Magnum P.I. - The Complete Second Season Review
Magnum PI was one of the 80’s biggest televised events; lasting for 162 episodes over eight seasons (1980-1988). What was Thomas Magnum’s appeal? His hunkyness and ace moustache that made him an icon, or his bachelorhood that saw him whisk away many fine ladies during his investigations? Was it his Hawaiian shirts that never stayed in the closet or the fact that his cases were based on true stories? (no mail please, the writer is prone to embellishment). He was a guy’s guy and a ladies’ man. But regardless, when the series came out its adventures kept butts on seats, and people plugging in their TV sets every week; that is if they were unplugged in the first place.
Sure, detective series were in abundance, but Magnum P.I. presented opportunities that enabled it to escape from a gritty look that perpetuated most detective shows. Not many people have the luxury of driving around Hawaii in a Ferrari 308 GTS, but Magnum did and saying that he worked damn hard to get to where he was. The series was originally intended to be set in L.A. but when Hawaii Five-0’s 12-year run ended CBS wanted another Hawaiian based series. Production moved and the budget was huge. The set up is as follows:
Thomas Sullivan Magnum (Tom Selleck) - a former naval intelligence officer lives in Hawaii, where he works as a private investigator. He is resident at the estate of the successful yet mysterious Robin Masters (who incidentally we never see, though got to hear several times through the entire run courtesy of Orson Wells), under the guidance of Master’s eccentric servant Jonathan Quayle Higgins III (John Hillerman). The deal is that Magnum provides a tight security for the estate, in exchange for boarding and the use of Master’s beloved Ferrari. However things are not always so simple. Magnum and Higgins are constantly at loggerheads, over the way that Magnum conducts his affairs, and Magnum tires of Higgins’s stuffy nature. Furthermore Higgins regularly sees to it that Magnum gets quite a workout from entertaining his highly trained Dobermans, Zeus and Apollo. Outside of the estate Magnum his helped by his two closest friends and former war buddies, Theodore “T.C.” Calvin (Roger E. Mosley) and Orville Wilbour Wright III (Larry Manetti) - simply known as “Rick”. T.C. runs a helicopter service which goes by the name of “Island Hoppers”, and he usually finds himself flying Magnum to wherever he needs to go around the islands. The trouble is that Magnum has a very large tab, which means that T.C. knows he’s going to often get a bum deal out of this. Rick on the other hand has succeeded as a business man, starting out as a nightclub owner and building his way up to manage Robert Master’s “King Kamehameha Club” in season two. They were friends who were loyal and trust worthy, giving Magnum P.I. that extra diversity.
While it might not sound like much Magnum P.I. was very distinct, due to how it capitalised on its characters at every opportunity and fleshed them out perhaps more than most television series ever do; and it was because of each character’s extensive background that each episode would reveal something new. The first season was merely a taster; it provided the location, premise and stock players but largely kept to a standard formula, which saw Magnum investigate a few cases, with the help of his friends. Season two is much the same in this respect, however by this point the writers could branch out and write specific character related storylines. Season two’s main attraction then is its emphasis on Magnum, T.C. and Rick’s history. We learned in season one that they were Vietnam veterans, but the story never went much beyond that. This time we see several episodes that are dedicated to their harrowing experiences ten years prior to the series’ setting. And indeed it was a great boost to the show; it gave it the early signs of maturity and showed far greater promise for the seasons to come. Several episodes here are quite easily the stand out ones; in particular the two-parter “Memories are Forever”, where Magnum sees his ex-wife in Hawaii, who he thought to have been dead. This is where season two develops from being good to astounding; as it shows us some very warm insights into our main character and the hardships that life has presented him with. Other episodes such as “Tropical Madness” and “Double Jeopardy” provide poignant looks at Vietnam and its survivors - playing on the very real tragedies that many of the men returning home had to face.
It’s quite evident that if not for legendary producer, Donald P. Bellisario we might not have seen these kinds of storylines. Bellisario had served in the Marines during the 1950’s and when he moved to Hollywood to produce television shows he naturally focused on making shows that he was knowledgeable about. Magnum P.I. was the first series that gave him the opportunity to reach out to a wider audience and illustrate themes of war as a subtext amongst a predominantly detective based idea. In later years he presented us with Airwolf and the superbly written and detailed JAG. Quantum Leap even had some dedicated moments and fans (myself included) will sight its season three two-part opener “The Leap Home” as being one of the greatest in its four-year run. And so Magnum P.I., while glossy on the outset has a very realistic foundation. Naturally it helps that co-producer (and another 80’s legend I might add), Glen A. Larson was onboard to supervise. Larson’s show’s had been fairly light in tone; Buck Rogers in the 20th Century, Knight Rider, The Fall Guy to name a few, so inevitably Magnum P.I. was going to have many moments like this to boot. As a partnership, Larson and Bellisario gave Magnum P.I. the right blend of drama and comedy to ensure that viewers would be drawn in each week. Arguably the series showcases one of the greatest partnerships in 80’s television; and with input like that you can be sure of great consistency.
Even with season two’s strengths lying in its character studies and stand out moments that reflected the Vietnam War, the writers still managed to come up with engaging storylines that were as far removed each week. The series would at times feel typical; it usually played on an idea that entailed an unexpected twist, it’s strength keeping us guessing as to who the baddie might be in whichever particular episode. But then Magnum P.I. also had moments where it didn’t focus on any one bad guy or girl. In fact a couple of times the series just has fun with itself. Magnum didn’t always get a murder case each week; sometimes he’d just have to baby sit. Of course season two does have a couple of weaker episodes, such as “Texas Lightning”, which takes place on Magnum’s birthday. Although it starts well and is the first time we find out Magnum’s birthday (the same as creator Donald P. Bellisario) the episode soon drags on to become a predictable strangers stranded together scenario. Fortunately most of season two is strongly written and can be forgiven for the occasional slip.
With the series settling in nicely for its second season it also opened up far greater comical opportunities, allowing Magnum and Higgins’s on/off banter to become real highlights, not to mention the occasional bickering that went on between himself, Rick and T.C. Just about every episode has a funny moment and the actors each get their own opportunities to shine. The most interesting episode in this respect would have to be “The Elmo Ziller Story”, in which Higgins’s “half-brother” visits from Texas. It not only shows John Hillerman in a completely different light, but it allows him to go back to his real Texan roots (a shock to those thinking that he was from England). Meanwhile Magnum runs around convinced that Elmo really is Higgins in disguise; it makes for several wonderful gags where Selleck matches Hillerman line for line all the way, and provides more of his comic timing, which usually just comes through his facial expressions. In the same episode we have Rick and T.C. dressed up as clowns, just another part of their undercover work that often induces giggles, and shows that they’re up for a laugh at any expense. Likewise, “Tropical Madness” presents something of an oddity for Magnum. He’s usually the one who gets the girl but when shows an attraction toward Higgins he’s convinced something isn’t right; thus sets up a great episode where Magnum’s vanity gets the better of him. In “Computer Date” Higgins must get in shape for his ex-wife’s visit and who better to help him than Magnum? Yep, you can be sure that the laughs continue to fly as Magnum fixes a difficult exercise regime for Higgins; the kind of glorious payback that he’s been praying for, for all those times Higgins bugged the hell out of him.
Staying then with the cast it must be said that the performances in season two are an improvement, thanks to far better scripts and a clear comfortability that everyone has with one another. Selleck, Hillerman, Mosley and Manetti have the very thing that can only make a series like this work, and that is real chemistry. The success of any TV show is down to its cast as much as it is its writing. Even if a script is average at best a good cast can elevate it by quite a margin. Shows like The A-Team proved that point; nobody remembers the storylines so much as they remember Hannibal and co conversing or putting together decoy A-Team vans from inside a cave with a few pipes so that they could escape some baddies. Well Magnum P.I. had both, and from that comes a cast equally as memorable as any other series airing at the time. Selleck had now honed his part to perfection; his facial expressions are superb, just the way he nods several times when promising Higgins that he’ll behave is some of the best examples of physical comedy - subtle yet hilarious. But with season two his character’s mindset was far greater established. Now he would often mention his “little voice” during the self-narrated portions of the series. It was a way of talking to the viewer in-between the story moving forward. We’d get to learn a lot more about the way Magnum thinks and Selleck totally sells it from day one. He also manages to handle the burden of displaying several emotions throughout the season remarkably well; he usually has to play off this many times during an episode, and convincingly draws us in to his situations. And of course he also sells the breaking of the “fourth wall”, with his fun camera turns; he ensures that Magnum is always three-dimensional, and even when not speaking his improvisational skills serve as an excellent trait.
Larry Manetti and Roger E. Mosley, as supporting players have a surprising amount of screen time. Initially it doesn’t seem that they do much more than fly Magnum around or serve him free drinks, but they’re far more important and rely on their experiences to get him through his harder cases. At the end of the day Magnum might be extremely intelligent but his success rate owes a lot to these two. In addition they do get their own storylines, with Manetti getting to show off his solid range of emotions for two episodes in particular; “The Woman on the Beach” and “Computer Date”. Mosley and Manetti never fail to present likeable characters and their addition to the cast is just and highly appreciated.
But it’s without a doubt John Hillerman who steals most of this season. Higgins is one of the greatest characters to grace television. His performance as the thorn in Magnum’s side is remarkable in that it’s a whole lot more believable than the slew of stereotypical Englishmen that the U.S. imposed (and still does) on its television series. Hillerman provides Higgins with a very “proper” and authentic sounding accent, as well as a very dry sense of humour, which was far from Magnum’s style. His Major-domo is a marvellously well-rounded character, who through his many war stories we learn plenty. Hillerman’s delivery is perfect and when we see Magnum and company’s reaction to what they think is just another boring tale it just makes the scenes even better. The writers constantly deliver fresh lines for Hillerman to churn out, which is more than enough to put a smile on anyone’s face. In season two Higgins is not just an annoyance for Magnum, he’s also a much needed helping hand. Like T.C. and Rick he is there for Magnum if he needs him, and despite their constant arguing they have a deep respect for one another. So when Higgins gets shot in “Italian Ice” we feel how much Magnum really cares for him, even if by the end it seems like he’s shrugged it all off. With Higgins getting to grow his storylines becomes far more interesting as he becomes a serious placement in the series.
Magnum P.I. - Season two includes the following episodes:
1. “Billy Joe Bob”
2. “Dead Man's Channel”
3. “The Woman on the Beach”
4. “From Moscow to Maui”
5. “Memories Are Forever” - part 1.
6. “Memories Are Forever” - part 2. (Note: These are presented as a single 90-minute episode)
7. “Tropical Madness”
8. “Wave Goodbye”
9. “Mad Buck Gibson”
10. “The Taking of Dick McWilliams”
11. “The Sixth Position”
12. “Ghost Writer”
13. “The Jororo Kill”
14. “Computer Date”
15. “Try to Remember”
16. “Italian Ice”
17. “One More Summer”
18. “Texas Lightning”
19. “Double Jeopardy”
20. “The Last Page”
21. “The Elmo Ziller Story”
22. “Three Minus Two”
As with the first season, Universal presents a fairly standard release. Season 2 is spread across six discs and the only extras come in the form of two “bonus episodes” from two other popular 80’s shows.
Magnum P.I. is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Unfortunately it’s got D.E.A. written all over it. The transfer exhibits minor dot crawl, Edge Enhancement and aliasing, which is very disappointing, not to many very inconsistent contrast levels; these seem to go from high to low depending on the episode. The series naturally shows its age and you shouldn’t expect any remastering whatsoever, and part of the contrast difficulties are likely down to these individual episodes; the opening credits serve as one striking example. Detail is good, with an occasional softness in the background, along with natural grain, while colour levels are maintained generally well. At times the transfer appears to be a little too dark in areas, again probably stemming from the source material. It’s perfectly serviceable though and most fans shouldn’t find too much to complain about.
The 2.0 English track is about on par with its transfer. Throughout the series varying problems arise, such as drop outs and hissing. There’s also a slight tinnyness from time to time. Understandably a lot of this is down to the original recordings; it’s certainly not common for 80’s shows to sound too pristine, particularly those that require so much outdoor shooting. Little niggles aside the dialogue is clear throughout and most of the action is well centralised to the front speakers.
I’m very disappointed here with the rushed treatment that these classic series have been getting. This is probably the last time ever that we can realistically expect good extra features, such as audio commentaries, behind the scenes and interviews. I really wish these companies would seize their opportunities. I’d love to see many of my childhood heroes take part in these releases, as would many other fans no doubt. Instead Universal see it fit to promote other titles in their range. Way to go!
The A-Team: Season 2 - “Diamonds and Dust” (2.1)
The A-Team are hired by a young woman whose father has been killed in South Africa. The A-Team fly out there (yes they trick B.A. again) and beat up the baddies. Along the way they get into several gun fights and are chased by stock footage elephants, before building a super-duper armoured vehicle in a mine shaft. One thing that’s even more noticeable when watching the A-Team today is how rubbish they are with guns. The series never had strong violence anyway, but somehow they run around with guns, not being able to hit anyone and still win at the end of the day. Watching the season 2 opening credits can be a little annoying, for the reason that a new character is introduced. You just don’t place Melinda Culea in third billing, before Dwight Schultz and Mr. T. Add to that her character is so monumentally dull that you have wonder why she was drafted in. A waste ‘o space. Still, the A-Team matters where it counts and that’s in its main characters. Murdock takes most of the credit as per usual with his wackiness, while Hannibal, Face and B.A. do what they do best.
Knight Rider: Season 2 - “Brother’s Keeper”(2.3)
Michael Knight goes undercover in a prison to rescue a criminal who is being chased by a terrorist with plans of blowing up a city. This is as standard as standard gets, and Knight Rider had a lot of standard episodes. David Hasselhoff coasts through the episode, not being particularly cool, even though he wears a leather jacket. There’s something very strange about a guy whose best friend is his car; who he talks to every day but anyway at least the episode offers plenty of unintentionally funny moments, like when Michael disarms a criminal holding a gun by kneeing him in the hand, before almost forgetting how to hold the gun properly. It’s not a very exciting episode, but then I was never a huge fan of the show.
Magnum P.I. is one of the 80’s greatest television series. It stayed on top form for an impressive eight years, so credit when credit’s due. Now is a good time to catch up with it as season two vastly improves over its solid first season. Oh and it has an ace theme tune!
So now it’s time to get a little personal. Recently a script for a movie version of Magnum P.I. was completed. It seems very likely that Universal will go into production within the next year or two. Now I just want to stress that Tom Selleck HAS to be in it. Selleck has always said that he’d love to return to the role, along with the rest of the cast. Due to some trouble with Universal a number of years ago it seems that he may not get his chance. It almost would have happened a few years ago; the story was set to take place during the Hong Kong ‘97 changeover but things fell through. Now I’ve seen Tom Selleck in recent productions and I know that he could pull this off one last time. He is not too old for the role, in fact I would love to see an older Magnum and buddies, and see how their pasts affect them and what they’ve done with their lives. If Universal expect us to believe that people won’t go to the cinema to see Selleck as Magnum then they’re sorely mistaken. It would be perfect! So how about it Universal? A TV movie even. We really want to see Tom back as Magnum. The reason why we love these shows is because of the casts; substitutes just won’t do, and we know for fact that remakes of television series don’t work with new actors playing roles that are already owned. Do it with Selleck or don't do it at all. In the meantime: