Just say the words “Hawaii Five-O” to a baby-boomer and you will set off an internal musical bomb. Whenever I hear the name of that iconic crime series from the late 1960s through the '70s, its infectious theme explodes in my head and lifts my spirit. Simply thinking of it sets the music off. Ironically, when Hawaii Five-O started, I didn’t watch it; I hated it. I thought that Jack Lord’s humorless performance as Steve McGarrett and the show’s awe of the law were boring. I don’t know if that was an accurate appraisal, but by the late '70s, I was a fan. Part of the attraction was what formerly turned me off, Lord’s humorless performance. He was so uptight he made Joe Friday look like a swinger.
Humor was written into Hawaii Five-O, but insignificantly when compared to another famous Hawaii-based program, Magnum P.I. There were 278 episodes of Hawaii Five-O, and 23 of them are included in the eighth season’s boxed set. These episodes are from the 1975-6 season and are a mix of murder mysteries and espionage stories, all told in a very straightforward, unimaginative style. Although Jack Lord has a large supporting cast, this is his show. It’s surprising to think that it could be carried for 12 years on the strength of one character, especially one that lacks dimension.
Revisiting Hawaii Five-O 30 years after its demise is a lesson in the evolution of television crime drama. Despite a lack of wit, the modern viewer will find many laughs thanks to lines like “don’t end up in a cement egg roll” and “nobody’s above the law in Hawaii.” Although Hawaii Five-O was filmed in color, the thinking behind it was black and white. There are no moral dilemmas, ambiguity, or shades of gray. We don’t sympathize with the villains because there is no good in them. In Hawaii Five-O, when you’re bad, you’re bad. On the other hand, if you’re innocent you act suspiciously.
Discounting technical advances made since Hawaii Five-O was aired, there is still a primitive approach to crime-solving. Suspects don’t actually have rights, and everyone’s a suspect. There is a focus on action, but many of the action scenes seem contrived or phony, perhaps just filler.
McGarrett himself is an unpleasant person, which may be why his squad members always look unhappy. We don't expect someone like McGarrett to exude warmth or serve brownies and milk to suspects, but most of the time he is frigid. Perhaps it is too “new age” to expect him to have people skills, but one wonders if a by-the-book plodder is the right guy for the job. When he calls a female suspect “honey,” we know he’s not. Guest characters refer to him as “fascist.”
One of the great pleasures of watching old TV shows is seeing the guest performers, some on their way to greater things, some on their way out. Hawaii Five-O is a “Who’s Who” of television actors. It seems that anyone who could carry a line and a union card worked the show. Helen Hayes, Susan Dey, Charles Durning, Jack Cassidy, Lois Nettleton, Simon Oakland, George Takei, Barbara Baxley, and Richard Kiley are but a few of the guests who appeared in the eighth season. It’s fun to see these familiar faces and remember many of their other performances. Of course, playing “he’s dead, she’s dead, they’re dead” is a little sad.
Liner notes for this six-disk set tell us “In the Aloha State, the action doesn’t get any hotter, and the most diabolical criminals never take a vacation.” Neither do the most hackneyed plots. So much of what was presented on Hawaii Five-O had been done before, and — worse — continues to be done. Hero-in-peril, hero-as-hostage, and supporting-cast-member-under-suspicion are all themes that could use a vacation. One weird thing that recurs in several episodes is that McGarrett suggests something that might happen, and the whole crew jumps on it as a given. Apparently, McGarrett is not a guesser; if he supposes something then it must be true.
Die-hard Hawaii Five-O fans will enjoy this release of the eighth season, and crime series fans unbothered by formulaic plots and characterizations could also enjoy it. Some shows age well, but looking at yesterday’s shows with today’s eyes can be a disappointing experience.
Bottom Line: Would I buy Hawaii Five-O: The Eighth Season? No, it’s a little too much McGarrett for me.