This is the “Choose Your Own Bad Guy” episode of Hawaii Five-0, the one that offered viewers the chance to use Twitter to vote on which guest actor would have the honor of being gunned down by Alex O’Loughlin and one of his sidekicks during the last ten minutes. You have to wonder: Is this CBS’ idea of how to connect with the kids today, by getting all jiggy with the social media? (Yes, it’s easy and cheap and a little unfair to use outdated slang to make fun of CBS’ reputation as the geriatric network. No, it doesn’t make it any easier to resist the temptation when the show itself has Scott Caan asking someone, “You dig?”) If so, it’s kind of funny that someone chose to impose this gimmick on Hawaii Five-0 instead of, say, inviting viewers to vote on which of three actresses the dithering guy on How I Met Your Mother is going to finally, fatefully, meet. But on reflection, it’s kind of perfect. After all, this is exactly the kind of stunt that the original Hawaii Five-0 probably would have pulled in, say, 1972, if Twitter had been around since 1965.
The original show premiered during the final months of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency and aired its last first-run episode six months before the election of Ronald Reagan. That’s a pretty long run for a show that was basically a delivery system for a killer theme song. Although the “classic” Hawaii Five-0 had a supporting cast, it felt like a one-man show, because Jack Lord’s ego—the confident projection of which is what he did, instead of acting—was like a majestic cloud formation that kept him, and only him, in the full glow of the warm sun, consigning all lesser mortals to the shadows. The current series, following the template that’s worked so well for the CSI and NCIS franchises, is more of an ensemble show. O’Loughlin is the nominal lead, but projecting ego isn’t his thing; a veteran of an impressive number of busted pilots, short-lived series, and stillborn “development deals,” he seems endearingly grateful just to have a job. He hits his marks and says things like, “Who would have wanted this guy dead?” while Scott Caan brings the funny and Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park give the viewers who write erotic fan fiction something to work with. It’s not the worst working relationship in then history of TV procedurals, and the show is generally watchable and can summon up a little generic, old-school charm on its better nights. This night isn’t one of them. The episode feels too constrained to be any fun, because it’s shackled to its gimmick.
The setting is academic, the murder victim a Professor Cutler. A student who’s 35 beers away from completing a hazing ritual that requires him to down a hundred beers in less than a hundred minutes finds the prof’s bludgeoned body melting in a tub of acid, and you get your first serious reminder that you’re watching network TV, not cable, when the drunken kid sees the gory, gelatinous corpse and doesn’t puke. Gradually, we’re introduced to the three big suspects: The dead man’s boss, his T.A., and a student who the brave men of Five-0 expose as having cheated on a test. (He’s purchased a soda can that has the answers printed, in tiny type, on the side. Is this a real thing? Because if it’s actually workable, I want to kill myself for not having thought of it back when it could have done me some good.)
My wife immediately deduced that the killer was, or ought to be, the boss, who has a long scene in which he tells the cops that the dead man was constantly involved in inappropriate relationships with his comely young students. She pegged it as a case of sexual jealousy, exacerbated by the dean’s irritation at having to cover for Don Juan and clean up his messes. I appreciated her logic while picking up my phone to cast my own vote for the teaching assistant, a choice that had no basis in logic or deductive reasoning whatsoever. I just liked the way the actor chewed the scenery, in the kind of sneaky-weasel role that the young James Woods would have picked up from the plate with his bare hands and torn into with all of his three rows of teeth. The student didn’t seem to have any likely motive at all, and I’m not sure how he made the cut. It would have been more fun, and no more implausible, if viewers had been given the chance to vote for some extra in the background wearing a janitor’s uniform and leaning on a broom, who never had any dialogue and went unnoticed by the cops, but who just looked kind of shifty.
In the end—well, I don’t want to spoil it for anyone reading this who wants to save the episode on their DVR to enjoy on their next birthday, but let’s just say that my wife may have a better feel for things like Twitter-selected solutions to TV murder mysteries than I have. But no matter who you may have voted for, the ending is disappointing, because the identity of the killer doesn’t really matter, because they don’t really have individual motives, and nothing they say or do before the climax points toward the motive they do have. In promoting the episode, one of the show’s producers has said that the story presents “three very viable suspects… who each had a very believable motive,” and that “our dedicated and attentive fans” will “have the chance to be “part of the crime solving team.” That makes it sound as if there are solid reasons for suspecting one character over another, and viewers would have the chance to play detective based on the clues implanted in the story, as in an Agatha Christie novel.
That’s not how the episode really works, though. In the last moments before the last commercial break, the show brings on a new character—a scientist played by Jeff Fahey, who looks as if he’s just been hanging out in the jungle since Lost ended—who explains that he was working with the murder victim on a cure for the rare degenerative disease afflicting his son. CBS has put all the possible endings up on its website, and except for 30-odd seconds of footage, they’re all exactly the same: Whoever killed the prof did it in hopes of taking credit for his miracle discovery. (As noted before, in the case of the student, this makes no sense at all, and the show sheepishly tries to skirt this by having O’Loughlin and Caan agree that the kid must be a complete idiot.)
This is a cheat, and what’s unforgivable, it’s a lame cheat. The writers could have made the gimmick count for something if they really had come up with three different suspects with three individualized, plausible motives—but that would have been a lot of work, so they settled for a cop-out that leaves nothing at stake, When William Castle used the trick of allowing the audience to vote on the ending of his 1961 movie, Mr. Sardonicus, he made it count for something: Depending on the outcome, the ending would either show the villain getting his just desserts, or getting off easy. It simplified things, too: Since Castle figured, rightly, that nobody would ever vote for the bad guy to be left alone, he never bothered actually shooting more than one ending. Maybe, sometimes, democracy is overrated.
- When Caan needs some technical support, he goes to see Toast, a recurring character—a stoner tech wizard—played by Martin Starr. But Toast isn’t arounf, and he has to make do with his roommate understudy. This is a shame, because Starr is often a hoot in this role. Maybe he lost the cover page off his script and, having read it, went to the NTSF: SD: SUV set by mistake.