I’m a sucker for a good detective show. I guess it all stems from the fact that I’m a child of the 80’s and grew up with a deluge of them both in first run and syndication. Even before I was old enough to truly understand the plots I was drawn to the drama, the tension, and the still to this day underappreciated character work and acting. Regular mystery, reverse mystery, it didn’t matter, I was all in. One of the standout shows of decade as well as the genre as a whole was Magnum, P.I., a show that has recently been rebooted as Magnum P.I. (removing the comma because grammatical correctness is for losers) and is airing on the same network as the original series, CBS. With such an affection burned into my brain how could I not check this out? CBS has been taking more creative chances of late so there was an actual chance this could be good. With this in mind I decided to watch the first two episodes of the new series and then go back and watch the first two of the classic series for comparison. To see not only if the old ones held up, but to see if the new series could recapture the old magic while bringing something fresh to the table. My conclusions, at least when it comes to the new show, are mixed at best.
The first major hurdle for this show is getting any audience to believe that anybody is or ever should be Thomas Magnum other than Tom Selleck. Despite Selleck, who is an underappreciated actor in my opinion, being in several successful and noteworthy films and TV shows over the decades, ask anybody who knows the name even to this day and they will start talking about the role that made him a star, Thomas Magnum. Selleck’s portrayal of Magnum has remained so iconic over the years because he is so damn good in the role. From that first scene in the pilot of Magnum sneaking into Robin’s Nest to steal the Ferarri while a smug Higgins tries to stop him Selleck gets you invested into the character to the point where he utters the famous line “Don’t look at the dogs, work the lock.” I was completely sold all over again. The new Magnum, Jay Hernandez, does an alright job, though the breakneck pace of the episodes and generic script don’t do him any favors. Even trying to take off my nostalgia goggles the best I can, I can’t help but feel that while Hernandez is playing a guy called Magnum, Selleck simply IS Magnum from the word go. I’m not saying Hernandez can’t get there, but he is going to need some snappy scripts to get it done as the ones he’s gotten so far aren’t going to cut it.
One thing I will praise the new series for is in making Magnum Latinx this time around. There is nothing to Thomas Magnum that requires him to be a white dude. As long as you make Magnum a mainlander and not of Pacific Island decent to preserve his outsider status in native Hawaiian culture, there is no reason you can’t make him anything other race or ethnicity. Trying to show diversity (with varying amounts of success) is something that the classic series prided itself on and this simple change provides the creators plenty of new avenues to explore as the series progresses.
The pilot of the new series has plenty of callbacks to the the pilot of the classic one, the most notable of which being that in both the mystery is about why a close friend from Magnum’s military days was killed. The main difference is that while the original takes two episodes to tell this tale, while the new series does it in one with the second episode being an entirely separate tale. Sadly, it isn’t even a contest between the two, the original didn’t just do it better, they did it way better.
Where the new series falls flat is that they are trying to cram so much set-up and backstory into a just shy of forty-three minute runtime. For some reason the creators thought if we didn’t know everything about Magnum and his friends from the very start we wouldn’t be interested. Adding to the problem are a few unnecessary action sequences that eat up time that should be spent on character, the most egregious being the section in North Korea that includes a poorly rendered CGI bovine for no good reason and turns out to be just an excerpt from one of Robin Masters’ book and has no bearing on the actual plot. They brought director Justin Lin for this (most noted for his work in The Fast & The Furious franchise) and he does bring the big action he’s known for, but none of it hits where it needs to because we’ve had no time to become attached to the characters. The pilot isn’t terrible by any definition, but it does little to impress and even less to feel any different from any other paint-by-numbers action show.
The original in contrast takes its time and works to build the characters and the world they live in. The action sequences aren’t nearly as big, but while bombastic action is great, simpler action sequences with characters I care about and a good sense of pathos will trump it any day of the week. With the time two episodes allows the Magnum we see here is more nuanced and complex. We see a character who for the most part would be considered a alright person, but with a few darker shades in his sense of morality. We don’t learn all the why and hows, but we get a sense of his pain and regret about being in Vietnam. We also have several small scenes showing the more good natured and playful sides of Magnum. In an odd twist I learn more about Magnum’s backstory in the reboot’s pilot but I learn more about Magnum as a person and thus am far more attached to him in the original.
Now we come to the subject of the new Higgins, and strap in folks, I’ve got a lot to say on the topic. In any popular TV shows there is one or two central character relationships that become what people remember about it becoming a core element of the show. Think about any show you like and those relationships will bubble up in your mind almost immediately. The trick of any reboot should then be to find a fresh way to recreate these relationships while staying true to the spirit of what made them great, and it here where the modern show has totally botched things with Higgins.
So there is no confusion, I have no issue with Higgins being a woman this time around or with the actor playing her, Perdita Weeks. Trying to break up the boys club feel of the original series is a good choice. What does bug me is the new Magnum P.I. pushing this will they/won’t they relationship between Magnum and Higgins when it is completely antithetical to who either character is supposed to be. The original Higgins (played masterfully by John Hillerman) was of a different generation, culture, and personal philosophy to Magnum and the beauty of their relationship was how these two total polar opposites eventually found mutual respect and friendship while still often making each other crazy. Even if you went back in time and rewrote the sexual preferences of the Magnum and Higgins of the original series so that they could be attracted to one another they still would have zero romantic or sexual interest in the other. To put it bluntly, Magnum and Higgins should have about as much sexual tension as the average person has with their grandmother.
I honestly don’t understand who this change is for, it isn’t for classic fans as they all seem to hate it and new viewers are savvy to the forced love interest bit from other shows that they will roll their eyes at it. This romance subplot makes Higgins feel more like a token character than the empowered woman she should be and that’s a damn shame. Higgins deserves better. Weeks deserves better. We the audience deserve better.
Perhaps if CBS had decided to put the reboot on their streaming service, All Access, we might have gotten a less mediocre reboot. All is not lost however, one or two clever scripts to fix things and we could have a genuinely good show worthy of the original. Were I able to advise the creators to first abandon the Higgins and Magnum relationship subplot immediately. Don’t try to explain it away, just drop it and move on. Secondly I would encourage the creator and writers sit down and watch Burn Notice (2007-2013). Burn Notice while very much its own thing, pulled a lot from the original Magnum, P.I. while updating and modernizing things in the same way that the original Magnum, P.I. did with the hard-boiled detective stories of the pulps. In looking to Burn Notice, the spiritual successor to Magnum, P.I. and other shows like it from the 80’s the creators can look to the crisp dialogue and interesting plots and see how a show like this should be done in the modern era of television.
If it seems I’m being harsh, it is only because I care. I want to love this new Magnum P.I. with all my heart as it is a show and part of an overall genre that I have had a deep appreciation and affection for since I was a child, but I refuse to ignore the reboot’s many problems just to recapture my sense of nostalgia. Who knows if this new series will be able to kick things in gear and get to where it needs to be or if it will just peter along happy to be a quick cash grab due to brand recognition. I, of course, wish for the former, but even if it becomes the latter, we’ll always have the excellent original Magnum, P.I. to watch whenever we want.
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