This past week I reviewed Murder, She Wrote, a series I avoided when it was new. As I explained in that review, I had always dismissed it as a very Hollywoodized riff of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, and I preferred watching the "real thing" on PBS, namely the wonderful series starring Joan Hickson. However, I gradually became aware that Murder, She Wrote's creators actually regarded their series not as a Miss Marple imitator but rather as a second attempt at an idea done before as Ellery Queen, which failed to find an audience. I loved Ellery Queen, as well as the Columbo mysteries created by these same writers, so I gave Murder, She Wrote another look.
Similarly, I was never a fan of Magnum, P.I. (1980-88), the Hawaii-set private eye series starring Tom Selleck. Just as my mother adored Murder, She Wrote, my father was a big Magnum fan but I just wasn't interested. However, as with Murder, She Wrote, in recent years certain aspects of the series intrigued me. Particularly, the series has roots in two earlier shows I like a lot: The Rockford Files (1974-80), where Tom Selleck's two guest appearances as slick P.I. Lance White help sell Selleck as a rising talent and anticipated his Magnum role, and from which some of Magnum's staff (notably writer-producer Chas. Floyd Johnson and composers Mike Post & Pete Carpenter) were culled; and from Hawaii Five-O (1968-1980), the filmed-in-Hawaii cop show whose local production team largely moved over to the Magnum unit when that series ended.
Magnum, P.I. - The Complete Series repackages season sets released during 2004-08. It's ultimately a much cheaper route than buying them piecemeal, and unlike Universal's dreadful double-sided DVD-18s, discs unplayable much of the time, the entire series is presented here on single-sided discs. Unusual for an older series, the set includes subtitle options in French and Spanish, as well as numerous bonus features, including a sampling of other Universal-owned shows.
Unlike Murder, She Wrote, Magnum, P.I. was the creation of prolific but unoriginal producer Glen A. "Larceny" Larson and the somewhat more reputable Donald P. Bellisario, the latter being the creator or co-creator of Air Wolf, JAG, and NCIS, as well as the interesting Quantum Leap. Selleck's character initially was based closely on the absurdly suave Lance White, who in his two Rockford Files appearances essentially spoofed the effortless perfection of most TV private eyes. Selleck, a big Rockford fan himself, disliked the character as originally conceived, and helped steer Magnum toward a more comical, off-kilter approach.
On Oahu, Hawaii, Thomas Magnum is a private investigator living in the guesthouse of mysterious, never-seen millionaire author Robin Masters, the large estate, Robin's Nest, maintained by Jonathan Higgins III (John Hillerman), a cultured former British Army Sergeant Major (though despite popular assumption, Hillerman is in fact a Texan). The laid-back Magnum casually picks and chooses his cases, though like Jim Rockford he's often drawn into investigations he'd normally avoid and which cause him no end of grief. Magnum often draws on the resources of Robin's Nest, notably Masters's Ferrari 308 GTS, and this initially annoys Higgins though gradually the two develop a warm if outwardly begrudging friendship.
Magnum's other friends and associates include T.C. Calvin (Roger E. Mosley), a helicopter charter pilot whose vehicle Magnum often commandeers while island-hopping, and Rick Wright (Larry Manetti), who operates a local drinking joint, the beachside King Kamehameha Club. Both, like Magnum, were part of the same Marine observation squadron (VMO-2) that served during the Vietnam War, and episodes often refer back to that period of their lives.
Harking back to the great private eye novels and films of the 1930s and ‘40s, most every episode is narrated by Magnum, though in a more casual, less literary contemporary style. The series gradually became surprisingly experimental, with Magnum often breaking the "fourth wall" and addressing the audience through the camera lens. And toward the end of its run it became downright mystical.
The series was to have concluded at the end of its seventh season. In the final episode, "Limbo," Magnum appears to have been fatally wounded, and like Here Comes Mr. Jordan he wanders about as a ghost, finally ascending into a cloud-like "heaven" (a bad special effect). But fans were outraged and the show returned for a half-season run the following year, with Magnum amusingly brought back from the dead.
Magnum, P.I. was a Top 20 show during its first five seasons, peaking at #4 in season three, though it dropped out of the Top 30 during its last three years. Selleck won an Emmy Award, as did John Hillerman for his invaluable support. His character's Odd Couple-like relationship with Magnum is unquestionably the heart of the show, and the veteran supporting player (What's Up, Doc?, High Plains Drifter, Blazing Saddles, Chinatown, At Long Last Love; he was very good in the latter, even though the movie wasn't) is a delight in every scene he's in.
The show's popularity (and Hawaiian setting) drew a high caliber of guest stars, including Frank Sinatra is his last dramatic role. (Sinatra goes his own way but both he and the episode are pretty hard-hitting and serious. It's a memorable show.) Other heavyweights include Richard Johnson, Lew Ayres, Andrea Marcovicci, Ted Danson, Mercedes McCambridge, Orson Welles (as the voice of Robin Masters in several episodes), Roy Dotrice, Vic Morrow, Darren McGavin, Vera Miles, Elisha Cook Jr., Tyne Daly, Mimi Rogers, Jill St. John, Ian McShane, Ernest Borgnine, Mako, Sylvia Sidney, Keye Luke, Richard Roundtree, Carol Channing, Mildred Natwick, Jane Merrow, Dick Shawn, Ed Lauter, John Saxon, Ronald Lacey, Leslie Uggams, Patrick Macnee, Sharon Stone, Samantha Eggar, Jenny Agutter, Cesar Romero, David Hemmings, Robert Forster, Dennis Weaver, Julian Glover, Peter Davison, Brock Peters, Candy Clark, Gwen Verdon, Clive Revill, Alan Hale Jr., Stella Stevens, Eileen Brennan, and Anthony Newley. Joe Santos, James Luisi, Stuart Margolin, Gretchen Corbett and Noah Beery Jr., all from The Rockford Files, make guest appearances. Judging by all that British talent, one suspects Magnum must have been very popular in the U.K.
There were also a few crossover shows, with Murder, She Wrote and Simon & Simon, featuring those shows' leads.
Video & Audio
Magnum, P.I. was released as eight single-season sets but this Complete Series box thankfully dispenses with Universal's notoriously unreliable "flipper" discs, DVD-18s that infamously and repeatedly jammed, though Universal never publicly acknowledged the many problems with this technology, let alone offered replacement discs to consumers. The full-frame shows look pretty good; the series was shot throughout its run on 35mm film, and not the finished-on-tape postproduction method that's limited the viability of many ‘80s and ‘90s series in this high-def age we now reside. The region one discs, covering 129-plus hours (!) include English and French Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio, with optional English, English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitle options.
Supplements include previously released featurettes ported over here, including "The Great ‘80s Flashback," "America's Top Sleuths," as well as the aforementioned Murder, She Wrote and Simon & Simon crossover episodes. A small handful of shows have commentary tracks, and sample episodes of The A-Team, Knight Rider, and The Rockford Files ("White on White and Nearly Perfect," featuring Selleck) are also included.
A nice, compact set of episodes, some of which are quite good and unusual, Magnum, P.I. - The Complete Series should please its fans. Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.