It's impossible to talk about 1980's TV without mentioning the literal slew of crime-solving shows that permeated the networks. Whether it was the pastel colors of Miami Vice, the bizarre intellect of MacGyver or the outright absurdity of The A-Team, action packed crime shows packed the rosters. While later decades may prefer their detectives using their minds over their guns – i.e. CSI, Law & Order, Bones and whatever the next crime series starting up on FX is called – the audience of the 80's appears to have only tolerated brains if it meant a weirder plot or bigger explosion later.
Shows like these were so popular that we're seeing references, spoofs and remakes of them even today. Do you think we'd still be seeing Mr. T in World of Warcraft commercials if The A-Team hadn't been such a huge success? I, for one, pity the fool who thinks otherwise.
Not every 80's sleuth show would live on in our memory, however. Along with the brilliant ones that live on in popular culture, there were heaps of trashy shows that never quite made the leap from the screen and into our nostalgia. Perhaps chief among these forgotten relics is a 1983 show called Manimal.
Starring Simon MacCorkindale as the exceedingly suave crime fighter Dr. Jonathon Chase, this short lived (only eight episodes aired) drama series is noteworthy for a couple reasons. One, it revolves around Chase using his ability to morph into any animal he wishes to fight crime, and two, it appears to have been completely driven by an attempt to work in every cliché.
Take the episode available for viewing, “Scrimshaw.” Does it have a comic relief black guy? Yup. An attractive female police officer who can hold her own? Mhm. Tough New York City kid? Yes. A bad guy whose greed leads to his downfall? Totally. Are all of these characters played by terrible actors? Of course.
Aside from the fact that it involves the obscure art of scrimshaw carving, the plot of the episode is hardly any more surprising. Chase and his friends are enjoying a jaunt on the beach when they come across a seal trapped in a net. After a brief PETA moment, they stumble across an intricate piece of scrimshaw with a skeletal hand still grasping it. Being curious, they dig a little further and find a skull with a boomerang stuck in it. “Even as he died, he wouldn't let go of it. It's a testament to it's value, “ muses Chase about the scrimshaw.
So is this a grisly murder? A tragic boomerang accident? Who knows! Chase and company are far too interested in deciphering the coded message carved into the scrimshaw to show even passing interest in the dead body. They take the artwork to the aforementioned tough New York City kid's grandfather, a master sailor who knows everything about seafaring culture, hoping he can help them crack the apparent code.
As the episode plays out, the group learns that the the scrimshaw is actually a map that leads to an island filled with treasure. Unfortunately for them, a greedy little man and his boomerang-wielding Australian henchman are on the trail as well, kidnapping the kid and his grandfather and bringing them to the island. Chase encounters them there, and, after a short confrontation, the Australian is killed by his own boomerang and the greedy little man falls down a sinkhole, brought down by the weight of the gold he refused to drop. The treasure is given to the proper authorities and all is right in the world.
Given how straight up awful the plot and characters are, it seems that the creators of the show were hoping the audience would be distracted by the whole “morphing into any animal ever” thing, a hope not entirely unreasonable. After all, while most of the genre at the time was focusing on humans vs humans, Manimal had the chance to corner the “mutated detective” market a year before Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles even came out as a comic book.
Or at least it would have, had the morphing actually been an integral part of the show. In “Scrimshaw,” Chase spends most of his time as a human, only jumping into animal form when the formulaic plot forces him to. The morphing process itself is both hilarious and painful to watch, bearing such a resemblance to the Power Rangers's “morphing” cut scenes that even SyFy channel CGI looks good by comparison.
With the clichés, bad acting, horrible plot and miserable special effects all coming together to form a show so bad it's nearly offensive, it really comes as no surprise that Manimal did not last long on air. However, don't let this dissuade you from watching it today. Though Manimal was trash when it was released, it exists today as a camp masterpiece.