[20 September 2004]

By Bobby Simmons

Local Lessons

The new NBC series Hawaii earnestly attempts to capitalize on its spectacular setting, playing grim crime scenes against bits of spot-on local flavor. Yet despite its promising raw materials, the show sinks under the weight of cop-show clichés and missteps in casting and characterization.

Since the demise of Magnum, P.I. back in 1988, the State of Hawaii has been eager to bring back television production, ultimately winning a desperate battle with Australia in the late 1990s for a relocated Baywatch. Despite a seemingly endless stream of sweetheart deals (not to mention the casting of former Hugh Hefner gal pal Brande Roderick), Baywatch: Hawaii folded in 2001.

If that show served mostly as an hour-long promotion for the Hawaii Visitors’ Bureau, Hawaii shows a far nastier side of the islands, rife with brutal ritualistic killings and loose bags of military-grade explosives. The series follows two sets of partners on the Honolulu Metro Police Department, Chris Gains (Eric Balfour) and Danny Edwards (Ivan Sergei), and longtime HMPD Detective Sean Harrison (Michael Biehn) and John Declan (Sharif Atkins) a recently arrived detective from Chicago, their more seasoned counterparts. Both teams feature the same basic structure, one cop having a cooler head and a better sense of how to operate on the streets of Honolulu, the other earnestly going off half-cocked and learning valuable local lessons along the way.

Balfour, late of Six Feet Under, is the bright spot among the leads. His Officer Gains is young but savvy to Hawaii’s street culture and residents (he’s even fluent in Japanese!). With his ethnically indeterminate good looks, Balfour could pass for a local boy, and his general easiness keeps faith with the show’s effort to combine crime-fighting edginess and laidback attitude.

Declan is the televisual stand-in for the uninitiated viewer, newcomer to the islands who needs each local tradition, legend, and colloquialism explained. While this makes sense in terms of storytelling, it works against the credibility of the show both in terms of the local culture (very few black cops in Hawaii, truth be told) and in terms of crime-fighting (how could this guy step in as a detective in such an unfamiliar location?). By contrast, his partner, Harrison, is unexpectedly out of place, without any sign that he is kama’aina, or the truly local cop he narrative arrangement requires him to be.

The second-tier characters (all of Asian or Polynesian descent or some mix thereof) have the thankless task of countering the ethnic imbalance created by the casting of the four leads, while yoked to worn out and sometimes demeaning clichés. Officer Linh Tamiya (Aya Sumika) literally does it all, from advance work for her detective superiors, to sexual liaisons with the detectives, setting up some romantic rivalry between officers Declan and Edwards. Let’s just say this is an unfortunate turn.

The hidden gem among the second-stringers is Carey Hiroyuki Tagawa, the series’ only star with Hawaii roots. As beleaguered Captain Terry Harada, his mannerisms and vocalizations (he has the easiest time with Pidgin, the multi-lingual dialect of the state of Hawaii) lend much needed credibility to the proceedings at HMPD headquarters. Tagawa’s gravitas could be a greater asset still, especially if the producers get serious and give this crew more substantive storylines.

With that said, it is no small issue that the casting relegates the Asian American and Polynesian American actors to secondary roles, while the four leads consist of three Caucasians and an African American. According to the last census, Asians collectively outnumber Caucasians almost 2 to 1 in the 50th state. And African Americans? Forget it: less than 2% of the state population. While there remains a dearth of decent roles for African Americans on TV, the same goes for Asian Americans, and to miss this opportunity to develop a credible, frontline character of Asian descent in a show that clearly requires one, is just pathetic.

Such casting is especially grating because the show does go to some lengths to anchor itself to local customs, integrating Pidgin where appropriate, as well as recognizing regional styles and mythologies. A recent episode found Declan suffering a string of bad luck after mailing some lava rocks to his mother back in Chicago. Officer Kaleo (Peter Navy Tuiasosopo, the series’ heavyset “comic relief”) explains that by removing the rocks from the island, he has offended Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes. In comparison to the actual legend, the price Declan pays is slight, but these bits of local wisdom help stitch the show to its location, and work against its cop-show conventions.

The writers have also made it a point to pay tribute to Hawaii’s television history, with plenty of references to Hawaii 5-0 (bandits in a recent episode even donned Jack Lord masks). They do drop the ball now and again, as when bank robbers gloated that by the time HMPD arrived, they’d be “...halfway to Maui,” as if there are no cops on the Valley Isle.

Hawaii is by no means unwatchable, but it doesn’t stand out among contemporary crime shows, save for its lush, international setting. The producers could take better advantage of this strong point by adding at least one Polynesian or Asian detective (what’s Jason Scott Lee doing these days? Somebody call him) and tackling a real issue facing Hawaii’s legal system—methamphetamine use. Save the serial killers and severed heads for CSI—what Hawaii should aim for is to be the Central Pacific’s answer to Miami Vice.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/hawaii-2004/