Universal // 1980 // 1119 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Brendan Babish (Retired) // March 8th, 2006
Thomas Sullivan Magnum, IV: "I was just at the store looking for a pair of pants to turn into cut-offs..."
In one of the ultimate "What-might-have-beens" Tom Selleck was originally cast as Indiana Jones in Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark but had to back out due to scheduling conflicts with his television show, Magnum P.I.. Magnum P.I.'s Third Season was the first to be filmed after Raiders of the Lost Ark spectacularly premiered in 1981. Surprisingly, Selleck shows almost no visible signs of bitterness throughout the season. Could this be because the quality of Magnum P.I. is in any way comparable to one of the greatest action/adventure films of all time?
Thomas Sullivan Magnum, IV (Tom Selleck, Three Men and a Baby) is a third generation American Naval officer who saw action in Vietnam as a Navy Seal. In 'Nam, Magnum made two lifelong friends: Theodore "T.C." Calvin (Roger E. Mosley) and Orville "Rick" Wright (Larry Manetti). When he and his buddies retired from the military, they all decided to settle in Hawaii. T.C. became a helicopter tour guide, Rick became a bar manager and Magnum got himself a private investigator's license.
Despite his P.I. license, Magnum seems to earn very little income from investigating. This isn't to say he doesn't get involved in detective work; he just seems to do much of his crime-fighting pro bono. Magnum pays his bills and puts food on the table by monitoring the security at the sprawling estate of international playboy Robin Masters (the perpetually traveling Masters is never seen, but voiced by Orson Welles). The estate is run by Jonathan Quayle Higgins III (John Hillerman), a pompous Englishman who clashes with Magnum's laid-back style. Despite their differences in demeanor, Higgins and Magnum do have a grudging mutual respect for each other.
The third season of Magnum P.I. consists of 22 episodes spread out over three double-sided DVDs. These episodes aired between September 1982 and May 1983. They include:
* "Did You See the Sun Rise? "
* "Ki'i's Don't Lie"
* "The Eighth Part of the Village"
* "Past Tense"
* "Black on White"
* "Foiled Again"
* "Mr. White Death"
* "Mixed Doubles"
* "Almost Home"
* "Heal Thyself"
* "Of Sound Mind"
* "The Arrow That Is Not Aimed"
* "Basket Case"
* "Birdman of Budapest"
* "I Do?"
* "Forty Years From Sand Island"
* "Legacy From a Friend"
* "Two Birds of a Feather"
* "...By Its Cover"
* "The Big Blow"
* "Faith and Begorrah"
Each episode is a self-contained little adventure that seems to follow a similar basic storyline. Magnum loafs around Oahu minding his own business while someone close to him is either a) killed, b) accused of a killing, or c) threatened with bodily harm. Magnum briefly abets his life of sloth to either avenge his friends' death or near death, or clear his friends' names. It is interesting that, though Magnum is a licensed private investigator, he seems to have no means to solicit employment and is rarely hired for his investigative services. The majority of his adventures seem to occur only after he accidentally stumbles into danger. And Magnum seems to be very good at finding danger. For such a laid back and likeable guy, Magnum sure does seem to get shot at an awful lot.
Clearly, the show's biggest asset is Selleck. He imbues Magnum with a tough yet relaxed coolness that makes it clear why he was originally pegged to play Indiana. While it is relatively easy to find an actor who looks cool in cut-off shorts and a Hawaiian shirt, it is difficult to find an actor who looks so effortlessly cool while wearing the same outfit and being shot by disgruntled former Marines. The genius of Tom Selleck is that, no matter how much peril Magnum's life may truly be in -- people are often shooting at him with murderous intent -- he can just smirk and shrug as if he were facing the business end of a water gun. Even when Magnum kills people -- and he does kill in Season Three -- you know he'll be back in the kayak the following day, same old goofy Magnum.
Another huge asset to the show is that people do actually die, and that the good guys will kill the bad guys. Many detective shows, especially those made before the '90s, are too insufferably good-natured to allow any meaningful characters to die. Likewise, the main characters of these will almost never shoot anyone, lest they lose some of their likeability or the show some of its levity. Magnum P.I. seems to have no problems allowing its characters, even Magnum himself, to take out the bad guys when necessary. Additionally, close friends of Magnum, though never any main characters, are often rubbed out. This, as most all contemporary detective shows have learned, increases the emotional impact of the drama. Surely one of the reasons Magnum P.I. was able to allow these moments of intense drama is because the show was being driven by Selleck's cool, steady hand. However heavy the show gets, when Magnum ambles around the estate in that bushy mustache and beat-up Tigers hat, everything somehow seems right with the world.
The rest of Magnum P.I.'s cast falls far short of Selleck's strong performance. In fact, John Hillerman, who plays Jonathan Quayle Higgins III, is the only other regular cast member who seems to have any previous acting experience. Both Roger E. Mosley and Larry Manetti, who play Magnum's Vietnam buddies T.C. and Rick, both have acting skills more in line with retired athletes than actual trained thespians. As a result, the scenes between Higgins and Magnum are highly entertaining and the highlight of most episodes. Additionally, episodes prominently featuring Higgins, such as "The Eighth Part of the Village" and "Past Tense," end up being the strongest of the season. The best one can hope for when T.C. or Rick is prominently involved is that Magnum is around enough to water down the inimical effects of their campy acting. Thankfully this is often the case. Additionally, as Magnum P.I. is a show from the early '80s, campy acting does not jar as much with this show's sensibilities as it would with a gritty contemporary drama like Law & Order or The Shield.
While a classic show like Magnum P.I. is a welcome addition to DVD, Universal has done a very poor job with this box set. Cramming up to eight episodes onto a single double-sided DVD has caused the picture to be washed out and grainy. There are also some episodes that momentarily pause between scene changes. The sound is not much better. Due to the low-fi sound effects of '80s television, though, this is not as noticeable. All in all, the quality of these DVDs is just about on par with their VHS counterparts. Additionally, there are almost no extras in this set. While I understand there may not be a lot of extras readily available for a 25-year-old TV show, a commentary track with Tom Selleck and/or series writer/creator Donald P. Bellisario would have been pretty cool.
I admit I have a pretty low tolerance for the campiness of most of television shows from late '70s and early '80s. After years of brash and entertaining fare such as the previously mentioned Law & Order and The Shield (which are the two best detective shows of my lifetime), even serious shows from the '80s like Wiseguy can produce unintended chuckles. However, Magnum P.I. strikes such a great balance between humor and drama that it could be appreciated by even the most contemporary of television viewers. The show deserves a chance to be re-discovered on DVD, and Tom Selleck's legacy among the younger generation should not be limited to his uninspired guest appearances on Friends.
Universal is guilty of taking the loyalty of Magnum P.I. fans for granted and producing a truly lackluster box set of a superior show from the 1980s.
Review content copyright © 2006 Brendan Babish; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 1119 Minutes
Release Year: 1980
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Episode from Season Four