M.A.N.T.I.S. defies odds, if not the violent tendencies

August 26, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

The question some adult viewers are going to have when they see Fox TV's "M.A.N.T.I.S" tonight is, "How did this show ever make it onto the network's fall schedule?"

The answers are: 1) "M.A.N.T.I.S." is not primarily for adults. 2) For all its comic-book trappings, there's a deeper message here of empowerment that could be appealing to teens and pre-teens, especially African-Americans.

The action-adventure series, which premieres at 8 tonight on WBFF (Channel 45), stars Carl Lumbly as Dr. Miles Hawkins, an African-American biophysicist who is paralyzed from the waist down when he's struck by a stray a bullet.

But Hawkins and his friend, Dr. John Stonebrake (Roger Rees), who also happens to be a brilliant scientist, invent something called the "exoskeleton," which not only allows Hawkins to walk again, but to slamdunk a basketball and leap over onrushing vehicles in a single bound.

The exoskeleton is a kind of super body stocking that serves as a power harness. Through its computerized headgear, transmitters in Hawkins' brain can bypass his injured spine.

The acronym in the show's title comes from the psuedo-scientific name of the exoskeleton, which is either the Mega-Amplified Neuro-Transmitting Interceptor System or the Mechanically Augmented Neuro-Transmitter Interactive System, depending on which of the show's producers you ask. But the title also comes from the fact that Hawkins looks like a giant praying mantis when he straps on the gear.

When Hawkins wears the hot-wired body stocking, he becomes a crime-fighting superhero -- complete with a crime-fighting vehicle and crime-fighting sidekicks, just like Batman. In addition to Stonebrake, the team includes a Robin-like Generation X-er named Taylor Savage, who works by day as a bike courier.

Tonight, the team is fighting to keep a deadly virus out of the hands of the North Koreans. The bad guys use guns -- quite a few guns, in fact -- but "M.A.N.T.I.S." does not.

"No guns. Guns are what put me here," Hawkins says solemnly as he dons the suit. Instead he fires test tubes at his enemies. The test tubes contain a liquid that instantly freezes their target.

Fox believes it's making a big, praiseworthy statement about violence with this bullets vs. test tubes distinction.

But I think most young viewers will see the test tubes as a kind of futuristic video-game bullet that truly chills its target.

And there is a strong video game element to "M.A.N.T.I.S." The exoskeleton is wired with cameras so that Savage and Stonebrake can watch the crime-fighting exploits of Hawkins up close and personal on a computer screen. And, by flipping a switch, control of the crime-fighting vehicle can be transferred from Hawkins to his sidekicks and their computers.

"This is not a video game and that's not a video game character. That's my friend," Stonebrake tells Savage as they track Hawkins' image on the computer screen.

Despite the Fox PR hype, this is a show with violence. When a female police lieutenant (Galyn Gorg) is asked by a building manager if she has a search warrant, she pulls out her gun, saying, "You want a search warrant, I'll show you a search warrant." When they enter the apartment, they find a hanged man.

Will "M.A.N.T.I.S." fly in the ratings? Probably not in the time period it now has.

It's up against ABC's T.G.I.F. juggernaut "Family Matters." And going up against a hit like that, which is targeted at exactly the same audience, usually spells T.R.O.U.B.L.E.

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