Lazy Luddite Log

31.10.16

Magnum Movember

I am experimentally getting involved in Movember by reviewing episodes of the TV series Magnum PI (1980-1988) as an alternative to growing a moustache. This will be a bit unusual for me as it is civic work for the direct benefit of a demographic to which I belong and it somehow feels selfish. But we shall see how we go. I will be starting my profile page off with a whole series overview and am sharing it here too.

I originally saw Magnum while on the cusp of adolescence.  I enjoyed it then even if it was a bit mature for me.  Now on a re-watching I find it is rather immature, or at any rate the central character is.  Thomas Magnum is more than just the usual action hero.  There is a marked lack of stoicism in him. In fact, he is a bit of a winger.  The deeper truth however is that Magnum has had to be very stoic over the important things in life and so is a petulant bastard over its more trivial aspects.  Magnum admits in one episode that he acts like a big kid because his time as a Vietnam War combatant and operative (in Naval Intelligence) robbed him of a carefree youth.  Now he pursues rest and recreation between gigs as a private investigator.

There is a sober heart to the Magnum story but much of the appeal of the show is its surface fun and there is lots of it.  The setting of Hawaii is an enticing one, partly because of the tropical island locales, and partly because the culture of the fiftieth US state is a distinct one, drawing on everything from its Polynesian roots to its significant Japanese migrant population.  Another aspect of the setting we can now add is the nostalgia value of its era.  The vibe of the show is quintessentially 80s and demonstrates many of the stylistic shifts TV experienced that distinguished it from the 70s.  Take for instance its iconic theme music (introduced twelve episodes in) which puts electric guitar solo into the foreground and brass blasts into the background.

The characters and interactions are engaging and fun.  Tensions between the core characters can be frustrating to watch, but are also a source of self-deprecating humour.  As the series progresses we also see close and growing bonds of friendship and camaraderie born of shared challenges and tragedy.  Magnum, Rick, TC and Higgins are all survivors of one war or another and Magnum PI was pioneering in exploring the suffering of Vietnam vets.  But while our heroes are all very flawed characters, they are not anti-heroes, and I think this distinguishes these 80s characters from both the paragons of older shows and the gloomy and gritty characters of more recent programs.  That in part is what keeps drawing me back.

I do have some qualms with the lack of diversity in casting.  The four regular characters are all male.  This is compensated for somewhat by a regular supply of interesting female guest characters.  However they do have a tendency to fall into the same role over and over.  An independent and self-possessed woman finds herself in circumstances beyond even her ability and so turns to the titular character for help.  Magnum agrees to take the job and over its course starts to fall for his client till (say two thirds into the episode) he discovers there is more to her than she is letting on and that she is partly to blame for the growing dangers they both find themselves in.  This gets a bit boring and is definitely a dated approach to heroines.

Magnum is a dated program but at the time it was exploring new and different ways of addressing issues within a dramatic context.  Topics that had once been taboo were explored in the show.  The way they were handled seems clumsy by contemporary standards but popular culture had to make a start and this show was one that had the courage to do that. And along the way we get to examine lots of shady underworld schemes and some very personal murder mysteries. Rarely are the plots too confusing, although sometimes they take surprising turns, and as the seres progressed a hint of the paranormal started creeping in, with Magnum's 'little voice' seeming like more than just intuition. Magnum comes close to death at the end of the seventh season and fans speculate that the entire eighth and final season is set in purgatory.

But for me there is something cheering in watching episodes of Magnum which I find difficult to define. It does this even better than many science fiction or fantasy shows and I cannot say exactly why. I will enjoy reviewing select episodes as my way of generating some funds for Movember. So drive a borrowed red Ferrari to the island estate you live at rent-free and kick back in the bungalow with Thomas Magnum - owner of arguably the best mo of the 80s.

Cross-posted here.

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5 Comments:

  • Here (in a handful of posted comments) for posterity I record my five episode reviews. Yep just five...

    Murder 101

    This story happens well into the series and, by this time, Thomas Magnum is a private investigator with lots of successful cases under his belt and a reputation on the islands. Despite this he is still always skint so Magnum decides to run a private investigation course at a adult education college. The administrator wants it closed and reminds Magnum how many enrolments he needs. He has too few till he somehow cons Rick and TC to enrol. It is the other students that are interesting however - an eclectic cross-section of Honolulu society. One of them needs help to find her partner, who she suspects is guilty of infidelity but who it soon transpires is somehow involved in financial crime.

    This ep is representative of the more fun side of Magnum - nothing is too dire and you get fun crime-busting antics and self-deprecating humour. One of the cutest bits of the story is that, because Magnum has students, the writers get a chance to show that they understand all the cliches and shortcomings of crime fiction plots, as Magnum is asked questions about the case that cannot be answered.

    By Blogger Daniel, At 30 November, 2016  

  • Compulsion

    This episode has a definite A story and B story structure. In the A story recurring character Carol Baldwin (Honolulu police deputy prosecuting attorney) turns to Magnum for help because someone is anonymously intimidating her and she thinks it relates back to an old case she is linked to. There are thriller elements to this story and Carol becomes a bit of a damsel-in-distress. The writers were aware of this cliche and made the character express frustration at her own predicament. Magnum has a different perspective - everyone gets scared and makes mistakes.

    The B story involves Jonathan Higgins who has pretended to old British schoolmates that he is owner (rather than manager) of the Robin Masters estate (home of a globetrotting pulp author). Another incidental character - Agatha Chumley - urges Higgins to admit the truth once they visit. This is sabotaged however by Magnum who decides to masquerade as butler to Higgins. It's all a bit touching. You also get to see the estate dobermans - Zeus and Apollo - in fine form for those of us who are dog-lovers.

    By Blogger Daniel, At 30 November, 2016  

  • Torah, Torah, Torah

    This is one of the more convoluted episodes and as such likely has more plot holes. However it also has a lot to recommend it. Magnum helps a friend of Higgins - a rabbi and one-time refugee - to find a stolen torah. And why would anyone want to nick an old religious text?

    Eventually we get the answer and along the way there is plenty of action and tropical scenery. The wonderfully taciturn recurring character Lieutenant Tanaka (a police detective) has his share of screen time. And in it all there is a message about how the ethics of human rights trump government laws or military orders - a message sorely needed in these times.

    By Blogger Daniel, At 30 November, 2016  

  • Little Games

    This ep is one of the more suspenseful and romantic. It opens with what seems to be a sophisticated bank robbery but soon transpires to be the work of a security specialist ‘testing’ a corporate headquarters. We soon see that this consultant has got the job of testing the security at Robin’s Nest (the estate Higgins and Magnum live at). She is someone with all the skills of a cat burglar and Trans-Atlantic charm to boot. It is hardly surprising that Magnum develops a thing for her. Only problem is that she is the child of a legendary jewel thief. Can she be trusted?

    The central guest character is portrayed by British player Jenny Agutter (known for roles in Walkabout and Logan’s Run). There is also a small but important part played by the legendary Cesar Romero. We also meet recurring character and petty con artist Jim Bonnick and (in a favourite moment of mine) see Magnum playing a dungeon-crawling computer game too advanced for the time in which this story was shot.

    By Blogger Daniel, At 30 November, 2016  

  • Fragments

    In this ep we get a mix of both spooky supernatural storyline and the comic relief of a charity talent quest. Magnum is hired by a psychic (the kind that even the police consult it they are desperate) to help prevent the murder she has foreseen. She expresses the opinion that Magnum is a bit psychic himself – a reference to the ‘little voice’ often referred to by the central character in his narrations to the audience.

    The story is silly but it has its merits. We get to see a lot of both the urban and rural environs on Oahu. There is a top-notch car chase scene and even a random water-based rescue thrown in almost at random. Passing reference is made to Five-0 (yes Magnum is set in the same fictional universe as Hawaii Five-0). Finally this is a good episode to examine 80s music scores. There is lots of electric guitar and horns during the action sequences but then electronic keyboard creeps in for the more spooky bits.

    By Blogger Daniel, At 30 November, 2016  

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