By Cory Barker and Myc Wiatrowski
“Don’t Eat the Snow in Hawaii” Parts 1 and 2
Original air date: Dec. 11, 1980
Myc: So Cory, we’re back and thankfully we get to leave The A-Team behind. As we’ve mentioned before, we originally intended to make a go at a full-season review of that show, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to do it. Now we get to move on to Magnum, P.I. and kicking things off with “Don’t Eat the Snow in Hawaii” parts one and two. There are a lot of similarities in terms of tone and narrative background between The A-Team and Magnum, but one of the first things I noticed was the continuation of awesome episode titles. But on a more serious note, within the first few minutes of the pilot we find ourselves dealing with the repercussions of Vietnam once again, and we find out that Thomas Magnum (best name ever, by the way) is a Vietnam vet, not unlike our heroes from The A-Team, though his life is a little different than the mercenaries we’ve already reviewed. What did you think about the similarities between Magnum and The A-Team?
Cory: Well, the similarities are certainly there. Vietnam, a quasi-secret group of hard-boiled, bad-ass soldiers, exotic locales, and questionable gender politics. However, there’s no doubt that Magnum, P.I. is a much better show from the beginning. Tom Selleck a better performer than anyone in The A-Team cast. He brings everything to the Magnum role: charm, sex appeal, toughness, gravitas, you name it. You know, it’s sometimes difficult to understand why certain older actors were so beloved in their younger days because you don’t have the context. I’ve never felt that way about Selleck; he’s been good in other things that I’ve seen. However, my opinion of him improved quite dramatically with this pilot episode performance. Watching the first episode, you almost immediately see why the show lasted as long as it did, and that success starts with Selleck (and his mustache, which is, by god, amazing).
But while it starts with him, it doesn’t stop there. The writing is much stronger here, resulting in a pilot episode that does indeed traverse the same territory and hit a number of the same beats as The A-Team opener, but does so with more weight, finesse and clarity. Instead of countless scenes of bad exposition like we had to put up with a few weeks ago, “Don’t Eat the Snow in Hawaii” actually shows us some of the things that happened to Magnum and his team in Vietnam and more importantly, those actions have real consequences for this pilot’s narrative. It’s not just the backdrop for an action-heavy story, it’s the purpose for the story altogether. This episode does a much better job of portraying the weight and trauma of the war. Furthermore, “Snow” also manages something “Mexican Slayride” does not: It creates a world. The A-Team‘s pilot story is so shoddy and disjointed that neither the characters nor the world are established that well, Here though, the pilot opens with a simple scene that while maybe a tinge too reliant on exposition-y voice over, quickly lets us know (again through showing us) who Magnum is and then slowly reveals different characters and elements of the case in a relatively precise fashion. The case makes sense; we know the stakes and we know the players. Magnum’s relationships with other characters also makes sense. I’m not entirely invested in all of them by the end of the pilot, but there’s a real effort being made there.
This is sort of a weird byproduct of watching the episodes in the fashion that we did. Magnum actually came first, making A-Team the louder, dumber, more kid-baiting little cousin. That makes a lot of sense, but I’m certainly happy to be watching this show now, aren’t you? Tell me you thought there were more differences than similarities.
Myc: There were more differences, but I thought the similarities would give us a nice point to cross over from The A-Team. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, we can focus more on Magnum. I agree with everything you said about Selleck. He’s really impressive as leading man, and his acting chops outshine any other actor we’ve discussed so far. And yes, his mustache is glorious.
As you pointed out, what really sets Magnum apart is the all-around execution. This narrative is well-constructed and tight and the show’s internal logic makes sense. The acting across the board is good, the script is good, the directing is pretty good, everything is just really well done. It makes for a damn fine show. You hit it on the money in pointing out how Magnum better-connects the trauma of war to the characters in a meaningful way. The war flashback scenes have a purpose, evoke tangible emotion, and help establish characters into more than staid stereotypes. These characters, particularly Magnum, are human beings, not over-the-top caricatures. And, as you mentioned, the flashbacks create an opportunity for real world-building as opposed to using cartoonish action to move from set piece to set piece and explosion to explosion.
That being said, the pilot does feature a few problematic moments. The voice over is fine, but in this episode, used excessively. Moreover, there are two or three extended scenes here where nothing of substance happens. Most notable is the three-to-four minute scene where Magnum is being tailed by men who are trying to kill. Instead of an exciting car chase, the scene is mostly just Magnum driving the admittedly fantastic Ferrari 308 GTS around, barely in danger.
And since I’m already nitpicking at minor details, I’m also not entirely sure that I’m sold on the whole Robin Masters deal. The arrangement seems as if it exists to justify that Magnum is like a strange Hawaiian pseudo-Batman figure; he’s a playboy-detective complete with a big estate, fancy car, and butler-like character (he even disguises himself at one point to assist in his investigation). Though I admit that this comparison isn’t exactly one-for-one, I was somewhat distracted by the fact that he is driving a Ferrari and living in a magnificent estate for a very odd reason.
Cory: The Masters estate is pretty silly, but I think the show knows it. It’s clear in this opening episode that the show wants Magnum to be in Hawaii and needs him to be close to the Naval base, so there are some goofy constructs in-place to make that more believable, I guess. My research tells me that Masters is never actually seen (but apparently Orson Welles provided his voice to the character, something that blows my mind), which tells me that the show is in on the joke. The mansion gives him access to nice digs, a nicer ride, pretty women, conflict with Higgins, and explains why he has this access despite being a bit of a quirky wash-out. It simultaneously grounds the show in reality and makes it more ridiculous, and I love that.
I mostly feel the same way about the voice over. It is, at times, extraneous. However, it is totally in on the joke too. Magnum doesn’t exactly address the audience directly with it, but it almost serves as moderately sarcastic running commentary on the episode’s proceedings. Plus, I enjoyed the late-episode callback to the teaser, with Magnum trying to convince himself to focus on the task at-hand, not the danger rapidly approaching him. Those are extremely minor, but useful character moments that tell us that this isn’t an especially exceptional guy. He’s decent at what he does, but he’s not unflappable. For me, the Masters Estate conceit and the voice over embody what works so well about this pilot: it doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it’s also not unbelievably stupid either.
You mentioned the filler car-related sequences and while I agreement with that assessment, I’ll also note that this pilot made pretty damn good use of its surroundings. Hawaii’s visual pleasures are consistently on display and director Roger Young did a fine job behind the camera. The opening sequence is tightly-directed but also mixes in that solid opening shot of Selleck swimming and then coming out of the water. The direction is much more steady opposed to the choppy (read: sloppy) work in The A-Team opener.
Other than Selleck, what did you enjoy the most about this episode? How’d you feel about the other cast and characters?
Myc: I think you’re right, the show is pretty self-aware; that’s probably what makes it so good. The cast was pretty great. John Hillerman’s Higgins character is an excellent straight man for Selleck to play against, and I can see lots of opportunities for the show to build on that relationship in fun, compelling ways. They’re a bit of Odd Couple pairing.
One of my favorite non-Magnum characters is T.C., played by Roger Mosley. While he seems to be used by Magnum only for his helicopter, there is a real relationship there and he is a remarkably well-rounded character. I feel like the Vietnam flashbacks really give him depth. One of my favorite character moments occurs when he calls Magnum out on his slip of the tongue when he referring the case they’re working on a “mission”; I thought that was a great bit of insight into who both men are and where they’ve been. I also thought Pamela Susan Shoop gave a pretty solid guest turn as Alice Cook, the sister of Magnum’s deceased best friend and this episode’s love interest. She wasn’t unbelievably great or anything, but I felt like her performance was strong and believable, and she had some pretty good on-screen chemistry with Selleck.
If there was a weak spot performance-wise (ignoring the models at Robin’s Nest that were clearly just intended as window dressing) it was probably the immortal Robert Loggia as Philippe/La Bulle. However, I wouldn’t really put that on him; it seemed more a function of the story. The Philippe/La Bulle narrative was probably the weakest part of the episode, as the twist was telegraphed from a mile away and Loggia’s skills were underused. That being said, the latter half airport scene was very powerful in simplicity and minimalism.
What I enjoyed most about Magnum though was just how easy and fun it was to watch. We’re reviewing these series with a critical eye, so it’s hard not to notice minor details that are distracting or see how the show is ideologically structured or clearly participating in some sort of greater cultural conversation. Yet, while Magnum has those moments too, I found that this pilot was so well put together that I didn’t notice them as much. The execution overall was just really great, and I don’t mean that in some “it was great for the 1980s” way. It was legitimately entertaining and not really searching for an identity. What did you think of the other actors, and what did you find most enjoyable?
Cory: Everything fits together really well in this episode. It’s all simple but effective. Honestly, I liked it all. But of course, we’re here to discuss masculinity, after all, so how do you think the show (and the characters) fit into conversation with The A-Team? I felt like this one had a better understanding of what makes a strong lead male character without going too far overboard with it. Like I said before, Magnum is the kind of leading man that television thrives on. He’s skilled but not unbelievably so. Moreover, he’s also relatively flawed and relatable. He screws up a few times here and there isn’t an underlying sense that he’s got it all figured out; in fact, it’s the exact opposite. Unlike the screwed over A-Team, Magnum actually quit his job as a Seal. The episode makes a few lame jokes about Japanese people and culture, but there’s not much overt xenophobia and racism, particularly from Magnum. He pushes Alice down when she sneaks into his apartment, but that felt part and parcel of their sexual tension. American masculinity is definitely reinforced here, but it’s not REINFORCED if that makes sense. Like everything else in the show, it’s a lot more subtle, right?
Myc: The representation of masculinity is one of the most fascinating things to think about when comparing Magnum and The A-Team. We could probably make arguments about how structural differences (an ensemble cast vs. a leading man) could create differences in how we’re seeing ideas of masculinity play on screen, but I’m not so sure. The masculinity that Magnum embodies, while still very traditional, is not necessarily exaggerated. The idea of strong, traditional gender roles is still present, but more subdued. There are traditional markers of the masculine—beautiful women, fast cars, and guns—but they’re controlled far more in Magnum.
The women in the show are attracted to him, but not in an incredibly overt Bondian way (like the way women melt for Face immediately), and he’s not overly smooth about it. When the models staying at Robin’s Nest invite him to go swimming he initially misses that it’s actually an invitation to go skinny dipping, and after picking up on the innuendo he responds like a fifteen year old boy, calling his friend and grabbing his binoculars to spy on the girls before heading down there. It’s a really interesting choice that reinforces traditional modes of the American ideal that fall in line with his physically performance of masculinity (Selleck is a pretty big dude), while maybe also poking fun at those ideas as well. It goes further with the car; although he does drive around the fancy Ferrari, which is just SCREAMING masculinity, everyone knows that it doesn’t belong to him—and the show even makes it clear that most people refuse to believe that it even could belong to him (and I hope that this is a running joke that they stick with for a while). As far as performing his masculinity, we get a good amount of physical action and shirtless Selleck, but it certainly doesn’t dominate the pilot. He doesn’t even pick up a gun (outside of the flashbacks) until the last six minutes or so of part two. In many ways Magnum P.I. is the antithesis to The A-Team in terms of performance, yet the ideology is pretty much the same. Magnum doesn’t need the explosions and such, I would argue, because it’s doing the same type of heteronormative hyper-masculinity in a smarter way. You’re right, it’s much more subtle, and I would say much better for it.
This post is part of our multi-week exploration of 1980s uber-masculine American action shows. Here’s the upcoming schedule:
2/25: Magnum, P.I., “Never Again…Never Again” and “Beauty Knows No Pain”
3/4: Simon and Simon, “Details at Eleven” and “Least Dangerous Game”
3/11: Simon and Simon, “Earth to Stacey” and “Tanks for the Memories”
3/18: Airwolf, “Shadow of the Hawke” Parts One and Two
3/25: Airwolf, “And They Are Us” and “To Snare a Wolf”
4/1: Hunter, “Hunter (Pilot)” and MacGyver, “Pilot”