Hawaii Five-O was one of the longest-running cop shows in the history of American television. It ran for twelve seasons and 279 episodes from 1968 to 1980. It was a series that truly deserved the epithet iconic.
Five-O is a special Hawaiian police/counter-intelligence unit led by Steve McGarrett (Jack Lord). It’s a bit like a small-scale state version of the FBI. While most of the stories are crime stories and conform to a straightforward police procedural format there are a few episodes in each season with more of a counter-intelligence/counter-terrorism theme.
The series was shot entirely in Hawaii and this was unquestionably its biggest asset. It makes superb use of the setting. What makes it interesting is that it doesn’t just focus on the glamorous Hawaii that the tourists see. It delves into the shady underside that every society has. It deals at times with the rich and famous but it also deals with very ordinary Hawaiians, including native Hawaiians and the Chinese community.
While it is certainly “socially aware” it generally avoids bludgeoning the viewer with political messages. And while it does deal with the seedy underbelly of Hawaiian society it doesn’t ignore the glamour and the natural beauty of the setting. In fact it provides a remarkably balanced and nuanced portrayal of Hawaiian society.
The pilot episode, Cocoon, is extremely interesting. It’s very much a spy story rather than a police drama story. Hawaii Five-O would at various times feature stories that involve international intrigue or even espionage but Cocoon is a pure spy story which suggests that the concept of the series was altered quite a bit the time the pilot was shot and the time filming of the series proper began. Cocoon is actually a very good spy story but shifting the focus more towards crime stories was probably a sound decision.
Deathwatch is an episode that uses a plot mechanism which is far from original but it’s an exciting enough story as McGarrett tries to persuade a gangster to give evidence against his boss. McGarrett’s problem is to keep his witness alive long enough to get to court. It’s an example of a typical tough gangster tale this series always handled extremely well.
Pray Love Remember illustrates another side to the series. A female Indonesian student is strangled. The main clue is a set of very large footprints. Unfortunately there are two suspects with very large feet! The vital clue is provided by a little girl who wants McGarrett to help her to find a missing fish. McGarrett gently explains that Five-O doesn’t normally deal with kidnapped fish, but then he changes his mind as he realises the fish may lead him to the solution of the murder. A nifty little episode and it gives Jack Lord the chance to show McGarrett’s more compassionate side.
Hawaii Five-O was a program that tried to grapple with the issues that seemed to be tearing the US apart at the time, one of them being the Vietnam War. King of the Hill deals with a Vietnam vet who is both a hero and a psycho although his psychosis may be only temporary, and he is a hero so McGarrett has to stop his potentially lethal rampage and save him at the same time.
In Face the Dragon McGarrett and his team have to battle an outbreak of bubonic plague. Plague is not all they have to deal with - there is espionage as well. This is one of the spy story episodes that added a slightly unusual spice to the series and it’s a lot of fun.
The Box, dealing with a prison escape, is one of the less successful episodes. It gets bogged down towards the end and even veers perilously close to preachiness. One for the Money is a serial killer story, although McGarrett finds one of the crimes to be particularly puzzling.
In Six Kilos McGarrett goes undercover as a safe-cracker, but he has no idea what the target of the robbery is to be. It’s a fun if fairly straightforward crime thriller.
The Big Kahuna is more interesting. Sam Kalakua is a descendant of Hawaiian royalty. He’s now an old man and he’s been arrested for shooting off a rifle in he grounds of his house. He claims he was defending himself from the Hawaiian goddess of fire. It appears that he may be losing his mind, but McGarrett is inclined to suspect there’s more t this than meets the eye. It’s a good episode that avoids the pitfall of excessive sentimentality while treating traditional Hawaiian beliefs with respect.
The supporting actors - James Macarthur as Danno, Kam Fong as Chin Ho and Zulu as Kono - are also not great actors in a conventional sense but they are all memorable in their different ways and the teamwork between the four principal actors is perfect.
The decision to film the series entirely in Hawaii was exceptionally bold, given that suitable television production facilities were non-existent there at the time. The series paid off handsomely for Hawaii, providing a major boost for the tourism industry.
One more thing that has to be added - this series has the greatest theme tune in the history of television.
The US first season DVD set includes an hour-long special filmed for Hawaiian television in 1996 featuring interviews with many of the people involved with the series.