Tom Selleck

How the Original ‘Magnum, P.I.’ Changed the ’80s Action Show

Our favorite mustachioed private investigator changed the TV landscape.

CBS recently canceled the Jay Hernandez led Magnum, P.I. reboot after four seasons. While the series was a dependable ratings grabber, it couldn’t reach the heights of the original. Everyone knew that going in. CBS’ best hope was that the Magnum, P.I. reboot could recapture a bit of its predecessor’s iconic magic, and that the tug of nostalgia would pull fans back. While that approach was somewhat successful, there was no chance of capturing magic in a bottle twice. The original Magnum, P.I. is a pop culture phenomenon that can never be duplicated.

Created in 1980, Magnum, P.I. would become a major hit that lasted eight seasons on the Tiffany Network. In a decade ripe with action shows such as The A-Team, MacGyver, and Knight Rider, Magnum, P.I. stood out, partially due to the series’ cast of supporting actors and exciting stories. However, it was the show’s use of its exotic location and an affable star played against expectations in Tom Selleck that made the show so popular that it would stand the test of time and be brought back so many decades later.

After the long time success of the police drama Hawaii Five-O (which ran from 1968-1980 and would also later be rebooted), CBS wanted to produce another show with a Hawaii setting. Magnum, P.I. was pitched to fill that void, with the original idea seeing Thomas Magnum as an over-the-top James Bond wannabe. Producer Donald Belasario wasn’t a fan of the concept, and with his influence, it morphed into the series it would become.

On paper, Magnum, P.I. reads like your everyday action show. Thomas Magnum is a former Navy SEAL and Vietnam vet now working as a private investigator in Oahu. He resides in the guest house of a massive estate named The Robin’s Nest, where its unseen owner lets Magnum stay in exchange for his services. He is surrounded by your usual cast of characters. There’s Higgins, the harsh caretaker of The Robin’s Nest, and Magnum’s foil. The two clash but also have a great deal of respect for each other. There’s T.C., a helicopter pilot and Magnum’s quasi-sidekick, who flies our favorite P.I. all over the island to his cases, and invariably ends up in trouble himself. Lastly, there’s Rick, a club owner on the island where Magnum hangs out.

It’s the locale and Selleck’s charismatic character that breaks the series free from its ’80s detective show chains. Like Hawaii Five-O, Magnum, P.I. is known for its great intro. Both have very distinctive songs, Magnum, P.I. with that unforgettable guitar riff, interspersed with shots of Magnum and crew in the midst of their adventures, Oahu in the background, waves crashing on the beach.

In detective shows of TV’s past, most were centered in one location that audiences were accustomed to. Starsky & Hutch CHiPs, Adam-12, The Rockford Files, and Charlie’s Angels were all set in southern California. Kojak, McCloud, and Baretta fought crime on the opposite shores of New York City. By the 80s, action shows began to expand their territory. The A-Team and MacGyver, for example, were world travelers, leaving behind the stuffy offices and overused backdrops.

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