Saturday, March 7, 2015

Aloha, Hawaii Five-O

My parents watched the original Hawaii Five-O when I was very young. I remember my father staring intently at the screen when it was on. This, I think, had something to do with the fact that there were so many Asian-American actors and characters, and in the 1970s that was a novelty on a major network.


When I was on the cusp of eighteen I saw Dr. No for the first time, and while young Sean Connery was as magnificent as you’ve heard, I couldn’t keep my eyes off of Jack Lord every time he was onscreen as Felix Leiter. Suddenly Hawaii Five-O seemed a lot cooler to me.

Before Jack Lord was a badass super cop, he was a badass CIA agent who could outsmart James Bond himself 
I’ve written elsewhere about the revival, but the shorter version: it isn’t nearly as well written, conceived or acted, but nostalgia is a powerful thing. (Also, Hawaii is just as beautiful.) When I realized that Netflix had every episode (well, almost) of the original series, my mission was clear: I was going to watch each one.


As of four nights ago, I am done. In many ways I’m better for it, but in some ways I’m ruined.


The show began in 1968, and it was gritty and nuts. Steve McGarrett is already the head of an elite state police force (there was never an origin story on the series) and he has a doozy of a case: a federal agent that he was in the Navy with has been found dead on a beach. The official story is that he drowned during a swim, but the audience knows that hours before he was killed he was in a sensory deprivation chamber (and that scene was genuinely frightening). McGarrett knows something’s wrong: the victim never went to the beach because he was too fair and burned too easily. He died some other way. His investigation leads him to Chinese Super Spy Wo Fat, as ruthless as he is intelligent. McGarrett intentionally puts himself in harm’s way, then goes on to spite Wo-Fat by remaining in full control of his senses long after his other victims broke; McGarrett is a determined son of a bitch. He’s playing a game of cat and mouse with Wo Fat while his team (Dan “Danno” Williams, Chin Ho Kelly and Kono Kalakaua) rush the Chinese agents guarding the facility where he’s being held. Wo Fat gets away, but Five-O captures the American double agent who was helping him. Suspense, international intrigue, investigation of minute details, gut instinct: welcome to Hawaii Five-O.


Jack Lord as Steve McGarrett. Is it just me, or does his hair look even better here than it did several years before?
McGarrett was supported for the first four seasons by Danno, Chin Ho and Kono. All of them were dedicated and skilled, but Williams and Kono were younger and in some episodes needed more of McGarrett’s guidance. In a very early episode, Williams accidentally killed a young addict (or junkie, as they frequently said on the show) in the line of duty. The audience saw exactly what happened, so this wasn’t a mystery. The story was the investigation into what the victim had been doing before, and that ended up clearing Danno. But this was not a happy ending, and McGarrett had to sternly remind Danny that no one said “this was anything but a lousy job”. That episode, out of all of the early seasons, set the tone: this was not a glamorous profession filled with beautiful people, but one that was filled with tragedy and not for the faint of heart.


James MacArthur as Dan Williams, the guy immortalized in the line "Book 'em, Danno" 
Of all of them, Kono had the smallest part. A native Hawaiian, he had deep connections to others in that community and had a lot of street sources. He was also the one most likely to fly off the handle and rush in before thinking. Sometimes that was useful- see his opening credits- but more often he needed to be pulled back. But as far as his personal life, viewers never had a clue.


Zulu as Kono Kalakaua, the young, impetuous cop who worked the native Hawaiian connections
The person on the team we got the longest glimpse at was Chin Ho. A very early episode found him being framed for corruption and accepting bribes. When he came home to his family, we saw for the first time that he was married with five (or was it seven?) children ranging from older teenager to kindergartener. As a fellow Asian-American, I was shocked to see his family presented so...normally in the late 1960s. For Chin, the most painful part of the attack on his reputation was the effect that it would have on them. He begged McGarrett not to talk to his teenage son even though he could have alibied him; like many parents and teens, they were going through a rough patch. In an episode that aired several years later, we saw his oldest daughter as a college student, dating the scion of a crime family (a young Erik Estrada!). Family was huge to Chin Ho, and he had uncles and cousins that provided him with information about both sides of the street.


Kam Fong Chun as Chin Ho Kelly, the one supporting player who actually got a send off when he left.
As for the personal life of Steve McGarrett, other than two episodes at the very beginning and very end of the series, we got very little insight into his early family life. (For the record, he had a sister named Mary and their father was shot by a criminal when Steve was young.) He was a Navy man and then he was a cop, and his jobs were his life. (He also never drank- not once- and he was frequently seen working overnight in his office.) He was “involved” with someone a only handful of times throughout the show, and in the middle of the series it was clear why: what kind of a woman was going to accept for a husband a man who was already married to his job?


For most of the twelve years, the show did a good job of marrying pop culture to crime solving. And when the case was a mystery, they tended to be very good. One of the episodes featured a serial killer who would break into the homes of young women, strangle them and then put blonde wigs on them- after he applied makeup to their corpses. Incredibly creepy to watch. While working the latest development on the case, a crime reporter whose wife was one of the victims insists on tagging along. McGarrett tells him to stay away because he can’t be objective, but the man persists. While investigating the man’s dead wife, they’re tipped off by a cabbie that she was having an affair. Meanwhile, the reporter picks up a tip that the murderer might be making the dead women up in the image of a prostitute he used to patronize. When he tracks down the woman, who’s since gone straight and is pregnant and married, he uses her “black book” to lure the killer to her, then kills the man as he is strangling the woman. McGarrett arrives in time to cart away the dead body, then has the reporter arrested too: he and Danny had figured out that the killer was able to access the women’s apartment’s because he got their keys when he was working for a car wash. As soon as McGarrett picked up on that detail, he knew the reporter had killed his wife: she never learned how to drive, which is why she always took cabs, and that was the real reason he needed to silence the serial killer. Nicely done.


McGarrett reported directly to the governor of Hawaii, and for the most part they worked well together. However, around Season Ten there was definite tension in the air, kicked off by speculation that McGarrett would make a great governor himself. It did not improve when the governor started complaining about Steve’s “Irish temper”. I was shocked when that line was first uttered, in part because viewers knew McGarrett was a very measured character, and in part because it was a shockingly prejudiced thing to say on television, even for the late Seventies.


Richard Denning as the long-serving governor of Hawaii
Five-O was supported by other people outside the force, most especially Che Fong, their forensics expert. The analyses he performed was cutting edge for the time, although I’m told that much of the ballistics information they used has since been discredited. In addition to forensics and the medical examiner, they also called in psychiatrists, and those episodes were guaranteed to be either a spooky or very silly.


Over time, all of the supporting characters cycled out (with the exception of the governor). Kono was replaced by Ben (the story is that the actor used a racial slur and Jack Lord had him fired) and officer Duke Lukela was added as a regularly recurring player. When Ben left, Duke stepped in to join the force. Chin Ho left at the end of the tenth season, and we actually did see him sent off (he was executed while undercover by a Hawaiian mobster who resented him for working for a white boss) and Williams was gone by the beginning of the twelfth. (Given that the show’s most famous line may very well be “Book ‘em, Danno,” it was pretty jarring that his departure wasn’t acknowledged at all.) He was replaced by tough Boston cop (of course…) Jim “Kimo” Carew, Hawaiian native Truck and, for the very first time, a female officer named Lori Wilson. When the writing was good, all of the supporting players were able performers, but when the writing wasn’t there...well, at least they didn’t flub their lines.


Al Harrington as Ben
Herman Wedemeyer as Duke Lukela
The final cast of Hawaii Five-O, including new additions Sharon Farrell as Lori, William Smith as Kimo and Moe Keale asTruck. If the final season wasn't that great, it wasn't their fault.
While the show kept up with the trends (Vietnam, spies, parade bombings, psychics, dreams, handwriting, grifters, gambling cons, Agatha Christie- really, music, past life regression…), there was an undercurrent of racial awareness through the run of the series. While there were plenty of white villains, victims and cons, many of them were Hawaiian. It was impossible not to watch the show and sense the production team’s discomfort over how the Hawaiian people were getting screwed over. To the extent he could, McGarrett stuck up for them. As much as he was a tough, clever cop who believed in the rule of law, he also wanted to make sure the little guy didn’t get the short end of it along the way. As someone who has watched almost every episode of the Law & Order franchise (at least as of last year), it was pretty amazing to see a cop so concerned about making sure everyone got due process. Notably, the show also had two separate episodes about how dangerous guns were; not, in any way, an episode you would see on today’s CBS.


While there were many aspects of the show that spoke to my liberal Democrat leanings, it was in many ways a reflection of its times, and the early shows had plenty of derogatory references to ethnic minorities. (Yes, the N-word was uttered once when Williams was undercover, as was the word “gook” in a very early episode.) Let’s not even talk about the episode that seemed to want to capitalized on the popularity of Blaxploitation films. The references to women were more pervasive and worse; I think it’s fair to see that the writers and producers weren’t early feminists. Oh, and let's not forget the earlier episodes that featured white actors playing Hawaiian roles in what I'll call Brown Face. Uncool.


The last season of the show was pretty weak and ended after only nineteen episodes, as opposed to the usual 22 to 24 the other seasons played. McGarrett finally got to arrest his arch nemesis Wo Fat, but it was among the worst written finales I’ve ever seen. None of the regular supporting cast was featured, and McGarrett ran around in a disguise for most of it. He did get to do a signature clever McGarrett move (he arranged a shadow to make it look like he’d hung himself) but it was, at best, a comic episode in a show that was never known for its comedic flair.


Egyptian-born Khigh Dheigh as Chinese super spy Wo Fat, McGarrett's archnemesis
All of which makes me re-examine the new Hawaii Five-0.


Having watched the old show, I finally understand where Duke and Lori (second season) came from. I also get why they brought in McGarrett’s sister Mary (and later had her adopt a baby). The constant cloud of supposed corruption around Chin Ho and his large extended family is a tribute to the old show, and Charlie Fong is an homage to Che Fong (but it would be nice if he came across as a little more competent). Perhaps most importantly, I’m completely okay now with the break in tradition that got rid of Wo-Fat; sending him out while he was strong was much better than dragging him back periodically to twist his moustache. And in this era of television, it’s a good thing that the supporting cast has more personality and backstory than they did in the original.

But...Alex O’Loughlin is no Jack Lord, and on its best day the writing is much weaker than the writing of the old show on its worst. Perhaps most importantly, the new Hawaii Five-0 isn't saying anything that isn't already being said on television in a lot of places (even if it's saying it in a much more attractive locale). And if there's one thing we've learned from the old show, no one's going to thank you for sticking around long after you should have left. Well, thanks for the memories, Jack Lord and company. When you were good, you bordered on great, and you're a tough act to follow.