Case Study 44: Manimal, Episode 6–“Scrimshaw”

Original Airdate: December 3rd, 1983 on NBC

Previously on this blog, I’ve taunted you with a link to this list, poetically titled by Wikipedia “List of television series considered the worst.” Despite all the garbage I’ve already covered here, I’ve yet to encounter one of these—until now. And the really surprising thing here is that Manimal isn’t even THAT bad. It’s definitely not great. But I laughed a lot harder at this than I did at See Dad Run, that’s for sure. Sure, I was laughing at the show and not with it, but I’d rather be laughing at something than be pissed off or annoyed.


  • Fun action sequences. Anyone looking to enjoy entertainment intended for a popular audience needs to be willing to engage in a certain amount of suspension of disbelief, and that need is more pronounced in the action/adventure genre. If you’re worried about the amount of time and energy the Inca would have to put into mechanical traps to foil Indiana Jones, you’re missing the point. Now, Manimal is no Raiders Of The Lost Ark. Any attempt to think about the story being told in Manimal actively repels thought like drops of water on those fancy khakis. But there’s car chases. There’s dune buggy chases. Manimal himself, Dr. Jonathan Chase (Simon MacCorkindale), dangles precariously off the pontoons of a seaplane mid-flight. It meets the basic criteria of an action-adventure show, and it even displays a certain amount of panache in the process.
  • Original idea. Sure, the fantasy genre is lousy with shapeshifters, but as far as I can tell this is the first instance on TV of a protagonist with the ability to change into any animal he wants. While the Animorphs book series would perfect the idea a decade later, it’s still a tantalizing concept. Of course, the show doesn’t do anything interesting with the idea, but some shows don’t have any ideas at all.


  • Cartoonish & juvenile. I’m going to go ahead and generously assume that Manimal was aiming to appeal to the whole family and not just criminally stupid adults. I would feel sure that this was intended for children if it wasn’t a live-action series airing in primetime. The show opens with Manimal and friends exploring the magic of tide pools at a beach when they uncover a skeleton clutching a walrus tusk. At first I thought they were going to try and find out who killed the deceased, but it turns out that, no, the tusk is scrimshawed with a treasure map, and the rest of the episode is devoted to avoiding a villain who’s willing to kill for doubloons. At one point our heroes visit a bar patronized by grizzled sailors, and Manimal associate Ty Earl (Michael D. Roberts, Rain Man) is forced to play a game of five finger filet for some reason. Later, Manimal’s friend Brooke Mackenzie (Melody Anderson, Flash Gordon) gets caught in honest-to-god quicksand, which would be stupid enough, except for the fact that the show gets quicksand confused with sinkholes. This plot might pass muster for an episode of Johnny Quest, but when you’re putting it forward as something actual adults might watch, it’s a real fucking stretch.
  • Terrible special effects. Since there have been plenty of TV shows with stupid storylines before and since Manimal, I’m guessing the ludicrous SFX on display are what earned this show its abysmal reputation. They’re hilariously bad, and since the premise of the show is that Manimal turns into animals, we get to see quite a bit of them. The most laughable part of the transformation inevitably involves stock footage of animals completely removed from the scene and without any other actors present. Using movie magic to wrangle dangerous animals is no problem these days—look no further than Zoo, or better yet, don’t look at Zoo at all—but for something with Manimal’s budget it was an impossible dream to have a panther plausibly resolve a hostage situation.

Motivation: Manimal and his buddies are desperate to uncover the secrets of the scrimshawed tusk, and despite this they are not inside a Hardy Boys novel. Knowledge.

Final Judgment: 3/10. Based on its reputation, I was expecting this to be irredeemable, but anything that makes me laugh is at least somewhat endearing. So Bad It’s Good beats So Boring It’s Bad any day of the week.

NEXT TIME: Bring on the puppets, because I’m watching Fireball XL5!

Case Study 44: Manimal, Episode 6–“Scrimshaw”