If you're in Hawaii and need the job done right, Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger recommends Thomas Magnum.
Our reviews of Magnum P.I.: The Complete First Season (published October 6th, 2004), Magnum P.I.: The Complete Third Season (published March 8th, 2006), and Magnum P.I.: The Complete Eighth Season (published March 26th, 2008) are also available.
"Dreams are supposed to represent your subconscious wishes and conflict, sort of a private movie you write, produce, and direct. Only you can't hide your eyes in your dreams, even when they are scaring you to death."—Thomas Magnum
Season Two confirms it: Magnum P.I. is not a flash in the pan. Although the episodes have a lackadaisical pace that might seem glacial to viewers accustomed to modern cutting techniques, Magnum P.I. is as good today as it was in the early '80s.
Facts of the Case
Magnum (Tom Selleck, The Love Letter) is back for another season of private investigations in lovely Hawaii. His acrimonious sparring with Robin's (Orson Welles) housemaster Higgins (John Hillerman, A Very Brady Sequel) grows sharper, while his relationships with war buddies T.C. (Roger E. Mosley, Letters from a Killer) and Rick (Larry Manetti, Scrambled Eggs) grow deeper. Magnum takes on Vietnamese spies, garden-variety hoods, martial arts masters, crooked academics, naval officers, dance instructors, and other unlikely opponents—all in a day's work. That day's work includes the following episodes:
• Episode 19: "Billy Joe Bob"
Season Two is a mixed bag, but inconsistency works in the show's favor. The episodes in Magnum P.I.'s second season wander from action to romance, from farce to deadly earnest. The show never pins itself down, settles into a groove, or sticks with one genre.
As a critic, I'd love to complain about the lack of uniformity. Shouldn't a show have a clear tone, a stated genre? But such a complaint would only indicate hypocrisy. After all, I have slammed many a show for slavish adherence to formula. Magnum P.I. doesn't always seem original, but it does benefit from this shifting tonal breeze, which brings freshness and unpredictability with it.
One of the worst episodes Season Two offers is the opener, "Billy Joe Bob." This patience-testing exercise in stereotypical slapstick features a wayward Texan in a basic fish-out-of-water plot. Billy Joe Bob wavers between inopportune bashfulness and inopportune aggression as he charges around in search of his missing sister. I'm pretty sure this episode was standard length, but it felt like it was six hours long. There's only so many times that a belligerent Texan punching someone in the face remains humorous.
The remaining episodes range from standard Magnum P.I. to absolutely outstanding television. The ship rights itself in the very next episode, "Dead Man's Channel," which I'd place into the "standard Magnum P.I." bracket. It features a vanilla missing-person plot and has its fair share of cheesy moments, but also has quirky touches like attacks from natives in ritual masks, scuba diving battles (a sign of Magnum P.I.'s high budget), and an unlikely villain. There's even a nod to Tom Selleck's star-crossed Raiders of the Lost Ark experience: the damsel in distress is Marion, the spirited daughter of a globe-trotting academic turned adventurer. "The Elmo Ziller Story" is both funny and trite: we get to enjoy John Hillerman's wacky doppelganger while rolling our eyes at the cliché of another "evil twin" plot. Episodes such as the average finale "Three Minus Two" (Magnum meets fashion) and "Computer Date" (Magnum meets computers) flesh out the standard bracket.
The remaining episodes are not standard. They jump all over the map, and bring us to tears of laughter—or just plain tears. "Mad Buck Gibson" bucks convention by having no villain, and no real mystery in sight. The entire episode is character-driven by a real character, a headstrong writer whom Magnum can barely keep up with. "The Jororo Kill" features a most peculiar professional assassin that might get a laugh out of you. How about Magnum undercover as a football player? Crunch! The frivolity knows no bounds, and we're never sure what to expect. But the season turns on a dime, giving us unexpectedly poignant episodes like "The Last Page," which highlights the plight of psychologically traumatized war vets.
This depth of tone culminates in "Memories Are Forever," an emotionally powerful and cinematically complex two-parter that evokes the noirish overtones of Casablanca. (In fact, cinematography isn't the only thing "Memories Are Forever" and Casablanca share; the denouements are strikingly similar.) This episode is haunting and dark, with a strong tide of sadness and anger. It opens with a recreation of Viet Nam that left me speechless; aside from Band of Brothers, I can't recall ever seeing such a faithful and moving reenactment of war on television. The powerful opening sets the tone for a deeply personal episode of lost love, government betrayal, and the plight of Viet Nam vets tightly woven together. Although I haven't seen the rest of the seasons, it's a safe bet that "Memories Are Forever" is the highlight of the series.
Though the episodes vary in tone, the season finds surer footing for Magnum and Higgins. Magnum's character subtly evolves from prankster to man. The first season was about how Magnum never paid for anything and frequently got innocent companions into trouble. Had that trend continued, Magnum might have never been taken seriously, and he would have become a cartoon. Season Two shows us that Magnum's frivolity masks a cunning, highly trained Special Forces vet with the burden of deep emotional pain. Magnum shoots people and gets shot, shares deeply personal ruminations with us, and otherwise plumbs the depths of his humanity. His subsequent hijinks are grounded by the reality of his past.
Higgins also shifts out of cartoon land. His high-handed pique threatened to become a cheese grater for our nerves, but Season Two gives Higgins the opportunity to relent, become concerned, and show compassion. With two eccentric but fully formed men in place, a rich conflict is established for the remaining seasons.
Magnum P.I.'s high budget (or suggestion thereof) elevates the show above most of its contemporaries. Glenn Larson and Donald Bellisario are no strangers to high-quality television productions. From the clouds to the undersea reefs, the camera takes us through interesting locales. "Memories Are Forever" would never have worked without the staggering crowd of Vietnamese extras and careful chiaroscuro lighting. Helicopters, mansions, and Ferraris don't hurt.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Season Two's packaging is a little better than Season One, but the rest of the package is weaker. Aside from highly descriptive episode menus (which I consider an extra, but many do not) the only extras are episodes of The A-Team and Knight Rider. I haven't watched Season Two of The A-Team, but I find "Brother's Keeper" a curious choice for the Knight Rider episode. Let's just say that you need a cheese grater to get through it. Considering the longevity and devoted fan base of the series, a few Magnum P.I.–specific extras would greatly improve this package.
This season reprises the audio problems from Season One, predominantly lip synch issues. The soundtrack is generally tinny, with brassy, harsh highs. The audio is not unpleasant or distorted; it simply sounds like a 25-year-old television soundtrack. In a remarkable parallel, the video follows suit: poor saturation, weak contrast, and occasional color balance problems tell us that Magnum P.I. is dated. Again, the video quality is not poor, and the transfer is not particularly flawed, it just seems dated.
If you're looking for a dose of nostalgia, or simply want to enjoy good television that doesn't heavily feature whip pans and jump cuts, Magnum P.I. won't disappoint you. It proudly wears the mark of its generation with gaps in logic and cheesy television clichés, but it transcends the '80s with strong characterization, deep friendships, amusing rivalry, stunning scenery, and realistic action that hold up well. Magnum P.I. wasn't afraid to tackle mature themes head on; the wounds of Viet Nam were still fresh, and the show's honesty is surprising. Sometimes, Magnum P.I. feels more movie and less television.
The court commends Magnum P.I. for stellar service. The show is acquitted.
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Scales of Justice
• Bonus Episode from The A-Team
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