In any conversation about memorable TV theme musics and openings, Hawaii Five-O has to make the cut. It starts with a drum set up, followed by dramatic racing brass backed by winds as a wave curls, then various images speed by—urban landscapes, Jack Lord on a high-rise balcony (lord of all he surveys), a car that somehow turns upside down, native Hawaiians (including a dancer who would go on to become a business professor), ocean, a glowering statue called “Lady Columbia,*” jets and jet engine closeup (a reminder that Hawaii is an island chain), ocean sunsets, a dancer, nightfall (after which crime comes out, because now we’ll see the other members of Five-O, Danno, Kono, and Chin), and finally a flashing police light zooming down one of the city’s mean streets. (Any street can look mean in the dark with only incandescence, fluorescence, or neon to light the way.)
* A symbol of motherhood on the far wall at the National Cemetery of the Pacific, also known as Punchbowl, she watches over the dead.
My parents may have watched the show in the early years, but if they did their viewing fell off because I don’t remember seeing it much. My dad preferred the Norman Lear sitcoms like All in the Family, The Jeffersons, and Maude, while my mother favored family-oriented fare like The Waltons and Little House on the Prairie.
I didn’t think of this when it was still current, but when it debuted Hawaii was a very young state, which must have made it even more exotic to the American audience. The state boasted an ethnic diversity unfamiliar to many Americans at the time. It’s also about as far west as the country could expand.
My dad had served in Hawaii before World War II and loved it (except for the pineapples—”I never want to see another pineapple again.”). He hated Florida (hot and humid) but said he’d go to Hawaii in a heartbeat—a hesitant heartbeat. He knew what he loved about Hawaii was destined to be ruined by its desirability. The signs of overdevelopment were there before the war, which sped them along. When the camera zooms in on Jack Lord, he’s on the balcony of the Ilikai Hotel & Luxury Suites in Honolulu that opened in 1964—only four years before the series began (1968–1980). Someone who seemed to be familiar with Hawaii noted that at the time the Ilikai was the most prominent building on the island, but not anymore.
With the exception of a few storylines, Hawaii Five-O was filmed on location. That undoubtedly attracted some of the guest stars who appeared. As for me, I hated that nearly every TV show was set in southern California. Where were the forest and leaf colors and snows and classic houses of my native western New York (the Niagara Frontier)? Where were the wetlands of Georgia, the soft green hills of Virginia, the bays and inlets of Maine and Massachusetts, even the Petrified Forest of Arizona? Where was the America that wasn’t the streets of Los Angeles? Even shows that were supposed to be set in small-town America looked like southern California. Even alien landscapes on Star Trek looked like southern California. (When they were stuck in a planet’s glaciated past that couldn’t occur in southern California, it looked like a soundstage.) Hawaii Five-O may not have had snow, ice, big conifers, or any of the familiar hallmarks of the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, or Midwest, but at least it didn’t look like Los Angeles. Mostly.
Like Los Angeles, Hawaii Five-O’s setting looks seedy and gritty, full of bars and replete with gambling, drugs, dancers, and many other temptations I don’t want to know about.
What I’ve learned about Steve McGarrett
McGarrett wouldn’t last long in his job today. He calls his secretaries, who spend a lot of time making and serving coffee, “love,” “honey,” and other inappropriate endearments. No one said boo in 1968, although one protests mildly about making coffee on Sunday. He also calls female witnesses “honey.”
In another throwback, Five-O officers and secretaries call McGarrett “Boss.” McGarrett calls Chin Ho Kelly “Fatso,” but only when he’s in a hospital bed or holding onto a gunshot wound. I’m sure that makes Chin Ho and his injuries feel better.
McGarrett has a bigger, better decorated office than many mainland CEOs. It’s on a par with the governor’s.
McGarrett takes off his mainland suit long enough each day to go for a morning run on the beach, which is convenient for the ex-serviceman who shoots him three times at close range and still can’t kill him.
In at least
one two episodes, McGarrett’s car is parked perpendicular to the end of three slots. Scofflaw.
His peel-out parking style doesn’t keep him from being last at the crime scene.
You can feel Danno’s eyes roll when McGarrett declares, “No, it’s too neat. It fits too well. You could wrap it up, put a bow on it, and mail it in.” Or, “You’ll make a good cop one of these days, Danno.”
McGarrett is direct. When someone comes back to report, he usually barks out: “Go” or “What do you got?”
At the same time, he’s often skeptical about what they “got.” “I don’t buy it” or “It’s too neat.”
What I’ve learned about the “rest”
Danno is McGarrett’s no. 1, so he’s second in command of a team of four. No wonder he always looks anxious.
Chin Ho has family everywhere. Whenever McGarrett needs to know something, he sends Chin to ask a family member, or Kono says he heard news from a Chin Ho cousin.
Kono is street smart. We know that because he butchers English deliberately in a ways I have never heard before. (Think double negatives times 10 for starters.)
The governor of the 50th state likes to tell McGarrett, “I don’t have to tell you how bad [the crime du jour] is for tourism and business.” McGarrett visibly thinks, “It’s probably not so great for the victims, either, sir.”
When McGarrett says, “Five-O” and whips out the badge, the tourists seem to know what he’s talking about. Did their travel agents brief them on the state police because they knew they were likely to witness one of Hawaii’s many, many crimes?
Five-O’s mainland suits and creeping dark sedans aren’t conspicuous in Hawaii at all.
Why Hawaii is appealing to tourists
I have no idea, because:
- To deal with killers and other criminals, McGarrett has the island(s) sealed off so many times that it’s a wonder they have tourists anymore.
- Hawaii attracts serial killers (which is odd since it’s hard for them to leave once McGarrett seals off the rock). In one episode, a hillbilly family arrives in Hawaii with 150 suspected murders behind them on the mainland. They dig right in to their avocation once on the island.
- Stabbings seem to be almost as popular as shootings, and both are more gory than in other police shows of the era.
The real draw may be bubonic plague. It makes an appearance in two of the few episodes I’ve seen. (It’s also a reason for sealing off the islands. “Hawaiian vacation was lovely, Myrtle, but now we can’t leave because bubonic plague is going around.”)
Korean-American actor Soon-Tek Oh convincingly plays a nervously ruthless “red Chinese” agent, but I can’t say as much for Ricardo Montalban as a murderous Japanese deserter—who happens to have a crisp Castilian accent. That’s weird enough, but he’s being pursued by the “bushidō,” a secret society. Maybe the writer meant samurai, who adhere to bushidō, but since we’re talking secret, ninja sounds more likely. That’s what happened to TV writers who worked before Google. Whether samurai or ninja, they are remarkably ineffective at offing the Japanese gangster with the bad makeup job and Castilian accent.
6/11/2018 addition: Mark Lenard (Spock’s father on Star Trek) as a mentally ill Japanese ninja(!) who doesn’t know the war’s been over for 28 years and tries to blow up Pearl Harbor and half of Honolulu. Notably, McGarrett thinks a ninja is a warrior until he’s corrected by a karate master.
Ahead of its time
Hawaii has the Hawaii Institute of Technology. And, at a time when I’d heard of computers mainly in the context of science fiction, Hawaii has an “On-line Police Information System.”
Most poignant line: At the end of an episode in which a political appointee is murdered after turning pro-development, Kono looks out over a site being bulldozed for cheap boxy housing and says, “Look at that. One day we’ll be strangers in our own land.”
The strangest exchange I’ve heard so far occurs when Danno tells Steve he’s always one step ahead.
Steve: That’s why I got the big office.
Danno (turning around as he walks out): Peace and joy, strong brother.