Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Best TV Crime Drama Openers, #15

Series Title: Magnum, P.I. | Years: 1980-1988, CBS | Starring: Tom Selleck, John Hillerman, Roger E. Mosley, Larry Manetti | Theme Music: Mike Post

Supporters of increasingly embattled, honesty-challenged GOP presidential contender John McCain scoffed at Honolulu-born Barack Obama this summer, when the Democratic nominee chose to vacation with his young family in Hawaii. They said that Hawaii was too “exotic” and “foreign” for most Americans to understand, that the Obamas should’ve gone to ... oh, maybe Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, instead. But this campaign dust-up only seemed to reiterate how strangely out-of-touch McCain is. Thanks to a succession of crime dramas having been shot in the Hawaii Islands over the last half-century, even the most travel-averse Americans have become pretty darn familiar with the 50th state. Remember Hawaiian Eye, with Anthony Eisley, Robert Conrad, and Connie Stevens? Or how about Jack Lord’s long-running Hawaii Five-O? Or even Jake and the Fatman, which starred William Conrad and Joe Penny?

And let’s not forget Magnum, P.I. No, indeed.

The editors of TV Guide certainly didn’t forget about Magnum when they assembled their 1980 “Fall Preview” issue. However, they did sound skeptical about the then new series’ potential for success:
You might think it’s easy being T.S. Magnum (Tom Selleck), Private Investigator. Well, it isn’t. Oh sure, he gets free lodging on a fabulous Hawaiian estate owned by a best-selling writer who’s almost never there. Sure, Magnum has that solid-gold signet ring with that striking French croix set on that gleaming black onyx. Granted, he leads an exciting life chasing various nefarious types. True, he’s a splendid hunk who’s usually surrounded by gorgeous, bikini-clad hunkettes. OK, so he has good buddies like TC (Roger E. Mosley) and Rick (Larry Manetti). All right, he gets to drive fast in his host’s $60,000 red Ferrari. Agreed, he has fun baiting Higgins (John Hillerman), the starchy major-domo. Well, what’s the catch? The catch is that old debbil, pressure: Magnum had better make good. ABC’s Barney Miller and NBC’s Thursday-night movie are waiting for him--and not with leis and warm alohas.
Prior to assuming the role of Naval Intelligence officer-turned-gumshoe Thomas Sullivan Magnum IV, then 35-year-old actor Tom Selleck had turned in plenty of guest shots on TV series--including The F.B.I., Mannix, The Streets of San Francisco, and even the situation comedy Taxi--but he’d never led a series. Selleck had, however, put in a memorable showing as a suave, if notably smarmy private investigator named Lance White on two episodes of James Garner’s The Rockford Files in the late ’70s. Magnum creators Glen A. Larson and Donald P. Bellisario decided he was worth the risk of hiring. Besides, they were under some pressure of their own to get their series going. Hal Erickson of the Web’s All Movie Guide explains the circumstances behind Magnum’s birth:
With the cancellation of the long-running Hawaii Five-O [in April 1980] CBS was stuck with two valuable commodities: the series’ choice Thursday-night time slot, and the series’ filming facilities on the island of Oahu. The solution? Commission another Hawaii-based detective show and schedule it in the old Thursday-evening berth. And that, boys and girls, was how Magnum, P.I. came to be.
Of course, the setting was pretty much where comparisons stopped between Hawaii Five-O, a straightforward police procedural, and Magnum, a deliberately more light-hearted turn on American private-eye TV series (a breed then rapidly approaching the end of its most recent heyday). The latter wasn’t really intended to break new ground, or be taken all that seriously. “Sure, it was cheesy,” the Web site Bits of News recalls of Magnum. “Yes, it had the intellectual content of a glue-sniffing monkey. But it was fun!”

Magnum, P.I. tackled crimes and saw that malefactors were brought to justice during its eight years on the air. (It was actually supposed to have ended after its seventh year, but Selleck & Co. were convinced to come back for one extra season.) Yet at heart it was a buddy show. Thomas Magnum always had his old Vietnam War compatriots--helicopter pilot Theodore “T.C.” Calvin and playboy Orville Wilbur Richard “Rick” Wright, the manager of a members-only club--to fall back on for help when he needed some extra muscle or underworld contacts to bring a case to its conclusion. A less willing cohort was Jonathan Quayle Higgins III (played by Hillerman, who had previously appeared as a radio star and amateur sleuth in the period series Ellery Queen). From this show’s outset, Magnum was dubiously ensconced in the guest house of a 200-acre beachfront estate on Oahu known as “Robin’s Nest,” after its owner, wealthy celebrity author Robin Masters (unseen, but voiced in the early episodes by none other than Orson Welles). While also doing private-eye work, and a little espionage when it was called for, Magnum ostensibly provided security services on the property in exchange for his lodging. This put him in frequent contention with Higgins, an ex-British Army officer whose by-the-book style could hardly have been more dissimilar from that of Magnum, a loose-limbed rules breaker. Their banter provided some of the funniest moments on the show, and a few heartwarming ones, too.

The main title sequence (embedded above) did a fine job of portraying the dual natures of this series--dramatic and humorous--which only rarely clashed, more often blending smoothly together. There’s plenty of action in the opener, from helicopter dashes over the Pacific and explosions, to scuba-diving skirmishes and Magnum wheeling around Oahu in Robin Masters’ Ferrari 308 GTS. But the clip of Magnum helping a young woman learn to snorkel, while trying not to look (too closely) at her shapely derrière, and the shot of him at the end wiggling his eyebrows at the camera reminded viewers that this show could poke fun at itself. Emmy and Grammy award-winning composer Mike Post’s theme music for Magnum, P.I., with its firm downbeat and eccentric guitar rhythms, ties the images together while itself suggesting the show’s range of seriousness to playfulness. This opener is what’s often called a “mood sequence,” establishing a particular tone for the program to follow.

More often than not, private-eye series of the 1970s and ’80s came and went without ever having evolved much. But Magnum had more time, and its writers took advantage of it. An article on the Museum of Broadcast Communications Web site explains:
Though originally dominated by an episodic narrative structure, Magnum, P.I. moved far beyond the simple demands of stock characters solving the crime of the week. Without using the open-ended strategy developed by the prime-time soap opera in the 1980s, the series nevertheless created complex characterizations by building a cumulative text. Discussion of events from previous episodes would continually pop up, constructing memory as an integral element of the series franchise. While past actions might not have an immediate impact on any individual weekly narrative, the overall effect was to expand the range of traits which characters might invoke in any given situation. For the regular viewer of the series, the cumulative strategy offered a richness of narrative, moving beyond the simpler “who-done-it” of the hard-boiled detective series that populated American television in the 1960s and 1970s.

Part of the success of Magnum, P.I. stemmed from the combination of familiar hard-boiled action and exotic locale. Just as important perhaps, the series was one of the first to regularly explore the impact of the Vietnam War on the American cultural psyche. Many of the most memorable episodes dealt with contemporary incidents triggered by memories and relationships growing out of Magnum’s past war experiences. Indeed, the private investigator’s abhorrence of discipline and cynical attitude toward authority seem to stem from the general mistrust of government and military bureaucracies that came to permeate American society in the early 1970s.
Thomas Magnum did some important evolving of his own. As Wikipedia observes, “The series was also marked by Magnum’s character growth over eight years, shedding an immature and often lazy beach bum streak that at times fostered an occasional callous hardness and a tendency to resolve problems by violence. Yet the change was subtle, almost imperceptible, and throughout it he managed to maintain the humor and other appealing traits which drew his friends (and viewers) to him. That he went back into the Navy, and simultaneously took on the role of responsible father, at the end of the series’ run was only superficially surprising; his character had been meandering toward that responsibility in small increments for years.”

Magnum, P.I. was far from being a perfect show. It suffered occasionally from silliness and at others times from an over-earnestness in trying to redeem America’s involvement in Vietnam. But even today, it remains popular in syndication. Enough so, that there’s been talk over the last couple of years of adapting Magnum, P.I. to the silver screen. George Clooney was an early favorite for the mustachioed starring role, but he was apparently not interested. Later, rumors spread of Ben Affleck being tapped as the new Magnum, but that too fizzled out. The last I heard, 38-year-old Matthew McConaughey (Tropic Thunder, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, A Time to Kill) was set to star in a movie adaptation that would also feature William H. Macy as Higgins, or “Higgy baby,” as Selleck’s Magnum frequently addressed him.

Skeptics question McConaughey’s fitness to take on the part, especially as he lacks Magnum’s original and prominent chest hair. But I don’t have too much trouble imagining McConaughey as a beach bum sleuth behind the wheel of a Ferrari. For me, he would be a far better choice than another candidate whose big name was bandied about some time ago: Nicholas Cage. The skeletal and pale Cage sporting a ’stache and a world-class assortment of Aloha shirts? Now that, folks, would’ve been exotic.


David Cranmer said...

For me, Tom Selleck IS Magnum. McConaughey is fine but it won't be the same. A few years back, I heard Tom Clancy (who was a big fan) had written a screenplay for a Magnum movie... now, that would have been interesting with Selleck in the part.

Anonymous said...

OK Magnum is a way better show than this post lets on. Magnum was def one of my fav shows! The cast had great chemistry, Magnum was a great character, and the cases were good. they also had excellent guest stars (Frank Sinatra, Sharon Stone). Don't put down Magnum! and the intro song is great!