The Black Box: “Manimal”

Television pilots are tough to make. It’s hard to introduce the concept and entire cast of characters of a show in one episode and still have that episode hold up on it’s own. But just because something’s hard doesn’t make it any more excusable when you fail spectacularly at doing it. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to The Black Box, where we check out pilots that crashed and burned to see exactly what went wrong. This week we cross the line that separates man from animal… animal from man… RAAR, Manimal!

Guys, I was looking forward to this. I was legitimately excited to watch this show and… it lived up to my expectations fully. Unfortunately, it was also terrible. By the time you read this, San Diego Comic-Con 2015 will be ending, but as I sit here writing this, it has not yet started because time is a miraculous thing. Regardless, I wanted to review something fun for Comic-Con week and so…

“Manimal”, created by 80’s television king Glen A. Larson, aired on September 30th, 1983 on NBC. The show followed the adventures of police scientist Dr. Jonathan Chase (Simon MacCorkindale), a man capable of transforming into any animal. He used these powers to assist his friend Ty Earl (Michael D. Roberts) and Detective Brooke Mackenzie (Melody Anderson) in crime solving. The series ran a total of eight episodes before it was canceled and, unlike the last two shows I reviewed, all those episodes were aired. The show, sadly, had DVD releases in France and the UK, but none in the US. It’s not super hard to find uploaded online, if you really want to see it. And trust me, you kinda do.

What they did wrong: the pilot is technically a 90-minute special, so it definitely drags a little. Also, this is the only episode not to include the classic opening narration I quoted in my introduction, so that was a bit of a disappointment.

What they did right: EVERYTHING FUCKING ELSE! This show is so amazingly terrible in the bestest way. I’m like a hyperactive child in a candy store, I have no idea where to start. Ok, how about the plot? In this first episode, Detective Brooke Mackenzie is trying to track down a stolen shipment of nerve gas. After encountering a group of terrorists, Brooke notices a panther fleeing the scene after dispatching a few of the thugs. She chases the panther into an alley, but only finds a man, Dr. Jonathan Chase, who shrugs her off and leaves. Eventually, Brooke begins working with the super powered Dr. Chase and his buddy Ty Earl, and together they defeat the terrorists and Brooke agrees to work with them to solve crimes for the foreseeable future. Along the way, Dr. Chase turns into a panther like five different times.

You see, although the conceit of the show was that he could turn into ANY animal, the effects budget only allowed them to pay for one transformation sequence: man into panther. And so, to pay that off, Dr. Chase (or as I will be referring to him for the rest of the review, “Manimal”) turned into a panther, like, a lot. Any time he had to turn into anything that wasn’t a panther, the show would cut away for a few minutes, and when it cut back, he would be a house cat, or a horse, or a bull, or whatever. So anytime you would see Manimal start to transform, you knew you were in for about ten minutes of panther footage. To be fair, the transformation itself is pretty well done, mostly because it was done by special effects wizard Stan Winston. Unfortunately, it is a lengthy transformation, and one you see quite often. By halfway through the episode, I knew that whenever Manimal’s hand started to shake dramatically, it was my signal to take a piss break. Thank god I got the opportunity, too, because DID I MENTION THAT THIS THING IS 90 GODDAMN MINUTES?

The point at which I lost my mind completely was when the show revealed that Manimal’s origin story took place during the Vietnam War. Yes, that Vietnam War. Apparently, Manimal and Ty were fellow soldiers, and to save them both from the Viet Cong, Manimal had to turn into a panther. He did, and the day was saved. We find this out because, when Brooke wakes up in Manimal’s apartment (don’t ask) she finds his collection of diaries explaining his entire history. I swear to god, he has more diaries than Kevin Spacey did in “Se7en”.

Actually, now that we’re talking about Manimal himself, he’s kinda creepy. Besides using his powers to get creepily close to a female terrorist (as a housecat), he’s also a little too aggressive in his advances on Brooke. But he’s british, so no one seems to care. His buddy Ty is literally “buddy cop partner #200893” so there isn’t too much to say there. Brooke plays “strong female who still finds the dickish protagonist romantically irresistible for some fuckin’ reason #50643” so at least Ty has good cliche company. Also, Brooke, advice time. When you are following someone and you don’t want to be noticed, it is not considered proper form to drive  LITERALLY TEN FEET BEHIND THEM! OF COURSE THEY FUCKING NOTICED YOU, BROOKE, IF YOU STEPPED ON YOUR GAS PEDAL, YOU’D REAR-END THEM!                   …Sorry ’bout that.

Aaaaanyway, the best actors in the show are the animals. Each animal they use made me giggle for a completely different reason. The supposedly vicious panther trots around the set like an adorable puppy, the falcon (oh, did I mention Manimal can turn into a falcon, because he can and does) refuses to stop with his sassy head tilting, the cat always looks surprised, and the cobra wears a perpetual expression of “hey, what’s goin’ on over here?” Honestly, I would pay good money just to see a show about Adorable Panther, Sassy Falcon, Surprised Cat, and Inquisitive Cobra solving crimes together, I don’t even need Manimal to be involved. Towards the end of the episode, Manimal frees a large group of jungle cats to fight with him, and it’s never been clearer that they couldn’t have any of the animals onscreen at the same time. One cat would walk across the screen, then jump cut to the same angle of another cat strolling onscreen. This happens three times. I’m not stupid, “Manimal”, despite the fact that I watched you.

Before I go, I have two questions. One: where do Manimal’s clothes go/ come from when he changes? At one point, he changes from a Panther (surprise, surprise) into a man and a full suit just shows up on him outta goddamn nowhere! WHAT PART OF THE PANTHER TURNS INTO SLACKS? ANSWER ME THAT, MANIMAL! Other question, does Manimal, like, eat people? At the end of the episode, a terrorist boss kinda guy is sitting in a chair in his pool when a shark (implied to be Manimal) begins swimming up to him. THEN THE EPISODE ENDS. Are we supposed to assume Manimal fuckin’ ate him? Is that still cannibalism if he’s a shark when he does it? This question has legitimately kept me awake at night.

So, I guess Manimal (possible cannibal) is the first show I would truly recommend. Get some buddies together and give it a watch! Next week… I watch something that’ll make me sad because it’s not nearly as amazing as this was.

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