Universal // 1980 // 1113 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Chief Counsel Rob Lineberger (Retired) // October 6th, 2004
"Hello detectives...You're probably wondering what's happening here." -- Thomas Magnum
Ahh, '80s TV. Melodramatic, tacky, jiggly, sunny, and fun...'80s TV. If you were watching television during this glorious decade -- and chances are good if you're reading this review -- you probably have fond memories of this wonderful private eye show. We've seen several high-profile '80s programs released onto DVD of late, and let's be honest: Some of the shows are better in our memories that they are today. We may relish the nostalgia, but shows like The A Team or Diff'rent Strokes don't have the chops to draw in new audiences. Is Magnum P.I. the real deal, or it it destined to pile onto the scrap heap of our disillusionment?
Hold onto your seats, gang. Magnum P.I. is one case that hasn't grown cold. The show is as fresh and invigorating today as it was then.
Thomas Magnum (Tom Selleck, Three Men and a Baby, Friends) is a post-Viet Nam Navy Seal working as a private investigator in Hawaii. He takes up residence at the Robin Masters estate in exchange for light security duty, much to the chagrin of Robin's majordomo, Higgins (John Hillerman, Up the Creek). Higgins considers Magnum a freeloading scoundrel, and uses his bile and Doberman pinschers to harass Magnum at every turn.
Magnum does his best to make a living and keep a positive outlook in the wake of Viet Nam, keeping in close contact with his war buddies: chopper pilot T.C. (Roger E. Mosley, Unlawful Entry) and nightclub owner Rick (Larry Manetti, Body Chemistry 4: Full Exposure). But as Hawaii 5-0 has proven time and time again, the beautiful islands mask a nefarious undercurrent of crime. Magnum will be kept busy if he wants to stay on top of it.
To be honest, Magnum P.I. is a show that I never expect to like, not then and not now. When the show first aired, I tended to avoid it. Red sports car, guy who gets the chicks...yeah, yeah, haven't seen that before. But whenever I happened to catch an episode, I enjoyed it in spite of myself. Eventually, I grew to respect the show and even look forward to it.
And now, 24 years later, I get another crack at it. Again, my expectations were low: How good can an '80s mystery series be today? The answer, in fact, is pretty damn good.
What is it about Magnum P.I. that is so magical? Well, that's it: It is magical. Magnum P.I. is set in one of planet Earth's most beautiful places. Lush tropical greenery gives way to blue skies and bluer waters, with creamy-white beaches. On those beaches are some of the blondest, bounciest visions this side of Baywatch. The mansion is ultra ritzy, the red Ferarri is so red, and so Ferarri. I can see myself careening around corners in that beast, with sunny skies and bullets flying by, soft skin and cashmere at my elbow...ahem. Sorry, drifted off there. But Magnum P.I. has something for the ladies as well, namely Tom Selleck. And if I have to expand on that train of thought...well, you obviously haven't seen the criminally short shorts he wears on this show.
Yet there is more to Magnum P.I. than its locale and grown-up toys. Magnum P.I. taps into a vast well of genres and moods. Any given episode could bring pure comedy, action, drama, or mystery, but more likely a combination of them. The first season's plots revolve around Viet Nam, the Navy, Chinese honor, Hawaiian politics, and a host of other anchors. These anchors are flavored with a multilayered tone. The show never quite pigeonholes itself, taking on a subtly different flavor from episode to episode.
At the same time, it sets up a clear formula, so that we can delight in the heroics of the good guys and the devilish mischief of our main man. Magnum is always one step away from trouble, and it is never clear how he gets so entangled. He is a buffoon, but somehow he asserts his masculine wiles and comes out looking good. This basic paradox appeals to both women and men. Men can appreciate Magnum's head-under-water lifestyle and then cheer when he uses his wits and guts to overcome. The women can appreciate his sense of humor and subtly dominant persona -- as well as his luxuriant chest hair.
There is no doubt to anyone that the success of Magnum P.I. rests squarely on Selleck's shoulders. Selleck has the charisma and acting chops to carry a major film, but we were lucky enough to have him in this long-running program. The joys of Tom Selleck were perfectly covered in his recurring guest role in Friends: The guys spoke behind his back about how cool he was, and even grew mustaches in honor of his. Meanwhile, the ladies grew weak in the knees.
Part of his charm (both Selleck's and Magnum's) is that he doesn't rule the roost himself. Magnum P.I. is all about relationships. On one hand, we have Magnum's good relationships with Rick, T.C., and any comely woman that happens along. Magnum's loyalty is endearing, but his antics stretch the bounds of friendship. Magnum is the kind of friend who never pays for dinner and always gets you into a fight. He must have really gone to bat for the fellas in the past to get away with this. On the other hand, we have Magnum's bad relationships with the crusty British tyrant Higgins, most of the seedy criminals in Hawaii, and virtually every authority figure. He yells at the police, the military, and every other symbol of "the man." The Higgins-Magnum rivalry takes center stage, of course: We often cheer for Magnum's cleverness as we secretly respect Higgins's attention to detail. Through it all, Magnum preens with a cockiness that is palpable.
Magnum P.I. moves fast. There is usually an action set piece or two reminiscient of the Dirty Harry movies. The budget for this show must have been incredible; I'm taxing my brain to recall other chases featuring Ferarris and helicopters on TV. The show features daring content, such as realistic portrayals of Viet Nam (bullet wounds and all) and a handful of cold-blooded shootouts. Magnum is a killer from the get-go, which gives the show a hard edge despite its trappings of leisure. Though today's television might seem grittier at first blush, some of the themes in Magnum P.I. are startling.
On the flip side, Magnum P.I. has its fair share of cheesy television-isms. Magnum gets shot in one episode, but in the next one he's fine. Plots are conspiciously convenient. Come on...do little schoolgirls really case mansions for art theft so expertly? The list of hammy moments is really long. But this was the '80s, and that's how it was. Put this up against its bretheren Knight Rider or The A Team, and Magnum P.I. seems almost Orwellian in its seriousness.
Ironically, though this first-season boxed set is enjoyable, I know from past experience that the show gets even better. Season One really took its time to gel into the formula we know and love. The early episodes are uneven, from a standpoint of both technical quality and story line. Dubbing errors abound in this season, which gives it a comical "Kung Fu" feeling. The writers toy with the characters of Rick, Higgins, and Magnum, showing you sides of their personalities you won't ever see again. There are several Magnum-defining shots in this first season, such as Higgins in full martail arts regalia and Magnum's eyebrow lift, but there are also some of the most threadbare plots and corniest moments.
Fortunately, Universal has anticipated this sentiment and given us some powerful extras to compensate. Chief among them is a four-pack of little-known episodes, which feature Sharon Stone and the title characters from Simon and Simon. (Among other guests: One of the joys of Magnum P.I. is spotting celebs such as Judge Reinhold in supporting roles.) I never watched Simon and Simon so I can't comment on the crossover appeal, but these episodes are one compelling reason to own the set. While we're on the subject of extras, I'm especially appreciative of the format of the menus, which gives us the title, air date, and summary of each episode.
It takes us until episode eight, "The Ugliest Dog in Hawaii," to hear Mike Post and Pete Carpenter's glorious theme song. These guys have the magic touch -- they also did the theme song to The A Team. If you're jonesing for your fix, you're going to have to wait awhile.
I can't say I'm digging the four-disc flipper approach. Some people complain about the maxi fold-out DigiPaks, but I like that better than two-sided DVDs.
If you appreciate good television, Magnum P.I. is one of the best in its genre. I highly recommend it, although later seasons fare better. Magnum P.I. was the perfect vehicle to usher in, and help define, '80s pop culture.
Vaguely off-tune humming of the Magnum P.I. theme song is heard drifting from Judge Rob's chambers...
Review content copyright © 2004 Rob Lineberger; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 1113 Minutes
Release Year: 1980
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* "Ki'l's Don't Lie"
* "Emeralds Are Not a Girl's Best Friend"
* "Echoes of the Mind (Part 1)"
* "Echoes of the Mind (Part 2)"
* Official Site