Review: Magnum PI 1×1 (US: CBS)

It's lost a comma but hasn't lost any of the original's best qualities

Magnum PI

In the US: Mondays, 9/8c, CBS
In the UK: Not yet acquired

It’s tempting to slate all early 80s US action shows as complete rubbish. Implausible, badly written, badly acted rubbish. To be fair, largely that’s true. Look at the likes of Riptide.

Just unwatchable.

But there were some good shows, at least, thanks in part to two men: Glen A Larson and his protégé Donald P Bellisario. Bellisario was ultimately responsible for Airwolfpossibly the best US show of the early 80s (shut up, Hill Street Blues fans – you’re wrong), but before that, he and Larson created Magnum, P.I., which made a star of both its lead, Tom Selleck, and the islands of Hawaii on which it was filmed.

Magnum, P.I.

The show saw naval intelligence officer Thomas Magnum (Selleck) resign his commission to become a private investigator on Hawaii. He takes up residence in the home of hugely wealthy author Robin Masters (Orson Welles) and in return for keeping an eye on the estate’s security, Magnum is able to use Masters’ money, cars and toys in his work – all supervised by the estate manager, former British soldier Jonathan Higgins (John Hillerman). Magnum also gets some help from some pals from Nam, helicopter pilot TC (Roger E Mosley) and the Casablanca-inspired Rick (Larry Manetti).

Although private eye shows were ten a penny in those days and usually pretty poor, Magnum, P.I. was a cut above the rest. Despite the obligatory 80s excesses in terms of format, it often had shades of proper drama and touched on important themes. Cases weren’t always clear cut, there were elements of serial drama at times and there were often moral ambiguities. In common with the vastly more bleak Airwolf, Bellisario’s service as a marine was frequently called upon to inform the scripts, with the Magnum-TC-Rick triad of former service buddies more nuanced and realistic than many shows’ portrayals of vets.

No surprise then that it’s still fondly remembered – and that CBS, which has been raiding its 80s archive for remake material, has chosen to redo Magnum, P.I. for the 2010s as Magnum P.I. – yes, we’ve lost a comma.

Magnum PI
Stephen Hill as Theodore “TC” Calvin, Zachary Knighton as Orville “Rick” Wright, and Jay Hernandez as Thomas Magnum Photo: Karen Neal/CBS ©2018 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Magnum P.I.

In contrast to the clusterf•ck train wrecks that are CBS’s MacGyver and Hawaii Five-O remakes and the strikingly different but not very good S.W.A.T.Magnum P.I. is both surprisingly faithful to the original and keen to update itself for modern TV sensibilities. The most obvious change is the increase in diversity. While the original show had the mandatory “one black supporting character”, the rest of the cast were white males. Here though, Magnum himself is played by Jay Hernandez (Six Degrees) and Higgins is now a former MI6 officer who’s not only female but played by an actual Brit (Perdita Weeks from Penny Dreadful and The Tudors). Even the supporting cast are a bit more diverse, with plenty of Asian-Americans and native Hawaiians popping up.

The second most obvious change is that we’re in the age of The Fast and the Furious, and the pilot episode is directed by that franchise’s much in demand Justin Lin. That means we get a whole bunch of stupid, impossible CGI stunts as well as an awful lot of real-life Ferraris getting wiped out. To be fair, the opening stunt is a bluff that highlights the stupidity of impossible CGI stunts, but that doesn’t stop the show wanting to eat its cake, as well as have it.

Other than that, though, everything’s more or less as it was. The theme is more or less the same as the original’s (final) theme. Hawaii is Hawaii, except 40 years older and now in HD. Magnum is Magnum, with the original’s back-story, from his naval intelligence background and his ex-marriage to the fact that TC (Stephen Hill) and Rick (Happy Endings‘ Zachary Knighton) are both former marines whom he met in service. Rick is still the guy who knows a guy, TC still pilots the exact same helicopter that the original TC did. There’s some semblance of detective work carried out. Weeks has Dobermans called Zeus and Apollo that terrorise Magnum. She and Hernandez work together as well as Selleck and Hillerman did.

Even the script feels familiar, tonally, dealing with life as a vet, life in service, the loss of comrades, how ex-military feel about the former comrades and more. Best of all, Hernandez gets to narrate the show, just as Selleck did. If you’re a fan of the original and not a complete racist/misogynist, you should be pleasantly surprised by how familiar it all is, how many references there are to the original show and generally by how not terrible it is.

Perdita Weeks in Magnum PI

Conclusion

That said, it’s still a CBS procedural and not one possessed of the realism of SEAL Team at that. This is very much escapist entertainment with realistic undertones, rather than realistic entertainment with escapist undertones. There’s also no obvious serial storyline as of yet, making it hard to get too invested in watching episode after episode. The cast are fine, although Weeks taking on two marines in a fight is a little implausible and Knighton’s never believable as a marine or an ex-marine, no matter how he dresses or what gun he carries. Plus former SIS officer Weeks retasking ‘GCHQ satellites’ to help monitor the action? That really does belong in a Robin Masters book.

So it’s good, but will it hold my attention for more than a few episodes? Probably not. But I’m certainly going to stick with it, since I doubt they can afford to have CGI stunts and trash a Ferrari in every episode, so might have to focus on story and character instead. Who knows? TC and Rick might get to be the focus of the script occasionally. And that’s a show I’d be inclined to watch.