Friday, September 14, 2007

When the '68 Merc was King

In my younger years, the Hawaii Five-O theme song used to get me pumped-up beyond all measure. The rapid fire cutting (to the music, no less), those great touristy shots of Hawaii (so exotic, yet so familiar!), and that great intro shot of Jack Lord that seemingly tracks across the entire island chain to that famous credit shot on the balcony. The problem was, after that initial rush I would quickly lose interest. In order to keep my pre-teen mind tamed, a detective/cop show needed that certain something in its lead character; Columbo’s comic needling, Banacek’s ‘drop dead, world’ attitude, or Rockford’s pragmatic snarkiness. I sensed none of that in Five-O’s Lord, so after the credits I would, forgive the pun, keep right on surfin’. But two important things have happened in the ensuing decades – my tastes matured, and networks completely forgot what it really meant to be cool.

Following the exploits of the fictitious “Five-O” squad led by Steve McGarett (answerable only to the Governor, thank you very much) with support provided by detectives Danny “Dan-O” Williams (James MacArthur), Chin Ho Kelly (Kam Fong), and Kono Kalakawa (the one and only Zulu). Debuting in 1968 and lasting an astonishing 12 seasons (it’s hard to imagine that a show so firmly rooted in the 1960s was actually on the air in 1980) Hawaii Five-O very deliberately ran against the grain of many network shows of the time by not condescending to the perceived youth market. Instead of inserting an awkward “hippie” character, it could simply let the location address the hip quotient and leave the crime fighting to the squares. It was a sly move on CBS’s part; instead of pandering, Hawaii Five-O played as a weekly love letter to the establishment set in a trendy, tropical paradise. It was never the most original show on the tube, but like a solid .275 hitter, it was almost always dependable.

Most of the crime on the show was of the decidedly white collar variety; a deadly game of cat & mouse between international agents was certainly preferable to the kind of violent street crime that might scare away potential tourists. Plots would typically cover the same bases as any cop show of the era. Season - Vietnam (King of the Hill, A Thousand Pardons…), hippies (Not That Much Different, Up Tight, King Kamehameha Blues), smugglers (The 24 Karat Kill), and of course, the numerous appearances of Wo Fat, played by the wonder Khigh Dhiegh, a John Frankenheimer regular (most memorably from The Manchurian Candidate) who made such a strong impression as the head of Pacific Intelligence for the Red Chinese government that he was brought back as a guest villain numerous times throughout the series run. But you won’t have to watch too many episodes to groove to the incongruous thrill of Steve McGarett, but he does take a bit of warming up to. At first glance, Lord resembles nothing less than the opposite of cool; stiff-backed, utterly immobile hair quaffed in that “just divorced” way that only men of the 50s and 60s were capable of, and, for network television, an uncommonly unfriendly countenance. In fact, the character of McGarett is so far removed from the popular notion of cool, that he actually laps the archetype and becomes extraordinarily cool. Deprived of irritatingly common TV cop accessories of the day – cool car, funny sidekick, animal confidant – McGarett rushes headlong into the Hawaiian underworld armed with little more than his gun, badge, and laconic professionalism. Audiences loved it; and while no mere mortal could outshine Lord, it was Hawaii itself that provided the crucial element

Hawaii Five-O was the first television show to be filmed entirely on any location other than a Burbank soundstage. Everything from beachfront interrogations to an ill deserved chewing-out in the Governor’s office was filmed in Hawaii. In 1968, even high profile (and big budget) dramas like Mission: Impossible were forced to make due with the increasingly familiar looking Desilu studios. Even today, there are precious few network television shows that ever transplanted an entire cast, crew, and production equipment to a location other than New York or Los Angeles. If you’re thinking “Hey, what about Magnum P.I.?”, you’d be right, but only because it launched almost immediately after Hawaii Five-O ended its run and was able to utilize nearly all the production personnel and facilities – and lo, Five-O begat Magnum…

Hawaii Five-O didn’t provide the kind of paradigm shift that shows like Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, or Law & Order would in the 1980s. But as modern shows like CSI and its myriad permutations completely lose touch with humanity in favor of shoving the viewers face into the kind of detailed forensics that can make even the heartiest man wince like a southern belle with an attack of the vapors, Hawaii Five-O is a vital reminder of just how uncommon efficient storytelling has become.

The first two seasons of Hawaii Five-O are now on DVD courtesy of Paramount/CBS video. Like their recently released sets of The Wild Wild West and Mission: Impossible, the picture and sound have gone through an extensive digital scrubbing, making for an exceptionally vibrant color palate. The Hawaii Five-O syndication package had undergone a clean & rinse about 10 years ago for airing on the Family Channel, but as with most other basic cable reruns of older shows, each episode was cut by at least 7-8 minutes. That might not sound like a big deal, but consider that without commercials, each episode runs approximately 50min – that means roughly 15% of each episode had been MIA since their initial airings. They are, thankfully, presented here in their original length as originally aired. There’s only one real extra on season one, but it’s a charmer. Emme’s Island Moments: Memories of “Hawaii Five-O” was produced for Hawaiian television in 1996 and features wonderful interviews with as many surviving cast and crew members as possible (James MacArthur is the only surviving member of the main cast). Though essentially a Hawaiian version of a cable access show, it’s actually quite nicely produced, featuring interviews with locals whose lives were changed as a result of the show. It’s an appropriately Hawaiian take on a show that was an incalculable boost to the island’s worldwide profile. Season two sadly looks like the beginning of a ‘zero supplementals’ trend for the series, featuring no extras save the bumper on the end of each episode that promoted nest weeks show. This would be great, but they have been incorrectly matched with the very show that they’re supposed to be promoting, instead of at the end of the previous show. Oh, well…

Neophytes might be wary of jumping into a full season investment for a show they’ve never seen. But unlike today’s hour dramas that run so thick with multiple episode story arcs as to be nearly impenetrable to the casual viewer, there’s no mythology you have to learn in order to appreciate Hawaii Five-O. It’s like a ’68 Merc with the keys in the visor waiting for you at the Honolulu airport – all you have to do is jump in. Aloha!