This is a reprint of the Television essay from Issue #68 of Exploits, our collaborative cultural diary in magazine form. If you like what you see, buy it now for $2, or subscribe to never miss an issue (note: Exploits is always free for subscribers of Unwinnable Monthly).
A few years back, I watched the entire eight-season run of the original Magnum, P.I. (1980 to 1987). I did this to see how a show I watched fondly but sporadically as a kid held up as an adult. The answer is: pretty well. When sitting down to watch something, my wife Daisy and I both will often mutter, “Man, I wish we had more Magnum to watch.”
In an attempt to find more Magnum, we started watching Miami Vice. We only got a few episodes into the first season before drifting off to other things. We still miss Magnum. But why? Miami Vice is, like Magnum, a tent-pole TV series of the ‘80s. It immediately wows with the Michael Mann-directed pilot, awash with neon, powered by the amazing use of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” in what is one of the best TV montages of all time. In fact, the success of Vice’s gritty tone was a direct influence on later seasons of Magnum, where cases became morally ambiguous (and in two occasions, featured excellent montages using songs recorded by Phil Collins-era Genesis).
The problem, I think, is that Vice leads with its seriousness, so when it veers into the silly character stuff that was standard for ‘80s TV, the contrast is jarring. Magnum, though billed as a detective show, is actually a show about a group of friends and their shared history. There are serious episodes, sure, but many more silly ones, and it’s the lighthearted ones that set the tone. I don’t love Magnum because of the gritty mysteries (Thomas is really a mediocre P.I.) or the gratuitous views of beach babes (there is less of this than you might expect, but also a couple of instances of actual nudity that I still have a hard time believing aired without notice). Rather, I love the show because of Thomas and his friends, a group of people who weirdly, after eight seasons, feel like my friends. Crocket and Tubbs are cool, sure, but they’re never chill like that.