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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