What I Learned From Rewatching ‘Magnum, P.I.’ On Amazon

What I Learned From Rewatching ‘Magnum, P.I.’ On Amazon

While some of the charm has worn off 'Magnum, P.I.’s' eight seasons, we can still learn from that dashing P.I. driving a borrowed Ferrari through paradise.
Libby Emmons
By

One of the greatest things about all these streaming services is that the old TV shows come back around. They’re not quite like we remember them from the old days.

Amazon Prime has picked up the old “Magnum, P.I.,” which ran on CBS from 1980-88. Starring Tom Selleck as Thomas Magnum, a former Naval intelligence officer who served in Vietnam, the series follows his exploits as a private investigator in Hawaii, living gratis on the wealthy Robin Masters estate. While some of the charm has worn off “Magnum, P.I.’s” eight seasons, there are still many great lessons to be learned from that dashing P.I. driving a borrowed Ferrari through paradise. 

An Ode to Dads and Tom Selleck in Shorts

“Magnum, P.I.” isn’t so much a guilty pleasure as an ode to Tom Selleck in shorts. The shorts are really a testament to how ’80s-fabulous this show is. Better than Don Johnson’s jacket and Bruce Willis’ dimples are Selleck’s super short shorts.

In fact, ’80s fashion for men was better all around than it is today. Short shorts are better than cargo shorts, tailored suits are better than Jimmy Fallon’s child-sized suits, and short-sleeved sweatshirts are perfectly acceptable if you have the arms for them. People joke about ’80s fashion and even hyperbolize it, with neon stripes and paint splatters (and yeah, I had that shirt), but the basic, mainstream lewks hardly pushed the sartorial envelope. Some things are better as they actually were, without the sheen of memory. 

Magnum has that same mustache all we Gen Xers’ dads had when we were kids, which gives him a comfortable, familiar look — like this guy can put together a doll house and take down a ring of international jewel thieves, all before breakfast. And he’s got some good friends.

There’s Higgins (John Hillerman), Rick (Larry Manetti), and T.C. (Roger E. Mosley). Higgins is a veteran too, though of an earlier war, while Rick and T.C. were with Magnum in Vietnam. They rarely talk about the intricacies of the war, which is notable. Jokes and bits of connection, yes, but not so much the hard stuff. Back in the ’80s, the horrors of the war weren’t so far in the past that they had to be conjured up in dialogue to be present on screen. 

1980s-Style Masculinity

The simple backstory that these guys were Vietnam vets was enough to give viewers deep and meaningful insight into the grief and turmoil in their hearts. There was a collective, public awareness of veterans’ experiences of the war, an understanding of both the facts of how the whole thing went down and the feelings that went along with it. That’s something we simply don’t have now, when nobody can agree on facts, and feelings are so subjective that only their bearer can understand them.

The guys keep their emotions bottled up inside, and while now and then the briefest facial expression denotes some past, buried trauma, they never let it out. They’re too manly for that — different from how a show would express past war grief today.

There are no hard feelings. They just suck it up, move on, and deal with the fact that they are damaged by looking cute, smiling at ladies, generally being stand-up guys, and having each other’s backs no matter what. The best kind of 1980s style is masculinity that not only looks good in shorts, but holds its emotions so close they turn into diamonds of kindness and compassion.

Magnum, the Man We All Need

“Magnum, P.I.” ran something like 20 hour-long episodes every season, and each one was stand-alone. That’s not the kind of thing you see anymore. On today’s TV shows, a plot builds and builds for an entire season, teases out the break, then leaves you hanging until the next season — or sometimes forever.

Every episode, Magnum and his friends come back fresh, relaxed, and ready to tackle a new mystery. Frankly, it’s a joy to find that nothing, no matter how bad or crazy, and no matter who gets shot or pushed from the top of a Honolulu skyscraper, the boys come back, right as rain, to face a new challenge in paradise.

No matter the challenge, Magnum can overcome it and be back to his Ferrari-driving ways in just a week’s time. Magnum narrates the story, talking about his intuition and gut feelings, and now and then he does us all a favor by looking out at the camera and gracing us with a knowing smile.

Most of the women who co-star on Magnum, a different one each episode and no regulars, show their good sense by not swooning for him. But no matter how accomplished and independent, the women come to trust Magnum. Maybe it’s the dimples, the short shorts, the mustache, or the unbuttoned Hawaiian shirts with hairy chests (which was in vogue back then) — or perhaps it’s Magnum’s hapless yet powerful demeanor. Whatever the reason, every episode, he maintains his standing as a gentleman.

He treats women as equals, and those he knows — journalists (one fiercely played by Tyne Daly), novelists, radio DJ’s, Jessica Fletcher (“Murder, She Wrote’s” Angela Lansbury) — are autonomous, self-sufficient, and capable. Yet they still appreciate a bit of chivalry — that most maligned, arcane concept where men acquiesce to women’s needs just for the fun of it.

Just as a childhood home once revisited seems smaller, these old shows from the ‘80s seem laden with preconceived notions that just don’t fit who we are culturally anymore. We don’t like big, strong men who look good in shorts trying to protect their friends and honor. We don’t like male friendships based in wartime bonding. We don’t like displays of affluence that don’t come with celebrity.

But there’s still plenty to love about “Magnum, P.I.” It’s an honest reflection of what prime time, family-friendly content was. There’s no over-the-top sex humor — the scantily clad women are merely beach background — and Magnum doesn’t let his personal ambitions get in the way of doing the right thing.

This isn’t a series you need to watch all of to get the general vibe and basic ideas. In fact, it’s best watched as a delightful background, to reminisce about when the worst crimes we could fathom were diplomatic assassinations, high-level embezzlements, and international jewel heists.

Libby Emmons is a writer and theatre maker in Brooklyn, New York. She is co-founder of the Sticky short play series, and blogs the story of her life at li88yinc.com.

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