My magnum opus on Magnum, P.I.

From 1980 to 1988, the exploits of Hawaii-based private investigator Thomas Magnum enthralled audiences across the world. A strapping, six-foot, moustached muff magnet, he lived the dream lifestyle and embarked on exciting adventures every week. Scott Snowden endured all 162 episodes – some of which were enjoyable and others excruciating – to ascertain its appeal…

The 80s was arguably the last decade with a strong, standalone style, defined mostly by the music of the era, fashion cinema and TV. Fewer channels, smaller budgets, no internet and an all-round different society meant that the mainstream shows were seen by almost everyone at the time, but have now faded into fond memory and ascended to virtual cult status. Examples include Knight Rider, Airwolf, The A-Team, an array of epic cop dramas like Hill Street Blues, Cagney & Lacey, Miami Vice and of course Magnum, PI.

The name itself is synonymous with cool; champagne, the most powerful handgun in the world and yes, even a delicious velvety smooth ice cream covered in rich milk chocolate. It is perhaps the most universally accepted, unnecessarily macho-sounding name in modern pop-culture. Other, less-celebrated examples include Colonel Ironhorse, Stringfellow Hawke, Rick Hunter, Captain Power and Colt Seavers.

When Magnum, PI was first shown in 1980, it was a fresh approach to a tried and tested theme. Sure, we’d seen private investigators before like Jim Rockford and Magnum even shared the same locale as Hawaii Five-O, but the tone was different and so were the main characters. It was originally to be set in Southern California and one of the reasons it changed to Hawaii was because CBS didn’t want to shut down its production offices after the 12-year run of Hawaii Five-O ended. In addition, NBC’s The Rockford Files was set in Los Angeles and another series focusing on a PI in Southern California was perhaps too similar. Moreover, Hawaii itself is something of a transient location, it’s the sort of place that practically everyone visits at some point, so in effect, the characters could wait for adventure to come to them – be it in the form of old friends, distant relatives or long lost loves – while still retaining believability.

Incidentally, Tom Selleck, Roger E Mosley and Larry Manetti all did guest spots on The Rockford Files and the Magnum episode Tigers Fan (S8, E4) even features a discussion of a Rockford Files episode in a very early example of what we probably now consider some sort of post-modern, Tarantino-esque, pop-culture cross-reference. There are also occasional mentions of Five-O and sometimes even an unseen officer by the name of McGarrett.

Since its original inception and with the benefit of occasional re-runs on both US and UK television, Magnum has firmly cemented itself as an icon of the 80s and commands a prominent place in the Popular Culture Hall of Fame.

Magnum was an all-round good guy, only flawed by sometimes acting like a spoiled brat. The Masters Estate offered him free accommodation in a cozy, Spanish-styled guest house, tennis courts, extensive wine cellar, a dark room plus high-end photographic equipment, a private beach and moon pool and of course the single most inappropriate vehicle for anyone not wanting to be noticed, a bright red Ferrari 308GTS. Not to mention free helicopter rides around the islands and free access to the exclusive King Kamehameha Club.

Magnum’s happy-go-lucky style is an enviable one and combined with his almost-Amadeus laugh, frequently results in a subconscious smile from the viewer. He happily admits that one of the reasons he became a private investigator is because he likes to help people and you can’t help but wonder that witnessing firsthand the full extent of horrors that man has to offer and even just making it out of Vietnam alive after three tours of duty means that Magnum is genuinely grateful for every single sunrise. As such, he lives his life by a code of simple, compassionate and down to earth values.

Magnum, PI was many things at different times. It was a serious drama – including post-Vietnam War issues and Naval Intelligence-linked plots; it was a tongue-in cheek-comedy – not afraid to have fun with the format or make fun of itself; it was a clever murder-mystery, costume drama…all of which made it addictive viewing.

It’s well known that Tom Selleck was Steven Spielberg’s first choice to play Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). So the story goes, Selleck was torn about what to do, but ultimately decided that since he’d already accepted the part of Magnum, he should honor the agreement. Let’s not forget he’d already starred in no less than six failed TV pilots. As it turned out, the shooting of the Magnum pilot was delayed for over six months because of a writer’s strike, which would have enabled him to complete the first Indiana Jones movie and while Selleck was waiting for production on the pilot episode to start, filming for Raiders of the Lost Ark had begun…in Hawaii. Of course, Magnum would go on for a staggering eight seasons and 162 episodes until 1988, winning him an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series in 1984. (As a matter of interest, The A-Team and Miami Vice both only lasted five seasons and Knight Rider only lasted for four.) Selleck also earned roughly $50k for each episode of the first seven seasons (compared to Harrison Ford, who was paid $400k for Raiders of the Lost Ark) and considerably more for the eighth and final season, the last episode of which is the fifth most-watched television series finale of all-time, after M*A*S*H, Cheers, Seinfeld, and Friends. It was seen by some 50.7 million viewers.

The theme
Magnum, PI is one of the TV shows of the era that benefitted from having a memorable opening credits sequence and theme, others include Airwolf, Hill Street Blues and of course Miami Vice. When the familiar opening theme is first used on Thicker Than Blood (S1, E11) the difference is…immeasurable. Gone is the dated, easygoing music that echoed of the preceding decade, instead replaced with the gorgeous, energetic, upbeat theme that matched the clip montage so much better.

We’re gripped instantly and it’s not letting go. Straight away we see TC’s Hughes 500 dive toward the ocean, then a dramatic point of view shot flying low over the clear waters of the Pacific and the title Magnum PI flashes up, all to the sound of a dynamic theme combined with cool chords of a wah-wah guitar. And that’s just the first seven seconds. More clips flash up, the Ferrari races by, Magnum slaps a mag into his Colt Government Automatic, he’s paddling hard on his surfski, then he’s dressed in his Navy uniform and looks pensive, a car blows up…and then at just the right time, for a few seconds, a medley of strings kick in and brings a heart-warming moment to the theme just as Magnum turns to screen, smiles in the way that only he can, then speeds off in the Ferrari, throwing up mud and grass as he does so. We love him. At that moment we fall head over heels in love with Magnum. Men want to be him, women want to do him.

Next we’re introduced to Higgins as the theme continues it’s softer side, we see him practicing his tai chi chuan and throwing that oh-so-Higgins look from the top of the stairs in the guest house, firmly reinforcing the father-mischievous son relationship he has with Magnum, frequently losing his temper but caring deep down.  Then we’re treated to some stunning low-level flying along the breathtaking volcanic coastline together with a subtle change in tune as an electric guitar soars with us. We see Magnum and TC working together, one flying and the other taking surveillance photographs. Magnum might only be a one-man business, but he has at his deposal more resources than most other detective agencies, including air support, use of high-end photographic equipment and a close circle of friends who are in some way connected to just about everything that happens in Hawaii, from underworld contacts, to address checks, to the King Kamehameha Club. TC shrugs his enormous shoulders and gives us a trademark smile and next he’s picking up empty shell cases, concerned for the whereabouts of his dear friend and finally we see him relaxing in his office with a cold beer as the rain pours down on the windows outside.

Then the drama returns as the tempo picks up once again and we’re reminded that despite the shenanigans and an enviable social scene in the Polynesian paradise, Magnum’s job is often fraught with danger. The Ferrari races by and we see Rick throwing Magnum an anxious look as they speed along in the scarlet sports car. Rick, the final member of this close family is cool, calm and well connected. Like TC, Magnum frequently has Rick undertaking all sorts of weird and wonderful jobs to help out with a case, from hiding in an abandoned open air pool or pretending to be a sushi deliveryman or a rickshaw driver. The final montage of clips shows just a sample of what makes Hawaii such an exciting location, from beautiful beaches and rolling surf to stunning sunsets, traditional Hawaiian culture and the streets of Honolulu.

Finally, as this rollercoaster ride draws to a close, Magnum slowly, seductively turns to camera and gives what becomes the most iconic eyebrow raise in human history.

Archer brilliantly recreated the season 5 opening credits sequence in 2015 as a TV trailer to promote the new series.

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