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Why Magnum P.I.?

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Magnum P.I. is one of life's guilty pleasures that we don't necessarily talk about, because we struggle to understand the fascination ourself. Of all the great TV shows to become enthralled with, why Magnum P.I.? By any objective measure, it's not one of the top shows of all time. You won't see it in the Top 50 of any credible "All Time TV Show" list (unless it's an '80s Only' list). The show has been dismissed as frivolous eye candy. A mere vehicle to unleash Tom Selleck's body on female viewers around the globe. The writing could be a bit sappy and pallid at times. Some of the stories were a bit gimmicky and over-the-top and the list of cheesy, hammy moments is quite long. Consistency was sometimes lacking. Some of the acting was less than stellar. And at times the suspension of disbelief was pushed a little too far. Some say it was nothng more than a watered-down version of The Rockford Files utilizing Hawaii Five-O's discarded props.

All true, to a degree. A lot of the flaws can be attributed to the time period of the show. TV in the 1980s was vastly different from the TV of today. The quality of the writing, editing and acting was, generally, of a slightly lower standard than what we are used to today. The West Wing-type scripts and CSI-type editing just didn't exist then. And lets not forget about the clothes and hair styles. Yes, Magnum P.I. was a product of the times, for better and for worse.

Despite all of this, the show holds up incredibly well, even today. This is no small feat as most shows from the 80s are simply unwatchable today, if you ask me. The show obviously has something which sets it apart from other similiar shows. It's still in syndication, in dozens of countries. It has a large fan base. It's won numerous awards. The DVDs are selling well. So what is it? What makes Magnum P.I. so great (in my mind)? Let me count the ways:

  1. Action, Drama, Comedy, Mystery - The show was a near perfect blend of action, drama, comedy and mystery. It is sometimes (somewhat incorrectly) referred to as a "dramedy". The action was usually very well done, often near movie caliber with some fantastic stunts. The drama ranged from the absurd, to light fluff, to serious themes, to melodrama, to groundbreaking, relatively unexplored themes and everything in between, including fantasy elements. The comedy, at first unexpected, was often subtle, farcical and side-splittingly funny. And the mystery, while a relatively minor element of the show and would never be confused with coup de theatre, could often be quite good. Most shows are lucky to get one of these elements right, to do all three consistantly well was almost unheard of. Often the show would incorporate all four elements in the same show! And for added good measure, the show also had a fun campiness side to it, which it would unleash in unexpected small doses.

  2. Legendary Ensemble Cast - Few shows have achieved a near perfect cast. Magnum P.I. did just that. Tom Selleck, John Hillerman, Larry Manetti and Roger E. Mosley were the perfect choices for these roles. In the defining moments of their careers, Selleck and Hillerman in particular really shined in the show and they will forever be associated with the characters of Thomas Sullivan Magnum and Jonathan Quayle Higgins. Like few have done before, they truly owned these characters. Selleck effortlessly carried action, drama, comedy and mystery on his strong shoulders and carried it to heights rarely seen. He managed to create a flawed hero who was both adored by women and admired by men. He did it all and was loved by everybody. Hillerman took a seemingly one-dimensional character and created a complex, multi-layered, lovable yang to Magnum's yin. When these guys were on the screen it was pure cinematic gold. You simply couldn't take your eyes off them. In the end, they both won an Emmy and a Golden Globe which they richly deserved. Additionally, the show was also blessed with an outstanding recurring cast - Elisha Cook Jr., Gwen Verdon, Eugene Roche, Jeff MacKay, Gillian Dobb, Lance LeGault, Kathleen Lloyd, and others make for a great team. The show even had the legendary Orson Welles providing voice overs!

  3. Magnum & Higgins - Simply put, these are two of the most interesting, fun to watch, characters ever seen on television! Both characters are richly complex with multiple layers of depth. Their dynamic, ever evolving relationship forms the heart and soul of the show. What fun it is to watch these two men from opposite worlds, with vastly different personalities and interests, interact with each other. The playful fighting, the subtle humor, the witty dialog, it's all so much fun! An endless source of comedy, many of the most memorable scenes from the show involve these two together. It's interesting to see their relationship grow from cautious skepticism to respectful admiration to full blown friends for life. Higgins is the father figure Magnum never really had and Magnum is the son Higgins never had.

  4. Hawaiian Setting & Robin's Nest - Oahu and Robin's Nest became like secondary characters in the show. Oahu, with its unique natural beauty - the beautiful beaches, the lush mountain backdrops, the ubiquitous, crystal clear ocean, the diverse ethnic groups, even seedy downtown Honolulu - were all part of an intoxicating allure that was hard to resist. For most people, it was all so exotic and exciting! And let's not forget about Robin's Nest (aka The Eve Anderson Estate), a gorgeous, Mediterranean Revival-style, oceanside estate that, because it was used so often in the show, became somewhat iconic in its own right. Even the studio indoor sets were highly memorable. It's not hard to imagine the immense appeal this setting would have to someone watching from surburbia, or an urban city, or in the Heartland.

  5. Positive Portrayal of Vietnam Vets - Magnum P.I. was more than a great TV show, it's a vindication of America's unsung Vietnam vets. Thomas Magnum and his close friends Rick and T.C. were the first Vietnam veterans to be featured in a prime-time drama on American television. The characters went against the stereotype of Vietnam vets as psychologically devastated, bitter, homeless, drug-addicted people who had a hard time readjusting to society. Instead, they were refreshingly presented in a positive light as laudable role models. At the same time, the show also accurately dealt with the state-of-mind and psychological scars that Vietnam vets bear with daily. The disillusionment. The indignation. Friends who never made it back. And yet, Magnum, T.C. and Rick all share the same key characteristic, one that would become a main theme of the show - An idealistic American spirit!

  6. Classic Episodes - Magnum managed to create some truly classic episodes, the kind most shows never achieve once. "Memories Are Forever (1)" (2.5), "Did You See the Sunrise? (1)" (3.1), "Home From the Sea" (4.1), "Paper War" (7.8), "Unfinished Business" (8.8), to name a few. These are near perfect episodes that rank as some of the best in television, for any show, all-time! Sure, there are some real stinkers in the mix too ("Murder 101" (5.8) & "Mixed Doubles" (3.10) anyone?), but thankfully the good ones far outweighted the bad ones.

  7. The Value of Friendship - Unwavering, immutable, altruistic friendship and inspirational camaraderie is a theme sorely lacking in many TV shows, yet was a crucial element in Magnum P.I.. How many guys would kill to have friends like Magnum, Rick, T.C. or Higgins? They are fiercely loyal and always help when called upon. They have great personalities and are fun to be around (yes, even Higgins). They possess laudable morals and values (yes, even Rick). And they will put their own life on the line if one of their friends is in danger. For me, this was always one of the more compelling aspects of the show.

  8. Voice-over Narration - Considered by some to be an unnecessary gimmick, the Magnum voice-over (narration) is one of the more endearing traits of the show. Often satirical, sometimes enlightening, the voice over allowed us to peer into Magnum's psyche and understand his thought process and motivations. The device had been used before in a few other shows (very few), but none were quite as effective and endearing as with Magnum's.

  9. Great Denouements - A hallmark of the show, and a lost art among today's TV shows. You very rarely saw a bad one. Many were often light and comical, usually taking place at Robin's Nest. Some were emotionally powerful and poignant. Some were shocking, even controversial. Some were just plain fun ("I Got Him"). The show made particular good use of the "final frame", where the last frame is paused just before the closing credits run. The show had many memorable "final frames", like Magnum's "Look Back", "Killing Ivan", "Roof Jump", and many others. Sometimes the denouements were so good, they almost single-handedly elevated the overall opinion of a below-average episode!

  10. Continuing Narrative - The show moved beyond the simpler stand alone, "who-done-it" plot lines of the traditional hardboiled detective series and focused on building complex characterizations through a continuing, cumulative text. Although many episodes were of the "stand alone" variety and could be viewed without understanding previous plots, many previous events and storylines would pop up in dialog and subplots creating a rich, comprehensive layer to the show. Backstories were also an important element of the show, often developed slowly as the series unfolded and with excellent attention to detail. The Vietnam War backstories for Magnum, Rick and T.C. became an integral part of the show. One of the most interesting aspects of the show was watching Higgins' backstory develop through his frequent orations. The man lived quite a life!

  11. Episode Scores & Music - Somewhat surprisingly, music was also an important element to the show's success and was used very effectively in a variety of different formats. The show had a great, iconic theme song (composed by veteran composers Mike Post and Pete Carpenter) that was one of the most memorable television theme songs ever (the original theme song from the first part of Season One - composed by Ian Freebairn-Smith - was also quite good). All of the in-episode scores, also by Mike Post and Pete Carpenter, were really well done, and ranged from orchestral pieces to rock/pop pieces to synth-based electronica. The show also made use of modern popular music (usually Pop, Rock, Oldies, or R&B), some of which were the original songs by the original artists, others stock covers versions. Everything from Ethel Waters to Sam Cooke to The Beatles to John Denver to Genesis could be heard on the show. The sequences that were set to Genesis' "Mama", "Tonight, Tonight, Tonight" and "The Brazilian" were particularly memorable. A list of the music used in the show can be found here. Many musical artists were also referenced in dialog on the show (Alberta Hunter for example). And T.C. was always breaking out in song (with a pretty good voice, too) with wonderful results.

  12. Escapism, or Brawls, Fast Cars & Beautiful Women! - It's a "guy thing", I know. A lost art (in TV) if you ask me. You just don't see these types of things in a TV drama anymore. In a Magnum episode, you could count on at least one or two exciting, raucous, bloodless fist fights. And how about all of those great cars, especially the Ferrari! The red Ferrari 308 GTS has achieved iconic status. Watching that car zip around Oahu chasing bad guys will always be a big thrill for me. And the beautiful women ... Well, what's wrong with a little tastefully done eye candy, huh? In addition, the show gets more points in this category for throwing in fast choppers and good pyrotechnics to the mix!

  13. Unexpected Scenes, Unexpected Episodes - The show was never really static or predictable. A few "normal" episodes in a row would be followed by an unconventional, comedic one with no villians, or a "fantasy" episode set in the 1930s. Sometimes the drama was pushed to rarely seen heights (for the time) - An intense domestic violence scene, Magnum murders someone, Magnum witnesses his girlfriend's suicide, a racy "shower scene", a denouement were someone is thrown from a lighthouse. Other times you could watch as Magnum disarms a bad guy with a barrage of lemons, or see him attacked by a KGB Macaw, or a whimsical scene involving cast regulars jumping off the top of a high waterfall! You just never knew what to expect in a Magnum P.I. episode. I love that!

  14. Breaking the Fourth Wall - One of the first TV shows to break the fourth wall and the first to do so without dialog. All it took was a look, or a smile, at the camera, but it was extremely effective. When Magnum looked at you, you felt as if you were one of his buddies, and that's a good feeling.

  15. Sentimental Connection (to the '80s) - Everyone has one or two TV shows from their youth that holds a special place in their heart. For some people, it's The Andy Griffith Show. For some, it's M*A*S*H. For me, it's Magnum P.I.. I spent my teenage years (10-18, actually) watching Magnum during its original run. Even then, it was far and away my favorite show. Everything about it clicked for me. Like The Brady Bunch in the '70s, Magnum in the '80s came to define the decade for me, both stylistically and emotionally . When I think of the 80s, I think of Magnum and all the fun times I had growing up. It's a warm bridge to all of those special memories, of a wonderful, unique time.

  16. Zeus & Apollo - The coolest dogs ever seen on TV! "Zeus, Apollo Patrol!"

And perhaps most importantly, the show was just a lot of fun to watch! The characters were fun. The setting was fun. The plots were fun (usually). It's good, clean, smile-inducing fun that never grows old. You just don't see the "fun factor" maxed out on many shows, old or new, like you do on Magnum.

So there you have it folks, the many reasons why I love Magnum P.I. so much! And based on the continuous syndicated broadcasts being shown worldwide, the strong DVD sales, the upcoming movie, and the large, devoted fanbase which, paradoxically, seems to grow as the years go by, I'm clearly not the only one who feels this way about the show!

For more information on Magnum P.I., do yourself a favor and get a copy of Larry Manetti's Aloha Magnum (1999), a great account of his time on the show with lots of behind-the-scenes anecdotes. For a more scholarly analysis of the show, check out Christopher Anderson's excellent 1985 essay Reflections on Magnum P.I. (PDF) which originally appeared in the 1987 book Television: The Critical View. It's a most interesting and insightful read!

Shoot me an email if you'd like to have something added or corrected