Hawaii Five-O Measures a Different America

Cue up the classic Morton Stevens theme music, and the clippy cutting of scenic Hawaii, a little surfer action, hula dancer, and the famed blue-light police car racing into the dusk with a couple of show-star zooms on Alex O'Loughlin (McGarrett) and Scott Caan (Dan-O) and the classic TV show is back in a fun, frothy format that unfortunately also reminds us about the dumbing-down of America.

The original Hawaii Five-O, which ran from 1968 to 1980, set a high standard for television cop shows.

Jack Lord played Steve McGarrett, the tack-sharp, blue-steel-eyed white guy heading a state task-force to bring justice to the lawless, seamy underside of tourist paradise. Five-O had action, but it was about smarts first.

The show threw master villains McGarrett's way whom he outsmarted, not out-gunned. The show was more a game of chess than a Lethal Weapon movie. It always resulted in the good ass-kicking or the car chase, but the moves that got them there were not only good police work, but cleverly disguised social commentary by producer/writer Leonard Freeman and his team.

Freeman's thought-provoking and thoughtful show took on every social issue from the flood of drugs during the Viet Nam war to the human slave trade to the ever-changing racial allegiances in the street gangs of the many cultures that live in the Islands. It also preserved the ideal of smart justice at a time when the cultural revolution of the sixties, Watergate, and subsequent scandals were causing Americans to re-evaluate everything about our country and our place in the world as "the good guys."

To paraphrase Dragnet's Jack Webb, in the 2010 edition, which debuted on September 20th on CBS, the names have not been changed, but the plot has been dumbed down to an America that can only seem to digest Ramboesque testosterone-laced action and simple plot lines.

The show begins in South Korea showing O'Loughlin's McGarrett as the tough special ops Seal who can probably dismantle an IED with his teeth. His father, an uber-cop, is killed by the brother of a bad guy arms dealer that he's trying to bring to justice, and Hawaii's governor (Jean Smart) offers him a no-holds-barred state task force gig to find his father's killer and give her scummier citizens a good ass-kicking.

The McGarrett of old was a clever guy, not a reckless cowboy. O'Loughlin is directed to play the top cop more like William Shatner's T.J. Hooker or Don Johnson's balls-first, think-later Sonny Crockett in Miami Vice.

The cerebral second in command, Danny (Dan-o) Williams of James MacArthur's authoring, who often kept his McGarrett from going rogue, with no apologies to Sarah Palin, has been replaced by James Caan's swaggering son Scott, who plays the character as a transplant from New Jersey who hates the Ocean but has a soft spot for his daughter who moved to the islands with the ex-wife that earns the "Psycho" ring tone on his phone.

To their credit, the ethnic stars of the show have not been leveled to complete stereotypes as they were in the first edition. Daniel Dae Kim plays a smart and street-savvy detective Chin Ho Kelly. Gone is the brute force of the Hawaiian native guy known only as "Kono," and in his place comes Grace Park as "Kona" Chin Ho's surfer, ass-whupping, police academy cousin who is smart and pretty.

This is a much more action-packed, pretty people, sanitized-for-your-protection kind of production than the original. The experience of the fiftyish Chin Ho has been replaced with a guy who can join the others on the cover of Teen Beat without dropping a beat. It has more Miami Vice and less Five-O in its look and feel. The original Five-O competed in a tough marketplace full of smart, tough police shows, with the FBI, Barnaby Jones, the Streets of San Francisco, and Cannon to name a few.

Pilots and the first couple of episodes are always kind of tough to determine how the writing will go, but aside from two Leonard Freeman scripts that were pulled out of the closet and retooled, staff writers Alex Kurtzman, Peter M. Lenkov and Roberto Orci are going to have to kick it up a big notch to walk a mile in the moccasins of Freeman, one of the best producer/writers to produce an hour of episodic television.

Young fans will just take it for what it is. Older fans, particularly, are going to look for that higher standard.

Under any other name, this modern cop show would be delivering the kind of high-action, low-thinking script that considered easy watching these days in movies and television programs. We wouldn't give it much thought. By attaching it to the Five-O brand, though, it brings in twelve years of a cultural and social landmark of television drama, and its rich history.

That deserves a little respect, and maybe an opportunity for CBS, the home network of landmark shows like All in the Family and M*A*S*H, to repave that ground again in bringing smart drama and comedy back to network television.

My shiny two.