570x320_magnum_pi-1Is this show available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, and Amazon Prime? Every season of Magnum P.I. is available for rent through Netflix Watch Instant only.

Starring: Tom Selleck, John Hillerman, Roger E. Mosley, Larry Manetti

I’m sure the first question any of you are asking is why the hell am I reviewing a TV show when my blog is about movies. Especially a show that is so old. Well, longtime readers will know that I have reviewed shows in the past, but aside from that, Magnum P.I. has left me with many questions that I hope you the reader will have more inside knowledge and insight to fill me in on (or to at least tell me to check my brain at the door before watching a show like this).

Growing up in the 1980’s, Magnum P.I. was not a show I watched as a kid nor was it something I had any interest in watching. My general rule of thumb was that if a show did not have kids in it or was not about science fiction or fantasy, then it was not a show worth watching (although strangely, I somehow got hooked on the first season of Wiseguy). I was especially disinterested in anything that had law enforcement, lawyers, and doctors in it because, after all, why watch heightened reality on screen when you have V and Star Trek: The Next Generation, right? I did have one unusual caveat that my warped childhood brain somehow found logical – The A-Team and Knight Rider, shows both similar to Magnum P.I., both passed the Bechtel test. The A-Team had a man named Hannibal (my name) and a black man with chains, a mohawk, and who had one of the most memorable lines in the Rocky series (where he says, “Pain”). As for Knight Rider, can anyone argue with David Hasselhoff and a fucking bad ass of a car that pre-dated Siri by a few decades?

Magnum P.I. starred Tom Selleck in the title role of Thomas Magnum, a Vietnam vet who left the Navy and became a private investigator in Hawaii. Its not really explained in the first season, but somehow, Magnum knows the famous novelist Robin Masters (voiced by Orson Welles), who has allowed Magnum to stay in the guesthouse of his beautiful beachside estate (Magnum mentions something about doing a job for Masters, but no further details are provided). Magnum also has two friends, Rick and T.C., who are Marine vet buddies from Vietnam. Although Magnum seems to have the dream life (he comes and goes from the guesthouse on the estate; drives Robin Masters’ Ferrari 308 GTS; and seduces beautiful women), he also has to deal with a constant thorn on his side: the rigid, upper crust, British head of security of Robin Masters’ estate, Higgins. He does not like Magnum being allowed to stay on the estate, but he is forced to abide by Masters’ wishes.

So why Magnum P.I.? Why should you spend your precious evening hours after a long day of work watching a show about a private investigator who beds lonely housewives and who deals with such seat-grabbing cases like kidnapped dogs, missing long-lost lovers, and protecting valuable pieces of art? And Tom Selleck? I bet most young people either have no clue as to who he is, think he’s their dad’s golfing buddy from the club, think he’s someone they’ve seen on a sex offender list, or remember him as that old guy who stars in that Stone show their grandma likes to watch.

Allow me to dispel all these silly notions. In the 80’s, Tom Selleck was the dude guys wanted to be and the man ladies wanted to cheat on their husbands with. For one, had it not been for his scheduling obligations on Magnum, Tom Selleck would have been forever immortalized as Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Selleck was Steven Spielberg’s first choice, but due to the scheduling conflicts between the first season of Magnum and Raiders, Selleck had to turn the role down. Although his career may not have skyrocketed to the extent that Harrison Ford’s did, Magnum P.I. turned Selleck into a household name and one of television’s biggest stars.

So what was the appeal? For the ladies, Thomas Magnum was a laid-back, charming, and sensitive guy who wore pornographically short shorts, frequently showed off his body during his daily ocean swims, and had a mustache that made him the object of every cop’s envy. For the men, Magnum was their good humored drinking buddy who watched your back, who drove around in a cherry red Ferrari, and whose name sounded like a porn star nickname. Although it may be impossible to imagine anyone else playing Indiana Jones other than Harrison Ford, I can totally see why Tom Selleck was Spielberg’s top choice to play the character. Selleck obviously had the athleticism to play that role, but even more importantly, the character of Thomas Magnum practically shares the same exact qualities as Indiana Jones. Both approach danger with a mixed sense of humor and confidence, but without taking anything too seriously. They both have a gift for seducing women. Both characters also make mistakes and this is a trait that was rarely seen in adventure heroes. Originally, Thomas Magnum was conceived to be a macho kind of guy who kicked ass and got the job done without fail every time. However, Selleck insisted in having his character be more complex by giving him his own personal demons (e.g. dealing with his Vietnam past), not having an answer to everything, and making mistakes. I have always believed this to be the key element to making a character connect with an audience because it makes them more like us.

A great show is usually less about the plotlines (although a bad story can easily kill your series) and more about its characters. After all, if you intend to have your audience come back every week to watch the same characters on their television, those characters better be damn interesting to watch. Magnum P.I. has three characters – two of them are underwritten and forgettable while the other is as identifiable with the show as Tom Selleck (and you can probably immediately guess who that is). Thomas Magnum has two Vietnam vet buddies, Rick (Larry Manetti) and T.C. (Roger E. Mosley). Rick runs the King Kamehameha Club, an exclusive club that Magnum frequents despite not being a member. T.C. runs a helicopter charter service, but he usually finds himself at Magnum’s service any time Magnum has a case. Rick is the least interesting character of the series. He doesn’t serve much purpose for Magnum and he’s mostly there to be a sidekick from time to time and to provide the show’s comic relief, which is not very good. As for T.C., his character has an obvious purpose, but its limited (he flies Magnum from one destination to another in his helicopter) and aside from that, I suspect he was cast mostly to inject some diversity into the show. Beneath T.C.’s constant complaining, you’re just ready to see him turn into the ‘angry black man’ raging against the system and the white man.

And then we have Higgins, played by Texas-born John Hillerman. I say Texas-born because Higgins is a British character and Hillerman does such a convincing job in portraying the character, that I was seriously shocked when I later discovered the actor is from Texas. As head of security for Robin Masters’ Hawaii estate, Higgins is a constant annoyance to Magnum. The character is wonderfully conceived and his noble, rigid, and English proper demeanor perfectly counterbalances Magnum’s laid back, come-what-may attitude. The scenes these two characters share are absolutely classic and its what I look forward to in every episode. Not surprisingly, both actors won an Emmy and Golden Globe for their performances.

Magnum, P.I. is a guilty pleasure and when something is a ‘guilty pleasure,’ it also means that the show is not a high quality, intellectual or thought-provoking show. Most TV snobs do not consider the show as among the best shows ever and it is frequently dismissed as shallow entertainment that provides nice scenery, action, a nice car, and a chance for women to see Tom Selleck shirtless. With the exception of John Hillerman, the acting is far from stellar and the writing tends to be cliché, cheesy, and over-the-top. But I don’t think anyone who is familiar with 1980’s TV shows or the company of similar shows Magnum, P.I. fell with (Knight Rider, The A-Team, Simon & Simon, & Hardcastle & McCormick) could realistically expect anything more from this show. Television viewers today are fortunate to see shows that are written just as well, if not frequently better, than most films out there. This was not the case in the 1980’s. TV writing was usually at a lower standard than screenwriting, but this was to be expected.

On a final note, with the Vietnam War being such an unpopular war, very few TV producers in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s wanted to feature Vietnam veterans in their programming. Premiering more than 5 years after the end of the war, Magnum, P.I. was the first American prime-time drama to feature Vietnam veteran characters. It was quite a departure from network entertainment to have a show in which the title character is a Vietnam vet. More notably is the fact that the characters of Thomas Magnum, T.C., and Rick did not portray vets as psychologically scarred, homeless, and drug-addicted (although there is one episode in which one of T.C.’s Vietnam buddies is a heroin addict) people who were unable to reintegrate into civilian society. These characters are portrayed as positive role models, but at the same time, they also deal with the PTSD effects of the war.

Advertisements