When I was a kid, back in Minnesota, I had a Cub Scout den mother, a Mrs. Fryfogel. She taught us backwoods commonsense, like don’t drop crumbs on the trail because you never know what kind of critter might be right behind you picking up the pieces. I’ll never forget the motto she taught us: be prepared.
—MacGyver (Richard Dean Anderson), “The Gauntlet”
Is there anything MacGyver can’t do? From disarming a bomb with a paper clip to saving a man’s life with a defibrillator fashioned from some candlesticks, Mac’s (Richard Dean Anderson) talent for thinking on his feet in times of danger knows no bounds. He’s the hero with a brain, relying on commonsense and quick thinking to get help to those who need it most. In his first adventure-filled season, just out on an entirely extras-free DVD set, MacGyver employs his ingenuity to stop an oil fire with some dynamite, free slaves in an opium field, escape certain death at a nuclear power plant, and save a town from a deadly ant plague. And he does it all without breaking a sweat.
If MacGyver’s talents seem a little far-fetched, they are. The guy’s an expert at everything from sword fighting to horse riding to jet skiing. He’s a physics genius (with, we learn in the episode “Flame’s End,” at least half a college degree in the subject), apparently irresistible to women (he kisses a different woman in almost every episode), and he plays a mean game of table hockey. But where does he come from? What’s his secret?
MacGyver is famous for his hatred of guns, and for choosing wits over violence to solve his problems. But, his actual job requirements, and how he got this job, are a little sketchy. Ask Mac what he does for a living and he’ll tell you “a bit of this, a bit of that.” It’s eventually revealed that Mac is employed by “the government,” but which government and in what capacity is never clear. The seeming point is to create an air of mystery around this lone ranger who flits in and out of politically unstable areas like Budapest and Berlin, saving the day and then moving on. The mystery gets old quickly. Mac’s so furtive about who he is and what he does that we learn nothing about him other than what he tells us in voiceover about his Cub Scout days.
Good thing, then, that about half-way through the season, the real MacGyver starts to show himself. In an effort to give the series focus, Episode 15 (“The Enemy Within”) introduces the secret (though, presumably, government-run) Phoenix Foundation, headed up by an old cohort of Mac’s, Pete Thornton (Dana Elcar). Pete’s appearance shifts the show’s central riddle from Mac to the organization; finally, we get to know what our hero’s been doing with himself since Cub Scouts. Turns out he has a physics degree, defused bombs in Vietnam, and his grandpa taught him everything he knows.
Great though it is to have Mac’s background revealed, you might still wonder about this effectiveness of his training. The DIY element of the series is obviously its hook—look what this guy can do with just a thumbtack and a shoelace!—but these outrageous stunts soon become tiresome. The problem is the coincidence factor. Mac might be an ultra-insightful thinker, able to turn nothing into something to save lives, but if the tools weren’t serendipitously laying at his feet wherever he went, he’d lose a lot more battles than he wins.
In “Last Stand,” he starts his hostage-saving mission by freeing a security guard from an armored van stolen by kidnappers. He does this by fashioning a welding torch out of a rusted bicycle and a flare gun. Mac’s voiceover—he always explains what he’s doing—notes that a welding torch is just a few steps away if you have access to a racing bike, some rust, and a flare for ignition. So, the question is: what’s a rusted bicycle doing laying about a near-abandoned airfield in the middle of nowhere? And exactly what is “some of the equipment you’ve got over there” that Mac says will be necessary for his torch? Sooner or later, similar questions must be asked in almost every episode. Mac makes sure to carry the requisite paperclip with him at all times in case he needs to defuse a bomb or pick a lock, but what if there hadn’t been cases of nitroglycerine in an abandoned shack in “Hellfire”? What then?
It’s all just a little too easy. Mac’s brilliance fades to dumb luck throughout the season as he runs into a broken candy machine right when he needs chocolate to plug a sulfur leak, or finds himself right near a fire hydrant when he needs to magnetize a metal rod. And, as such, his believability and respectability fade, disappearing entirely when he starts building a hot-air balloon out of papier-mâché in an African prison compound. His motto might be “Be Prepared,” but for Mac, a little luck goes a long way.
In all fairness, MacGyver‘s an action show, and delivers more than its fair share of thrills and spills. Anderson, too, has the charisma to carry off much of Mac’s silly tricks, making them seem, if not believable, then at least somewhat exciting. The real problem with this first season—the show ran for seven years—is its lack of focus. There’s the occasional good episode, like “Target MacGyver,” in which Mac spends a few days with his granddad (even though he’s being pursued by ruthless assassins). But for the most part, with such an underdeveloped character and so many ridiculous plots, MacGyver‘s first season reminds us how bizarre ‘80s TV really was.