As it is based largely on memory, my math here isn’t precise, but I believe the pie chart for reasons I watched Magnum, P.I. as a child goes: 50 percent Tom Selleck, who was simply the coolest, 25 percent banter (mostly relating to John Hillerman’s Higgins, but T.C. and Rick, too), maybe 12.5 percent the cars, another 7.5 percent the Hawaiian scenery and probably 5 percent the opening credits and theme music.
Everybody’s reasons for watching the long-running CBS smash were probably a bit different, but possibly owing to watching the show at least somewhat in syndication, I never gave any real consideration to the story on Magnum, P.I., so simply telling me that you’re remaking Magnum means almost nothing, because you can’t remake Selleck and Hillerman, nor can you be expected to.
Enter CBS’ new version of Magnum P.I., which has stripped away Magnum’s mustache and the comma of the title and has become less an adaptation of the original and more a companion piece to the network’s remakes of Hawaii Five-0 and MacGyver. So rather than saying that the launch of the Magnum P.I. remake is vastly worse than my memories of the original, it’s fairer to say that it’s far better than the start of the new MacGyver and a bit inferior to the start of the new Hawaii Five-0.
Updated by Peter M. Lenkov and Eric Guggenheim, the plot of the new Magnum P.I. is fairly similar to that of the original. Jay Hernandez plays Thomas Magnum, a decorated Navy SEAL and Detroit Tigers fan now living in a guest cottage on the Robin’s Nest, the Hawaiian estate of generally absent author Robin Masters. Magnum is the estate’s security consultant and also works as a private investigator — he repeatedly chafes at “private eye” — getting frequent assists from chopper pilot TC Calvin (Stephen Hill) and jack-of-all-trades Rick Wright (Zachary Knighton), with whom he spent time in a POW camp in Afghanistan. Adding friction, flirtation and her own brand of varied expertise is Younger Sexy Higgins (Perdita Weeks), Robin’s Nest’s majordomo and general source of disapproval when it comes to what happens when Magnum borrows the estate’s vintage Ferraris.
The pilot, buttressed by pages of truly banal voiceover delivered with no particular intonation by Hernandez, fills us in on the basics of Magnum’s situation and all of the main relationships by having the characters deal with a kidnapping involving another pal from their POW past, a case that causes Magnum’s team to butt heads with the local police, Higgins to reveal some skills from her MI6 background and several cars to be destroyed.
It’s only limitedly fair to credit the Magnum P.I. pilot for its high production values and a couple fairly decent stunts, because director Justin Lin has become CBS’ go-to when it comes to spiffy pilots for shows that will never look nearly as expensive again. I always point to Scorpion as the ultimate example of the magic Lin can deliver in a pilot, for what subsequently became one of the most absurdly cheap-looking shows on all of television. So here there are definitely a couple good scenes with Magnum tooling around in a fancy red sports car, as well as some satisfying explosions and at least one superb chase involving cars, a twisty road and a helicopter. Even with Lin at the helm, the pilot still starts with a thoroughly unsatisfying HALO jump and seems to truncate every action scene just a wee bit, so if this is the best-case scenario for how high-octane Magnum P.I. can get, the long-term prognosis is decidedly middling.
When it comes to the original pie chart of my Magnum enjoyment, Lin and cinematographer Stephen F. Windon deliver completely on the necessary Hawaii travel porn and expensive car porn. Combine the lush green hills and impossibly blue skies of Oahu with the occasional Humvee fireball and that already puts Magnum on solid footing for its intended CBS audience.
The pilot script’s banter is, at the very least, better than the pervasive voiceover. That’s more product of very solid supporting casting than writing, as Hill and Knighton slide easily into TC and Rick’s shoes and will probably make a strong case for this becoming more of a true ensemble than a star vehicle. Weeks’ youth makes a mess of Higgins’ backstory and if you come to the remake with memories of Higgins from the original, it’s hard not to laugh at the writers thinking they’re doing some paradigm shifting with Young Sexy Higgins. They’re not. She’s actually much more of a TV cliche in this form, as we’re now going to get week after week of will-they-or-won’t-they nonsense, but I can’t dispute that Weeks and Hernandez deliver at least as much sexual tension as Selleck and Hillerman.
Hernandez isn’t bad. At all. He just isn’t Selleck, and Hernandez merely being fine just exposes again how much heavy lifting Selleck did on a thin premise. Because the remake is possibly even thinner, you see at every turn how the show needs Hernandez to be dialed to a “10” when he’s dialed to a respectable “7.” It comes up when he’s trying to show off that trademark swagger and when he’s trying to convey Hawaii cool and when he’s asked to be a highly trained military alpha. While the pilot is perpetually emphasizing that Young Sexy Higgins is younger and sexier and kicks more butt than what you’d expect from Higgins, the only acknowledgement that Magnum is no longer a white guy with a mustache comes when he quips, “They go for the white meat first” to Rick before he goes on a scuba diving adventure, which, like the HALO jump, falls short of thrills. It’s not that Magnum P.I. needs to make it immediately meaningful that Magnum is now Latinx (though why the heck not?). The problem is in having no defining way in which this Magnum stands out. Were he sufficiently enough his own character, comparisons to Selleck wouldn’t be necessary. So far, he is not, and my fear is that the producers thought a mere mustache shave would be enough to duck comparisons, which isn’t the same as, you know, writing a character with a personal voice.
Having seen only the pilot, I can say that Magnum P.I. is exactly so-so enough that I’ll give it another episode or two to see if Hernandez taps into a Magnum of his own and also to find out if the Asian and Native Hawaiian characters from the fringes of the pilot actually become substantial in any way. Even if the stunts and spectacle diminish in Lin’s absence, the Hawaii and cars aren’t going anywhere.
Cast: Jay Hernandez, Perdita Weeks, Zachary Knighton, Stephen Hill, Tim Kang, Amy Hill
Creators: Peter M. Lenkov and Eric Guggenheim from the original series created by Donald P. Bellisario and Glen A. Larson
Premieres: Monday, 9 p.m. ET/PT on (CBS)