Magnum, P.I. (Season 5): Quintessential 80s detective show still delivers

Sad news: versatile character actor John Hillerman passed away the other day, so we thought we’d dig out a Magnum, P.I. season five review, featuring Hillerman in his most recognizable role as the indomitable Higgins.

By Paul Mavis

Ah, Thomas Magnum. That bastard. Now there was a show back in the 1980s you didn’t watch with your girlfriend because, let’s face it–she thought Tom Selleck was better looking than you (that’s right–every one of you guys out there…even the handsome ones). Come on, you remember how it was. You were watching some kick-ass show like T. J. Hooker some night, which was aimed strictly at us male viewers, and your girlfriend couldn’t have cared less. She’d stride right through the room with a disgusted, “How can you watch that crap?” (“But honey, it’s got Shatner!…and Zmed’s in a speedo!” you’d yell, to no avail). But then the next night, a Magnum, P.I. episode comes on, and lo and behold–look who’s suddenly interested in male-dominated 1980s action TV? Guns and helicopter chases and dog attacks and Ferraris are her cup of tea now? And that intent look she had when she was watching Selleck–that spelled trouble for you, fella. You knew you lost her when you made a joke about Selleck’s ridiculously hairy chest (“Shouldn’t he have taken off his sweater before going swimming?”), and it didn’t get a laugh.

All jealousy (and that particular girlfriend) aside, Magnum, P.I. was a great detective show that tried to add an element of youthful hi-jinks to an otherwise overworked private investigator format. Prior to Magnum, P.I., the private dick on TV was usually an adult, and by that I mean, an adult like our parents were adults. A good example is Mannix (All Things Belong to Mannix…). Joe Mannix (Mike Connors) was the guy our fathers wanted to be. He acted like our fathers. He was responsible. He combed his hair. He had an office to maintain, a payroll to meet every week for his knockout secretary. He wore windbreakers. He spent his weekends fishing up in the mountains. He talked like an adult. His left arm was shot sixty-seven times.

Thomas Magnum, on the other hand, was like some slacker older son. Sure, he was originally in Naval Intelligence in Vietnam, but now…he just kind of goofed around. He didn’t own anything; he didn’t have an office; he didn’t even have a car. It was like he got kicked out of college and moved back home (here, it’s glamorous Hawaii) to his Dad’s house (the unseen Robin Masters and Higgins, the estate’s surly, petulant majordomo, give Magnum shelter), where he stayed in the garage or basement (here, a guest house on a fabulous estate) and was constantly borrowing the car (a $50,000 Ferrari), and giving his old man umpteen amounts of grief. All he did was hang out with his old war buddies, and swim on the beach, while meeting and falling in love with beautiful women. Oh yeah, and he solved mysteries, too.

The private eye has always been TV’s most glamorous fantasy job. Forget being a TV lawyer or doctor, or even a cowboy (too few baths); being a TV private eye has always been the dream of most male TV watchers. And Magnum, P.I. took that fantasy to a new level. Forget old Joe Mannix’s drudge work ethic–just hang out on the beach, man. Some chick will walk by, and boom!–you’ve got a case to work on (this actually happens in the first episode of Magnum, P.I.‘s fifth season).

Of course I’m exaggerating the analogy for fun (Selleck is hardly a slacker doofus), but a big part of the initial appeal of Magnum, P.I. was this notion of a big, handsome guy running around Hawaii without a care in the world, chasing women and getting involved in dangerous mysteries. Later on in the series, the stories would become much more serious, involving Magnum’s lost loves, a child missing from his life, and war friends who had come to sad ends (I have a suspicion it came about at Selleck the actor’s insistence…). And that switch in tone had begun by this fifth season.

The opening two part episode finds Magnum recovering from the loss of his former wife, only to find himself falling in love with looney Sharon Stone (hilariously, epically bad), who promptly commits suicide. Selleck’s quite good at playing Magnum for laughs as well for romance and drama: he’s pretty much the single driving force behind the series’ continued success. Despite whatever reasons Selleck didn’t quite make it as a big star on the screen, as so many predicted (I thought he was quite good in his theatrical starring roles, particularly the underrated Runaway and Lassiter), Selleck’s true home was, and is, television. His handsome, craggy face and big body inhabit the small box comfortably, and he’s the perfect kind of actor that people want to see week after week in front of their barcalounger.

Of course it’s a cliche, but it’s true: TV audiences are inviting these stars over to their houses once a week…and they have to like them a lot to do that. And genial, impossibly good-looking Selleck certainly is likable, as well as being a fine, competent actor. He’s particularly good playing off of John Hillerman’s Higgins; their scenes together have a subtle rhythm and timing that speaks to a natural on-screen chemistry between the performers. Hillerman, a respected performer who worked steadily for decades in relative public obscurity, became a bonafide TV star with his hilariously stern, blank-faced turn here–he’s a delight. These scenes show Selleck off to his best advantage, and they really provide the heart of the show.

I’m less enamored of Magnum’s friends, T. C. (Roger E. Mosley) and Rick (Larry Manetti), not because of any acting deficiencies on their parts, but rather because these characters never seemed to be particularly well written. They mainly exist to fill in some expository leg work if the plot needed it, or to comment on Magnum’s exploits–usually from a comedic stance that didn’t always work.

That being said, Magnum, P.I.‘s 1984-1985 fifth season finds the show dropping significantly in the ratings. Its third season was a series high, as the fourth most popular show on television, falling to the sixth most popular for its 1983-1984 fourth season. This 5th season the series would sink way down to 15th in the Nielsen’s, and the following season, Magnum, P.I. would permanently leave the vaunted Top Thirty. It’s always guesswork to try and figure out why a show starts to drop out of favor with viewers; so many factors can be at work. Certainly, a slump can happen on an hour-long drama after four heady years of success. Some of the stories are a tad more morose, more serious here in the fifth season, and that could have been the problem: maybe people just wanted to have a good time on Magnum, P.I. amid the Hawaiian sun and the bikinied girls. Maybe they didn’t want to be bummed out.

But usually the answer to a series’ ratings’ decline is the simplest: competition. Magnum, P.I. rose to Nielsen heights against such shows as Best of the West, Harper Valley, Lewis & Clark, Joanie Loves Chachi and Star of the Family. Not exactly memorable 80s TV (okay…I liked Harper Valley…). But this season, Magnum, P.I. had some new competition over on NBC: The Cosby Show (am I going to get sued for typing that?) and Family Ties. After two seasons of this sitcom tag-team pummeling, Magnum, P.I. was down for the count. It would limp along for two more seasons until its cancellation in 1988. But it never really left the fans’ memories, and Magnum, P.I. lives on today, in endless reruns and on blog sites, where fans breathlessly discuss the merits of the show (while waiting for that never-gonna-happen big-screen revival with Selleck). With tight (if a little moody) storylines and handsome, talented Tom Selleck running around Hawaii like some strange love child hybrid of Rhett Butler and Burt Reynolds, Magnum, P.I. still delivers this fifth season.

Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.

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