Looking back at Magnum P.I.

Join Neil on his celebration of 80s Hawaii-set detective show Magnum P.I. It's time to salute the Selleck...


A lone red Ferrari 308 GTS cruises along a deserted Hawaiian stretch of road. It approaches as the morning sun silhouettes it with a heavenly glow. The car skids into view, and at the driver’s seat is Thomas Magnum still wearing his beloved Detroit Tigers cap. He’s twenty-five years older, but could still kick all our asses. He coolly removes his aviator glasses, slyly raises both eyebrows, and grins sarcastically. The Magnum P.I. theme charges in as:


Boom! Can you picture that? What you just read isn’t an actual reunion movie in production, it’s a fictitious trailer I’ve carried around in my head for longer than I care to admit. But bear with me because putting it on paper does serve a purpose. One of my guilty pleasures has always been Magnum P.I. (you could call it more than a guilty pleasure seeing as  if I took the time to dream up a fake movie trailer).

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How can you go wrong with five things: Tom Selleck, the 1980s, Hawaii, mystery, and beautiful women? It’s popular to knock Selleck’s acting chops, but he really was the fuel that kept the Magnum train running. How many actors do you know who could nonchalantly break the fourth wall, look at the camera, smile like Bugs Bunny, and make it seem cool?  So, let’s put on our fake moustaches and Aloha shirts, rev up the Ferrari, and crack open some bottles of “Old Dusseldorf”. Join me as I look back on the best eight years of Thomas Sullivan Magnum IV’s life. 

Male fantasy

For the uninitiated, Magnum P.I. is probably the closest thing to a sanitized male fantasy that was ever broadcast on television. Let’s run down the list of evidence:

1) “Private Investigator” Thomas Magnum lives on the palatial Hawaiian estate of elusive mystery author Robin Masters. In return for running periodic security checks on the property, he gets to live in the guest house rent free and have access to Masters’ Ferrari. CHECK!

2) His best friend Orville “Rick” Wright is the manager of the extremely opulent Waikiki based “King Kamehameha Club.” CHECK!

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3) His other best friend Theodore Calvin, aka T.C., owns a helicopter. CHECK! 

4) Jonathan Quayle Higgins, the British majordomo of the Masters Estate, attempts to thwart Magnum’s antics at every turn. NOT CHECK.

Well, three out of four isn’t bad. Aside from that last point, life is pretty good for Magnum. 

The brainchild of Donald P. Bellisario (Quantum Leap, Airwolf, JAG) and Glenn Larson (Knight Rider, Battlestar Galactica), Magnum P.I. premiered on December 11 1980 in a two hour pilot called Don’t Eat the Snow in Hawaii. In it we meet Magnum a year after his resignation from Naval Intelligence. He is settling into his new role on the Masters Estate (“Robin’s Nest”), when he finds himself having to clear the name of a recently murdered fellow Marine from his Vietnam days.

To me, what is unique about the episode, aside from how much it holds up, is how the characters are fully formed from the get-go. In most TV series, it takes a while for the writers to flesh out the characters and get their rhythms. That’s really not the case here. The characters’ core personalities are firmly established and, for the most part, stay that way throughout its eight year run. As it turns out, CBS agreed and immediately ordered twenty two episodes. 

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What I think is most often overlooked about the programme is that it really operates on several different levels. Laugh at me if you want – many do – but despite presenting itself as a standard mystery of the week on the surface, dig deeper and there’s something with a little more bite to it. Magnum and Higgins constantly bicker. Magnum mooches off Rick and T.C. for favours in solving cases. Magnum, Rick, and T.C. are all Vietnam vets. Who is Robin Masters? Is he an unseen presence who conveniently sounds like Orson Welles? Or is he really Higgins all along? It’s really the intertwining relationships that are first, then the mystery second. 

“Zeus, Apollo, Patrol!” 

If you ever hear that yelled at you it can only mean one thing: Higgins! Aside from Magnum, he was the only other character to be seen in the opening moments of the pilot, and I’d be remiss in not mentioning him in detail. Along with his beloved Dobermans, Zeus and Apollo (“The Lads”), he runs the Masters Estate with an iron fist…or so he thinks. As I mentioned before, Magnum and Higgins bicker….a lot. It’s this interplay that lends itself to some of the best moments on the show. No matter what the storyline is, be it dark or serious, it always comes just at the right moment to lighten up the mood and frustrate Higgins even further. 

Favours are never done willingly between the two. If they are done at all, it usually comes with ultimatums. Magnum usually wants access to the usual: tennis courts, the wine cellar, Robin’s camera, etc. Higgins always wants to take them away. But, underneath it all, you feel a begrudging mutual admiration between the two, and this is how they communicate. This admiration usually crops up when they discuss their common war experiences as soldiers (World War II and Vietnam). It really is a testament to the acting of Jonathan Hillerman that he won an Emmy for best actor in 1987…and he’s not even British.

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All this talk of war leads me to my next point. If you want to start up a good drinking game with Magnum P.I, take that whiskey shot every time the Vietnam War is mentioned. The fact that Magnum, Rick, and T.C. were five years out of Vietnam was and still is an inspired choice. If you can get past the occasional war flashbacks where everyone suspiciously seems five to ten years older than they should be, then you’re in for some seriously good subtext. Remember that Team Ring Magnum, Rick, and T.C. wore? Yeah I know you do. Enough said.

The backdrop of Vietnam shows the three as real people and, for that matter, a little damaged. Perfect examples of this are two episodes. Skin Deep (episdoe 1.6) isn’t particularly a stand out episode as far as mysteries go. Magnum is caught up investigating the apparent suicide of a movie starlet. However, what is pretty awesome about it are the unrelated intercuts of Magnum and T.C. going in and out of Vietnam within their heads. It has nothing to do with the main mystery, and is only superficially addressed at the end of the episode. The mystery is solved! All is right with the world. Magnum and T.C. are relaxing on the beach playing volleyball. Magnum casually asks T.C. if he still thinks about the war. T.C. laughs it off with a quick “No, never, how about you?” Magnum pats him on the shoulder and says “Who me? No.” 

One of the most superb episodes of the entire series is fan favourite Did You See the Sunrise? (episodes 3.1;3.2).  It’s here that we learn two important and revealing points: Magnum definitely still has some nasty enemies left over from Vietnam. Also, if you irritate him enough, Magnum will take you down in cold blood.  

Nothing exemplifies this more than the final moments of the whole shebang. After 90 minutes of battling Ivan, his old Doc Wei P.O.W Camp torturer, Thomas is understandably a little frazzled. You would be too if Ivan had hypnotized T.C. to attempt to kill a visiting Japanese dignitary. Also, what would you do if Mac, a long running contact from Naval Intelligence, had been blown up by a car bomb in the original Ferrari? Obviously, you do what Magnum did and get Rick to help you intercept Ivan before he leaves the country on political immunity.  By ‘intercept’, I mean Magnum kidnapped him to the jungle, asked him “Did you see the Sunrise this Morning?” and shot him at point blank range. 

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What makes it all come full circle though is that “Did you see the Sunrise?” was the last thing Mac yelled out to Thomas right before the car bomb went off. So, it’s this eerily poetic and revenge-filled moment that resonates with this nerd…uh, fan. This is the moment where we see Magnum snap from an affable beach bum to someone who has to be as ruthless as the enemy he’s fighting. I’ll leave you to ponder that scene and its meaning solemnly by yourself on You Tube.  

Infinite variety

If you know anything about Donald P. Bellisario’s various series you know he makes each episode vary in their tones and themes. Magnum P.I. is certainly no exception to this rule. One week could be intense drama and the next broad comedy. All the while he, along with his team of writers, populated Oahu with many unique, but memorable, side characters. Do these names ring a bell: Agatha Chumley, Lt. Tanaka, “Mac” MacReynolds, “Doc” Ibold, Carol Baldwin, and Col. Buck Greene? How about Rick’s sauna loving underworld contact “Icepick”? Even Jessica Fletcher from “Murder She Wrote” showed up. If not, then you have an eight season DVD set with your name on it. 

All good things come to an end, and the two hour finale Resolutions (episodes 8.12; 8.13) is no exception. It’s a race to the finish where Magnum must find the stalker of a former flame, reunite with his long lost daughter, and make it to Rick’s wedding in time. Oh and Magnum …never mind. There are just too many nuggets of quality in this one for me to spill the beans here. Let’s just say many loose ends are tied up, while a few tantalizing mysteries (i.e. Robin Masters) are left to be just that…mysteries. 

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On that note, I find myself reflecting on that long ago reunion trailer in my head. Every now and then a movie is announced with a brand new cast but, fortunately never seems to happen. Whether a proper real reunion ever gets made I guess doesn’t matter. What does matter is the fact that almost twenty four years after the show went off the air, we’re still talking about it. 

Under the 80s sheen is a character that people identify with. He’s not superhuman like Indiana Jones, James Bond, or Batman. He’s Thomas Magnum, a beach bum who is a lot like us. He has close buddies, likes beer, chili dogs, and the beach. He’s gone through hell, but after eight years grew and became a better person. In the end may it always be 1984, may there always be a Ferrari running, and may Magnum always be on the case. 

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