(The Internet has made TV criticism more prominent, but the kinds of shows TV critics write about - serialized dramas and single-camera comedies - are rarely the kinds of shows that become popular with a mass audience. Every week, TV Club is going to drop in on one of the top-rated programs in the nation, one that we don't normally cover. What makes these shows popular? Should we be covering them more often? Are our preconceived notions about quality not necessarily following popularity justified, or are we jumping to conclusions? This week, Keith Phipps takes a look at TV's number one new show, CBS' Hawaii Five-0. Next week, Marah Eakin examines one of the top-rated shows for kids as it comes to an end: Hannah Montana.)
Like 14.2 million other Americans, I checked out the first epsiode of CBS’ rebooted/remade/reimagined/rewhatevered Hawaii Five-0 when it premiered this past fall. It looked like a show I could easily watch. We’re swimming in such an almost-overwhelming amount of great television these days—important shows that can’t be missed by everyone wanting to be a part of the cultural conversation—that it’s easy to lose sight of the pleasures of good shows. Or just acceptable shows. Or, hey, that’s-on-so-why-not-watch-it shows, the sort of programming that’s been the backbone of television since the start. It’s easy to choke on a steady diet of greatness. Sometimes nothing satisfies quite like comfortable okayness.
With its first episode, Hawaii Five-0 looked like the meat-and-potatoes programming I occasionally crave (and which my season pass to Burn Notice usually satisfies). Reconceived by the ubiquitous writing team of Alex Kurtzman and Robert Orci—responsible, to one degree or another, for Fringe, the new Star Trek film, the scripts to the Transformers films and such—with showrunner Peter M. Lenkov, it seemed not smart but not dumb either. In keeping with what Kurtzman and Orci did for Star Trek, it didn’t so much reinvent its inspiration—a warhorse of a tropical cop show that ran for 12 seasons from 1968 to 1980—as streamline it. The pilot featured an appealing cast. (Well, mostly anyway; more on that in a bit.) Great locations. A sturdy plot. And it breezed by. What’s more, it looked great, creating the same hypnotic HD-friendly visual candy—particularly with the shots of scenery too loosely connected to the locations of the story to qualify as establishing shots—as a show like CSI: Miami, whose visual style could double as a high-def demo reel.
I liked it well enough. But I got the sense that missing it meant not missing much of anything, that I could check in on Hawaii Five-0 later in the season (or next season, or the one after) and find much the same show. “Hana 'a'a Makehewa” didn’t exactly prove me wrong, but it didn’t exactly prove me right either. While I doubt Hawaii Five-0 leans too heavily on serialized elements, this episode connected directly with the pilot, which featured James Marsters—most famous for playing spike on Buffy and Angel—as Victor Hess the archnemesis of our hero Steve McGarrett (Alex O’Loughlin), the Moriarity to his Holmes, the Dr. Claw to his Inspector Gadget. Hess is the man who killed McGarrett’s father in the pilot, and though he seemed to die at the end of the pilot, it turns out that wasn’t the case. Or, in the words of Chin (Daniel Dae Kim), “The guy’s a cockroach. It’s what they do. They come back from the dead.”
Technically, I don’t think that’s true of cockroaches or guys like them, but it is a lot catchier than “they pop up a couple times a season to goose the action.” Yet goose the action he does, starting with the episode’s first scene, which finds Chin with a bomb clamped around his neck and McGarrett and sidekick Danno Williams (Scott Caan) rushing to his side in a set-up pretty clearly inspired by The Hurt Locker. (That’s more an observation than a complaint.) Flash back 24 hours, and it’s business as usual for the Hawaii-Five 0 gang, which means a lot of light banter, some hanging around a room with high-tech gadgets, a murder investigation, and quickly escalating stakes.
It’s the stuff of cop shows since time eternal—or at least the 1960s—and it loses me at the same place cop shows usually lose me when it starts rattling off details of the investigation that are clearly just excuses to propel our heroes to other locations and through the lather-rinse-repeat cycle of chasing, confronting, and questioning the next bad guy in their path. Happily, Hawaii Five-0 keeps throwing a lot of interesting scenery along the way. For starters, after McGarrett and Danno drive at breakneck speed accompanied by music that hasn’t been in fashion since hair metal ruled the Sunset Strip, they arrive at a cockfight, a nasty practice popular enough in Hawaii to prompt a call this year to legalize it as a “cultural activity.” Later, the good guys breeze through a Japanese-style hostess club. So, points for local color (though I’m pretty sure if I were Hawaiian, I would roll my eyes at the obviousness of the choices.)
Points, too, for keeping the energy high even as the plot grinds on through familiar developments and the script requires Grace Park, late of Battlestar Galactica, to quip “Guess he won’t be making house calls anymore” after the gang discovers the corpse of a doctor. That she does it without embarrassing herself speaks to her abilities as a TV pro, and while they’re not given anything extraordinary to do, Park and Kim know how make the material work for them. Ditto Marsters, who summons up a lot of menace with only a little screen time. And, as the colorful sidekick, Caan’s got the most plum part in the cast and clearly knows it. He targets his performance somewhere between “goofy” and “charming” and hits the mark.
Then there’s O’Loughlin, an Australian actor whom CBS has been pushing on the public since the vampire series Moonlight in 2007. He’s a handsome, athletic fellow, who’s also so bland he barely registers on camera. There’s nothing really wrong with his work here, but there’s nothing terribly right about it either. That he’s surrounded by such a charismatic supporting cast only makes him seem to recede further in the background. Actually, there are some especially striking palm trees that make him seem to recede in the background.
Trouble is, the show resembles him. It’s fine, but only just, and there’s really nothing going on beneath the surface. Sometimes, okay is just not okay enough. In the penultimate scene, when the gang gathers together to help Danno entertain his daughter at Christmas, it looks like more like a cast gathering for a CBS Christmas card than a real moment of human interaction. I’d suggest more quirks and personal drama would improve it, and I might even be right. But the last quirksand personal drama-filled crime show I fell in love with was Terriers, and we all know what happened there. The show's a hit as-is. So while it doesn’t particularly bother me that McGarrett and Danno are booking ’em in striking HD on a weekly basis, I don’t know that I’ll feel compelled to join them again anytime soon. But keep at it, fellas. The crimes in that colorful locale aren’t going to solve themselves, week in and week out.