Tan Knight in a Red Ferrari: Rewatching Magnum, p.I.
By Jessica Machado
I remember my mother watching Magnum, P.I. religiously when I was a kid. We lived on Oahu, where the show was filmed, and I’d overhear her gossiping with friends about whether they’d seen Tom Selleck and company filming around the island. It didn’t hurt that my dad was a skinny, Portuguese version of Magnum, with his own full ’stache, cocoa tan, and uniform of aloha shirt tucked into light-denim almost-bellbottom jeans. My dad (and every other firefighter in Hawaii) somehow seemed born with this look, yet it was probably the first time since Elvis that a movie-star outsider, a non-local, brought his handsome to Hawaii to try to portray the culture, and neither man nor woman had the slightest problem with it.
Magnum Mania meant nothing to me at the time, though. I was just a kid, and Magnum was, well, “old” (the show ran when I was ages 3 to 10). But rewatching it now, the fuss was indeed justified. From the moment he appears in the pilot, emerging from the water, broad-shouldered, hairy chested, breaking into some rich guy’s mansion, it is clear: This is the kind of sexy shyster we want to tangle with.
Magnum’s appeal is not just about his appearance, though. He’s a tan knight in a red Ferrari, saving island damsels from bad guys trying to corrupt paradise. He’s also got a sense of humor (and you know how women love a sense of humor!). Hell, he’s even a bit of a wise ass. He has no problem breaking the fourth wall and giving the camera a “You’ve gotta be kidding me” look. In one episode, after he ends up tackling his dance partner/client to the ground (this is a typical Magnum scenario—he often has young female clients or “bad girls” to mix it up with), they share a long, passionate kiss. But because the whole thing is such an obvious Magnum play, they start laughing, and then he goes in for the kill: “I didn’t realize you knew how to laugh at yourself,” he tells her. Asshole smooth. That’s our Magnum.
But oh, our Magnum is a man of the ’80s—or at least a victim of ’80s TV writing. Like many shows and movies of this time, his thirtysomething single status is the result of his being a widower (the ’80s were about as progressive as the Brady Bunch ’60s, apparently). He can’t just be a smoking-hot guy coming off a hell of a time in Vietnam, surrounded by chicks in bikinis and not eager to settle down. That’d be crazy! His widower status is also good for swooning-fan purposes: Look, ladies, he was able to commit that one time! And he’s wounded! In many ways! He still has war flashbacks and hangs out with ’Nam buddies T.C. and Rick (an orange Kato Kaelin), not to mention that the mere suggestion of Vietnam adds to Magnum’s complicated mystery.
But Magnum is not perfect. He does have one flaw, at least in the eyes of a sexual-harassment-educated, boundary-defending modern woman: Dude’s a little touchy. His slimiest move is the hand on the lower of the lowerest back on any female he has just met or barely knows or is supposedly having a professional relationship with. He goes in for the touch as soon as she turns around and they walk off together, even if it’s only for a few feet. And his hand stays there, lingering. He also has no problem throwing his arms around two babes as he walks away with them (again, they’re virtual strangers; again, only in the ’80s would anyone randomly come across two babes and walk off with them). But this was the era of the alpha male, remember? Someone once suggested to me that the ’80s were a good time to be a misogynist. You had the power dicks on Wall Street, the stripper-groupie-loving hair-metal bands, the loudmouth rises of Donald Trump and Howard Stern. So a man getting a little grab near-ass was par for the course.
Magnum also never thinks twice about putting up a lady client in a house (sometimes in the bed he sleeps in) that he doesn’t pay for. But real talk, ladies: If you met Magnum in a bar and he confessed that the Ferrari wasn’t his and that he lives for free in a mansion owned by a guy no one ever sees (and you know he’d charmingly admit this and then slyly turn the confession back to you), would that stop you from sleeping with him? I didn’t think so.
But as I watch Magnum now, what ultimately has my eye and my heart—and I may be a little partial—is Hawaii itself. Unlike the new Hawaii 5-0, where I waste much of my energy getting angry at the show’s absurd number of murders on Oahu (in real life, it’s usually like fifteen a year), the over-saturation of landscapes and nightclubs (Honolulu looks like Miami), and the reimagining of locations as part of bullshit Hawaiian folklore (the banyan tree in Thomas Square is now ancient burial grounds), in Magnum I can recognize just about every backdrop they shoot (he always takes the Kalanianaole Highway around Sandy’s and Makapuu Beach to get home), and even the location names he drops are more accurate than not (the Pali Lookout, Hickam Air Force Base). It’s fascinating to me to see how little things have changed in Hawaii in the thirty years since Magnum first aired, and that’s why I love the place so. It’s impossible to strip Hawaii of its natural beauty. Anything fake stands out.
While Magnum’s setting is timeless, the plot structure may seem rudimentary in our era of Homeland or Breaking Bad—the not-too-surprising mystery for Magnum to unravel, the bad guy getting caught, the gratuitous affair. But really, it’s no more rudimentary than any of the more than twenty investigative shows on network TV right now, most of which are offshoots of each other differentiated mainly by the specific location they are set in. So if you’re one of the 25 million people that like that sort of thing, check out Magnum. He’s slicker than LL Cool J in a bulletproof vest.
Jessica Machado is an assistant editor at Rolling Stone and author of the blog "Baggage Claimed" (baggageclaimed.tumblr.com). Her work has appeared in Bust, The Awl, and The Economist’s More Intelligent Life, among other publications.