The original Magnum P.I. was the kind of show with a premise just ludicrous and appealing enough to work. A mustachioed private detective (played by Tom Selleck) on an island paradise also enjoys a luxurious lifestyle, living in the guest house of a palatial estate and driving around in a Ferrari — that was itself an advertisement for the show — thanks to the largesse of one Robin Masters. All the while, Magnum was out solving crimes of the week in floral print short-sleeved shirts along with his two buddies, Rick and T.C., and generally being the sort of guy most viewers would want to hang out with. So, in this day and age of rebooting nostalgic TV favorites, it’s no surprise that Magnum found its way onto the CBS to-do list.
In bringing Magnum back, the Eye network made the interesting and unexpected choice of casting Jay Hernandez as Thomas Sullivan Magnum (sans stache) and reimagining Robin Masters’ stuffy but lovable majordomo Higgins as a woman and butt-kicking former MI-6 agent played by Perdita Weeks. Then, as has been the case with several of CBS’s recent action-oriented shows like S.W.A.T. and Scorpion, Fast and Furious and Star Trek Beyond director Justin Lin was brought in to direct the pilot.
Lin’s fingerprints are certainly all over this new version. The pilot episode goes above and beyond to deliver as much action spectacle as possible. That makes for a series that will comfortably fit in among the rest of the network’s stable of workhorse procedurals like the NCIS franchise, MacGyver, S.W.A.T., SEAL Team, Blue Bloods, and especially the long-running reboot Hawaii Five-0, which is sure to have a crossover episode with this new Magnum at some point. But while the pilot announces itself as both a much more action-oriented take on the original series, and a perfect fit for the 2018-2019 CBS television lineup, the pilot doesn’t give Hernandez enough material to make the character his own, and the series winds up feeling like another bland procedural as a result.
It’s a tall order, remaking anything — a television series or movie — that became iconic largely because of the charisma of its star. It’s a good bet fans of the original Magnum P.I. would be hard-pressed to describe an average episode in detail (though the treading shark-filled waters episode was rather memorable), but they could probably tell you why they liked it — Tom Selleck. Beyond his looks and that iconic mustache, Selleck played Magnum as a cool, sometimes goofy, somewhat dorky guy, someone for whom tooling around in brightly colored Hawaiian shirts and a flashy sports car belonging to his benefactor was a gas. He was having a good time. He was a tourist with a P.I.’s license.
There’s not really any of that here in the new Magnum. Hernandez is mostly asked to play it straight, to leave the quirkiness to his sidekicks, Zachary Knighton (Happy Endings) as the well-connected Rick and Stephen Hill (Luke Cage) as chopper pilot T.C. And since Higgins is now a super badass, instead of a delightfully stiff Englishman with little patience for this private dick’s shenanigans, the series as a whole comes across as too safe, and a little indistinct as a result.
This is through no fault of Hernandez, who, like Selleck is not wanting in the charisma department, and is more than capable of carrying a series like this. He’s a dependable lead here, equally adept at playing the emotional scenes as he is the action-packed ones. But from what’s seen in the pilot, the series hasn't yet found what makes this Magnum unique. CBS certainly made the right call in casting a Latino actor in the lead role, but the pilot is curiously devoid of any hints of that being a part of the character's identity. With any luck, this is just a product of the pilot episode being very pilot-y and the series will find ways to incorporate that as the season moves on. And in doing so, hopefully the show will discover the personality the character and the show need.
Otherwise, Magnum P.I. is more or less what audiences have come to expect from CBS and its procedural machine. The pilot episode works as an origin story for Magnum and his military buddies, as one of their own (Dominic Lombardozzi) is kidnapped and murdered by a pair of rogue military men smuggling Afghani gold into the country. The heavy emphasis on Magnum’s military background and camaraderie with Rick and T.C. is understandable but unnecessary. It would have been better to learn these things as the series progressed, to allow the show time to develop and understand these characters and their relationships without spelling it out to such a degree in the pilot.
As far as a new series goes, Magnum P.I. feels too safe, too much like its checking boxes instead of innovating. That's mostly par for the course when it comes to reboots, however. And since CBS was able to turn Hawaii Five-0 into a series now entering its ninth season, so, personality or not, there’s no reason to think the network can’t do the same with Magnum P.I.
Magnum P.I. continues next Monday with ‘From the Head Down’ @9pm on CBS.