As most of you probably know, Tom Selleck passed on being Indiana Jones to do television, specifically to be on “Magnum P.I.” Ok, maybe giving up one of the most iconic roles in the history of cinema to run around in short-shorts titillating bored housewives for eight seasons wasn’t one of the best decisions in film history, but that doesn’t make playing Magnum a mistake. The show was a good one, thanks in no small part to Selleck, who by the way is making just about as many good movies as Harrison Ford these days. Things seem to have come full circle.
“Magnum P.I.” is set in Hawaii, but it isn’t boring and stodgy like “Hawaii Five-Oh”. I always hated that show. Instead it’s another one of those private investigator dramas that follows a clue digger around on the island as he solves various cases for clients and gets into wacky 80’s television mischief. The hook here is that this private-eye is Thomas Magnum (Tom Selleck), a Vietnam Vet and ex-marine who burned out on the military life and retired to put his skills to a more low key use. He’s a fun, quick witted, and yes ladies, attractive character. What’s really interesting about creating a character like Magnum is that he isn’t some young kid. If this show were made today Magnum would be played by Paul Walker. The decision to make him an older, seasoned character is a bold one that pays huge dividends. Better still, since Selleck is legitimately a good actor, he manages to get the most out of that Vietnam Vet angle, giving the guy some depth too.
The show’s horrible pilot episode (which doesn’t use the Magnum P.I. music we all love… in fact they don’t use it at all until ten episodes or so into the season) finds Magnum moving into a guest house on the massive estate of famed novelist Robin Masters. We never meet the globe trotting Robin and neither does TM. Instead, Magnum has been hired by Robin’s head of estate security and glorified house sitter Higgins (John Hillerman) to test out the mansion’s burglary countermeasures. After successfully defeating Higgins’s precautions Robin tells Higgins via telephone to offer Magnum a permanent home on The Masters Estate.
The always poverty stricken Magnum accepts and begins annoying the hell out of the aged, up-tight, ex-British army officer Higgins by borrowing Robin Master’s expensive (and still super cool) Ferrari and hauling beautiful women in and out of his end of the estate. Though Masters’ place is supposed to be Thomas’s home, Higgins never bothers to relay that message to “The Lads”, his on-site attack dogs Zeus and Apollo. In fact, as a general rule Higgins tends to go out of his way to make things miserable for Magnum, while Thomas in turn drives Higgins insane by just well, being Thomas. The chemistry between Hillerman and Selleck is responsible in large part for the show’s initial success (at least once they got past the crappy pilot and on to the great weekly episodes). The sometimes downright vicious games between them are without a doubt the heart and soul of the show. It’s culture clash between a lovable slacker and an uptight aristocrat, plopped down in the middle of an action/detective show.
What doesn’t always work so well is Magnum’s set of island friends Rick (Larry Manetti) and T.C. (Roger E. Mosely). Think of them as Magnum’s support staff. Like Magnum, both are retired marines from Thomas’s unit, and luckily for him, both have connections. T.C. was Magnum’s chopper pilot back in Nam, and has since parlayed that into a struggling helicopter business catering to tourists. Having access to a helicopter adds a nice dimension to the show, and while everyone always remembers Magnum driving around in his Ferrari, for my money T.C.’s chopper is “Magnum P.I.’s” coolest vehicle. T.C.’s not a bad character either, and Roger Mosely’s solid acting is rewarded with a couple of Season One episodes focusing on his part.
On the other hand, Larry Manetti is the acting equivalent of a Yugo backfire. Rick’s not a bad character, just one chained to a terrible actor. The show’s premiere episode is the worst, with Rick set up as the owner of a Casablanca rip-off club, complete with him clad in a ridiculous white tux. Subsequent episodes straightened that out, and transferred him to managing one of Robin Master’s tropical cabana clubs (which makes more sense since this is Hawaii), making it easier to morph his character into sort of an impish jack of all trades. But Larry Manetti remains utterly unconvincing throughout all of the first season. His performances are ridiculous, and I think he’s fighting off some sort of impending stutter as he trips over his lines.
With a cool car, a wise cracking hero, exotic locations, and beautiful women, “Magnum P.I.” on the surface seems like a typical eighties show, on par with “Knight Rider” or “Simon & Simon”. But thanks to some great performances from Tom Selleck, the show turns out to be a unique mix of humor, action, and serious undertones as Thomas Magnum deals with lingering Vietnam aftereffects while solving his sometimes wacky, sometimes serious case of the week. I’d forgotten that side of it, so when I dug in to the “Complete First Season” DVD set; I was surprised by how much relevance the show still has after all these years. The depth of “Magnum’s” characters and the flat out fun of island hopping around the most beautiful place on earth hold up. Thanks to Selleck’s timeless charisma, “Magnum P.I.” still has tons of charm.
I’ve covered quite a few of these “Complete First Season” television DVD releases this year, so know that when I tell you this one is absolutely the worst, it means something. I suppose “Will & Grace” could be considered an even greater disaster, but only because its features are intentionally misleading and therefore wholly evil. This is a rush job; throw the show on DVD and get the cash while you can. “Magnum P.I” may not be “Mash”, but that doesn’t give Universal license to treat it like a bad “Lucy” spin-off (not that there are any Lucy spin-offs).
Like every Universal television release, the packaging is of course cheap and flimsy. There’s some raised lettering on the side that serves no particular purpose and unlike some of their other equally flimsily constructed releases, the artwork on this one isn’t particularly eye catching. I guess they figured you can’t go wrong as long as you’re showing off Selleck’s mustache. Personally, I would also have included a shot of his man-thighs.
The picture quality for each episode varies wildly, a lot like when I used to watch TV through a pair of rabbit ears augmented with tinfoil. Yeah, that was back in the eighties so Magnum looks exactly as I remembered it! That isn’t a good thing. Some of it looks downright putrid, with slightly off colors and what looks like dust spots spattering across the screen. Other episodes look decent, especially the later ones, but basically they just pulled all their old “Magnum” tapes out of the archive and threw them straight on to your discs, without any attempt to restore or even dust them off. As a result, you can expect similar low quality from the show’s sound. It’s not that I expect this thing to be digitally restored, it just would have been nice to have a crisp picture instead of one generated from VHS tapes that have suffered the inevitable effects of aging. The condition here is about on par with what you’d get if you hauled out a VCR and taped the show directly from the reruns currently on television.
What’s really got me confused is the way they’ve chosen to break the episodes up onto discs. The set is composed entirely of flippers (a good way to handle eighteen hours of television), but the number of episodes you get on each flipper is pretty unpredictable. Disc 1 Side A for instance has 4 episodes, whereas Side B might only have three, while Disc 2 Side A has two and Disc 2 Side B has three. Why not just put four on each disc and if you have a few left over tack them on a new disc at the end? I hated having to pop in another disc or get up and flip my disc over after having watched less than two hours of “Magnum” magic. In the middle of a mustache marathon, the last thing I want to do is get up off the couch.
If you’re planning to pick up “Magnum P.I.” for the special features, forget it. There aren’t any. They advertise a bonus disc, but it’s just a disc containing four random episodes from other seasons, all of them bad. In fact, I suspect Universal intentionally included them because they are bad. It’s like a parting shot of hate as you finish up their poorly put together set. Heck, one of the episodes isn’t even an episode of “Magnum” it’s an episode from “Simon & Simon” in which the two shows cross pollinate. Higgins and Magnum end up working with Rick and AJ. I like “Simon & Simon” and I like “Magnum” but I don’t like “Simon & Simon & Magnum & Higgins” one bit.
I guess the two bonus episodes with Sharon Stone in them might be interesting, for posterity perhaps. Though there is a nice show scene, sadly, not much is shown. This is still television after all. A clothed Sharon Stone is a boring Sharon Stone. Meanwhile, Selleck for some reason decided these two episodes might be a good time for him to play the usually amicable and riotous TM as though he was he were swallowing massive amounts of Prozac. The result isn’t just disappointing, it’s eerie and disturbing. They’re both from Season Five, which makes me wonder how “Magnum P.I.” ever managed to make it to Season Eight.
As a DVD release, this is a major disappointment. I was looking forward to hearing Selleck talk a little about the show that made his career. I had hoped to see some of the old cast reunited. Maybe a making of documentary or two? And old TV commercial? Give me something! Universal’s release is a huge let down for even casual fans of the show. If you love the first season of “Magnum P.I.” you probably already have it recorded somewhere on VHS. That’s just as good as this. If you don’t and you absolutely NEED to have it on your shelf or in your closet, it isn’t likely that this “Magnum P.I.: The Complete First Season” dung heap is going to be double dipped. If you want the first season of “Magnum P.I.” this is your only option. We’ll all just have to live with it.