Over the last three months, I have sat down and watched all 168 episodes of Magnum P.I, perhaps the most 80’s of TV shows and in my opinion the best buddy detective show ever made. But, what was the magic of this show? What made Magnum so popular and timeless? Let’s go for a ride my friends, and see what I have learned from watching Magnum P.I after the jump.
The Strength Of Magnum P.I
Magnum P.I used to be a Friday night mainstay in the UK, appearing on ITV on a Saturday night around 8pm. The show featured this really fun guy who walked around in a Hawaiian shirt, drove a Ferrari, lived in Paradise, and solved crime. That was my memory of this show from my long-lost youth.
So, what compelled me to sit down and watch 168 episodes, over a period of three months, of a show, that was made over thirty years ago? A little bit of nostalgia on my part, curiosity and accidentally catching an episode on Starz Encore that had me remembering how much sheer fun this show was to watch. Sure, it was a Detective procedural, but it never took itself to seriously and Thomas Sullivan Magnum was the opposite of the super-cop/detective of that era. Most of the time he was portrayed as a mediocre detective whose real skill seems to be convincing his friends to solve his cases for him. Heck. Most of the time Thomas didn’t even get the girl, but he sure made losing the girl and having a mustache look cool.
He was very much like us (except he drove a cool car) and I think this is what made this show fun to watch.
A Buddy Show?
It is no secret that Magnum P.I was really an idealized version of Tom Selleck, he was the every man that we could identify with, and secretly wanted to be. The real secret behind the success of the show was his friendships with the three supporting actors. Without TC to fly him around the islands in his super-cool helicopter, or Rick to get his information, or even Higgins to disapprove (and then support him), this show would have been very bland. At the core of Magnum P.I it was a buddy show.
TC and Rick, were his friends and war buddies from the Vietnam war, their bonds of friendship forged during that conflict, and now, no matter what happened, they were always there for each other. It showed, that while they all carried memories from the war, they all dealt with them in their own way and got on with their lives. Magnum P.I became the first show to portray Vietnam Vets as everyday people, and not crazed loners.
The most enduring and evolved friendship on the show was that between Magnum and the Major Domo of Robin Nest – Jonathan Qualye Higgins. In the first season, it was a begrudged relationship, with Higgins barely tolerating Magnum. And our hero duping Higgins into borrowing pieces of Robin Masters property (usually a very expensive camera or electronic device), breaking it, and never returning it. Over the course of show we saw this relationship, turn from begrudged, to mutual respect, to a genuine friendship. I will say, it was the relationship between these two very different people really made the show. You tuned in to see how Magnum would get one over the stuffy Englishman, and how Higgins would ultimately catch Thomas out.
Magnum P.I was (and still is) one of the best buddy shows ever made.
One of the things you notice when you binge watch a show, especially one with as many episodes as Magnum P.I is the changes in character and feel the show goes through. The basic core of Magnum was the buddy element and the Detective procedural that drove the narrative.
What you do notice is the show gets darker as it went on. At the very beginning Magnum rarely, if ever carried a gun, his theory being his line of work didn’t really call for it. And when he did have the need of a firearm, he couldn’t find it and then almost never used it, beyond compelling the villain of the week to surrender.
As the show went on you could see the elements of other 80 crime shows start to seep in, we got musical montages more familiar with Miami Vice, more shootouts, and the villain of the week was resolved in a much darker vigilante style justice. Out of 168 episodes Magnum shot and killed at least two dozen people (one in chilling cold blood), with more than one incident leaving you thinking, how on earth was Thomas not in jail on Murder One?
This vigilante justice was a familiar theme of the 80’s and Magnum P.I just followed these themes, sometimes I felt a little too transparently, like they were trying to be the cool kid, but forgetting what actually made the show cool in the first place was it being its own thing. But you know, trends and TV producers and all.
Also over the course of the show, the tone got darker, more serious and the frivolous fun of the earlier seasons started to become serious character pieces, with Magnum’s character being more moodier, the adolescent man-child, started to become an adult with real responsibilities, that in the final episodes became a growing maturity that made sense for the character arc.
The show though was at its best when it leaned on the buddy relationships, and the more ludicrous parts of Magnum’s private investigation work, and having Higgins just generally thinking he was the only sane one in an insane world.
Jonathan Qualye Higgins III Was A Bad Ass
It has to be said at the very beginning of Magnum P.I Higgins was set up to be the shows straight man and foil to Magnum’s antics. As the show went on you see more of the character that John Hillerman expertly played come to the front. While Higgins genuinely thought he was the only sane one in an insane world, you learn, through narrative and actions that in reality he was really quite a bad ass in his prime.
Having survived, thrived in many conflicts across the globe Higgins was a character you could never discount. Indeed in later episodes, he shows his dedication to Magnum and his own bravery in situations you would not expect the character to step into when you are first introduced to the character in the opening season.
Higgins was without any doubt the most well-rounded character in the series after Magnum, which leads me to the next part of my post.
Who Was Robin Masters?
Indeed… Who was the mysterious author, who made his fortune from trashy pot-boiler novels? Through the series we see glimpses from a distance of Robin Masters and hear his voice (played by Orson Wells). Magnum got the job as ‘security consultant’by doing the author a ‘great service’.
I will say this now, I believe Robin Masters was really Jonathan Qualye Higgins. Throughout the show you see Higgins lay claim to equipment Robins Master brought as his own, and in ‘Transitions’ he pretty much admits to writing the books, before confirming it in Resolutions Part Two. So, why the deceptions?
Pride and appearance. Higgins has position and standing in the Hawaiian community, not based on being a famous author, but just on this own abilities. Had he revealed to the general public who he was, the freedom he enjoyed would be gone. Plus it would never do for one with Higgins standing in society to be seen as a trash novelist.
So, Higgins hired a stand-in to be Robin Master and on occasion this deception would rebound on him, having to take orders from the person he employed to keep up the appearance of just being the long-suffering Major Domo of Robins Nest; while the actor playing Robin Masters got to jet-set around the world on Higgins dime.
Of course some say that Robin Masters was really Thomas Magnum, who was under a delusion that he was a private investigator, and really had multiple personalities and wrote the stories without any consciousness knowledge he was doing so, and that Higgins was part of his support network.
There is also the theory that Magnum’s grandfather was Robin Masters, having stories and adventures that seem to come straight out of a Robin Master’s novel.
I take the position that Higgins was Robin Masters.
Was It Self-Aware?
What marked Magnum P.I out from almost every other Detective Procedural of the time was it broke the fourth wall constantly. In the opening credits Thomas looks directly at the camera winks and drives off in the Ferrari, visually inviting you to come along on this weeks adventure with him. Also several times during the show Magnum would look directly at you the audience, in a sort of can you believe that just happened sort of way?
These small glimpses directly at the camera, made you feel you were a buddy along for the ride with Magnum. The noir elements, like Magnum’s narration of event also lent a friendlier atmosphere to the show. Here was the hero talking to us, like he was sitting next to us having a beer (long-necked Düsseldorf). No other show did this, until MacGiver, and because of this fourth wall element, that brought the audience into the show, both shows saw success from doing it. It was like Magnum was aware he was just playing a character.
Also this self-aware element made for some great episodes, one that sticks in my mind was The Legend Of The Lost Art. An episode that blatantly riffed off the Indiana Jones – Raiders Of The Last Ark movie of the time. Indeed, all the actors kept saying Lost Ark when referring the hidden treasure they were chasing, with Higgins exasperatingly correcting them all to say Lost Art. Also the episode was even more special because Tom Selleck was the original actor that Steven Spielberg wanted to play Indiana Jones, but Selleck couldn’t because of contractual obligations (which later turned out to not be an issue because of a writer’s strike freeing Selleck to play the role, but by that time Harrison Ford was cast). The Legend of The Lost Art was a joyful romp, with Selleck dressed as Dr Jones and undergoing the same trial and tribulations as the real Archaeologist adventurer in the movie.
This brings me to one of my other theories about the show, we watched the adventures with Magnum as if he was looking back at that part of his life, and narrating it to us. A theory that gets great credence in the final episode Resolutions Part Two in an after show scene, where he turns to the camera and switches it off with a final, ‘Goodnight.’
A Mixed Bag Of Theories
There are a lot of theories around Magnum P.I, from the who was Robin Masters, to was Magnum aware he was just a character on a TV show?
We have already discussed the Robin Masters theory, and we know from the self-aware, fourth wall breaking, elements, that Magnum was at least aware he was playing a character on TV, and in Legends Of The Lost Art we saw Higgins do the same thing – almost as if he caught the same notion from Thomas through their developed friendship.
I have another theory that we were watching Magnum’s past life with Thomas, that his time spent in ‘Paradise’ was really a period of limbo before transitioning to another life, that TC and Rick were his spirit guides, Higgins was the guardian angel assigned to look after him (hence the constant exasperation, but always supportive of Magnum’s decisions). Throughout the show, we saw Magnum have an advanced form of precognition that was almost supernatural, survive injuries that would have killed normal men and converse with ghosts (Infinity and Jelly Doughnuts), and on three occasions get transported through time in his dreams
All Good Things
Magnum P.I was a show of its time, that somehow managed that trick to be timeless, was it through good writing? Hardly, there was some really ropy episodes (Pilot, or the Murder She Wrote tie-in), the magic of this show were the characters, the friendships, movie level stunts (some of the helicopter stunts were epic), and the self-awareness that introduced such a light-tone coupled with the general every-man-ness of Thomas Sullivan Magnum.
Wrap that all up, dump it in Hawaii, add an excellent foil that Jonathan Quayle Higgins was, drive a cool car and have buddies that where willing to go on madcap adventures just because they were your friends, it felt attainable… Secretly we all wanted to be Magnum.
These were my thoughts about Magnum PI, I am not saying you should watch all 168 episodes of this joyful show, but it is nice to visit from time to time and have a beer with. Now… Where did I put my Hawaiian shirt?