Since I haven’t been able to get hold of the first season I’ve had to start with season two which is available for rental here.
MacGyver is perhaps not quite as trashy as some 80s American TV shows but it makes up for that with extra helpings of corniness. And absolutely enormous dollops of sentimentality. It’s very hit-and-miss but at its best it’s kind of clever and rather appealing. At its worst it can be schmaltzy and embarrassing.
What made the series famous was of course MacGyver’s ability to take a handful of everyday objects and use them to construct whatever device happened to be needed in any situation. Not only can he always do this, he manages always to make it look vaguely plausible.
MacGyver works for the Phoenix Foundation. He describes it as a research foundation, and at other times as a think tank. It’s obviously a lot more than that. It’s fair to conclude that it has major connections with the intelligence community and that it’s involved in overseas operations of a military nature. A cynic might suspect that it’s basically a CIA front. In any case it gives the writers plenty of latitude - they can plausibly get MacGyver mixed up in just about any imaginable secret agent-type adventure.
His buddy Pete Thornton seems to be the head honcho of the Phoenix Foundation. He obviously has a military/intelligence background.
MacGyver has some very amusing ethical issues. There’s lots of violence in the series but only the bad guys carry guns. MacGyver doesn’t approve of guns. On the other hand he seems to be quite fond of bombs, as long as they’re homemade ones. And homemade howitzers, mortars, rocket launchers, all that sort of stuff he thoroughly approves of. Guns are bad but blowing stuff up is good clean fun. It’s as if they wanted to make a non-violent action series but realised that nobody would watch it so they added lots of violence but tried to do it in a way that people who disapproved of violence would approve of.
The A-Team solved the problem by featuring truly enormous quantities of violence but making sure that even when thousands of rounds of small arms ammunition are expended nobody actually gets killed or badly hurt. All the thousands of bullets that are fired apparently miss. Airwolf is another series that has an uncomfortable relationship with violence. It’s more openly violent than MacGyver or The A-Team but it still pulls its punches and the hero feels really bad about killing people.
Not only does MacGyver dislike guns, he also doesn’t drink or smoke and appears to be a vegetarian so there was a very real danger that he would come across as a Boy Scout. In fact he does come across as a Boy Scout. He’s much too perfect and he has no vices at all. He wants to help people. Whether they want to be helped or not. If you imagine what John-Boy Walton would have been like if he’d become a secret agent you have a pretty good idea of MacGyver’s personality.
It’s to Richard Dean Anderson’s credit that somehow he makes this character vaguely likeable.
The Human Factor is the season opener and it’s man vs computer story. MacGyver is hired to try to break into a top-secret military research establishment in order to determine whether the new security system really is foolproof or not. The security system depends entirely on a computer, automated weapon systems and armed robots. It was developed by Dr Jill Ludlum (June Chadwick). MacGyver gets more than he bargained for when the system goes all Colossus: The Forbin Project on them and decides that MacGyver and Dr Ludlum are security threats that must be eliminated.
MacGyver of course comes up with lots of improvised tricks to circumvent the computer’s security procedures and in this episode MacGyver’s improvisations are particularly effective in a dramatic sense since the whole point of the story is remorseless machine logic pitted against human ingenuity and unpredictability. This is an exciting and generally excellent episode.
The Wish Child is strange and interesting. There’s this Chinese legend about a magical boy, the Wish Child, and now some wealthy people in Chinatown are convinced that the kid brother of a Chinese friend of MacGyver’s is this magical boy. It’s obviously has to be a scam but the powers attributed to the Wish Child are pretty awesome and if it’s a scam it’s a high stakes scam. I have no wonder if there really is a Chinese legend about the Wish Child but if there isn’t there should be because it’s kind of cool. And it’s an offbeat but effective episode. I liked it.
Back in the 1950s when juvenile delinquents started to become a thing in America movie and TV people got the idea that this social problem would provide great material for hard-hitting drama. They were wrong. At best the results were amusingly campy. Mostly they were just cringe-inducing. Final Approach belongs to the latter category. There’s one of those well-meaning programs to take gang kids out into the wilderness where the exposure to nature will magically transform them into decent law-abiding human beings. MacGyver is a sucker for this sort of thing so he’s involved in this program, only the plane taking them all back to civilisation crashes and now MacGyver has to figure out a way to stop these kids from murdering each other, keep them alive in a wilderness where there’s a rattlesnake under every blanket and a cougar around every corner, and get them back to civilisation.
And of course one of the kids is injured and if they can’t get him to a hospital within hours he’ll die. Add a teen romance sub-plot and you have a recipe for some truly awful television, and Final Approach really is dire.
MacGyver’s old buddy Jack Dalton has never ever told the truth about anything so chances are that the whole story he’s told MacGyver to inveigle him into a crazy adventure in Central America probably doesn’t contain a word of truth. But maybe, just maybe, this time Jack’s story might not be entirely lies. Maybe Jack really was mixed up in orchid-smuggling and maybe there really are kidnapped botanists needing to be rescued. Jack of Lies has some aviation adventure which is always a bonus, and this time MacGyver constructs a wonderfully inventive infernal machine for dealing with corrupt cops. This episode is a fair amount of fun.
Eagles is MacGyver at its most cringe-inducing. MacGyver is communing with nature in this one. He tries to rescue some eagles that have been injured by very very bad men. He also finds time to try to help a mom and her son who are having problems. The very very bad men naturally cause more problems.
The problem here is that there’s a message and it’s delivered in a very heavy-handed and clumsy manner and there’s a lot of sermonising.
This ingenious plan coked by the bad guys would have worked except for Carrie’s dreams. Carrie is a deaf girl in the hearing project and her dreams somehow anticipate the spies’ plans. We’re never given the slightest attempt at a plausible explanation for this. With a plausible explanation it could have been a very cool idea but with no explanation at all it’s just silly.
This episode also takes us deep deep deep into heart-warming territory. If you have a low tolerance for that sort of thing you might want to steer clear of this one.
The mobsters have lots of guns. Guy and his wife and MacGyver don’t have any weapons of any kind. But they do have MacGyver. And he has lots of car parts and lots of junk with which to make an assortment of defensive and offensive weaponry.
This episode works because the tone is just right. It’s slightly whimsical, but without becoming silly. There’s a certain emotional resonance. Guy is a has-been trying desperately hard not to become a pathetic loser and trying even harder to retain his self-respect. He lives in a fantasy world but there’s no self-pity and most importantly there’s no manipulative sentimentality (which can be a problem in other MacGyver episodes). And it’s a genuinely exciting episode with cool action scenes.
Phoenix Under Siege is almost a great episode. Terrorists are trying to blow up the Phoenix Foundation headquarters building and MacGyver and his grandfather are inside it. There’s a fine battle of wits between MacGyver and the psychopathic female terrorist leader and MacGyver has to improvise all kinds of gadgets to defeat the building’s security measures. Everything you could hope for in a MacGyver episode, but the bad news is that there’s also lots of the stuff you dread in a MacGyver episode - lots of schmaltzy sentimentality. But if you can ignore the saccharine touches it’s a tense and exciting story.
In Family Matter somebody is trying to get revenge on Pete Thornton through his family. The guy is holding the family hostage in the middle of a swamp. MacGyver launches a one-man rescue operation. There’s some good action stuff in the bayous and as usual there’s too much emphasis on feel-good emotional stuff which slows down the action. But it’s still an entertaining episode.
After twelve episodes I have very mixed feeling about this series. MacGyver’s homemade gadgetry is always great fun. When the series concentrates on action it’s enjoyable but all too often it gets bogged down in touchy-feely stuff that seems wildly out of place. When MacGyver is good it’s pretty good but when it’s bad it’s really bad. It’s a series you’d definitely want to rent before buying.