Friday, February 15, 2008

45.Magnum P.I.

Why “Magnum P.I.”? When a show can force you to blow off a half day of work in the “Biggest Little City in the World”, you know it's a good one.

This is how much interest I had in one of my previous jobs; I was at a convention in Reno, NV when I woke up in a hotel room and struggled to start the day. Whenever I'm on the road, I usually flip on the tube and keep it going for background noise. Normally I don't pay much attention to what's going on as it's usually the local news or SportsCenter, but for some reason the channel was tuned to A&E. As I was getting into the shower, I heard the familiar guitar strum of the “Magnum PI” opening theme. I jumped out of the bathroom, got back into bed, ordered some room service and watched two hours of “Magnum P.I.” while the conference went on without me.

In the 70s and 80s there were a lot of detective shows and most of them had some sort of twist: old lady solves crimes (“Murder She Wrote”), married couple solves crimes (“Hart to Hart”), homeless guy solves crimes (“Columbo”). But there was always the tried and true genre of: handsome-guy-solves-crimes. To the uninitiated, “Magnum P.I.” would seem to fall into that category, however that wouldn't be giving the show the credit that it so richly deserves.

For obvious reasons, this show was popular with women and it was popular with men with not so obvious reasons. Thomas Magnum (played by Tom Selleck) lived in Hawai'i on a unseen millionaire author's estate (the mysterious Robin Masters). Magnum had the life: he resided in paradise, only drove a Ferrari, hung around and worked with his buddies, drank a ton of beer, watched sports all day and bedded beautiful women. For most men, this would be heaven. The only drawback was the person he had to share the house with Higgins—but he was only a minor hindrance as Higgins was more bark than bite. The most compelling subplots of the show's run was whether Higgins was Robin Masters, and though hinted that this may be true it was never confirmed. *

* I love when television shows and movies do stuff like this. It's so much better to end a show with a couple of unanswered questions hanging over the audience's head. BTW, doesn't Higgins look like an absolute jerk in the above picture? Man, I could see why he drove Magnum nuts.

Each show was usually a self-containing adventure as Magnum would either be hired by a damsel in distress or stumble into a mystery. Like many detective shows, there would be the obvious red herring thrown into the first few minutes of the plot, followed by a twist, followed by a chase before finally finishing with the solution. More times than usual, Magnum figured out the mystery (it was his show, after all), but unlike other detective series there were episodes where Higgins or even Magnum's friends, TC and Rick would bust the perp.

For eight years the writers did a terrific job of crafting the backstory of Thomas Magnum as there were only rare episodes where on episode didn't fit the established time line of older episodes. This makes “Magnum PI” somewhat of a exception to many serial shows that run over five years—especially ones that were written before the 1990s.

In a number of programs that have long broadcasting lives, the original writers (who have the strongest sense of what the characters are about) normally leave the show for greener pastures after a few years. The ones that leave are replaced by writers who may not have the same grasp on the characters' background as the original writers had and begin to script shows that run counter to the established history of the main or ancillary characters. The tweaking of a character's past does not just occur with writers new to an established project, sometimes writers that have been writing about one character year after year grow bored or burnt out with the lives that they've created. To keep things fresh, they begin to reimagine their character's past which can contradict with what the audience knows to be true.

Both examples can cause audiences to turn away from shows in droves, normally with the same reason cited: the characters aren't familiar to me any more. Also these inconsistencies can simply confuse the audience, causing them to wonder if they are remembering events properly. There are a number of examples of this problem, with the most famous being the curious case of Chuck Cunningham. Cunningham was the older brother of Richie and Joanie on “Happy Davis” and for two seasons, three different actors (which is already confusing enough) played the role of Chuck. Then he was never seen again—written off by writers who felt he was superfluous. And they were right as the character of Fonzi became more popular, he began to dispense advice to Richie that could be seen as big brotherly. While this did not have a detrimental effect on the popularity of the show, Chuck—no matter who played him—was never instrumental to the program, though it did cause some confusion among “Happy Days” fans.

It should've been easy for the writers to make Magnum, a no-nonsense Remington Steele/James Bond-meets-Hawai'i type of character, serious in all respects. But they didn't, he was funny and self effacing in show dialogue and in the narration that accompanied most shows. He often found himself on the wrong end of pranks and household situations and this lent the character a degree of everyman. Most of can't relate to living in paradise, driving around in a Ferrari or always getting the most beautiful girl in the world. But most of us have day-to-day annoyances (such as Higgins) and simple things don't always work out the way we planned. That's why Magnum was so relatable.

Another reason was that while most of the plots came from Mystery 101, they never insulted the audience's intelligence. There were also a few serious episodes where Magnum was forced to deal with some of the horrors from his three tours of duty in Vietnam and the most famous episode was the main character was left to die in the middle of the ocean.

From the requisite Hawai'ian shirt to the Detroit Tigers baseball cap, “Magnum P.I.” was a terrific show that is worth missing a half day's work.

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