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TV Classics: Magnum, P.I. – Same as it ever was?

In our new regular feature, we revisit TV classics from yesteryear. First up, Magnum, P.I.

Let’s play some Magnum, P.I. word association. Moustache, Hawaii, Tom Selleck, helicopter, Ferrari, short shorts, girls, bikinis, Higgins (thankfully those last two were never combined). Even if you only have a passing knowledge of the show, it’s enough of a cultural touchpoint that most people would land on at least five of the above. The impression those keywords give is of a breezy, cheesy 80s adventure, which is how I remembered the show. In my memory, it’s a light-hearted romp through tropical settings, Selleck charming his way through one mysterious adventure after another.

John Hillerman, Tom Selleck, Larry Manetti and Roger E. Mosley.

Returning to Magnum, P.I. 30 some years after the fact, there are a few surprises in store. I cherry picked episodes from across the show’s eight seasons and the first few were very different to what I presumed I was getting. My first stop was what is regarded by many as one of the high-points, a season three two-parter called “Did You See The Sun Rise?” An old army buddy who served with Magnum and T.C. shows up in Hawaii with a story about how the Russian Colonel who imprisoned and tortured them in Vietnam has come to Hawaii to finish the job. To compound matters further, Magnum’s friend Mac gets blown up in a bomb intended for Magnum, and the Marines are skulking around in the background.

Selleck with Bo Svenson in “Did You See the Sun Rise?”

The execution is remarkably gritty and hard-hitting. It’s easy to understate now, but in the early 80s, there just wasn’t this kind of representation of Vietnam veterans and PTSD in the mainstream media. Magnum’s military past is a regular spectre in the series, haunting him even as he tries to watch his favourite film from his boyhood, Stalag 17. Of course Selleck can’t help but be a big bag of moustachioed charisma as Thomas Magnum, but the real surprise is how effective he is with the heavier, more emotional work.

Tom Selleck with Sharon Stone in “Echoes of the Mind”

It’s a little jarring when the peppy, brass-led theme pops up during even the tensest action scene, and Magnum’s voiceover borders on pastiche, but these are small complaints. The further I delve into the long list of episodes, the more I find that this is a show that knows how to tell a story. The fun, breezy tone is there, but Magnum, P.I. is at its best when it delves into the darker recesses, as in another two-parter “Echoes of the Mind” – which stars Sharon Stone and some literal ghosts from Magnum’s past – and the chilling “Death and Taxes” from season seven. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve 158 episodes to catch up on.
Verdict: Still great.

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