Magnum, pi went off the air more than 30 years ago. I mean, I guess it came back on the air with a remake that started airing on CBS last fall, but the original Magnum, PI’s last episode was in May 1988. I was only two years old at that time, but through reruns, the show made a big impression on a very young me. Still, my memories of it were vague. I remembered the sun and beaches, the car and the helicopter, the music and the mustache. I started watching it on Amazon Prime expecting another piece of 1980’s camp that has little to offer now other than nostalgia. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Magnum, PI is that stuff, but it is also much more. There are some things that are very much of the 1980’s, but in many ways this show could come out today and fit right in in the upper echelon of television, especially broadcast television. (I know there is a remake show happening right now; no, I haven’t seen it.) It is sometimes silly, sometimes thoughtful, but nearly always entertaining. One of Magnum’s strengths is something that likely gets it dismissed from any serious conversation these days: Magnum, PI is almost completely episodic. With a few exceptions, this is not a serialized show. That works with Magnum’s job. He is a private investigator and each episode is a new case. That allows the show to be a lot of things, and only rarely do those things feel like they clash. It allows the show to bring all the elements of its setting to their fullest strength, depending on the episode. They don’t all work, but more work that don’t. The set up allows for one episode to pit Magnum against a dirty magazine publisher in softball game with the estate as the stakes and for another to feature a Soviet plot with ties to Magnum’s time in Vietnam, with each feeling like a part of the same show.
There is beauty in the shows simplicity. It is set in sun drenched Hawaii. Thomas Sullivan Magnum is a private investigator. He is also a Navy veteran who served in Vietnam. He lives in the guest house of a rich author, the unseen Robin Masters, and nominally works as the head of security on Masters’s compound. In that capacity, he clashes with Higgins, the estate’s majordomo. On the side, he takes private cases. Magnum is aided by two old Navy buddies, helicopter pilot TC and club operator Rick. Magnum is a kind of a blue collar guy stuck in a white collar living situation. This set up works for all kinds of stories. The connections with the rich and famous through Mr. Masters allows Magnum to get involved in some of the sillier and more ridiculous cases. Meanwhile, his military past allows for more serious stories. His job as a private investigator works is malleable enough for all kinds of mysteries, thrillers and adventures.
Like any long running show, Magnum evolves as it goes along. As it nears the end of its run, it really pushed the boundaries of its malleability. Unlike the usual arc with long running shows where they grow more ridiculous as they get older, Magnum gets darker and more violent. With Amazon Prime being short the sixth season, the jump from the fifth to the seventh is the jarring. The show just keeps pushing farther to the extremes of violence and darkness that it shows. It is hard to quantify; the show was always a violent show. Magnum and his friends are all Vietnam veterans, and there are numerous references and flashbacks to their time in the military. One episode is essentially a TV version of Rambo II. The show never loses the lighter episodes, but even those seem more likely to involve shoots outs with machine guns.
With season 7 it is part of an arc, or at least something close to an arc, ending with Magnum’s apparent death at the end of the season. I knew of that episode before watching it. Before season 7 that ending would be completely out of sync with the rest of the show; the brightness always seemed greater than the darkness. But season 7 flips that, you feel the danger of Magnum’s world.
Magnum, PI remains a very watchable, entertaining show. Plus, I can see its DNA in some of my more modern favorites like Psych, another sun-drenched crime/mystery show. I still have the last season to get through, and season 6 which is not on Amazon Prime with the rest of the series, but the hundred plus episodes I’ve seen are mostly excellent. This is one memory from childhood that is at least as good as I remember it being.