By Cory Barker and Myc Wiatrowski
Season 1, Episode 1 “Hunter (Pilot)”
Original air date: Sept. 18, 1984
Myc: So here we are. Ten weeks and nearly two dozen hours of 1980s masculine television later, and we close out our reviews with two masterpieces, the pilots of Hunter and MacGyver. These shows really seem like the culmination of all of the themes we’ve been talking about over the last few months, which makes a certain amount of sense considering they both ran from the mid-1980s to the early-1990s. Let’s start with Hunter, first.
Cory: Hunter isn’t exactly what I expected it to be. To be fair, I had no idea what the show was before I put it at the end of our list. Based on a few trailers and clips, I assumed that it would be much more…aggressive? Despite its title, the pilot is a lot more like a cross-gender buddy comedy than anything else. Though, Hunter is an entertaining outlaw archetype that we see all the time. He’s already driving a crappy car because he doesn’t follow the rules and then he almost immediately breaks up a bank robbery and causes all sorts of damage during a car chase. But with Dee Dee around, this is a much more balanced, entertaining (though way too long) episode. Are you familiar with the show and if not, were you surprised by anything here?
Myc: I wasn’t at all familiar with Hunter. In fact, this was the only show we’ve discussed that I had absolutely no experience with at all. Like you, I had taken a look at some of the trailers and I was expecting much more of a Dirty Harry vibe. That feel and aesthetic is there to an extent, but it’s kind of mitigated by Dee Dee. It’s surprising how much agency she has here. Sure, she had to dress as a hooker and act as bait for the plot, but she actually played a major role in the case as well. It’s an improvement over the women’s roles we’ve seen so far, but still fairly misogynic to a degree.
Though like you said, it’s more of a buddy-cop drama than anything. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop and Dee Dee to get murdered and set up a tortured/vengeful hero narrative (coughAirwolfcough). Her survival and importance to driving the plot was unexpected to me. It tells me something about the shows we’ve been watching that I just assumed that she would die. The privilege afforded men in these shows is still very present.
Still, I was pretty entertained by the show, even if the pilot was A YEAR LONG.
Let’s talk a little more about Dee Dee.
Cory: Dee Dee is pretty awesome. I’m thinking over the shows we’ve watched over the past few months and she’s absolutely the most interesting and most active female character. You mention that she is the bait for the (truly too long) case, but it’s not as if she has zero agency. She’s an active participant in the case and constantly keeps Hunter in check with quips or intelligence. Hunter is a Dirty Harry-like character, blowing things up, shooting off rounds in public places, and causing loads of mayhem, but when he gets around Dee Dee, he’s less confident and put together. Hunter handles all the male characters in the pilot pretty easily. He mouths off to his bosses and outsmarts most of the antagonists Sure, she goes undercover as a hooker, puts on some slinky outfits and appears in the tub, but all things considered, it could be much, much worse.
What did you think about Dee Dee’s impact on and/or relationship with Hunter?
Myc: I think you’re right, she does keep Hunter in check and complicate things for him. I think it was a great to limit the sexual tension between the two, and having her comment on his not hitting on her is brilliant. Allowing them to build a relationship that’s actually built on professional understanding and mutual respect is a great choice, and wildly different from virtually every female character we’ve seen so far. I guess we can forgive the coded misogyny (female troubles!) a little because of the fair amount of power they give to Dee Dee.
Moving away from her, let’s talk about Hunter the character really quickly. Fred Dryer (a former professional football player) does an admirable job playing the gruff outlaw anti-hero. What did you think of Dryer and/or Hunter?
Cory: I did some research on the show’s lifespan and apparently, Dryer and the production team wanted to keep Hunter and Dee Dee from getting involved romantically so the show wouldn’t immediately become Hart to Hart (or any number of the seemingly endless shows that had that sort of premise in the 1980s). There’s tension, but it’s not really romantic tension. It’s smart and well-deployed in this pilot and I’m surprised that the show was willing to keep it that way throughout the seven years on the air.
Dryer is pretty good. He’s a little stiff, but it works for the character, and when the script calls upon him to loosen up, he manages to pull it off. The chemistry with Stepfanie Kramer helps that along as well. In the spectrum of the leading men we’ve discussed thus far, Hunter certainly isn’t as ridiculously masculine as Stringfellow Hawke, B.A., or even Magnum. He’s just a guy who is pretty good at his job, not great; he breaks rules, but doesn’t destroy them; he’s a loose cannon, but not the loosest cannon. There’s less to say about him than with some of the other leading men, but there is also very little to complain about as well.
I’d say my biggest problem with the opening episode of Hunter is just how long this pilot is. The two-hour movie-like “event’ pilot was much more common in the 1980s and too often, episodes following that format are tough to watch in one sitting. The additional time gives us more enjoyable moments between Hunter and Dee Dee, but it’s not as if the case itself is particularly exceptional. I liked the wrinkle with Hunter’s shrink (played by TV’s Brian Dennehy) playing a major role in the case, but if you could argued that it was too convenient, I wouldn’t disagree. The problem with the double-length episode is that it doesn’t match the premise. This is still a procedural and unlike The A-Team, it doesn’t have the desire to pad the running time with a lot of silliness or offensive representations of people from other countries. Even Magnum got away with using including a number of shots of its beautiful Hawaiian setting. This? It’s a solid procedural, but not one that offers much else.
Myc: Yeah, the pilot is just too long. It is hard to watch because it’s not particularly engaging. I think the main problem with this episode and the length is that the whole thing gets bogged down in trying to deliver too much background information at once, which isn’t the strong point of any procedural. We’re getting the Hunter story (son of mobster makes good), his “relationship” with his new boss, all of his partners are injured, etc. All of that is fine, but there is a lot of time dedicated to this sort of world building, and it is slow going. Then we have the case, which should be the most interesting part, but it’s sort of weak tea. It’s not bad, but it’s nothing special. Let’s be honest, Hunter essentially finds the serial killer by accident, then decides to play a cat-and-mouse game to catch him red handed. Which is fine, but boy did they ever drag that thing out.
So, overall Hunter turned out to be pretty good. It certainly wasn’t terrible like some of the other things we’ve watched over the past few weeks. Though it could have lost 45 minutes and been the better for it. I’ve noticed a trend in the shows we’ve watched. This event premiere with “feature film” lengths hasn’t produced the strongest episodes of television in the shows that we’ve reviewed.
Season 1, Episode 1 “Pilot”
Original air date: Sept. 29, 1985
Myc: That’s one of the things I really appreciated about MacGyver. All of the stunts we’re sort of tossed out the window for this pilot, and instead we jump immediately into an episode that shows us what the whole show is all about. What did you think about this one?
Cory: These two shows unintentionally contrast one another pretty well. Spot-on assessment of how MacGyver uses its shorter running time to its advantage. On the most basic level, pilots should give the audience a clear picture of what a show will look like on a week-to-week basis. I’ve seen enough of MacGyver to know that this pilot does just that. MacGyver works through his genius-level process in the first act, making a miraculous save in quick fashion and then the rest of the episode allows us to see how he solves larger-scale problems. It’s simple, and pretty regularly cheesy, but still really fun at the same time. It’s MacGyver after all!
Myc: Full disclosure: I love MacGyver. I grew up watching MacGyver fanatically, and I appreciated his ability to create something from a pile of nothing. Out of all the shows we’ve discussed, I am by far most familiar with this one. That being said, I felt like this pilot does have a lot going for it. We get some traditional masculinity stuff: Mac scaling a steep cliff face in the pre-credit teaser (because he’s a man!); Mac being literally the “only option” to save the day (because he’s the man!); the female character obviously falling for him almost immediately (because, he’s MacGyver!)—all pretty standard (but most inoffensive) fare. We also get the privileged vision that comes with certain types of masculinity; the ability to see things that others can’t. We saw this in The A-Team, and it’s inherent in the detective genre episodes we discussed from Magnum, P.I. and Simon & Simon. We even see it in Hunter when we have Hunter foil a bank robbery in the beginning of the episode and a hospital robbery at the end. The privileged sight is something we haven’t really talked about a whole lot, but there is a lot of power tied up in being able to see what others cannot, and acting on that and this kind of agency is particularly coded as masculine. It’s especially necessary to address this narrative performance of masculinity when we discuss MacGyver. I mean, that’s sort of the whole point of the show, right? He does what others can’t because he sees what others aren’t capable of seeing. So in this pilot, chocolate becomes a remedy for leaking sulfuric acid and a broken pair of binoculars becomes a laser redirection system. How’d you feel about the conceit of the show and Richard Dean Anderson’s portrayal of the titular character?
Cory: Wonderful point and it is a bit of a shame we haven’t talked about privileged vision yet. Although I agree with everything you said, I’d also like to point out that MacGyver definitely follows in the Magnum lineage wherein the hero is skilled, smart, attractive, etc., but also has a sense of humor that limits some of the overbearing masculinity the other shows offer. I think where this comes into play most is through the voice-over. MacGyver references how much he hates heights on a few occasions (which means his mountain-top success only reinforces how awesome he is) and there are other little asides that inject just a tiny bit of humor and self-reflexivity into the first episode. The titular character doesn’t take himself too seriously. He’s aware of his skills and knows how to use them, but there’s no smug sense of self importance.
It’s hard not to enjoy this show. Even with its ridiculousness and things like MacGruber, I find MacGyver to be fun to watch. I don’t know if I’d be able to take 50 straight episodes of this kind of story, but for just one 45-minute burst, it’s quite enjoyable. Richard Dean Anderson is amiable enough; he’s not as stiff as Dryer, but certainly not as charming as Tom Selleck. There are moments where you can tell he’s having a good time at the sheer silliness of the proceedings.
And hey, the woman got to help a little bit! Right?
Myc: She got to help, as long as she listened to Mac. The second she stopped listening to the hero, she gets shot! To be fair, he did tell her to wait outside. So even though she gets to help, and she stands her ground and demands to have a seat at the rescuing-folk table, it still reinforces the problematic issues of feminine agency we’ve seen in most of these shows. You’re spot on about the humor and self-reflexive bits that are added into the show, and the comparison to Selleck is a great one, especially considering Magnum did similar things with humor.
You mentioned the MacGruber parody, and we’d be remiss if we failed to mention MacGyver‘s place in the lore of The Simpsons. This show has had a pretty wide ranging and deep cultural impact, so much so that “MacGyverism” has become a word and “MacGyver” have become a verb. I agree with you that it would probably be hard to watch an extended marathon of the show, and I’m glad they avoided the popular “feature film” premiere that has dogged so many of the other shows we’ve looked at. Overall though, this was probably the most fun I had watching any of the programs we’ve discussed.
Cory: Fixing the toxic leak with chocolate was absolutely ridiculous, but Anderson and the show pulled it off in a way that I couldn’t help but cackle in enjoyment. I’m happy with finished with something like MacGyver because it represents a little bit of a progression from what we saw way back when with The A-Team. Mac is still impressively masculine and skilled throughout this episode, but there’s not that prevailing sense of testosterone overload. He’s smart, but not like how Hannibal and are Smart. It’s more like “real” intelligence instead of manipulative TV character charm intelligence.