U.S. Detective Program

A permutation of the hard-boiled detective genre, Magnum, P.I. aired on the CBS network from 1980 through 1988. Initially, the network had the series developed to make use of the extensive production facilities built during the 1970s in Hawaii for the successful police procedural, Hawaii Five-O, and intended the program to reflect a style and character suited to Hawaiian glamour. For the first five years the series was broadcast, it ranked in the top twenty shows for each year.

The series was set in the contemporary milieu of 1980s Hawaii, a melting pot of ethnic and social groups. Thomas Magnum, played by Tom Selleck, was a former Naval Intelligence officer making his way as a private investigator in the civilian crossroads between Eastern and Western cultures. In charge of the security for the estate of the never-seen author Robin Masters, Magnum lived a relatively carefree life on the property. A friendly antagonism and respect existed between Magnum and Jonathan Higgins III (John Hillerman), Masters' overseer of the estate. Though both men came from military backgrounds, Magnum's freewheeling style often clashed with Higgins' more mannered British discipline. In addition, two of Magnum's former military buddies rounded out the regular cast. T.C.-- Theodore Calvin (Roger Mosely) operated and owned a helicopter charter company, a service which came in handy for many of Magnum's cases. Rick Wright (Larry Manetti), a shady nightclub owner, often provided Magnum with important information through his links to the criminal element lurking below the vibrant tropical colors of the Hawaiian paradise.

Though originally dominated by an episodic narrative structure, Magnum, P.I. moved far beyond the simple demands of stock characters solving the crime of the week. Without using the open-ended strategy developed by the prime-time soap opera in the 1980s, the series nevertheless created complex characterizations by building a cumulative text. Discussion of events from previous episodes would continually pop up, constructing memory as an integral element of the series franchise. While past actions might not have an immediate impact on any individual weekly narrative, the overall effect was to expand the range of traits which characters might invoke in any given situation. For the regular viewer of the series, the cumulative strategy offered a richness of narrative, moving beyond the simpler "who-done-it" of the hard-boiled detective series that populated American television in the 1960s and 1970s.

Part of the success of Magnum, P.I. stemmed from the combination of familiar hard-boiled action and exotic locale. Just as important perhaps, the series was one of the first to regularly explore the impact of the Vietnam War on the American cultural psyche. Many of the most memorable episodes dealt with contemporary incidents triggered by memories and relationships growing out of Magnum's past war experiences. Indeed, the private investigator's abhorrence of discipline and cynical attitude toward authority seem to stem from the general mistrust of government and military bureaucracies that came to permeate American society in the early 1970s.

On one level, Magnum became the personification of an American society that had yet to deal effectively with the fallout from the Vietnam War. By the end of the 1980s, the struggle to deal with the unresolved issues of the war erupted full force into American popular culture. Before Magnum began to deal with his psychological scars in the context of the 1980s, network programmers apparently believed that any discussion of the war in a series would prompt viewers to tune it out. With the exception of Norman Lear's All in the Family in the early 1970s, entertainment network programming acted, for the most part, as if the war had never occurred. However, Magnum, P.I.'s success proved programmers wrong. Certainly, the series' success opened the door for other dramatic series which were able to examine the Vietnam War in its historical setting. Series such as Tour of Duty and China Beach, though not as popular, did point out that room existed in mainstream broadcasting for discussions of the emotional and political wounds that had yet to heal. As Thomas Magnum began to deal with his past, so too did the American public.

Critics of the show often point out, however, that in dealing with this past, the series recuperated and reconstructed America's involvement in Vietnam. While some aspects of the show seem harshly critical of that entanglement, many episodes justify and rationalize the conflict and the American role. As a result, Magnum, P.I. is shot through with conflicting and often contradictory perspectives and any "final" interpretation must take the entire series into account, rather than concentrate on single events or episodes. The constuction of this long-running narrative, riddled as it is with continuously developing characterizations, ideological instability, and milti-layered generic resonance, illustrates many of commercial U.S. television's capacity for narrative complexity, as well as some of its most vexing problems and questions.

-Rodney Buxton

Magnum, P.I.


Thomas Sullivan Magnum........................... Tom Selleck Jonathan Quayle Higgins III..................... John Hillerman T.C. (Theodore Calvin).......................... Roger E. Mosley Rick (Orville Wright) ..................................Larry Manetti Robin Masters (voice only) 1981-1985 ........Orson Welles Mac Reynolds ............................................Jeff MacKay Lt. Tanaka ................................................Kwan Hi Lim Lt. Maggie Poole..................................Jean Bruce Scott Agatha Chumley......................................... Gillian Dobb Asst. District Attorney, Carol Baldwin....... Kathleen Lloyd Francis Hofstetler ("Ice Pick") ................Elisha Cook, Jr.

PRODUCERS Donald P. Bellisario, Glen Larson, Joel Rogosin, John G. Stephens, Douglas Benton, J. Rickley Dumm, Rick Weaver, Andrew Schneider, Douglas Green, Reuben Leder, Chas. Floyd Johnson, Nick Thiel, Chris Abbot

PROGRAMMING HISTORY 150 Episodes 6 2-Hour Episodes

December 1980-August 1981            Thursday 9:00-10:00 September 1981-April 1986                Thursday 8:00-9:00 April 1986-June 1986                      Saturday 10:00-11:00 June 1986-August 1986                     Tuesday 9:00-10:00 September 1986-May 1987           Wednesday 9:00-10:00 July 1987-February 1988              Wednesday 9:00-10:00 June 1988-September 1988              Monday 10:00-11:00


Anderson, Christopher. "Reflections on Magnum, P.I." In, Newcomb, Horace, editor. Television: The Critical View. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976, 4th Edition, 1987.

Flitterman, Sandy. "Thighs and Whiskers: The Fascination of Magnum, P.I." Screen (London), 1985.

Haines, Harry W. "The Pride is Back: Rambo, Magnum, P.I., and the Return Trip to Vietnam." In, Mowies, Peter, and Peter Ehrenhaus, editors. Cultural Capacities of Vietnam: Uses of the Past and Present. Norwood, New Jersey: Ablex, 1990.

Meyers, Richard. TV Detectives. San Diego: A.S. Barnes, 1981. Newcomb, Horace. "Magnum: The Champagne of TV." Channels of Communication (New York), May-June 1985.


See also Action Adventure Shows; Detective Programs; Vietnam on Television