10 episodes that show why MacGyver was more than a punchline

10 episodes that show why MacGyver was more than a punchline

With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD every day, it gets harder and harder to keep up with new shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. If you watch these 10, you’ll have a better idea of what that series was about, without having to watch the whole thing. These are not meant to be the 10 best episodes, but rather the 10 mostrepresentative episodes.

These days, he mostly exists in echoes: a 2006 Super Bowl commercial from MasterCard starring Richard Dean Anderson as a man with an uncanny knack for using household items to get himself out of trouble, or a running gag on The Simpsons as the lust object of Patty and Selma Bouvier. (Anderson would guest star as himself on the show in 2006.) Or on a 2008 episode of Mythbusters that tested the veracity of some of his greatest tricks. Or in “MacGruber,” the Will Forte-starring SNL sketch (and 2010 movie) about a mullet-headed buffoon. Or in any of a hundred different nods, gags, riffs, and punchlines floating through the pop-culture subconscious since the original series left TV screens over two decades ago. These days, anyone with a decent awareness of television history, or even with just a working knowledge of ’80s ephemera, remembers the name MacGyver, and the mulleted action star’s main gimmick. Sam Beckett had his quantum leaps, the A-Team had Mr. T and a van, and MacGyver had his duct tape. But odds are, most of the people making the jokes have never watched an episode.

Is that so wrong? Debuting in 1985 on ABC, the show ran seven years, six of which it spent as the lead-in for the network’s reliable warhorse, Monday Night Football. Over the course of 139 episodes (and two made-for-TV movies that aired after the series’ cancellation), MacGyver fought terrorists, Russians, mobsters, abusers, punks, psychopaths, drug dealers, pimps, con-men, and the Angel of Death, all with his signature mullet, assortment of vests and leather jackets, and the quickest mind this side of KITT. It was as ridiculous as it sounds, and writing-wise, the show hasn’t aged particularly well. The worst episodes have sluggish pacing, pedantic exposition, forced humor, plot holes big enough to cover Texas, and laughably earnest melodrama; the best episodes have all these things, but aren’t quite as painfully obvious about it. In terms of nostalgic touchstones, MacGyver was better than The A-Team but worse than Quantum Leap, and anyone approaching the show with today’s standards is apt to come away disappointed, wondering what hell the big deal is. 

And yet, with some patience and a willingness to shift standards and appreciate the show for what it did accomplish, revisiting the series is still worthwhile, especially with some helpful curating and a map of where to start. With its small central cast (Anderson and Dana Elcar—as the ever-astonished Peter Thornton—were the only two regular stars) and flexible premise, MacGyver was able to jump from small-town drama to globe-trotting adventure to crime caper to inner-city social-issues drama without ever breaking a sweat, and even if not every entry holds up to scrutiny, the variety keeps things interesting in a way that today’s cop and/or medical dramas can’t. The show’s biggest asset was its leading man: Anderson came across as a kind of low-budget Indiana Jones, maintaining a sense of humor and enthusiasm that helped sell the more outlandish twists and keep the character work sincere. In more self-satisfied hands, Angus MacGyver (his first name wasn’t revealed until the final season) could’ve been insufferable, a smarmy know-it-all constantly showing off scientific acumen. But Anderson is fun, in the easy, “Gosh, I hope this works!” sort of way that makes the goofiness of the various gadgets part of their charm.

Make no mistake: The fabled “MacGyverisms” that have served to cement the show’s place in the pantheon really are goofy and frequently improbable, to the point where MacGyver sometimes seems like a superhero whose real power is the ability to subconsciously mold environments to suit his will. Episode after episode, there’s always the right mix of household chemicals and broom handles and whatnot close at hand, and always enough time to rig everything into a smoke bomb or a battering ram or an impromptu travois before the bad guys turn the corner. In one episode, MacGyver airlifts into a prison camp where he spends an afternoon building a two-man ultralight out of bamboo, garbage bags, and a generator. It’s not a show of documentary realism, basically. Yet there’s a reason these gimmicks remain about as charming today as they did when the show first aired: As silly as they are in practice, most of the ideas have basis in scientific fact, and that science—or more importantly, that pure love of knowledge—elevates Mac above most of his violence-crazed peers. Perhaps most crucially, MacGyver doesn’t use guns. Apart from a couple of lapses, he never carries one, and any firearm he takes from a bad guy is either thrown to the side or repurposed for other, less deadly uses. 

It’s a show that, for all its faults, still has pleasures. And here are 10 episodes that provide a good sampling of what MacGyver did best:

“Pilot” (season one, episode one): The première establishes one of the most basic MacGyver templates: the problem-solving mission. After a cold open in which Mac saves a downed fighter pilot and stops a bomb timer with a paper clip, he’s called in to rescue a team of scientists after a saboteur sets off an explosion in the lab, causing a deadly chemical leak. Certain elements of the show aren’t quite in place yet: Mac is living in an abandoned observatory, which disappears after this episode, and while Elcar is on hand, he’s playing Andy Colson, a skeptical engineer who’s repeatedly flabbergasted by MacGyver’s success. Plus, our hero uses a gun, which would soon be a series taboo. But the pieces are basically there. Early in the episode, Mac grabs a knapsack to take with him, and the ever-helpful Andy points out that there’s no way he could put enough equipment inside to get the job done. “The bag’s not for what I take, Colson,” MacGyver explains. “It’s for what I find along the way.” Viewers’ willingness to take such a ridiculous and profoundly optimistic philosophy in stride will determine how they take to the rest of the show. 

“Trumbo’s World” (season one, episode six): The first season is something of a crapshoot; the second episode, “The Golden Triangle,” plays like a no-budget Chuck Norris film, only with even more painfully trite racial stereotypes. Plus, the producers tried to stretch their meager budgets by using footage lifted from other sources, like “The Thief Of Budapest,” which swipes most of its climax from the original The Italian Job. “Trumbo’s World” takes a fair number of shots from the Charlton Heston vehicle The Naked Jungle, but somehow, patchwork and all, it works. Traveling through the Amazon jungle, MacGyver teams up with Lucien Trumbo, a plantation owner desperate to save his cocoa crops from a horde of ravenous ants. Once viewers get past the distraction of the mismatched footage, it’s a tense, surprisingly dark hour that demonstrates how weird the show was willing to get to fulfill a premise. Also, Mac builds an improvised flamethrower at one point, which is awesome.

“Jack Of Lies” (season two, episode six): MacGyver’s small main cast gave the show considerable flexibility in terms of plotting, but Mac was often at his best when working with one of a handful of recurring characters. Chief among those was Jack Dalton (Bruce McGill), airline pilot, lovable rogue, and all-around pain in the ass. Dalton’s relentless scheming and striving for a bigger piece of the pie forced MacGyver into the role of exasperated straight man, always swearing he’d never get fooled again, and always somehow falling for the same old tricks. It’s a dynamic that could’ve gotten old (and did by the time of Jack’s last appearance on the show in the series finale), but Anderson’s exaggerated irritation played well against McGill’s aw-shucks grin, generating a comic energy that helped elevate the show’s often by-the-numbers scripts. In “Jack Of Lies,” he’s introduced emptying Mac’s beachfront apartment, and things only get worse from there, including a trip to Central America to save another old friend. The story structure is one the show would return to again and again, but Dalton’s presence and MacGyver’s increasingly desperate pleas for peace and quiet make it work.

“Phoenix Under Siege” (season two, episode 11): Season two was more confident than season one; Elcar was now an established part of the show’s opening credits, and as Peter Thornton, he served as MacGyver’s boss at the Phoenix Foundation, a think tank/security agency/scientific research center/whatever was necessary for plot purposes that allowed enough justification for Mac to be in just about any situation. (When it didn’t, he could always just go on vacation.) The second season also had the show trying to build out its mythology. Here, MacGyver and his grandfather, Harry Jackson (John Anderson, no relation), are trapped inside the Phoenix Foundation headquarters when a group of terrorists take over the building. While MacGyver works to foil the terrorists and free his grandfather, both men have flashbacks to the night MacGyver’s father and Harry’s wife died in a car accident. It’s undeniably corny, but the two Andersons work well together, and apart from Mac’s relationship with Pete, it’s the deepest emotional connection the series would ever achieve.

“Partners” (season two, episode 18): How-the-gang-got-together episodes are a television staple, but on MacGyver, there wasn’t ever much of a gang. That didn’t stop the writers from providing Mac and Pete with a storyline explaining how they first met, framed as a flashback. Throughout the series, Pete played Watson to MacGyver’s laid-back Holmes, and their friendly bickering added texture to otherwise straight-laced action plots. (In addition, when Elcar developed glaucoma in 1991, the affliction was worked into the show’s sixth season.) In “Partners,” the two men receive anonymous invitations to meet at a junkyard with very specific props; each assumes the other is responsible, but they quickly find themselves trapped at the whim of a madman, the very same madman whose machinations brought them together so many years ago. As a bonus, that madman turns out to be Murdoc (Michael Des Barres), a flamboyant assassin who would serve as MacGyver’s occasional arch-nemesis for the rest of the series. Murdoc’s death-traps would only get more elaborate (and more hilariously self-defeating) as the show went on, but here, viewers are introduced to his signatures: disguise, photography, and a willingness to leave death traps before any actual deaths occur. As with most inherently implausible shows, MacGyver was at its best when the characters took everything seriously, but the writers didn’t, and the setpieces in “Partners” (like an exploding bed that only destroys about 3 square feet of mattress) don’t disappoint.

“Thin Ice” (season three, episode 13): Overall, MacGyver was at its best in its third and fourth seasons, mixing cheesy movie knockoffs with goofy attempts at social drama without ever getting too bogged down in either, and making sure to slot in enough straightforward adventure stories to keep from getting stale. The show was more than willing to take risks, like in the mostly action-free “Thin Ice,” which follows MacGyver’s efforts to coach a high-school hockey team to the championships when the team’s regular coach (one of MacGyver’s old mentors) falls ill. The team’s star player is a loose cannon with a knack for getting in fights on the ice that end with him in the penalty box, a talent that has attracted the eye of a delightfully sleazy scout looking for a bruiser to bolster a bad pro team’s lineup. So MacGyver has to teach the kid to go against his own instincts and the wishes of his father (Clu Gulager) to be a better man and so on and so forth. While not as immediately exciting as facing down hit squads and poison gas, Mac’s foray into teen angst is a good example of the show’s range and willingness to offer the occasional change of pace. 

“Blood Brothers” (season four, episode two): MacGyver doesn’t use guns, and in “Blood Brothers,” we find out why. An undeniably hokey morality play that nonetheless retains some power to shock, the episode has MacGyver returning to his old hometown to reunite with his childhood best friends. There’s a time capsule involved, but before the three men can get around to digging up an old box and lamenting over the wreck that is their lives, MacGyver gets involved with his two friends’ teenage sons, one of whom happens to be a crack addict. The other, played by Jason Priestly, pisses off the local crack dealer, and decides stealing a gun is the only way to protect himself. When Priestly evades the bad guys in an abandoned hospital, Mac follows, flashing back to the afternoon of his sepia-toned youth that put him off firearms for life. An after-school special that still finds time for a few MacGyver tricks, “Blood Brothers” is notable for providing a tragic underpinning to one of the series’ core values, as well as pointing out, in its heavy-handed way, that guns bring out the worst, even in the best of us.

“Cleo Rocks” (season four, episode nine): How crazy is Murdoc? In his third appearance on the series, the burnt-faced hitman stages an entire musical, complete with sets, cast, and producer, in order to attract the attention of Mac’s longtime pal Penny Parker (Teri Hatcher). Once he casts Penny as the star of the show (called, naturally, Cleo Rocks), she invites MacGyver to attend a rehearsal, and then Murdoc can begin to build his needlessly complicated and extremely expensive revenge. Penny first appeared on the show in season one; a sweet-natured, accident-prone Marilyn Monroe-lite type, the character is largely saved by Hatcher’s charm, although here, her inability to understand that the wheelchair-bound director who keeps praising her talent is actually Murdoc in disguise renders her painfully childlike. (There’s something unpleasant about a clearly sexualized actress stuck playing someone with the emotionally maturity of an 8-year-old, but again, Hatcher basically pulls it off.) Murdoc often brought out the best in the show because his schemes are so clearly bound to collapse that questions of plausibility become irrelevant; it’s better just to enjoy the ride.

“Halloween Knights” (season five, episode six): What’s better than a homicidal, absurdly theatrical villain? Forcing a hero to team up with a homicidal, absurdly theatrical villain. It’s a staple of superhero comic books, and given that the MacGyver/Murdoc showdowns often had a certain low-rent Batman/Joker feel to them, it’s no surprise that the two would eventually be forced to fight together against a greater foe. That foe is the international group of assassins who once employed Murdoc to do their dirty work; they’ve kidnapped Murdoc’s innocent sister and put her at the end of a fun-park collection of traps, machine guns, and snakes known as “Death Row,” and now Murdoc needs MacGyver’s help to save her. It’s completely mental, but for one of the few times in its run, the show completely embraces its own insanity, building a world were Goldbergian killing devices are the rule, not the exception. Free from the obligation to sneer maniacally every few seconds, Des Barres manages to build some solid chemistry with Anderson, and the whole thing plays like a dream of the series that might have been; fewer faceless South American revolutionaries and more dudes in vampire costumes tossing grenades, and who knows what might have happened.

“Passages” (season five, episode 21): In truth, MacGyver was never a great show. It’s not even really a good show; the writing is workmanlike and often painfully shallow, which would become more obvious in the final two seasons, and the cartoon world Mac ran through lacked enough complexity and believable color to make it more than just amusingly forgettable. But every so often, a glimpse of something else would poke through, like in the finale of the fifth season, when MacGyver died. The complicated series of events necessary to get him from an upright and breathing position into a horizontal and flatlining one doesn’t really bear mentioning (thief, gas mask, long drop, greedy Egyptian ambassador), but once he’s comatose, Mac finds himself waiting in line to board the good ship Osiris and sail to the great beyond. His grandfather is ahead of him, and pushing aside questions of mortality, Mac shoves his way onto the ship, where he finds Harry less than pleased to see him. The concept is played straight throughout, and the episode doesn’t make much effort to say if what Mac sees on the Osiris is a dream or a new plane of existence, but the point is, he says goodbye to his only living relative, and then he has to escape death. And it’s kind of amazing. It wasn’t a great show or even a consistently good one, but MacGyver was one of a kind, and it’s worthy of being remembered as more than just a punchline.

And if you like those, here are 10 more: “The Human Factor”(season two, episode one), “Dalton, Jack Of Spies” (season two, episode 17), “Ghost Ship” (season three, episode four), “Jack In The Box” (season three, episode seven), “The Widowmaker” (season three, episode eight), “The Secret Of Parker House” (season four, episode one), “The Survivors,” (season four, episode six), “The Invisible Killer” (season four, episode 15), “The Legend Of The Holy Rose, Part 2” (season five, episode two), “Blind Faith” (season six, episode 17).

Availability: The entire series is available on DVD from Paramount, as well as Netflix Instant streaming.

Next time: Todd VanDerWerff narrows down a whole mess of Mad Men to just 10 vital episodes.

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