As private investigator Thomas Sullivan Magnum, Tom Selleck never really got the credit he deserved for making audiences believe in the world of CBS’s Magnum, P.I. That grin, that wink, that beefy physique, that mustache, and that sensitive tenor speaking voice made him the epitome of a TV leading man, likableness incarnate. But if you go back and look at the show now, it seems almost as rough as Miami Vice, which lit up rival network NBC around the same time and is often credited with anticipating the razor-wire brutality that would define cable dramas in the late ’90s and early aughts. Created by Donald P. Bellisario and Glen A. Larson, Magnum was a transitional show, blending what TV had always been with what it would ultimately become. Nostalgists often think of it as representative of a time when the major broadcast networks still ruled the American imagination — a time before streaming, before cable even, when most of the big hits were comfort food that you could half-watch without really missing anything.
The striking thing about Magnum was how unapologetically adult it was, even when serving up scenic and human eye candy. Magnum lived on the Hawaiian island of Oahu in the guesthouse of an unseen millionaire author, Robin Masters, powered his red Ferrari through lush tropical landscapes, and was catnip to women, yet the series was more sophisticated about its setting than its hit predecessor Hawaii Five-O had been, portraying the state as a multicultural tapestry with a rich sense of history. And Magnum and the backup cast had more in common with Elmore Leonard’s and George V. Higgins’s eccentric tough guys and the main characters of The Rockford Files — where Selleck made his first classic-leading-man impression as hunky detective Lance White — than with the bland pot-stirrers you typically encountered on network-TV detective shows in the ’70s and ’80s, characters who were usually about as edgy as a plastic picnic knife. A lot of Magnum’s stories were about regret, nostalgia, and moral ambiguity; Magnum was a Vietnam veteran who had post-traumatic-stress disorder, though he didn’t outwardly manifest it (all of the show’s combat veterans had a touch of the condition). He’d served in naval intelligence and survived a stint in a POW camp, and he was constantly being drawn back into the past by the arrival of people he knew from the war — including a Soviet torturer whom Magnum executes in cold blood at the end of the 1982 episode “Did You See the Sun Rise?,” which predated The Sopranos’ legendary episode “College” (in which Tony Soprano kills a mob informant in witness protection while scouting universities with his daughter) by 17 years. Magnum was a sweet guy on the surface but hard underneath. Selleck was so subtle at conveying Magnum’s complicated feelings that you never thought of him as troubled, even though he was.
It’s impossible to predict whether the CBS reboot of Magnum, supervised by executive producers Peter M. Lenkov and Eric Guggenheim, will do the original proud, since the network made only the first episode available at press time. But initial signs are promising. It nails the Selleck version’s have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too sensibility, kicking off with a joyously ludicrous action sequence set in North Korea (director Justin Lin of the Fast and the Furious series helmed the pilot), only to turn around and assure us that the rest of the show won’t be like this, then ultimately delivering something not terribly different from what it said it wasn’t going to give us. But the vibe is relaxed and knowing, and everyone onscreen seems like a grown-up even when running around doing action-hero stuff. Magnum, played by Jay Hernandez, is a veteran of the War on Terror, which is proving be as potent a pop-culture manufacturing machine for disillusioned tough guys as Vietnam was back in the original Magnum’s day. His crew, all modeled on characters in the Selleck series, are spot-on in both writing and casting: Zachary Knighton as badass rich boy Orville “Rick” Wright, Stephen Hill as chopper pilot Theodore “TC” Calvin, Domenick Lombardozzi as Sebastian Nuzzo (all survivors of the same Iraqi prison camp where Magnum did time), and Perdita Weeks as Masters’s estate manager, the MI-6 veteran Juliet Higgins (flipping the gender of a character John Hillerman played in the original). There are car chases, gunfights, martial-arts slugfests, and a climactic stunt that even Jackie Chan might find a bit much, yet you rarely question any of it because the storytellers and actors have nailed the no-big-deal tone.
Hernandez’s performance ties the whole contraption together. He’s as quietly convincing as Selleck was, though with a different energy. His can-do spirit and wry humor make you believe in what common sense tells you is pure absurdity, while they soft-pedal the fact that this Magnum, like the last one, tends to run roughshod over anybody who stands between him and solving a mystery. This was a big part of Selleck’s no-fuss brilliance: the way he somehow made you forget that if Magnum were somebody you actually knew, you’d get to the point where you’d run the other way the minute you saw him, because you’d know from experience that he was going to badger, cajole, or coerce you into doing something that would get you in a heap of trouble.
Equally intriguing is the way the show lets Hernandez be a Latinx man while weaving his ethnicity almost invisibly into both the fabric of the show and the established history of the character as played by Selleck. This incarnation of the hero gives his full name as “Thomas Sullivan Magnum,” which doesn’t immediately jibe with Hernandez’s appearance, but we eventually learn that Magnum’s father was a fighter pilot who died when Thomas was just a boy. Maybe this tragedy led to his adoption by a white family or his mother’s remarriage to a white man? Is his mother Latinx or white? Will Edward James Olmos appear as Magnum’s biological father, who isn’t dead after all, merely serving as a triple agent while seeming to be a double agent, etc.? Then there’s the moment when Magnum has to dive into the ocean to inspect a wreck; Rick offers to dive with him to allay any fear he has about sharks, and Magnum replies that Rick should be the one who worries, since sharks prefer white meat. It’s a laugh line because it’s exposition that doesn’t feel like exposition, and it hints at future plot developments that will have soap-opera fun with the character — just like the original, which had stretches that seemed to introduce and/or kill off more people from Magnum’s past than he could have possibly had time to get to know. If you want to remake a beloved older show and bring it into the modern, multicultural era without betraying what people loved about the first version, you could do a lot worse than this. To wink without winking is an art in itself.
*This article appears in the September 17, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!