More than most television series a private eye series has to have a charismatic lead actor. Magnum, P.I. has no problems there. Tom Selleck’s middle name is charisma.
If it’s going to keep us interested over multiple seasons such a series also has to have a protagonist who is more than just a stereotype. And while Thomas Magnum might initially seem like a stereotyped self-centred playboy it’s soon evident that he’s actually a pretty complicated guy. Thomas went through some very bad stuff in Vietnam and he’s still haunted by it. That gives the character a touch of darkness and a touch of pathos.
What makes this series unusual for a P.I. series is that its great strength is the ensemble acting. There are four regular characters, all of them different and all of them interesting. And the interactions between them are subtle and complex. Magnum is a guy who is only too happy to shamelessly manipulate his old wartime buddies TC and Rick into giving him outrageous amounts of help in his cases, often at considerable expense, inconvenience and even danger to themselves. But he’d do the same for them if they needed help. He’s not really selfish. He is a very demanding friend, but he’s a loyal one as well. Magnum can be childish and petulant, and then turn on a dime and behave in a noble and generous way. And as much as Higgins irritates him, when the chips are down he’ll stand by Higgins just as he’ll stand by his wartime buddies. Magnum is a flawed hero but he’s a hero just the same.
As in the earlier seasons there’s an obsessive preoccupation with the shadow that the past is able to cast over the present. The strength of this series is that this theme is explored so often, but never in quite the same way twice. In fact it’s a series that is constantly trying to take familiar themes and give them an original twist. Sometimes this is risky, but it’s a risk worth taking.
One important point has to be made about watching TV series on DVD. There’s a real danger of indulging in too much binge-watching. If you’d been a Magnum, P.I. fan back in the 80s you’d have seen the 162 episodes over the course of eight years. If you watch too many episodes (and this applies to every TV series) in too short a space of time you can overdose. This is important particularly when you get to the third season of a series.
Like Hawaii Five-O this series tends to blend crime and espionage elements, sometimes in the same episode. It’s one of the things that makes Magnum, P.I. a slightly unusual private eye series.
Magnum, P.I. is also incredibly stylish. Like Mannix it has that glossy polished look that American television perfected in the late 60s.
This seems at first to be a traditional private eye series but Magnum, P.I. often takes unexpected risks and unconventional approaches. More surprisingly, the risks usually pay off. It really has a distinctive flavour of its own. The polished and very stylish surface has led to its being very underrated. And in its third season it’s still taking risks.
Did You See the Sun Rise? opens the season in a very impressive manner. It’s one of the many Vietnam-related episodes and it’s one of the best. A guy Magnum served with in Vietnam is convinced that a Russian named Ivan is out to kill him. Ivan had been attached to the North Vietnamese Army and Magnum and his buddies had encountered him when they were P.O.W.s and he’s one nasty customer. But why would he be trying to kill one of them now? And why is Colonel Buck Green, a Marine intelligence officer for whom Magnum has an undying hatred, involved? This is a very dark episode (and Magnum, P.I. had some very dark moments).
In The Eighth Part of the Village Thomas picks up a carton of books from the docks for Higgins. But the carton doesn’t contain books, it contains a young Japanese woman named Asani. She is the daughter of a man named Sato, a Japanese officer Higgins had befriended during the war. But why are a couple of hoodlums now trying to kill Thomas? And why is it so hard to find Asani’s husband who is supposed to be in Honolulu? Not to mention Asani’s stories of the cruelty of her father, even though Higgins assures Magnum that Sato is a very kind and honourable man. It’s a decent episode.
In Past Tense TC’s chopper is skyjacked and used in a daring prison escape and TC and Higgins find themselves held hostage on a small island by a bunch of desperadoes. The question is why a small-time white-collar criminal nearing the end of his sentence would stage a violent prison break, and what does it have to do with Magnum? Magnum will have to find the answer to both questions. A good episode.
Flashback is a dream episode. Most of the episode is one long extended dream sequence. This is the kind of thing that is usually best avoided but in this instance it’s done very cleverly and with style and wit. Magnum wakes up to find that it’s 1936 and his client has just arrived in Hawaii, by flying boat. Her father is going to be charged with murder. Magnum has to prove his innocence. He has T.C. and Rick to help him, only they’re not quite the same people that they are in 1982. Similar, but not quite the same. He has Robin Masters’ car, only now it’s a 1927 Bugatti. Magnum knows it’s a dream. The viewer knows it’s a dream. But it’s a dream that has unexpected significance. A clever idea superbly executed, and it looks fabulous with the 1930s cars, planes and fashions. It’s offbeat episodes such as this that make this such an intriguing series.
In Foiled Again Higgins becomes reacquainted with an old enemy from his school days, and there is no hatred that can compare to the hatreds formed in schooldays. He also becomes reacquainted with an old love from the same period of his life, and these two encounters lead to disaster. A good episode.
In Mr. White Death an ageing professional wrestler by that name (played by Ernest Borgnine) saves Magnum from being beaten up. The wrestler loses his job and his apartment as a result so Magnum puts him up in the guest house. You’d expect Higgins to be appalled but amazingly he and Mr White Death get on like a house on fire. The wrestler wants Magnum to find his long-lost son. Magnum becomes suspicious that there’s more to it, and there is, but the plot twists are genuinely clever and offbeat. Ernest Borgnine is in fine form, Rick gets knocked unconscious every few minutes and it all builds into an emotional climax. This is vintage Magnum.
In Mixed Doubles Thomas and Rick are playing in a pro-am tennis tournament and Thomas likes the idea because he thinks he’ll be partnering an old flame, Ginger Grant, who’s now the top women’s tennis player in the world, But instead he has to partner an obnoxious brat named Carrie Reardon, a rising star on the women’s circuit. He has to partner because she’s been threatened and he has to act as her bodyguard. The case gets complicated and Magnum’s personal life gets mixed up in it as well. It’s another Magnum episode dealing with the fact that we can never quite escape the past and we can’t put it right either. Quite a good episode.
In Heal Thyself a nurse named Karen whom Magnum knew in Nam is now a doctor and she may be facing a triple murder charge. Thomas is sure she’s innocent but she did crack up after Nam so that makes things more awkward for her. She’s not even sure herself that she’s innocent. This one has a decent mystery plot with multiple plausible suspects (including Karen herself). Another story with Vietnam flashbacks but it’s a good episode.
In Of Sound Mind a former client named MacLeish is killed in a plane crash and leaves his $50 million fortune to Magnum, but there’s a catch. Magnum has to find MacLeish’s killer. Not an original idea but it’s given some new twists and it’s executed with enormous wit and style. The ending is very very clever. A fun lighthearted episode, and a very very good one.
The Arrow That Is Not Aimed is typical Magnum, P.I. - you take a conventional private eye plot and then add some wildly unconventional elements. A valuable Japanese porcelain on its way to Robin Masters is stolen. What’s unconventional is that it was stolen by ninja, and the courier was a samurai named Tozan and he’s going to commit ritual suicide if the plate is not recovered. Magnum learns about the samurai code of honour, and Tozan learns a few things about himself as well. A very good episode.
The Birdman of Budapest is a mad Hungarian ornithologist and Magnum has to find him so that Robin Masters’ old high school English teacher Elizabeth can interview him for her book on ornithology. But there’s something to this story that Magnum doesn’t know. And Magnum has to find the ornithologist before Higgins is driven to murder. There’s also a homicidal macaw. Quite a good episode.
Magnum gets married in I Do? but of course you’re going to suspect that it’s not quite so straightforward. And it isn’t. In between squabbling with his new bride Marsha MacKenzie he has to find out why so much money has gone missing from the MacKenzie corporation. It’s not a complicated plot but it’s well executed and the repartee between Magnum and Marsha is amusing.
Forty Years from Sand Island is another story dealing with the past. Forty years earlier Japanese-Americans were interned in a camp on Sand Island in Hawaii. One night something terrible happened, and that long-ago event could get Higgins killed. Maybe sometimes it’s best to forget the past but some things can’t be forgotten. Another strong episode.
In Legacy from a Friend Magnum acquires a partner. Sort of. Very reluctantly. It starts with Magnum’s friend Marcus drowning. Only that doesn’t make sense. Marcus was a lifeguard. And always penniless, so where did he get the very expensive brand new sports car he’d been driving? Then Tracy turns up with a story that she was Marcus’s fiancée but then she says she’s an undercover cop but Tracy changes her story numerous times. Either way she forces herself on Magnum as a partner. The comic interchanges between Magnum and Tracy are the highlight of the episode but there’s also a decent plot which will eventually explain the sports car, and Marcus’s death. Magnum P.I. is at its best in the darker episodes but the more comic stories such as this can be quite delightful. And while Tracy is irritating she’s also likeable even if as a detective she can be more of a hindrance than a help.
Two Birds of a Feather is another episode with Vietnam flashbacks. During the war Magnum was trapped by Vietcong forces in Cambodia and he only escaped because a Marine Corps Phantom pilot, Sam Houston Hunter, bent the rules and gave him air support. Now Hunter has crashed a light plane in Robin Masters’ tidal pool. Magnum and Hunter never actually met in Nam but they both have a weird feeling that they should know each other. What puzzles Magnum is what he found in the wreckage of the light plane.
The guest star in ...By Its Cover is Stuart Margolin, best known as Angel in The Rockford Files. And in this episode he plays Rod Crysler, a character who is simply a slightly older version of Angel. But it has to be said that he’s the sort of character Margolin plays incredibly well. Rod was in Nam with Magnum. Now he sells encyclopædias and he persuades Magnum to deliver a crate of encyclopædias for him, except that the crate actually contains marijuana. Rod has an explanation for this. He has an explanation for everything. Magnum should just call Five-O but he owes Rod from Nam and maybe Rod isn’t lying this time. There’s some comic relief provided by Rod’s parole officer who is really excited about getting involved in Magnum’s plan to get Rod out of trouble because she’s never had the chance to play at being a real cop. It’s basically a fun episode (and it does have a very Rockford Files flavour) and it works.
The Big Blow is a hurricane that is just about to hit Oahu. That however is not going to stop Higgins from going ahead with Masters’ spring equinox party, one of the highlights of the social season. The party attracts three unexpected guests - two prison escapees one of whom has his pregnant wife in tow. There's also another complication that only Magnum knows about. He has a plan for dealing with that complication but it goes wrong. But that’s OK. He has another plan. But first there’s the problem of the two escaped convicts with guns. And there’s also the problem of the hurricane, and the phone lines being down and the power being out. There are both thriller and mystery elements in this story and both are handled pretty well. An excellent episode.
Faith and Begorrah begins with Magnum tailing someone when he runs into an Irish priest and the priest looks a bit like Higgins. So Magnum tells Higgins about the encounter and Higgins realises, to his horror, that his half-brother Father Paddy McGuinness is in Hawaii. It’s not just that Father Paddy is a somewhat disreputable priest with a fondness for whisky. The real embarrassment is that Father Paddy is illegitimate. That sort of thing bothers Higgins and it bothers him even more that Magnum knows about it. Father Paddy is looking for a relic stolen from his church in Northern Ireland and he blames the British and then another relic, this one a British relic in the keeping of Higgins, is stolen. Meanwhile Magnum is trying desperately not to find evidence that a boxer’s wife has been unfaithful.
This is a story in which not much happens and yet quite a lot happens. There’s no great mystery to be solved. What happens is all character stuff. It’s all very light-hearted. It’s the kind of quirky episode that makes this series so fascinating. I liked it.
Along with Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, Mannix, The Rockford Files and Harry O this is one of the great American private eye series. Very highly recommended.
I’ve also reviewed season one and season two.