Hawaii Five-0 debuts tonight on CBS at 10 p.m. Eastern.
Hawaii Five-0 is the TV equivalent of a movie like Batman Begins or Casino Royale. It's not as good as either of those films, but it achieves a remarkable facsimile of the effect left by a film like one of those, a film that reboots a troubled franchise and makes it new and compelling again. It's not immediately obvious how Hawaii Five-0 will avoid becoming just another CBS crime drama, but in its pilot, at least, it's very enjoyable indeed. The show's producers - including Fringe creators Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, as well as Peter Lenkov - have a wonderful time toying with the elements of the original series, creating a remarkable retread of the famous theme song for the opening credits and dropping the "Danno" nickname early enough that the pilot almost becomes a game to see when the original show's most famous line will pop up again.
But like the best revitalizations of moribund franchises, this takes the original and tosses in everything the medium has learned since that show's glory days. The original Hawaii Five-O had its moments, and Jack Lord's performance wasn't bad. But the show now seems incredibly moribund, held back by the limitations of the medium at the time it was made, small budgets, and unfortunate racial caricatures. Even the best TV shows often feel frozen in the eras they were made in, and the original Hawaii Five-O, which ran from 1968 to 1980, incredibly, feels more trapped in amber than most. TV fans who've been rolling their eyes at the idea of this series all summer can be forgiven for taking the least charitable reading of the upcoming show, particularly since it was on CBS, a network not exactly known for taking chances.
But while CBS still isn't taking chances, it's revitalizing and twisting its signature formula into something not new, exactly, but new-ish. Where the network was the home of gloomy crime procedurals for years and years, it's now making room for shows that break with the grim tone and dark shadows of the CSI series and Criminal Minds, perhaps because the networks signature hit is now the sillier NCIS. There's room on the network for comedies on Thursday night, heartwarming reality shows about CEOs learning their lessons (no matter how cloying they may be), a procedural/workplace drama mash-up with strong character study elements, and a new show that's a goofy dramedy about seedy lawyers. CBS is trying things within a narrow range, but it's certainly trying them.
And the best fruit of its labors this year is Hawaii Five-0. Where the original is a museum piece, this one feels surprisingly modern and not held back by any necessary connections to the original beyond the producers getting a kick out of playing around with the idea of a cop who doesn't play by the rules. (Of course, the new Hawaii Five-0 will feel just as dated in 32 years time as the old one does now, but that's a subject for another time.) Everything that wouldn't work about the old show in a modern context has been eschewed. Everything about the CBS crime show format that feels tired has also been tossed away. What's left makes for a potent cocktail of action and crime-solving fun.
The biggest change to the formula made by the producers is the introduction of something like a continuing storyline. This isn't going to be to the level of serialization on the previous big hit show filmed in Hawaii, Lost, but Steve McGarrett (Alex O'Loughlin) is tortured by the events of the teaser, when he loses his father to a criminal's bullet. The season, at least, will be taken up by tracking down his father's killers, and at least one of them (played by a snarling James Marsters) is the target of the investigation in the pilot. It's obvious that this will eventually turn into something that gets shunted off into a scene or two in every episode, but it's interesting to see the show play around with this, and it's a nice break from the usual CBS formula.
But the biggest pleasures of the show come from things that have nothing to do with the serialized storyline at all. They come from Jean Smart (as the governor of Hawaii!) trying to rein in the elite task force she's set up with McGarrett at the head and failing, the producers slyly smiling as they come THIS CLOSE to having her say, "YOU'VE CROSSED THE LINE, MCGARRETT!" They come from McGarrett leaping up in the air at just the right moment and sliding across a car hood as another car slams into it (a stunt that is surprisingly well-executed for the small screen). They come from the way director Len Wiseman's camera captures the Hawaiian landscape, and the way that the supporting cast feels more vital to everything going on here than the supporting cast ever felt in the original.
The best reason to watch this show is Scott Caan as Danny Williams (the "Danno" of that famous line). He's a likable rogue who happens upon McGarrett almost by accident and quickly falls into a squabbling, banter-filled relationship with the guy. Caan somehow finds a way to underplay the stereotypical "livewire cop," and the most fun the episode has to offer comes from when he and McGarrett are driving around Hawaii and making fun of each other. There's an attempt to give Danno a sappy backstory involving moving to Hawaii to be closer to his daughter (and the ringtone he gives his ex-wife is one of the episode's few eye-rollingly stupid jokes), but, for the most part, the role is just an excuse for Caan to do what he does best, which is do badass things - like shoot guys in the head - with a smirk. Daniel Dae Kim, as Chin Ho, and Grace Park, as Kono, get less to do, but both are as solid and entertaining as they've been in previous roles, and Park gets one of the better, "This hot girl knows how to kick ass!" introductions in recent TV memory.
If there's a flaw in Hawaii Five-0 - outside of an opening ten minutes that ladles on literally all of the exposition in the pilot - it's the central performance. Alex O'Loughlin is something of a charisma vacuum that CBS keeps giving shows because it thinks he's got the stuff of a giant TV star. The last time they kept doing this, they ended up with Simon Baker on The Mentalist (where he did eventually develop charisma), so the network obviously has its reasons. And to be fair to O'Loughlin, he's the best he's ever been in this pilot, particularly when bantering with Caan. Yet every time the show focuses on him and his problems, it nearly grinds to a halt, and viewers will be forgiven for wondering just what's up with Danno, Chin-ho, and Kono.
Still, Hawaii Five-0 is everything any TV viewer could want in a time-waster. No one's going to mistake it for profound television, but it accomplishes something almost more rare: It becomes exquisitely paced, indelibly fun television. That's nothing to sneeze at. So many shows offer up half-assed escapism that it's easy to forget just how fun it can be when it's done as well as it's done here. When O'Loughlin's tortured face in the teaser segues immediately into the pulsing base, pounding timpanis, and blaring horns of the famous theme song, complete with title sequence that seems air-lifted in from an '80s action show, there's no way most viewers won't smile. And, more importantly, Hawaii Five-0 earned that smile.