As any self-respecting Hawaii Five-O fan will tell you, the 1968-80 crime-fighting series was consistently good up to about the ninth season. It started going downhill fast during its tenth year, and the only thing the eleventh season has going for it is that the twelfth and final season is even worse.
That said, Hawaii Five-O - The Eleventh Season still offers a fair number of decent shows interspersed with the lousy ones. A few shows, in fact, are excellent, considering. But overall the magic is gone. Cast changes really hurt the show. Star Jack Lord created one of TV's most iconic crime-fighters in Steve McGarrett, but as an (uncredited) producer Lord didn't give his supporting cast enough credit. Literally: He's credited twice as the star, in both the opening and closing credits, but co-stars James MacArthur and Herman Wedemeyer are acknowledged only at the beginning.
Neither has much to do in most episodes. And, like other cop shows of that era, Hawaii Five-O's shows consist entirely of self-contained storylines. None of the characters evolve and, frozen in time, rarely does the series deviate from its established formula. Ten years on, the only way to tell a first season show from a tenth season one is by the age of the actors, despite's Lord's Herculean/painful efforts to maintain a youthful appearance, which in season eleven include some pretty calamitous fashion choices.
More importantly, by the end of Five-O's run, McGarrett was like a king without a kingdom. Kam Fong, a critically important supporting character, was killed off at the end of season ten, while this season turned out to be James MacArthur's last.
Most of what I have to say about the series and these DVDs was already stated in my earlier reviews of Seasons One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six,
Seven, and Ten (we weren't sent review copies for the eighth and ninth seasons), except to note a few particulars about this set and to say, as usual, if you've been buying the earlier seasons all along, despite the dip in quality you're bound to want this one, too, especially since CBS/Paramount's transfers remain as strong as ever.
Jack Lord, Crime-Fighting Fashion Plate
As before, determined, tough-as-nails Steve McGarrett (Jack Lord) heads Five-O, Hawaii's (fictional) state-managed police force answerable only to Hawaii's long-serving Governor Paul Jameson ('50s sci-fi icon Richard Denning, noticeably aged, but always a delight). Steve's trusted right-hand man, Detective Danny "Danno" Williams (James MacArthur) is now more like an heir apparent than reliable disciple, while Duke Lukela (Herman Wedemeyer), former cop, tries to fill the vacuum left by Chin Ho Kelly, Kono Kalakaua, and a host of others.
Hawaii Five-O's plots and visual appeal dominate over character arcs, always non-existent. Steve McGarrett especially but also his men were cops in the tradition of tireless Sgt. Joe Friday (Jack Webb's Dragnet character): all work, no play, no life. And no back-story. Until Hill Street Blues law-enforcement officers (as opposed to private detectives) rarely had home lives or love lives or even a past, at least insofar as their shows were concerned. No one seemed to catch on that some of Hawaii Five-O's best shows were those rare episodes offering a glimpse into its characters' private lives: Danny's grief after a girlfriend's murder, Steve's rage toward a quack doctor taking advantage of his emotionally fragile sister.
Related to this was star Jack Lord's commanding, memorable presence and star power that came at the expense of all the supporting characters. Just as the tenth season squandered Danno, Chin Ho, and Duke as well as the actors playing them, the trio at times hanging around Steve's office like mannequins in a department store, the eleventh year makes similarly poor use of Danno and Duke even though you'd think they'd be picking up the slack what with Chin Ho gone.
Even in the double-length season finale, "The Year of the Horse," in which McGarrett and Danno fly to Singapore to investigate a heroin smuggling ring, Danno has almost nothing to do, even though it's clear most of the episode was actually filmed across the ocean. The show was MacArthur's last, but as with Kono and McGarrett's other minions, Danno simply vanishes. There's no explanation; he's just never heard from again.
The news isn't all bad, however. Early in the season MacArthur is for once the focus, in "A Distant Thunder," maybe the best episode of the entire season. Danno goes undercover to infiltrate a chapter of the American Nazi Party whose racist leader (James Olson, reliably oily and unsettling in roles like these) is plotting the political assassination of a native son Robert Tamara (Cal Bellini), a "Hawaiian Kennedy." An atypically socially conscious show, "A Distant Thunder" is also unusual because it actually identifies the white supremacists as Nazis rather than as a generic, fictionalized hate group. MacArthur takes full advantage of the opportunity, and it's strange to hear Danno mouthing racial epitaphs at passersby.
The batting average for good shows steadily declines, but "Small Potatoes," "A Long Time Ago," "The Miracle Man," "Stringer," and especially the two-part "Number One with a Bullet" are pretty good. As Mike Quigley reports at his excellent Hawaii Five-O Home Page (he really needs to distill it all into a book), another good episode, "The Execution Song" has been altered due to music rights issues, and pretty much ruined in the process. When it originally aired, the show featured Rod Stewart's "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy" and all that music had to be taken out, negatively impacted the show's effectiveness.
I also liked "The Miracle Man," about a possibly phony British evangelist, Reverend Andy (Chimes at Midnight's Keith Baxter), for whom a widower (Pepper Martin) blames for the death of his wife. The good cast includes Jean Marsh - how strange to see the Upstairs, Downstairs star in sunny Honolulu! - as a reformed hooker madly in love with the charismatic evangelist, and James B. Sikking as his obviously crooked manager.
Unfortunately, the majority of episodes are like the appropriately titled "The Sleeper," the season-opener. Frequent guest star Andrew Duggan is joined by Maria Perschy (Freud, The Castle of Fu Manchu) in this real snoozer about hypnosis and brainwashing experiments. (The episode also exemplifies the series' attempts to fashion McGarrett as a kind of pious, modern-day Hopalong Cassidy: "I never use booze," he says in one scene, "but I'll take you up on a Kona Coffee.")
Even the season finale, despite being filmed on location in Singapore - and it's clear virtually all the exteriors and many of the interiors were done there, and not faked in Hawaii - is pretty dull. Even a better-than-usual supporting cast including Barry Bostwick, Victoria Principal, and a nearly unrecognizable George Lazenby (bearded and weasely here), and a cable-car action set piece quite similar to one in the James Bond movie Moonraker (released three months after this show aired) can't save this tepid turkey.
While MacArthur ages gracefully - he's grayer and significantly flesher than he was during Five-O's early seasons - 58-year-old Jack Lord struggles to look just like the handsome 47-year-old actor seen on the balcony of the Ilikai Hotel each week in Five-O's famous opening titles. His "ocean wave" hairstyle is fuller but less convincingly real (the texture of the wave doesn't match his bushy sideburns) and he looks increasingly cadaverous, his facial skin downright waxy most of the time. Abandoning his dark blue suit, Lord/McGarrett has become fond of an alarming array of leisure suits and straw hats, the latter perhaps to avoid having to wear a hairpiece? (That was an old trick of Bing Crosby's, who hated wearing them.)
Guest stars this season include Steve Kanaly, Tab Hunter, Samantha Eggar, Stephen Elliott, Janis Paige, Richard Romanus, Tim Thomerson, Cyd Charisse, Rory Calhoun, Brian Tochi, Dane Clark, Katherine Cannon, Sharon Farrell, Lyle Bettger, James Darren, Nehemiah Persoff, Ross Martin, Barbara Anderson, Robert Reed, Eduard Franz, Mildred Natwick, Diana Scarwid, Robert Vaughn, Tricia O'Neil, John Saxon, Nita Talbot, Robert Clarke, Paul Williams, Robert Loggia, Cameron Mitchell, Fritz Weaver, Charles Cioffi, Rita Wilson, and Lawrence Dobkin, who directs one show as well. Regular directors include Barry Crane, Ralph Levy, Reza Badiyi (who also designed the show's famous opening titles), Dick Moder, Dennis Donnelly, Robert L. Morrison, Don Weis, Ray Austin, Harry Hogan III, and star Jack Lord.
Video & Audio
Hawaii Five-O - The Eleventh Season looks quite nice, if not quite as gorgeous as its earliest seasons, but that's because of the more ragged-looking cinematography, not the transfer. The image is sharp and detailed, near flawless. The season, now squeezed into a standard-size DVD case, is on six single-sided, dual-layered DVDs with all 21 eleventh season episodes. There's the usual warning that "some episodes may be edited from their original network versions," and as noted above "The Execution Song" has been altered owing to perceived music rights issues. The Dolby Digital mono is fine, as are the optional English subtitles, though CBS has dropped the usual Spanish audio track and Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese subtitles, options included on previous discs.
Older seasons offered "episodic promos" as an added feature, but now instead clips from the show precede the famous opening titles in place of a regular prologue. No Extra Features this time out.
If you're a fan, you'll probably want to stick with the series to the bitter end, while general viewers are more reasonably encouraged to check out Hawaii Five-O's first season instead. It still has its moments, but year eleven is pretty dire, and general readers are encouraged to rent this before committing to a purchase.
Special thanks to Hawaii Five-O fan Howard S. Sample, whose comments and enthusiasm enhances these reviews.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for Media Blasters' Godzilla vs. Megalon (with Steve Ryfle), is on sale now.