Simon MacCorkindale. What a truly splendid name. Say it when you feel sad. Simon MacCorkindale. There’s a smile built right in! This jaunty name reminds one of Eddie Izzard’s alternatives to Jerry Dorsey. I believe it remained unchallenged in the realm of superb British nomenclature until the advent of Benedict Cumberbatch.
Perhaps fate itself led this fellow with an amazing name to star in a show with a portmanteau for a title.
Manimal came and went during the 1983 fall season. Glen A. Larson created the series, along with just about every other TV show created between 1970 and 1990. As with many other shows from the late 70s and early 80s, you can enjoy it in two ways: either as a show that stands up despite some dated material (as was the case with Kolchak) or as a time capsule full of perfect hair and Members Only jackets. Manimal is a mix of both, but, let’s face it, mostly hair.
Also there was always a guy before and after commercial breaks going, “Mmmanimal!”
Refresher Course: Simon Charles Pendered MacCorkindale plays Dr. Jonathan Chase, who looks just as wealthy, young and handsome as the narrator says he is. And if that weren’t ace enough, he also inherited arcane secrets from his adventurous father. His dad, see, had travelled the globe learning secret powers from the deepest, darkest, deep and dark people, excelling in that Tarzanic way that aristocratic white folks have. Dr. Chase gained the ability to shape-shift into any animal form, having mastered the secrets that divide man from animal, and animal from man, and manimal from… anime? Together with detective Brooke Mackenzie (Melody Anderson of Flash Gordon fame and shampoo commercial hair) and friend—it’s kind of a colonial sort of friendship—Ty Earl (Michael D. Roberts) they fight crime and look pretty great doing it.
I love the concept. Changing into animals at will would be super-duper cool, right? Need a hug? Turn into a puppy. In a long line at the bank? Screw that. Cobras don’t wait in lines. Police pulled you over? Manta Ray! How you gonna write a ticket for a Manta Ray, mister po-po?
Unfortunately, the instance of shape-shifting in the show never quite lives up to its potential. Most often, he’s a hawk when he needs to fly or a panther when he needs to prowl and growl. Panthers are, of course, badass. As are hawks. And the transformation special effects—though borrowing pretty obviously from American Werewolf in London—are cool in a predominantly knuckle and jaw oriented fashion. But were I a shape-shifting crime fighter, I might consider something more common in an urban landscape than a panther or a hawk. How about a pigeon? No one notices pigeons. Or a squirrel. Because no criminal in a state of heightened nefariousness is going to look up at the raptor that’s followed them since downtown and say, “Boy, this town sure is lousy with falcons. Oh well, back to crime!”
MacCorkindale’s acting is fine, if occasionally cornball. He feels genuinely wealthy, young, handsome, and capable of fighting crimes as a small variety of A-list animals. Roberts is okay, too, but never feels like anyone who actually needs to be there. His main job is to go, “Oh, no, this sure is a bad idea mister handsome, young, wealthy shape-shifter man!” or “Boy, you sure are awesome, white fellow. And you too, attractive blonde lady I’ll never stand a chance with!” As for Anderson…well, I don’t mean to be too harsh, so let’s just say she never quite feels like a detective. In this show, at least, she’s something like a graduate of the Dean Learner Academy of Dramatic Arts.
The Best and the Worst: Dispensing with any high-falutin’ sense of drama, or even middling-falutin’, Manimal is best enjoyed for camp and fun. With that in mind, it’s challenging to say best and worst because, really, no episode is outstandingly bad-bad or particularly good-good but there’s plenty of bad-good. The best episode goes to “Breath of the Dragon.” In this episode (and only this episode) we learn that Dr. Chase not only knows kung fu, but knows it better than Chinatown gangsters (see previously mentioned Tarzanic powers of the upper class Caucasian). The episode has the cultural sensitivity of a Calgon commercial, but gets points for lots of action and a transformation into a raging bull, reminiscent of old malt liquor ads. The episode culminates in Dr. Chase instantly mastering a rather ballet-like form of kung fu by watching animals and copying their strikes and defenses.
Another notable episode is “Illusion,” due to the effortlessly villainous Richard Lynch, with his copious anti-charm. And did you know that, according to Dr. Jonathan Chase, tigers kill with their rear legs by disemboweling? Well, tigers certainly don’t kill by fact-checking, anyhow.
The worst? I’m going with “The Female of the Species,” a tale of a feral child, a Mowglish young woman raised by wolves in India. Not an Indian girl though. No, that would make too much sense. A Caucasian girl. Of course. She’s shown off like a wild animal with big nasty wild-girl hair and surprisingly scar-free legs. And the scientist who finds her is all like, “I’ve discovered a savage wolf girl! I’m such a scientist!” And Simon MacManimal is all like, “No way, she’s got rights even if she’s smelly!” And of course, he understands animals, so he understands her, because she’s sort of a womanimal. And throughout the episode he rescues her a bunch (because she’s surprisingly crap at self defense) and they gradually upgrade her from her feral state to the self-aware lovely young thing she’s meant to be, blah blah, oh and some jerk wants to kill her and at least there’s a shark and a dolphin. It’s cliché smothered in stereotype sauce, centering on the virtues of having a wealthy, young, handsome alpha male to make sure you stop barking and your hair is up to network standards.
What happened?: Kids liked the transforming sequences. Well, kids I knew liked them. That’s not enough when you run opposite Dallas, easily the most popular American TV drama at the time. But even had it gone up against an arts and crafts program in Latvian, it wouldn’t have lasted long. It got canned along with damn near every other show NBC debuted that season. TV Guide in their list of the 50 worst shows placed Manimal at 15. This is in no way accurate, though. Manimal is a million times better than Makin’ It.
Maybe I’m cynical, but seems to me that Glen A. Larson, creating a new show every 7 minutes or so, couldn’t have been all that broken up about it. He did, however, bring back Dr. Chase for an episode of a later Larson show, Night Man. Or so I’m told.
Larson also created Battlestar Galactica which was famously rebooted with great success (not counting the last few episodes that make me want to punch people). How about a Manimal reboot? With Benedict Cumberbatch as an occasional honey badger. Or maybe a mash up/reboot with Magnum PI… Magnanimal! Staring Giovanni Ribisi—that’s a hell of a name—with a big moustache. He can turn into a walrus.
You’re welcome, Hollywood.
Jason Henninger lives in Los Angeles, a place that looks not only looks like Kolchak’s Chicago but also Manimal’s New York. And Dexter’s Miami, for that matter.