With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD, it gets harder and harder to keep up with recent 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. They might not be the 10 best episodes, but they’re the 10 episodes that’ll help you understand what the show’s all about—without having to watch the whole thing.
It’s easy for a casual viewer—or one who has never even seen an episode—to write off CBS’ Magnum, P.I. as just another ’80s action show. It’s set in Hawaii! It has girls in bikinis and guns! There’s a Ferrari and probably many car chases! But even though all of those things happen to be true, Magnum, P.I. is a helluva lot more. It’s an “iconic” show that might have the reputation of being “fun,” but it rarely gets points for also being a solid drama.
The show’s premise is pretty simple. Private investigator (please don’t call him a “private eye”) Thomas Magnum, a Vietnam veteran, lives for free on the beautiful Oahu estate owned by mystery novelist Robin Masters. The estate is overseen by Jonathan Quayle Higgins (John Hillerman), a picky British ex-military man who clashes with Magnum’s laid-back, dress-in-shorts-and-have-a-beer attitude. Besides doing assignments for Masters, Magnum solves crimes with the help of fellow Vietnam vets T.C. (Roger E. Mosley), who owns a helicopter service, and Rick (Larry Manetti), who runs the King Kamehameha Club (though early on in the show he runs a Casablanca-ish bar named Rick’s Cafe).
Magnum, P.I. appeared to fall right in line with co-creator and producer Glen A. Larson’s other ’80s shows like Knight Rider, The Fall Guy, and B.J. And The Bear. But that would be a superficial comparison. Magnum is the better show by far. Maybe co-creator Donald Bellisario pulled him into more serious, straight territory or maybe it was a good combination. Maybe the show works so well and the darker moments stand out not in spite of these elements, but because of them.
You certainly can’t tell how rough and serious Magnum, P.I. can get from the opening titles (or from the more swingin’ theme the show used in the first season):
It’s as if the show wants you to know that, sure, it’s entertaining and the guys are fun. Sometimes they dress like clowns or accidentally scare each other. Sometimes they teach scantily clad girls how to swim, and maybe they even turn toward the camera and raise a fourth-wall eyebrow. But there’s also a lot of darker elements and thoughtfulness, because Magnum, P.I. is a well-written and -directed show, period. It even holds up well compared to some of the dramas on television today.
The 10 episodes below from the show’s eight-season run are a good place to start:
“China Doll” (season one, episode three): Hired to protect a Chinese woman and her valuable vase, Magnum battles a hit man who has a physical quirk that gives away when he is about to kill someone. Even in this early effort, we realize how Magnum does what needs to be done. This episode also illustrates how not showing the violence can make a scene even more powerful.
“The Jororo Kill” (season two, episode 12): Kate Sullivan, an old journalist friend of Magnum, Rick, and T.C., comes to Hawaii to do a story on an international assassin. Magnum discovers that the intended target is a foreign prime minister, and maybe his old pal isn’t telling him everything. The master-of-disguise killer is an ex-military man who was drummed out of the British Army for cross-dressing, in an interesting plot twist.
“Did You See The Sun Rise?” (season three, episode one): One of the aspects of Magnum, P.I. that puts it a notch above the typical guns-and-gals detective show is the fact that Magnum and his buddies Rick and T.C. served in Vietnam. This could have easily just been a basic back story to explain how these men met, and never mentioned again. But this veteran status became the basis of several episodes and an important plot point that ran throughout the series. Nowhere was that more evident than in the season-three opener, when Ivan, an evil Russian who held the guys and their friend Nuzo captive during the war, has come to Hawaii to kill them. A good friend of Magnum’s get killed, which fuels his intense feelings of honor and revenge. This episode also has an ending that further illustrates that Magnum, P.I. wasn’t one of those action shows where lots of bullets fly but no one gets hurt. Thomas Magnum could be a blunt killer, too.
“Forty Years From Sand Island” (season three, episode 17): Higgins wasn’t just a foil for our lead, the guy who orders Magnum around and presents him with rules to follow at the mansion and gets into arguments when Magnum wants to grab a bottle of wine from the wine cellar. He’s also involved in many of the cases. In this episode, he’s doing research for a new novel that Robin Masters is writing, about the 1942 killing of a Japanese internment-camp inmate, which leads to someone trying to kill Higgins. It should also be noted several episodes show Higgins alone, talking to Masters (voiced by Orson Welles). So unless Higgins is completely insane, it’s impossible for him to also be Robin Masters, as hinted at in the series finale.
“Home From The Sea” (season four, episode one): Magnum often went out on the water by himself on his surf ski to get away from everything and relax. Especially on the Fourth Of July, the anniversary of his father’s death. Although these were usually safe trips, in this episode. T.C. drops Magnum off in the middle of the ocean via helicopter. He’s then promptly knocked off the surf ski by a jerk in a boat and has to tread water for hours and fend off sharks as he waits for help. We find out where Magnum learned how to stay afloat for so long (via flashbacks to his childhood) and the importance of the Rolex he wears. We also see the close, almost-psychic bond that T.C., Rick, and Higgins have with Magnum, when they all have a feeling that he’s in peril.
“Distant Relative” (season four, episode four): Many TV shows offer an episode where a sibling or parent of one of the main characters comes to visit and gets into trouble. But this episode takes a dark turn on that trope when Rick’s sister comes to visit and Magnum agrees to chaperone her. “Distant Relative” showed that Rick wasn’t just the comic relief/nightclub owner; he also had a serious, deadly side that almost couldn’t be controlled.
“Echoes Of The Mind: Parts 1 And 2” (season five, episodes one and two): Several years before Basic Instinct, Sharon Stone guest-starred in this two-part season-opener as a woman who hires Magnum to find her twin sister, who she says is stalking her. You can probably figure out just by this paragraph what’s really going on, but that doesn’t make the ending any less powerful, and it messes Magnum up. These two episodes set up a story arc that plays out in the next one, ”Mac’s Back,” when Magnum imagines seeing the ghost of the good friend who died in “Did You See The Sun Rise?” Or is it a ghost? His friends don’t believe him and think he’s gone mad because of all of the stress he’s been under, but Magnum is determined to prove that his friend is alive.
“Way Of The Stalking Horse” (season six, episode 16): It’s not easy to find a TV show episode with a twist that you truly don’t see coming—one that actually makes sense and makes you a little angry that you didn’t see it coming, and neither does Magnum. He’s hired by a man who wants to find his father, but nothing involving the case is what it appears to be, which leads to Magnum feeling very guilty about what he eventually lets happen.
“Death And Taxes” (season seven, episode five): A Jack The Ripper-like killer is targeting people in Honolulu, and all the victims are connected in some way to Magnum’s past. The killer taunts the private investigator with phone calls and riddles about the slayings. He seems to know a lot about Magnum, including events that happened in Vietnam and in the very first episode of the series. Who the killer was and why he did it isn’t even fully explained at the end: Magnum checks his records and discovers he may have helped the guy with a case involving his marriage many years earlier, but it’s not clear what would drive this man to start killing people, and do it “for” Magnum. The tense episode has echoes of Michael Mann’s Manhunter and makes terrific use of the Genesis song “Mama.”
“Limbo” (season seven, episode 22): This season finale was also meant to be the series finale. The show had been moved from its usual Thursday at 8 p.m. slot so it wouldn’t have to compete with ratings-topper Cosby Show over on NBC—Selleck sent Bill Cosby a Magnum hat that Cosby wore in a 1986 episode of his show—to Wednesday at 9 p.m for the last few seasons. So in this finale, Magnum actually dies. The series was supposed to end with Magnum getting shot, walking around as a ghost with the friend who was killed in “Did You See The Sun Rise?”, then ascending to heaven. “Limbo” uses the John Denver song “Looking For Space” throughout, whose sadness permeates the entire episode, appropriate for one in which Magnum dies and the show ends. But Magnum fans were relieved when the cast and crew were resurrected for an eighth and final season.
Availability: All eight seasons of Magnum, P.I. are available on DVD in individual season sets and a complete series set. It’s also available on Xfinity On Demand.