Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Tom Selleck: The Distinguished Gentleman

Tom Selleck as Thomas Magnum in his
patented Hawaiian shirt and Ferrari.
He currently plays Frank Reagan, police commissioner of New York City, in the police procedural “Blue Bloods”, but to people of a certain age, Tom Selleck will always be that venerable private investigator Thomas Sullivan Magnum.

It was never about the Ferrari, or the beautiful tropical setting, or the pretty girls. What struck me about Magnum was the moral centre, the good heart, the desire to help people.

Magnum P.I.
Thomas Magnum was a private investigator based in Hawaii. Somehow he managed to finagle a job as director of security for Robin Masters, a reclusive millionaire who furnished Magnum a place to stay and all the toys that went with his estate – including that trademark Ferrari. It also furnished him with his foil throughout the show, Robin Masters' major domo Jonathan Quayle Higgins.

Magnum operated his private investigation business from his home on the estate with the help, albeit not always willing, of his friends Rick and T.C. Rick was partners with Robin Masters in an establishment called the King Kamehameha Club. T.C. operated a helicopter service. What bound the three of them was their service in Vietnam together.

Tom Selleck guest starred in "The Rockford
Files" as private investigator Lance White,
who was nothing like Thomas Magnum,
but one of Selleck's first acting roles.
The heir apparent
“Magnum P.I.” debuted in 1980, a few months after the end of “The Rockford Files”. I have always believed that just as Jim Rockford was a private eye for the 1970s, Thomas Magnum was the consummate private eye for the ‘80s. Thomas Magnum was the logical successor to Jim Rockford. It made sense, partly because many of the people who created Rockford also created Magnum. (Besides, one of Tom Selleck's first acting roles was a guest starring spot in "The Rockford Files" as private eye Lance White).

I also believe Magnum was the last great TV private eye. We now live in a world of police procedurals, medical dramas, reality TV, and the drama fashioned on specialty channels. There are no more private investigators, and there have not been for a long time.

Evolution of a private eye
I call it the "Miami Vice effect". "Miami Vice" was not very popular when it debuted on NBC in 1984. Part way through that first season, it changed its style and tone, becoming much darker and brooding. Many shows followed suit, including "Magnum P.I.", where the story lines were not as clear cut, and we saw the darker side of Magnum, Rick, T.C., and even Higgins.

Back from the dead: the character and the show
"Magnum P.I." chugged along for years in its Thursday night time slot, a ratings juggernaut, confining its competition to the dust bin of time, and clips on YouTube.

Then along came a new force: "The Cosby Show". It was a formidable opponent and, eventually overtook "Magnum P.I." in the ratings. Contributing to Magnum's problems was the fact it was aging as a series.

Finally, CBS decided to put "Magnum P.I." out of its misery by moving it to Wednesday nights to compete against another long-time ratings force: "Dynasty". It was the seventh season of "Magnum P.I." and sure to be its last.

The creators even wrote a series finale where Magnum is shot in an ambush. He appears as an angel, guided through life by the ghost of his old friend Mac. This John Denver song keeps playing, and the show ends with Magnum and Mac walking off into the sunset.

But a funny thing happened on the way to cancellation. "Magnum P.I." held its own in its new Wednesday night time slot opposite "Dynasty". So much so that an eighth and final season was commissioned. Although it was a short season, it tied up a lot of loose ends, and gave Magnum a fate no one really expected. But I won't spoil that for anyone who missed it. You can still check it out on DVD or Netflix.

End of an era
When Thomas Magnum wrapped up his last case, it was the end of an era. Private investigators were a rare breed on TV. Unlike police, they don't have to follow the law, or always play by the rules. Often they are at odds with the law. They can gain access to places the law can't, or won't go, and find out things the law never could, in ways the law never would.

The distinguished gentleman:
Thomas Magnum meet Frank Reagan.
They have the ability to bring justice, or even just closure, to people who have nowhere else to turn. Sometimes they even break the law to do what's right, or what they think is right. At other times they take on unsavory clients just to pay the bills. They face dilemmas where they have to make extremely difficult choices.

Right now, there is no equivalent to the private investigator on television. It's too bad.

If Tom Selleck had to play one of the last ones, you couldn't find anyone better.

My sister always said Tom Selleck would age gracefully. He would be a distinguished gentleman. When I look at police commissioner Frank Reagan, I realize that she was right.

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