On the box: Magnum P.I.

You know the original Magnum P.I., don’t you? The theme tune. The red Ferrari. And the most famous moustache on TV. But how does the new show compare to its much-loved predecessor? I’ve watched the opening two episodes. Here are my thoughts.

History repeats itself

Produced by the team behind the Hawaii Five-0 reboot, Magnum P.I. is a case of television history repeating itself. The 1980s show started from CBS wanting to maintain its Hawaiian production facilities as the original Five-O wound down. Today, the contemporary Five-0 is in its ninth season, so the time is ripe for Magnum mark two. The new show also slots neatly into CBS’s universe of procedural dramas that includes Five-0, the NCIS stable and the (frankly dreadful) revived MacGyver, enabling even more crossover potential.

There’s no missing the link with Five-0, with a direct reference in the pilot. The first two stories both feature appearances by Five-0 characters: medical examiner Noelani Cunha and serial food entrepreneur Kamekona. There’s even talk of Steve McGarrett himself appearing later in the season. The original Magnum mentioned but never showed McGarrett – although, just to be uber-meta, the new Five-0 has previously referenced the original Magnum show.

The impossible pilot

I have a lot of sympathy for the writers of any show’s pilot episode these days, particularly reboots of cherished favourites.

There are no more feature-length pilots with the space to fully introduce the characters and their world. Nowadays you have a standard single hour: 42 minutes in real terms. An audience expects an attention-grabbing cold open, distinctive characters, some whizz-bang action and, somewhere in between, an actual plot.

With a reboot, it’s worse still. We expect certain familiar aspects of the original. But we also expect something different because we don’t want an unimaginative retread. It’s a difficult balance. Change too much and you alienate nostalgists. Change too little and you anger cynics.

How does Magnum do? Not great – but not bad. In truth, that’s a pretty decent result.

Let’s start with the cold open, in which Magnum performs a high-altitude, low-opening parachute jump from space. He then pulls off a daring rescue straight out of The Fast and the Furious – not surprising, given that Justin Lin, director of four F&F movies, helmed this pilot. So far, so ridiculous, although the show neatly subverts the audience’s incredulity by revealing it’s actually a scene from Robin Masters’ latest novel.

The characters of Magnum, Rick, TC and Higgins are quickly established and their relationship explained for new viewers. And then we’re straight into the main plot itself, such as it is. Some nefarious former Marines kill Magnum’s war buddy Nuzo, leaving behind a mystery. Magnum pursues said mystery – it turns out to be about as convoluted as a straight line – and gains revenge for Nuzo as his killers plunge to a fiery death.

In between, we learn that Magnum previously lost his one true love. And that Higgins is a former MI6 operative.

The more things change, the more they stay the same

How faithful is the new version to the original? Actually, very much so. The theme tune has only been slightly tweaked, although it’s been edited down to within an inch of its life. Compare for yourself …

The four core characters are fundamentally the same. Magnum, TC and Rick are military veterans who have reintegrated into civilian life. Higgins is the property manager for the unseen Masters and still has two Doberman Pinschers who intensely dislike Magnum. Magnum routinely drives Masters’ Ferrari. (I mean, who wouldn’t?)

The dynamics are immediately familiar and if the writers are wise they won’t tinker too much, as they were core to the original show’s appeal.

There are, of course, a few nods to the original to please older fans. In the pilot, Magnum briefly drives – and writes off – a Ferrari 308, the same model driven by Tom Selleck. Episode two sees Magnum briefly sporting a Selleck-style moustache and a client who shows up wearing a Da Nang baseball cap.

But yes, there are differences too. The most obvious is the increased diversity of the cast. Jay Hernandez (Magnum) is a third-generation Mexican-American. And while the character of Higgins remains British, she is now female, with British-born Perdita Weeks stepping into the shoes of the American John Hillerman.

The early indications are that the new Higgins will play a more integral role as part of Magnum’s team. Her MI6 background and computer skills clearly make her a valuable asset. We’ve also seen that she can handle herself in a fight, so hopefully she will be more than just the team’s tech support. Fingers crossed.

Please, no will-they-won’t-they, okay?

Is the new cast any good? Magnum himself is initially drawn with only the broadest of brush strokes. However, Hernandez looks the part and has an easygoing charm.

We haven’t seen a huge amount of Rick and TC yet, but enough to emphasise that they are very much comrades rather than subordinates.

More of the focus thus far has been on building up Higgins as a foil to Magnum, the core axis of the original series. Their relationship already appears more banter-y and less adversarial than the original. I’m less keen on the hints at the old ‘unresolved sexual tension’ trope that were more than a little reminiscent of the dynamic between David and Maddie in Moonlighting. Let the pair be regular frenemies and occasional colleagues and forget about the will-they-won’t-they, please.

Episodes 1 & 2

As stories go, the pilot is functional at best and at times a complete mess. But there is an awful lot that had to be shoe-horned into those 42 minutes. Much of it is clunky and half-formed – but enough to hint at the show’s potential.

The second episode is better, a race against time to track down a stolen 300-pound tuna hiding a flash drive used to smuggle spy secrets. Yes, it’s just as ludicrous on the screen as it looks written down. But it’s breezy, brainless fun, it focusses more on the characters than the plot, and it works.

It’s also too easy to make comparisons wearing rose-tinted glasses. As great a show as the original was, watch it again with fresh eyes and you see a series that took most of its first season to figure out its magic formula. The two-hour pilot is unevenly paced, with several elements that were soon changed for the better. It certainly wasn’t a show that was born fully formed, Sopranos-like. 

Is it any good?

Time will tell.

It’s the characters more than the cases of the week that will ultimately determine the success of Magnum P.I. The original was, fundamentally, a fairly routine procedural. But audiences loved Magnum as an ordinary Joe who was a sucker for a sob story but fiercely loyal to his friends. They loved the thawing love-hate relationship with Higgins. And, for all its lightness of touch and willingness to show off the beauty of Hawaii – there is plenty of tourist porn in the new show too – it was a series that didn’t shy away from showing the traumatic effects of war or other social issues.

That’s a huge part of why I loved the original Magnum. In some ways it was a decade ahead of its time, paving the way for more socially conscious and gritty shows, rather than presenting us with a weekly dose of Bond-style escapism, which is how the character was originally conceived. While I’m not wholly convinced by this reboot yet, I have a feeling I may just fall in love with the man in the red Ferrari all over again. I’m told this first season steadily improves and I’m invested enough to give it that chance.

Rating: 7/10


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