Sunday, July 8, 2012

Hawaii 5-0, Then and Now

A couple of weeks ago I finished watching all 12 seasons of the old Hawaii Five-O television series, which ran from 1968 to 1980 (I was 10-22 when it ran originally, and I watched it then, but not since). What got me started was watching the new series, and finding parts of it problematic. First of all, McGarrett, played by Alex O'Laughlin (whom I loved in the too-short series Moonlight), treats police procedure as something that he doesn't let get in the way of getting the answers he needs. The event like this I remember most is throwing one criminal in a shark cage in the ocean to get him to talk. THIS McGarrett would regularly get his cases thrown out of court and get arrested for some of his actions. While I didn't remember specifics, having now not seen the old show for 30-40 years, I thought they had more respect for police procedure, and finding all the old series available on Netflix streaming, I set out to compare the two. Seeing the old show again was a fascinating experience for a number of reasons. First it was like seeing a whole new show, as I didn't remember any of the episodes, and I do think it one of the best shows in the history of tv.

It was, of course, shot in Hawaii, and both old and new series show the beauty of that place. The old show was directly responsible for a measurable increase in tourist travel to Hawaii, for which the state government honored the show. This was in turn reflected in the series. There are a couple of episodes where McGarrett (played by Jack Lord) remarked that tourism is our bread and butter, and so crimes against tourists were a big priority. The natural beauty had to be shown in color - remember it was shot only a few years into the era when most tv shows were shot in color, and so it looks modern.

Turns out I was right about the role of good police procedure. The 5-0 team did not go into a situation without backup. They always had a warrant and worked closely with the D.A.'s office. They did the painstaking, boring grunt work of tracking down clues. They used a crime lab with the most up-to-date forensic tools. They wanted their cases to bring convictions, and this is how they made it happen. And they were incorruptible and could not be intimidated, and treated everyone fairly to the greatest extent possible. Being set in Hawaii made the issue of racism interesting, at a time when racism was a major issue for the whole of the United States...remember that 1968 was the year of Martin Luther King's assassination which sparked riots in numerous cities. Hawaii had a unique racial mix and so unique racial problems. It had few African Americans (and it must be admitted the few shows that had African Americans as major characters relied too much on stereotypes), but a native Hawaaiin population in the minority and generally on the low end economically. There were also great numbers of Japanese and Chinese. The white population, of course, held most of the economic and political power. And, of course, there were those of mixed race. In the show there were characters of all these races, and I've seen one analysis that showed that the criminals in the series were, by numbers, representative of the population of Hawaii. So the series did its best to show Hawaii's diversity, to have good and bad characters of all races, and to treat them fairly. A lot of people, because of the emphasis on law and order, think of it as a conservative show, but I don't think it was. I don't think that equal justice under the law to all is a particularly conservative issue, though it is often a libertarian one, and has been a liberal one. McGarrett in one issue says he believes the Hawaaiins have been exploited...not a term likely to be used by a conservative. He did, however, see his job as enforcing the law, even when it was painful. He would do his best for those caught up in trouble who were basically good people. And he hated wasted lives. One episode had 3 brilliant college students committing crimes but almost being killed by older organized criminals. When he arrested the students he went on about how they expected to be let go because they were sorry and they were so bright, and what a waste of brainpower it was that they would spend years in jail and lose so much of their life and their reputations.

Anyway, there were some other really interesting points to me about the show. One was watching the technology develop. Of course I lived through the technological changes you see in the show, but one forgets what it was like to live before personal computers, the internet, and mobile phones/computers. The show took pains to be up-to-date technologically - but that meant telexes, blood typing but no DNA, humongous computers using punch cards, etc. They had some stock footage they used of big banks of computers and hundreds of punch cards, and of a guy tracing a call...I had no idea it meant literally following a wire through huge bundles of wires. In an episode shown in 1974 or 75, there is an episode where a computer programmer has a portable smart terminal, not quite a personal computer yet but capable of hooking in to online databases with an acoustic coupler. The same episode showed airline reservation terminals. The show also mentioned communications satellites. One other technology really dates the show - the cars were universally ginormous, except for a VW Bug or two, driven by hippies, primarily. And does anyone remember station wagons?

Another interesting thing was recycled actors. 5-0 was the first series filmed on the islands. The regular cast moved there or were drawn from there. Guest stars had to be brought out from the mainland, I think. Both local and non-local actors got used repeatedly for a variety of roles, which got amusing after a while. You got to feel like they were old friends. Took some acting chops, too, as these actors might be villains one show, a cop the next, a judge the next. While watching the episodes, I looked a lot of the actors up on IMDB - for one thing, it reminded me of a lot of character actors of the time period I really liked but had by now forgotten their names. One thing startled me the first time I noticed it and then got amusing. One of the local actors was named Seth Sakai, which I remembered because my campus uses a software called Sakai. So one episode I noticed them talking about a character named Seth Sakai, so double checked IMDB...yep, Seth Sakai was playing Seth Sakai! Another actor that was used in many, many episodes was Kwan Hi Lim. In one episode he played a judge, and there was a nameplate saying Judge Kwan Hi Lim. I hope the actor got to keep it as a souvenir.

Using IMDB I found some fascinating stories about actors. Kam Fong, who played Chin Ho Kelly from season 1 through season 10, was a boiler maker in 1941, and had just gotten to work when Pearl Harbor was attacked. He stayed three days."I stood over the belly-up minelayer USS Ogalala, the only ship with a Hawaiian captain, and cried. I looked across the bay and saw the battleship USS Arizona burning and I cried," said Fong." In 1944, two bombers collided over his house and his wife and two children were killed. He later remarried and had four more children. He was a Honalulu police officer for 16 years, and one assumes was consulted on the show about Hawaaiin police work!

Some of the guest stars had fascinating lives too. Lew Ayres, early in his career, was in the play "All Quiet on the Western Front". It had such an impact on him he became a conscientious objector in WWII, and, despite his serving as a medic under fire, some people refused to watch his movies.

Luther Adler was born into a Yiddish acting family as well known in their circle as the Barrymore family. His sister Stella was an acting teacher who taught many of the great actors, including Marlon Brando, Warren Beatty, Robert DeNiro and Harvey Keitel.

Charles Durning, who will be 90 next year, didn't get into films until he was forty or so. He was for a time a professional boxer, a student of martial arts, a dancer and professional dance instructor. He was the only member of his unit to survive invading Omaha Beach during D-Day. At some point he was a German POW. The Germans took over a hundred American soldiers out into a field in Belgium to massacre them, and he was one of only twenty who survived and got to American lines. He was also shot in his hips and legs, but was still a dancer after the war.

Jack Lord had a pretty interesting life himself. As a teenager he, through family connections, went out during the summers on ships sailing to various parts of the world and painted what he saw. The Met bought five of his paintings by the time he was 18. He served in the Navy in WWII, made some training films during the Korean War which put the idea of acting into his head. He had a good opinion of himself and lost some major roles, including that of Captain Kirk in Star Trek, by demanding too much, such as a percentage and a producing role. Ironically, he did not demand too much for the role of McGarrett, but when Leanard Freeman, the creator and producer of Hawaii 5-0, died in 1974, Lord pretty much took over the show though he never took a producer's credit. He died a few years before his wife, and when she died, their $40 million estate was shared by about 11 Hawaaiin charities.

What more can be said about the show? It was made at a time when most shows had one strong central (and of course male) lead. So the show was primarily McGarrett's. The actors playing the subordinate roles did a good job holding their own, but they didn't always have a lot of lines, the lines could be as stock as Uhura's "Hailing frequencies open." As much as many fans hate the 12th season, which had some putrid episodes and none of the remaining original characters except McGarrett, to me the 12th season had more of an ensemble feel and the first female 5-0 team member. Herman Wedermeyer, who played Duke Lakela, was a microcosm of Hawaaiin diversity - he had ancestors from various Asian countries, various European countries as well as Hawaaiin ancestry. He played a Hawaaiin, as did Al Harrington who was Samoan.

McGarrett could be condescending and patronizing to women, but it is notable that the women he was attracted to were strong, independent characters with careers of their own. It is also notable that the crime McGarrett seemed to hate the most was rape. One episode said something that struck me deeply. A soldier took the blame for a rape, but 5-0 found out he had been wounded and was impotent. When McGarrett asked why he took the blame, he said he didn't want his buddies to know he was no longer a man, McGarrett disbelievingly and angrily replies, "A man? You don't know what the word means!"

The other question one might wonder at is why I'm so attracted to a show that is so fundamentally about law and order. If one has noticed a theme in my past posts, it might be subversion of authority. I am not, however, against all authority, only that which is unthinking and enforces traditions that deny equal rights to everyone. Hawaii 5-0 did its best to show justice as it should be - enforcing the law, valuing the victims of crimes, having some compassion for criminals caught up in something tragic or insane, but above all, enforcing the law fairly, with equal rights for all. Moreover the characters had great integrity and incorruptibility.

The world has changed. After 9/11, the financial crisis, and scandals showing corruption in every sphere of life, it is harder to believe in justice at all, especially a justice that holds the rich and powerful as accountable for their crimes. It is notable that now that the shows that present someone getting justice for "the little guy" are shows where the flawed heroes work outside the law, shows like Leverage and Person of Interest. And the new Hawaii 5-0 shows cops who routinely break the law in order to, say, reach a victim in time or to provide a greater justice than the law allows. I am sure that there are still people of integrity working in the justice system, but am also aware that the U.S. justice system is badly broken. I am also aware that the justice system at the time of the old Hawaii 5-0 had severe flaws. Yet I yearn for a time when there are enough people of integrity, and people who behave like mature adults, to provide role models for the culture.

One final comment - now just how weird is it that Grace Park has played in two TV series that are remakes of old series and in which her character in the old series was male?