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Monday, April 14, 2008

I know what you're thinking, and you're right.

The Top Ten Episodes of Magnum PI


This post is suggested by a recent post by Jason, wherein he reports that in the inevitable movie version of this old teevee show from the 1980s (because if it was on teevee in the 1980s, it'll be on a movie screen soon enough, so bring on that Riptide movie! And Simon and Simon!), the role of Thomas Sullivan Magnum will be played by Matthew McConnaughey. Personally, I don't have much of a problem with McConnaughey as an actor, but he's got his own thing going on, and I don't see him recreating the air that Tom Selleck brought to Magnum. Jason has the goods on Magnum as a character: at first glance, he's a ne'er-do-well beach bum slacker, but underneath the exterior of shorts, floral shirts and a Detroit Tigers baseball cap is a fiercely intelligent, piercingly observant, and forceful man who can even descend into some pretty dark places. Can Matthew McConnaughey capture this? I don't know. He's been the doofus in a lot of doofus comedies, but he was also pretty good dramatically in Contact and Amistad, so, who knows.

Anyway, back to the show. Magnum, PI was a staple of Thursday night teevee in our home for pretty much the entirety of its run, although in its last couple of seasons it tended to be a little darker than my parents found to their liking. At its best, though, Magnum was always a terribly entertaining show. It had nifty detective stuff, nice action sequences here and there, some terrific cast chemistry, and a lot of wonderful character-driven conflict and humor. The continual battle of wills between Thomas Magnum and Jonathan Quayle Higgins was often played for laughs, but underneath it all was the fact that as different as these two men were and as crazy as they could drive one another, in the end, each would walk through fire for the other if they needed to.

So yeah, I was a big fan of Magnum, PI. Here's a list of my favorite ten episodes. My summaries below are spoilerish, so if you're watching the show on DVD for the first time, skip this post.

1. Memories Are Forever, parts one and two

Magnum established fairly early on that Magnum was married while in Vietnam to a French nurse, who was later killed in a hospital explosion. In this two-part episode, she turns up alive, and married to a Vietnamese general. It's a thrilling episode, filled with intrigue and the tragedy of two lovers who cannot be together. (Hmmm...they should make a movie like that. Maybe get someone Bogart-esque to play the lead....)

2. Unfinished Business

The flip-side to the episode above, years later it turns out that Magnum has fathered a little girl with his former wife, Michelle. Both are murdered by yet another Vietnamese general (there were lots of these throughout the show's run), and Magnum sets out for revenge. This is a gritty and intense episode, made especially memorable by Magnum's standard voiceovers, which here take the form of letters he can no longer send to his daughter. (Of course, the series finale would establish that Lily, Magnum's daughter, wasn't killed after all.) Also notable is the performance by Lance LeGault as Colonel Buck Greene, a Navy Intelligence officer who recurs a number of times throught the series's run to clash heads with Magnum.

3. Did You See the Sunrise, parts one and two

Another two-parter (or maybe it was a two-hour episode later split into two parts for syndication; remember when teevee shows had actual episodes of double length, as opposed to being regular-length episodes with extra commercials, or just two episodes run together end-on-end?) dealing with the Vietnam exploits of Magnum and friends (he, helicopter pilot TC, and club operator Rick all served there together). Here, a brutal Russian prison guard named Ivan they had the misfortune of meeting in Nam comes to Hawaii, having run up the ranks and become a diplomat. TC is brainwashed into attempting to kill Ivan, but the plot is more nefarious than that, and in the course of things, Magnum's friend from the Navy, Lt. MacReynolds ("Mac"), whom Thomas is always bribing with food to get him classified information, is killed when the bad guys bomb Magnum's Ferrari (without him inside, of course). The final scene, where Magnum finally confronts Ivan directly, presents the series's most surprising ending.

4. Home From the Sea

This episode has no case for Magnum to solve. Instead, on the Fourth of July, Magnum is out at sea, paddling his surf-ski as part of his personal tradition of spending Independence Day alone. A speedboat knocks him off his surf-ski, and Magnum is alone in the ocean, during which he flashes back to his father's last days. Meanwhile, his friends all have premonitions that Magnum is in serious danger. It's a very effective episode.

5. I Witness

Magnum wasn't always a serious show, however; often it put its tongue-in-cheek sense of humor on display. This episode is a good case in point: the King Kamehameha Club is the scene of an armed robbery, and Magnum has to figure out who did it, based on the clues buried in the varying accounts of the robbery he is given by his friends, whose clothes were stolen in the course of the robbery. The whole Rashomon thing may be something of a cliché these days, but here, as each person tells his story in a way that makes him look the best, the result is hilarious.

6. Luther Gillis: File 521

This episode pairs Magnum's 1980s Hawaiian gumshoe with Luther Gillis, a St. Louis gumshoe who talks like he's right out of a Dashiell Hammet novel. Gillis is working a missing persons case, and he ends up working with Magnum, much to Magnum's chagrin. It's pretty much the old "Two guys who can't stand each other forced to work together" buddy story, but it's done infectiously well. Gillis was a fan favorite, so he returned a few more times over the show's run, but this first appearance was his best.

7. Laura

Like any popular teevee series, Magnum PI would occasionally feature big-name guest stars. Carol Burnett appeared a couple of times, for instance, but this grim episode brought in Frank Sinatra. The climactic sequence takes place without dialogue; just the sounds of the Honolulu streetscape backed by the throbbing chords of "Tonight Tonight Tonight" by Genesis (a stylistic riff, perhaps, on Miami Vice's use of "In the Air Tonight"). I only saw this episode a couple of times, but it is a standout.

8. Paper War

During the last season or two, there was a running gag involving Magnum's hypothesis that Jonathan Higgins, the Major Domo of writer Robin Masters's Hawaii estate (called "Robin's Nest"), actually is Robin Masters. This is the episode where Magnum first draws that conjecture, as the occasionally combative relationship between the two men escalates into a fairly nasty prank war, culminating in one of the most hilarious bits in the show's history: Magnum blowing up Higgins's matchstick model of the Bridge on the River Kwai, while he's whistling "Colonel Bogey" to Higgins over the phone. Later, in a standard bit of plot handling, when the two have decided that they can no longer coexist in any way, they're locked together inside an elevator in an abandoned building, which is where Magnum starts suggesting that Higgins is Robin Masters. (The show would never officially clear up this point; it's a pleasant notion, but it was clearly cooked up after the fact, when a number of earlier episodes establish people from Robin Masters's past speaking to Robin as if he actually is Robin. But Higgins-as-Robin is a lot more satisfying, so...I dunno.)

9. Holmes Is Where the Heart Is

Another Special Guest Star episode here: Patrick Macnee, as an old friend of Higgins's. Higgins has locked himself in the study at Robin's Nest and is typing away on his old typewriter, while Magnum is desperately trying to figure out what it is that has Higgins behaving so obsessively. The story he's writing is told in flashback: when his friend, played by Macnee, came to visit him some years earlier (before Higgins met Magnum), and turned out to be mentally ill, believing himself to be Sherlock Holmes. It's a fun episode that has a very touching ending, and the framing story works because of the show's great chemistry between Magnum and Higgins as adversarial friends.

10. Deja Vu, parts one and two

In lieu of the Special Guest Star, Magnum PI would indulge that other great stunt of hit teevee shows everywhere: the Special Location! Here, Magnum and friends travel to Great Britain, ostensibly to help set up the newest of Robin Masters's estates, an English castle he's calling "Robin's Keep". Here, while Higgins tries to train the ineffectual British guy who's to do the same job here that Higgins does in Hawaii (this fellow played by Peter Davison, who is most famous as the Fifth Doctor on Doctor Who), Magnum becomes involved in some intrigue involving an old buddy of his from the Vietnam days who did assassination work in that war, and who turns out to have stayed in that line of work after it. There's also a subplot involving Higgins's reticence to drop in and visit his father, since the two haven't spoken in years.

So there they are: ten episodes of Magnum PI. Funny thing is, I left out a bunch of episodes that I like a lot as well, so if I were to re-write this post tomorrow, I'd probably include nine completely new episodes (my Number One is pretty much a constant; that's a truly great episode). Maybe the one, originally intended for the series finale until the show got picked up for another year, where Magnum is critically wounded in a gun battle and spends the episode as a ghost, hovering on the edge of death; or the one where a psychologically fragile Magnum thinks he's seen his old friend Mac, dead for several years, very much alive on the streets of Honolulu; or the one where Magnum is paired with a modern day Samurai warrior (played by Mako). What a great show that was.

As a wrap-up, here are the show's opening credits. It feels like Thursday nights on CBS again!


(Trivia question: Everyone knows that Magnum's favorite baseball team was the Detroit Tigers. But what was his favorite beer?)

7 comments:

jason said...

You know, it's funny -- I was probably as big a fan of this show as you, but I honestly can't remember many individual episodes.(I've seen Seasons 1 and 3 recently on DVD, but not most of the show, probably, since the '80s...) Instead, I just kind of have this overall sense of "Magnumness," if that makes sense.

I do recall "Home from the Sea" very vividly, as well as a similar ep where Thomas is hiking on a mountainside somewhere and ends up trapped under an old Japanese Zero that rolls on top of him.

Great series, though; I really need to pick up the rest of the DVDs, and Simon and Simon as well...

Jaquandor said...

It helps that for a number of years the show was in syndicated re-runs in the Buffalo area, so for a time I was watching old Magnum's on a daily basis. Perfect way to unwind after school, it was...sigh....

Greg said...

Funny how Magnum has come back with such nostalgia. I had the great opportunity to go to Oahu about 4 years ago and we went to the house (it's a private house) that served as Robin Master's estate. It was almost a religous experience for me. I need to get the DVDs. It was an outstanding show and brings me back to great Thursday evenings.

Matthew said...

Old Douseldorf was his beer, naturally.

Jaquandor said...

Well, that's half of the answer....

Anonymous said...

I'll (not) be waiting for other important shows from the 80's to hit the big screen. Charles in Charge, Punky Brewster and Who's the Boss come to mind.
Actually, Magnum, P.I. was enjoyable to watch. It had a similar feel (& formula) to The Rockford Files with James Garner. I wonder if some of the same people were involved in these two shows. I watched a lot of the Rockford Files episodes together with my Grandpa.

Eric P.

Anonymous said...

The time might be right for a movie to be made, based on the forerunner of shows like Magnum and Rockford Files. I refer, of course to the inimitable Joe Mannix of Mannix. I used to like that show. I think that means I'm an old guy now.
There have been many private eye shows. It'd be kind of interesting to trace the lineage of these types of shows. I'm sure its been done. there could be a whole family tree or a rundown like they have in the bible wherein Mannix begot Rockford, who begat Magnum, etc..

Eric P.