When "Magnum P.I.", the CBS comedy-drama about a handsome private investigator living in picturesque Hawaii, debuted in 1980, it appeared to be another in a string of private eye shows along the lines of "Matt Houston," and "Simon & Simon." But the series distinguished itself by presenting deeper, sometimes darker themes than its happy-go-lucky peers.
To understand the show's impact better one must consider the timing.
In 1980 Jimmy Carter left office, leaving a dispirited country in his wake. Vietnam's demise had played out on the U.S. Embassy roof just five years earlier. But with the ascendency of the Ronald Reagan Revolution a more optimistic and patriotic sense of national self emerged in the new decade.
America had confidence to look back on Vietnam and begin coming to terms with its significance. Into this climate, creators Donald P. Bellisario and Glen A. Larson introduced Thomas Magnum. Although played by ruggedly handsome Tom Selleck, he was far more than just eye candy for the ladies. Magnum was a man with a deep and somewhat troubled back story whose experiences crafted a quirky character rooted in integrity and possessing distinctly conservative values.
Indeed, Tom Selleck's incarnation proved a very three-dimensional figure...and a man from whom this impressionable adolescent could draw positive values that have stuck well past its finale in 1988. Here are a few:
Vietnam Vets Are Heroes
Thomas Magnum and his two buddies, T.C. and Rick, are Vietnam combat veterans. More than just a convenient explanation of their friendship, it is an integral theme of the show. Several episodes present the viewer with the pain of lost comrades, loved ones, and of course PTSD. Coming out of an anti-war climate with Vietnam vets often looked upon with suspicion and even hostility, "Magnum P.I." offers that these recently returned warriors are men and women who served their country honorably and deserve our gratitude and respect.
Race Means Nothing; Character Everything
Magnum's most trusted friend is Theodore Calvin (aka T.C.) with whom he served in Vietnam. T.C. is a former Marine helicopter pilot who now runs a charter service in Hawaii. Race only appears in anodynes like his affinity for Kwanzaa (hey, I didn't say the show is perfect!). What matters is that he is a loyal, intelligent and a respected brother-in-arms who never lets Magnum down when he needs help. In an age before the politically correct tsunami swept the culture, T.C. was just, well, great guy T.C.
Love Never Dies
The salient back story behind Magnum’s subtle darkness is the supposed death of his Vietnamese wife, Michelle. He has flashbacks of her throughout the series. Although too complicated to go into here, she is in fact alive which Magnum discovers through the run of the series, but she cannot return to him. The heart-ached Magnum is never a “player” despite his good looks, hot Ferrari, and sweet guest house on an oceanfront estate. He is a man who believes in the power of love and marriage, even if both are denied him.
America Is The Good Guy
Remember, this show ran during the 1980s and the Cold War. Ronald Reagan had scraped a moral line in the sand that announced we were on the good side of the line and the communist Soviets on the bad.
In the episode "Did You See The Sunrise," Magnum confronts the evils of communism head on. Ivan—a KGB thug who worked with the Vietnamese who held Magnum and T.C. captive during the war—returns to kill both former POWs. There is no doubt the Ruskie is the bad guy and Magnum and T.C. the heroes. When he confronts Ivan Magnum asks him: “Who else is on your hit list? Begin? Thatcher? Reagan?” It is no accident he names the leaders of Israel, the United Kingdon and the U.S. Clearly the writers see the democracies of the West as the good guys. In the shocking ending, they also show that you have to take down evil to win.
Lt. Thomas Sullivan Magnum III, U.S. Navy, is Magnum’s father who was killed in Korea when his boy was just five. There is a hole in Magnum’s life where his father should be. Magnum nevertheless follows his dad's footsteps into the Navy and consistently honors his memory. In the episode “Home From The Sea” Magnum finds himself shipwrecked and treading water for hours in the shark-infested Pacific. He draws strength from his dad’s memory to help him survive until T.C. and Rick can find him. To anyone who's lost their own father this is especially meaningful.
Conservative Values Are Correct Values
"Conservative values" in the martial sense of “Duty, Honor, and Country.” Both Magnum and the prickly Jonathan Quail Higgins III, the British care-taker of the estate who is paradoxically Magnum’s nemesis and friend, are veterans: Higgins served in Indonesia during World War II. Magnum is a bit goofy at times, and Higgins a stuffed shirt, but both men carry themselves with conviction and integrity of steel forged in the furnace of war; they epitomize much that is good in Western culture, which in 1980 is still by and large a conservative culture.
It is, of course, possible to read too much into a TV show. Perhaps one had to grow up in the 1980s to really understand. The series finale of "Magnum P.I." was, in fact, the sixth most watched finale in TV history.
In its own way, "Magnum P.I." contributed to the revitalizing of the American spirit of optimism and righteousness and core values of patriotism, honor, friendship and love after a long period of what Jimmy Carter called “malaise.” In Magnum, Higgins, T.C., Rick, et. al. we find characters united by ideals shared by much of Generation X today: an underlying confident conservatism that reached its apogee in the 1980s. And this viewer was happy to welcome it into the living room once a week for eight years.
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