Television has this amazing habit, as it keeps using the same ideas, but finds new ways to present them. Due to different eras, styles, and creative personnel, a simple four-word idea evolved into three very different series. About all they had in common was that each focused on the relationship between two very different lead characters… and the fact that each of the shows lasted one season or less. Oh, and that four-word idea? “Human Cop — Robot Partner.”
VERSION 1.0: ABC tried this idea when it premiered a “buddy comedy” titled Holmes and Yo-Yo. Set in the then present day of 1976, it featured Alexander Holmes (Richard B. Shull) as the human cop, who was such a bumbler that his incompetence kept putting all of his former partners in the hospital (accidentally, of course). When no one would partner with him any longer, he was finally teamed with rookie cop Gregory Yoyonovitch (John Schuck). During their first assignment, “Yo-Yo” is shot (of course, due to Holmes ineptness). Surprisingly, Yo-Yo is relatively unharmed, but Holmes discovers Yo-Yo’s “secret”: that he’s actually a robot, being tested for police work, and no one but his creator and the officers’ Captain (Bruce Kirby) are supposed to know his true nature.
Trying to keep the secret of Yo-Yo’s identity was difficult, since a female fellow officer was falling for him (and Yo-Yo, programmed for friendliness and not love, is totally oblivious of this). It also didn’t help that his robotics weren’t nearly perfected, and he was affected by everything from elevators to magnets to garage door openers. What follows is 13 episodes of slapstick humor and sight gags, usually involving either Holmes clumsiness putting Yo-Yo into ridiculous situations, or Yo-Yo’s lack of understanding of human behavior and Holmes’ trying to cover for his partner’s true nature. The comedy was broad, hoping to invoke the style of famous teams like Martin & Lewis, and Gleason & Carney (the show was produced by Leonard Stern, who’d written for The Honeymooners and Get Smart, so you can tell the tone the series was going for). Shull and Schuck were actually very good physical comedians, but the material they had to work with was almost too outlandish, and the Holmes and Yo-Yo series (and buffoonery) soon ended.
But that four-word “high-concept” idea was still out there… and the idea of “human cop–robot partner” might still work, if someone took a completely different approach….
VERSION 2.0: Producer Dick Wolf (creator of the long-running Law and Order franchise) tried his hand at this idea in the summer of 1992. NBC’s Mann and Machine was set in the “near future”, and inhabited a similar but slightly more advanced world than what we know of today in 2010. Its plots took a much more traditional “cop show” tone, just with a few futuristic touches. Robots and artificial intelligence (AI) are beginning to become more commonplace in this era, and human police detective Robert “Bobby” Mann (David Andrews) ends up being paired with the newest generation model, a beautiful female robot named Eve (Yancy Butler). Again, almost everyone else (except their boss) is supposed to think that she’s human… and according to her creators, she almost is….
“There’s only one thing that separates the machine mind from its human counterpart, and that’s the ability to learn from experience. Eve is the first creation of artificial intelligence capable of assimilating “emotional” material.”
–Dr. Anna Kepler, Eve’s creator, in the pilot episode
Eve is programmed with an incredible amount of knowledge… but emotionally, she’s at the level of a seven-year old, still learning about human behavior (and everything from “little white lies” to the concept of modesty, since she thinks nothing of disrobing in front of Mann at one point). But she learns very quickly… and Mann, with all his great instincts as a policeman (and bad habits as a human being) gets to be the one to teach her.
The stories utilized both Eve’s advanced abilities and Mann’s street sense to solve crimes, and the only real downfall of the series was that the presentation of the show almost tried to be too futuristic. With jerky, oddly edited action scenes and vaguely unsettling electronic music, the characterizations and plots were undermined by the attempts at being “cutting edge” in style, and the show’s emotional core suffered as a result. When the film editors don’t get in their way, Butler shines in one of her early acting roles as Eve, and Andrews does a fine job presenting Mann as a character that, in lesser hands, would be unlikable, but here is simply a fallible human, and therefore the best teacher Eve could ever have. Their Captain is portrayed by actress S. Epatha Merkerson, who started playing the boss of other cops (but essentially the same character) for 16 seasons on Wolf’s long-running Law and Order, shortly after Mann and Machine‘s 9 episodes ended.
So… the broad comedy didn’t work, and neither did the slightly futuristic drama. What’s left? Well, the next version took a little of both , and some inspiration from the movies, and came up with a far different approach….
VERSION 3.0: Move forward a couple of TV seasons to 1994, and a few more years into the future. RoboCop: The Series was based on the movie franchise, which had gone through 3 films, although the last two weren’t nearly as successful as the first. Therefore, the series threw out any continuity of those two sequels, and returned to the original for its inspiration.
“We always felt RoboCop was a lonely hero who could not express who he is. The television series is an opportunity to explore the ethical honing of RoboCop’s character against a more science-fiction like setting.”
–Michael Miner, co-writer of both the original film and the series pilot episode
It’s now a few years after the events of the original movie, in which cop Alex Murphy (played in the series by Richard Eden) had been critically wounded, and what was left of him was fused with a robotic shell and computer programming. The result, RoboCop, is an armored law enforcer, with supposedly no memory of his prior existence, and instructions to serve the public trust, protect the innocent, and uphold the law. However, RoboCop’s discovery of the wife and son he’d had in his previous life as Murphy trigger troubling memories and images, and a slow realization of the humanity he has lost. His partner in the TV series, Lisa Madigan (Yvette Nipar), also discovers the truth, and promises to keep secret the existence of his slowly recovering memories, while helping to protect his former family and encouraging Murphy to tell them what has happened to him. This forms the emotional core of the episodes, as Murphy/RoboCop must deal with the present while reaching back to try and grasp his elusive past.
“They need a husband… and a father. I cannot be that. But I can protect them.”
RoboCop/Murphy to Madigan at the end of the first episode
This heartfelt character arc was oddly combined with a darkly comic tone (which both the series and the original movie shared). It presented sharp ironic satire bordering on the absurd, in a heightened and almost parody-like demonstration of present day attitudes taken to extremes. In fact, it’s probably a good thing that the show was syndicated and sold directly to local stations, because if it had been on a major network, it could never have gotten away with the spirited jabs it took at almost any target. Religion and politics were both satirized, and corporations and crooks ran almost everything, while the populace looked the other way (as long as they weren’t inconvenienced).
“RoboCop is also a comedy, social satire in the broadest sense, we were always thinking about the next crazy character, place name, or situation which would pillory our existing institutions.”
–Ed Newmeier, the other co-writer on the original movie and series pilot episode
The one thing that was different from the original film was a significant lack of over-the-top violence, which simply wasn’t acceptable on broadcast TV in 1994, even in syndication. So, instead of violence, irony ruled the day. In a world that had willingly given up its own humanity in trade for material comfort and the illusion of contentment, RoboCop/Murphy represented a journey back to humanity. He not only was our protector, he represented hope.
Compare the above two quotes of the co-writers. Just like RoboCop/Murphy, the feeling you get is a severe case of split personality for both the character and the show. This, to me, is the best explanation of why RoboCop: The Series only lasted one 22 episode season. The juxtaposition of styles and substance might work over a two-hour movie (and even then, it didn’t work for the two sequels), but it’s just too difficult to balance and maintain over an entire series.
Comedy, drama, or irony? Network or syndicated? No matter what approach, apparently there were still too many “bugs” in the (television) programming for any of these versions of “Human Cop — Robot Partner” to succeed. But maybe someday….
RICHARD B. SHULL (Alexander Holmes) appeared in many comedy roles on TV and film including Hart to Hart, Alice, and The Rockford Files, but his first love was theatre. He appeared in numerous Broadway productions, including Victor/Victoria and Goodtime Charley, for which he received a Tony award nomination. He passed away in 1999, acting almost literally until the end, part of the cast of the Broadway play Epic Proportions.
JOHN SCHUCK (Yo-Yo) has had a wide range of roles, known as a comedic actor earlier in his career as Sgt. Enright in McMillan and Wife, and Herman Munster in the revival series The Munsters Today. He’s used his dramatic muscles in numerous science fiction shows, including Babylon 5, and both the fourth and sixth Star Trek movies. He also toured for many years as Daddy Warbucks in the musical Annie.
DAVID ANDREWS (Bobby Mann) was in the original A Nightmare on Elm Street movie, as well as playing supporting roles in the movies Fight Club and Apollo 13. On television, he appeared in the HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon and was a regular on the final season of JAG.
YANCY BUTLER (Eve) is best known for starring in the two-season cable series Witchblade, but also starred in the short-lived series Brooklyn South and South Beach. She was also featured in multiple episodes of Third Watch and the soap opera As the World Turns.
RICHARD EDEN (Alex Murphy/RoboCop) spent a season on the NBC soap Santa Barbara and appeared regularly on Emerald Point N.A.S. He also guested on numerous Canadian-filmed syndicated series in the ’90’s, including Tarzan, Forever Knight, Total Recall, Earth: Final Conflict, and Relic Hunter.
YVETTE NIPAR (Lisa Madigan) played recurring parts in Brisco County Jr. and 21 Jump Street. She’s also made appearances on everything from Murder, She Wrote to Chicago Hope to Party of Five to Profiler.
Holmes and Yo-Yo exists almost only in the memories of those who saw it originally, with little information or resources online. One episode is available, in chunks, on YouTube. You can also find the pilot of Mann and Machine on YouTube, in addition to further episodes (again in chunks). There are also bootleg DVDs of the Mann and Machine available in various places on the web, but there’s never been an official release of either of these two shows. RoboCop: The Series did receive an official DVD release in Canada, but it’s still Region 1 and therefore playable on North American DVD machines and available from Amazon Canada. There’s also a great site dedicated to the entire RoboCop mythology, with excellent information on all the movies, the animated series, comic books, and everything else from that universe.
Whether in comedic, dramatic, or ironic terms, by contrasting a human cop and a robot partner we are not just entertained, but discover some facet of our own humanity. One has to wonder, however, why these robots keep wanting to be human… when humans themselves don’t seem to appreciate the lessons of these shows enough to keep them on the air.
Someday, someone will come up with VERSION 4.0 of this theme, and try it again, and maybe this next show will find an audience that appreciates that message… and be reminded of their humanity in an increasingly technological world. Until then… the idea is still there, waiting. Just four words….
Holmes and Yo-Yo
13 aired episodes — none unaired
First aired episode: September 25, 1976
Final aired episode: August 8, 1977, although the series had stopped airing the previous December, with the last episode unaired until late summer of the following year
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central? No, its scheduled time slot was Saturdays at 8/7 Central.
Mann and Machine
9 aired episodes — none unaired
First aired episode: April 5, 1992
Final aired episode: July 14, 1992, but the show skipped the entire month of May and most of June, essentially having been cancelled already, and again, the remaining episodes were burned off in the dead of summer with no promotion.
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central? Again, no. The series aired on Sundays at 8/7 Central, with the “burned” episodes airing on Tuesdays.
RoboCop: The Series
Two-hour pilot and 21 hour episodes aired — none unaired
First aired episode: March 18, 1994
Final aired episode: November 26, 1994
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central? Possible, but unlikely, as local stations across the country who bought the show could air it when they pleased during the week, which meant that some stations aired it in prime time, and others buried it at 2am on Saturday night/Sunday morning, meaning very few viewers.
Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.