would have been a better name, but maybe they could have tried a bit harder.
The show's hero, the Automated Man himself, is a perfect example of the world's view of computers back then. Bright and shiny, likable and desirable, he could have been the Dell Dude of his time. Created from a computer program years before the geeks of Weird Science, Automan was able to do everything that computers could do; talk to other computers, crunch huge amounts of data, and shoot lightening bolts out of his hands.
Automan's cute little sidekick, Cursor, followed him out of the computer world to give him a hand. Unlike the typical square dot you would normally see on your computer screen, Automan's Cursor was a pulsing star-shaped apparition that made cute noises, also blatantly ripped of from Tron. Like Automan, Cursor was able to do in the real world what he did in the computer realm; create vehicles out of thin air, scare strange women, and make audiences go "Awwwwwwwww".
Of course, Automan fell into the same trap that most of these shows did. Armed with a catchy gimmick and passable special effects, they now had to write original episodes that incorporated all of the gimmicks and special effects, and make them interesting enough to hold the viewers when the gimmicks lose their appeal.
Yes, I remember loving this show as a kid. But, as audiences tend to do, I soon became bored with the gimmick, and looked for the next shiny object that would temporarily captivate me during the Prime Time viewing hours.
That next wonderful distraction, of course, was Manimal!