Magnum, P.I. Review

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by Simon Crust Feb 1, 2006 at 12:00 AM

    Where has the time gone? You spend you formative years wishing time would speed up; got to be older to do all those things grown ups do. And when you get there, life shoots by so fast there is never enough time to do all the things you thought grown ups did. Luckily opportunities arise to take you back to those bygone years, to awaken the child within. Life may still fly by, but at least there is time to enjoy it. Such was the case when I popped the first of six discs of the third season of Magnum P.I. into my player. The instant that theme music started up, there I was an eleven year old boy once again, full of wonder and full of excitement. I was back to innocence and gorged on the phenomenon that was Magnum.

    The original idea for Magnum P.I. came from veteran writer/producer Donald P. Bellisario in 1979, the treatment consisted of an easy going private investigator, living in a plush mansion and driving the owners red Ferrari whist investigating his jobs around the exclusive area of Bel Air in Los Angelis. Legendary action series producer Glenn A. Larson immediately saw the potential and with his credentials (Quincy, Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century to name but a few) succeeded in commissioning a series with CBS. However, during negotiation there was one substantial change. CBS' flagship series Hawaii 5-0 had just finished its twelve year run. It was a series that was hugely influential to the TV police show and made an international star of the lead Jack Lord. The network was looking for a new and immediate production to occupy its extensive and expensive, custom-built Hawaiian production facilities that were constructed in the mid seventies. Magnum P.I. proved to be that series. CBS also named the lead actor. They wanted Tom Selleck, at the time, a contracted TV player who's only decent part to his name was in The Rockford Files. However, it was on the back of that part that CBS optioned his contract to play the part he was born to play Thomas Sullivan Magnum.

    Apart from the move to Hawaii, the main premise of the show remains faithful to Bellisario's original treatment; T.S. Magnum was an ex-naval commander, retired to the ocean paradise, the north shore of Oahu, Hawaii. He lives and works from a plush beach front mansion owned by the enigmatic millionaire author Robin Masters (never actually seen in the series but voiced by Orson Welles) which he shares with the master of the estate Jonathan Higgins (John Hillerman). Higgins is himself an ex-military man from the British army that has two constant companions, the “lads”, Zeus and Apollo, his ever ready Doberman's. Magnum makes full use of the perks of the job, he drives the owners red (is there any other colour) Ferrari 308 GTS (a full four years before the Miami Vice guys were into their Ferarri!) and utilises the various high powered telescopes and camera equipment under the ever watchful eye of Higgins. Two of Magnums former Vietnam comrades live and work nearby; T.C. (Roger E. Mosley) own the Island Hopper franchise, a helicopter tourist ride, and Rick (Larry Manetti) who manages the King Kamehameha Club, an exclusive beach front club. T.C.'s piloting skills and Rick's shady underworld contacts often get them roped into Magnum's cases and its Magnums skilful manipulation of them, even though they know that it is happening that is one of the joys of the show. In fact it is the banter between all these main characters that really makes the show stand out, be it bickering, arguing, laughing or joking, there is always respect and consequently we, as an audience, respect them. Hawaii is host to a naval base and Magnum, being ex-navy, befriends and uses the facilities of some of the base personnel, notably Mac MacReynolds (Jeff MacKay) and Maggie Pool (Jean Bruce Scott).

    This season opener is a two parter edited into a single episode and can be seen as a metaphor for the series whole. In it Magnum is haunted by ghosts of the Vietnam War; specifically when he and his team were captured and tortured by a Russian called Ivan. When it appears Ivan has turned up in Hawaii, T.C., Magnum and their pal Nuzo go to ground as an assassination attempt on Magnum sees the Ferrari blown up and his long term naval friend Mac killed. It turns out that the Vietnam capture and subsequent torture was actually a way to brainwash T.C., Ivan and Nuzo's return was the trigger for him to lead an assassination attempt against the visiting Japanese ambassador. Magnum tracks down Ivan who is now a diplomat and thus above the law, however, with the help of his friends, he manages to get to him alone and dish out his own brand of justice. This is a particularly stark piece of television. Magnum's character was not simple, on the surface he is the playful, easy going P.I. but his past has left him deeply scared. He is at odds against authority, be it playful banter with Higgins, or resentment against the naval command, whom he now blames for Mac's death. His shared experiences with his friends allows a bond of friendship that is insoluble; be that being able to break conditioning or call upon help whenever it is needed. He maybe a citizen of the land, and abide by the laws he has sworn to uphold, but when push comes to shove, right is right and justice must be served. Such is the moral fibre of the show. Such is the moral fibre of the series.

    After the hard hitting season opener, the next episode Ki'is Don't Lie, is a rather more comic affair and typifies the shows ability to provide high drama and comedy, not only within episodes but throughout seasons. Other episodes of note are The Eighth Part of the Village in which a good turn for Higgins turns into an investigation for Magnum as a Japanese girl is smuggled into the country claiming to be the daughter of an old war buddy of Higgins. Black on White is a magnificent character study of the two leads Magnum and Higgins, as they are 'quarantined' in the mansion, in fact a ruse to protect Higgins from assassination. Flashback is a terrific back in time 'dream sequence' episode when Magnum meets up with 1930's versions of his contemporary friends to solve an accusation of murder. Almost Home sees Magnum up against the authorities again as he investigates a forty year old case involving a court marital. Of Sound Mind is a rather quirky episode that's has Magnum inherit a practical joking millionaires fortune and thus becomes the target of his murderer. The Arrow That is Not Aimed (an episode I have a vivid memory from when I was a lad) has Magnum team up with a samurai warrior to retrieve a valuable Kenzan porcelain plate, where time is of the essence as the samurai will commit sepuku (take his own life) if it isn't recovered. I Do? is another quirky episode where Magnum feigns marriage to discover the identity of a thief. Forty Years From Sand Island sees Higgins become the target when he attempts to contact an old army buddy for research into Masters new book, Magnums involvement uncovers more than he bargained for. Two Birds of a Feather is a wonderfully crafted story about drugs and old time friendships, the realisation that Magnum has, makes for a real tug on the heart strings. Of course such a season is not without it duffers, Mixed Doubles, about a bratish tennis player that Magnum is assigned to protect was all rather dull. However, the good episodes far out way the bad, in this the third season the writers already had some solid background and really pulled all the stops to make a killer season.

    The season, in fact the entire eight seasons were all episodic in nature, however, there were constant references back to past episodes. As the series grew, so did the characters, and we as an audience grew with them. It was this respect for the audience with its constantly good scripts that helped make Magnum P.I. one of the all time great TV shows of the eighties, in its first five years it was always in the top twenty shows aired. The leads were not without merit either, both Selleck and Hillman were nominated and won Golden Globes and Emmy's for their characterisations. It is a testament to their skill, and that of the writers that the series was allowed to continue for as long as it did. It has been written that Magnum was the first program that dealt with the difficulties some soldiers had adjusting to civilian life after the Vietnam war. It never shied away from the subject matter often showing that the pain and suffering of the soldiers was a huge cross to bear. With frequent mentions of World War II as well, the horrors of war were firmly entrenched. Their brave attempt at getting America to look at itself ushered in a new wave of patriotism, as unable to grasp the horrors, heroes had to be found, enter the Stallone's et al and ultimately Regan and all that went with him. Can't blame Magnum for that, but a rolling stone.....

    Finally, I can't leave without mentioning the theme tune, perhaps second only to The Professionals in recognisability, it was this and this alone that warped me back to my childhood. And watching it now it still holds up extremely well, even the fashion hasn't really dated, well Magnum is mostly in shorts and loud shorts; it's only the ladies that seem to show with big hair, shoulder pads and glasses! I really got a great deal out of re-watching this series, there is very much to enjoy, and perhaps time did slow, if only briefly while I sat and enjoyed.

    The Rundown

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