Manimal, where the idea was better than the TV show

A TV producer named Glen A. Larson was responsible for an awful lot of the schlock I adored in the 1980s – Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, The Fall Guy, Knight Rider, Automan and perhaps my most beloved short-lived TV series, the eternally mocked Manimal

Larson was the go-to for cheesy action shows with a ‘hook’ that ripped off other movies (Automan might have well as been called Almost Tron). Larson pumped out an awful lot of hits before his death in 2014, but his fair share of misses, too.

As a kid, I didn’t realise Larson was kind of scorned by the critics. I remember being totally into the original Battlestar Galactica when I was a wee idealistic young thing, and it took my several years to realise that the show was actually kind of a critical punching bag, that lots of folks thought it was just a rip-off of Star Wars, and so forth. I still don’t agree, but do admit Galactica had many creaky spots. (They were all completely right about Galactica 1980, though. Phew.) 

Which brings me to Manimal, a show that I know intellectually is not all that good but I kind of adore it. Poor Manimal only lasted a mere 8 episodes in the fall of 1983, and god help me, I watched every one of them at the time. Manimal was the tale of Dr. Jonathan Chase (Simon MacCorkindale), a playboy British dude who thanks to some vaguely explained exotic foreign training could turn into any animal he chooses. Naturally, he ends up fighting crime, joining the police department as a vague “consultant”, like Sherlock Holmes with fur, and paired with a perky young detective (Flash Gordon’s Melody Anderson). Lately, I’ve been rewatching the brief run on a cheap DVD I picked up (you won’t find something this obscure on streaming) and while adult me sees the plot holes and cliches galore, Manimal is still a kind of goofy retro treat. Come on, how can you NOT like that opening theme? 

Look, the show was cheese, boilerplate ‘80s cop storylines enlivened by the guy who could turn into animals – mostly a black panther and a hawk, although once he turned into a snake. The transformation sequences were goofy but cool stop-motion special effects, although they were largely repeated in every single episode. The budget and desire for innovation was clearly minimal – you hear the same panther roar sound effect about 1000 times in the eight episodes – and one of the more ridiculous side effects was that every time Jonathan transformed into an animal, tearing apart his clothing Hulk style, he somehow ended up instantly back in a stylish three-piece suit at the end of every animal change. Back in the day, David Letterman got a lot of mileage out of Manimal mocking. Really, I can’t blame him. 

And still – MacCorkindale is an engaging leading man, endlessly confident in his own abilities and making Jonathan Chase more likeable than he could’ve been. (Sadly, MacCorkindale died of cancer at just 58.) And Anderson, who was a frequent guest on all kinds of ‘80s TV shows, is an enjoyably cynical sidekick. The rest of the stock characters – the token Black partner who never gets much to do, the always angry police boss – fare less well, and honestly, the scripts on Manimal’s 8 episodes are barely mediocre. The good doctor’s backstory is never really explored, nor is the potential of his powers.

Larson was known for knocking ‘em out and having some good hooks, but the execution is probably where much of his reputation for mediocrity came from. Other than the guy who turns into a cat once or twice a show, it’s cliche cop show 101. But it was Manimal’s core concept that hooked me as an animal-obsessed kid – a guy who can turn into any animal! – and that I still kind of love today.

I don’t know if I really want to see a Manimal reboot – they’ve been threatening one for years, which would probably end up starring Will Ferrell or Jack Black or something – but at the same time it probably wouldn’t have the awkward low-budget charm of Glen A. Larson’s short-lived TV show. I’ll take my poor neglected Manimal just the way it is.

Author: nik dirga

I'm an American journalist who has lived in New Zealand for more than a decade now.

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