Time Capsule of Our Culture: 1968's 'Hawaii Five-O'

When Alex O’Loughlin becomes Steve McGarrett on September 20, 2010, he ushers in Hawaii Five-O for a new generation and a new millennium. The re-imagined series will be viewed and critically reviewed on its own merits, but it can’t escape the original’s place in pop culture.

In 1968, the first song my elementary school band learned to play was the “Hawaii Five-O Theme". When my parents took a cruise to the islands a year later, they brought back Kona coffee and macadamia nuts. Their photos of golden sunsets, palm-fringed beaches, and hula dancers matched the intro to Hawaii Five-O. They and Steve McGarrett formed my first impressions of the 50th state. It may have taken my adult fascination with another TV series, Lost, to actually get me to the islands, but -- based on the Hawaii Five-O years (1968-1980) -- I easily recognized Diamond Head, Waikiki, and the Aloha Tower as my flight descended (not crash landed) on Oahu.

Such memories of the original series aren’t mine alone. Morton Stevens’ famous TV theme entered popular culture decades ago. No words are needed at the beginning of CBS’ promos leading toward the re-imagined Hawaii Five-O’s debut this month. That theme reminds audiences it’s time to return to the islands, in the same way that McGarrett’s most famous line, “Book ‘em, Danno", also playfully included within the previews, recalls the original series’ glory days.

It’s amazing how much television helps form our cultural impressions. When Hawaii Five-O debuted on September 20, 1968, Steve McGarrett first encountered Wo Fat, an international villain more along the lines of a Bond nemesis rather than a faceless terrorist. Tourists and, indeed, the world were safer with McGarrett keeping tabs on such a villain. Although that pilot episode set up an important two-man Cold War that would continue through the series’ last episode, the first “regular” episode truly sets the tone for the many stories to follow. “Full Fathom Five” (September 26, 1968) may be notable to TV fans because it introduces James MacArthur as memorable main character Danny “Danno” Williams, but today it also introduces us to a world long gone.

Of course, technology has changed in the past four decades. In the moving images circa 1968, low, square now-classic cars maneuver through surprisingly little Honolulu traffic, and some drivers even roll down the windows instead of cranking up the AC. McGarrett’s phone conversations keep him tethered to his desk via a long, curly cord. Danny hand combs the files to correlate missing persons data. McGarrett wires other police agencies with requests for information, and a teletype chatters away in an office. In an age of Blackberries, we tend to forget the technological unwieldiness of times past.

What surprisingly seems more alien is the sociopolitical reality so fleetingly shown in a few scenes during this episode. McGarrett’s team helps an attorney track down a missing person—a rich young woman who wants nothing to do with her fortune. In fact, she can’t be bothered to sign oil leases guaranteed to increase her wealth because she’s too busy living the hippie life on a tropical beach. She explains that she can’t give away her money fast enough. Riches are far more than cash, something the disbelieving attorney can’t quite grasp. McGarrett, however, understands why the heiress would prefer to live a low-key life. He reminds the attorney that no one can force the rich to become richer. McGarrett even smirks “peace, brother” before he drives off. The concept of an oil baroness disinterested in more profits and eager to give away her money as fast as she makes it seems anachronous to recent headlines and economic sensibilities.

The plot, too, seems rather quaint. Two con artists make their living swindling and then murdering lonely female visitors to the island. Domestic crime must be avoided. The governor (sitting under a shade tree enjoying a picnic lunch) reminds McGarrett that two million tourists visit annually, and the state must protect them (and presumably Hawaii’s growing tourism industry). In fact, the unlucky future victims often are wooed on cruises from the mainland to Honolulu, a crime that needs to be stopped for many reasons. Instead of McGarrett fighting international crime lords (and Communists), as he does in the more famous Wo Fat episodes, in this story he battles middle-class killers. Compared to the terrorists, bombers, and sociopaths populating many current TV dramas, the 1960s’ con artists are far more harmless to the masses.

No matter the villain of the week, McGarrett is clearly the series’ savior figure. He directs his team in a combined effort to infiltrate and track down the dastardly duo, but the winning moments are all his. When undercover policewoman Joyce (aka “bait”) reaches that dramatic do-or-die moment, McGarrett rushes in—this time in a motorboat—to save the day. The bad guy tries to run, but McGarrett brings him down with a single shot. The death is relatively bloodless, but the killer is confirmed dead.

“Full Fathom Five”’s plot moves forward more slowly than the flashforward, -backward, and –sideways storytelling by a recent series filmed on Oahu. As McGarrett walks out of the Iolani Palace, the famous filming location for his office, the camera follows instead of cutting away. It later zooms in to a lingering close-up of McGarrett tracking the bad guys—using binoculars. Danny even takes a moment to perch on his boss’ desk while he lights up a cigarette. Despite the often leisurely pace, justice can be neatly delivered within an hour. Viewers can rest assured that, should they visit Hawaii, they would be protected by the likes of vigilant Steve McGarrett.

At times, Hawaii Five-O blurs the line between adherence to the legal requirements necessary to “book ‘em” and a flexible attitude toward the law. To a world familiar with 24 or similar take-no-prisoners TV series, the original McGarrett’s team seems remarkably tame. They may stretch the law, but they don’t torture anyone in this episode. (Instead, bad-guy Wo Fat tortures McGarrett in the pilot; the villain uses this tactic against the hero, but the hero survives to win the day -- in McGarrett’s case, more than a decade later.) Undercover on a cruise ship, Danny searches the “alleged” (but we all know he’s guilty) murderer’s stateroom without showing anyone a warrant. Before the credits roll, McGarrett simply shoots to kill the fleeing villain, and no one questions his action. Clearly, McGarrett rules his island domain by more or less following the rules.

Because Hawaii is geographically remote from the mainland, despite the links of phone or cruise ship, the original series was exotic. Although Honolulu’s high rises, efficient detectives, and domestic crimes made Hawaii Five-O feel familiar to couch potatoes used to watching police chases filmed in Los Angeles, the Hawaiian police series reminded audiences that they glimpsed a real-life tropical paradise. The first episode’s palm trees, hula dancers, beaches (with or without hippies), and background shot of Diamond Head hint at visual delights to come. As well, McGarrett and company further the Made in Hawaii ambiance by casually dropping a “mahalo” or two into conversation or mentioning Oahu communities like Kailua, Lanikai, and Kaneohe. In 1968, Hawaii was more likely a once-in-a-lifetime dream destination for people like my parents, rather than a typical vacation spot or layover on the way to even more exotic destinations for their adult children.

When Alex O’Loughlin becomes Steve McGarrett on September 20, 2010, he ushers in Hawaii Five-O for a new generation and a new millennium. The re-imagined series will be viewed and critically reviewed on its own merits, but it can’t escape the original’s place in pop culture. When that first drum pounds out a driving rhythm and “da-ta-da-ta-DA DA” overlays a breaking wave, past and present merge. Our perceptions of the world -- and Oahu -- may be far different from those of audiences in 1968, but Steve McGarrett might once more propel Hawaii (not a mysterious unnamed island) into the mainland’s mainstream popular culture.

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