Thursday, September 23, 2010

Hawaii Five-0.2

I don't think that anyone will ever accuse CBS of really pushing the envelope when it comes to most of their dramas. Or at least the shows that work. The network has been willing, on occasion to try a show like Viva Laughlin, and replaced the marginally successful Moonlight with the disastrous The Ex-List, but for the most part the network seems content to build on and spin-off or copy (with some changes) their own successes. You can see this in the 2010-11 season. The three new dramas on CBS are Blue Bloods, a cop show merged with a family drama, The Defenders, a dramedy built around a pair of
lawyers who are just a couple of steps above being ambulance chasers (and which just might be the most innovative of this year's CBS dramatic crop), and the subject of this review, Hawaii Five-0.

Hawaii Five-0 is of course a remake of the classic CBS series that debuted in 1968 and ran until 1980. The original, which starred Jack Lord, James MacArthur, Kam Fong and a host of others, is one of the most iconic television series ever. The theme is so well known that the first introductory notes, before the theme really gets going, are enough to identify the theme and bring back memories of the show's title sequence and thoughts of Hawaii. It's an almost Pavlovian reaction. In fact when the new version of the show was announced with an "updated," more "rock oriented" version of the theme, the villagers were out like a flash with their torches and pitchforks to destroy the "monster," which was successfully accomplished.

The big question is how do you handle this sort of iconic series when you want to do a new version? You could got the "Next Generation" route; have the new series be a continuation of the old series set a couple of decades later with new characters and references to the past. That was in fact done in an unbroadcast 1998 pilot featuring Gary Busey as the current head of Five-0. That pilot also featured a number of members of the original series cast (including Kam Fong playing his old role of Chin Ho Kelly despite the fact that the character had been killed during the series; no one connected with that revival remembered). The other way to go is to simply use the characters names and the basic concept of the show but to ignore everything that had occurred in the previous series. It worked very well when they remade Battlestar Galactica and much worse when they remade Bionic Woman. This is the approach that the producers of the new Hawaii Five-0 have taken.

The pilot episode of the current Hawaii Five-0 set up the whole premise of the series. Navy Seal Commander Steve McGarrett (Alex O'Laughlin) is part of a heavily armed escort detail transferring terrorist Anton Hesse to a different facility. However Hesse's brother Victor (James Marsters) took McGarrett's father, John, hostage and forced him to call his son. This allows Victor and his gang to locate the convoy that is transporting Anton and direct another group of terrorists to attack it. During the attack, Anton manages to escape and gets a gun. Steve is forced to shoot Anton and in retaliation Victor murders McGarrett's father. Returning to Hawaii for his father's funeral McGarrett is brought to meet Hawaiian Governor Pat Jameson (Jean Smart) at a public area of Pearl Harbor. She has a proposition for him; she will appoint him to head a special state task force to track down Hesse and other criminals like him. He will essentially have carte blanche to pick his own people and a promise of immunity for just about anything that they might have to do in order to get the job done. McGarrett turns her down. He's after Hesse himself. While at Pearl Harbor, McGarrett meets up with Chin Ho Kelly (Daniel Dae Kim) who had been John McGarett's protégé at the police department. Although Chin Ho is now working as a security guard in the public areas of Pearl Harbor, he gives Steve some information about the case and how seriously it's (not) being taken. The Police Department has picked a "haole" (a word in the Hawaiian language which is usually taken as meaning Caucasian, although in this context it seems to used as a term of contempt for someone who doesn't have roots in Hawaii). Returning to his family home, Steve finds and observes several clues that tell him about the number of people who were involved in the murder of his father. He is interrupted in his search by an armed man who just happens to be the haole detective that Chin Ho mentioned. Danny Williams (Scott Caan) is a divorced cop originally from New Jersey who came to Hawaii to stay close to his young daughter. He's not very happy with Steve McGarrett becoming involved in his case. This leads Steve to call the Governor and accept her offer, even being sworn in over the telephone. Suddenly Danny is Steve's subordinate, and not in a position to give any orders. Clues found at the house leads Steve and Danny to a suspected arms dealer who supplied Victor with some of his weapons. The man is not exactly happy about the police coming around and a running gun battle starts. It ends when the arms dealer threatens to shoot McGarrett and is shot by Danny. Steve isn't exactly pleased with having his one lead killed but the discovery of a Chinese girl, tied up in the arms dealer's house gives them a new direction to try. Steve reasons that Hesse might be using snakeheads, or people smugglers, to get him out of Hawaii.

In order to get a line on the snakehead responsible for bringing the girl they found at the arms dealer's house, McGarrett turns to Chin Ho. He's happy to provide some information but when Steve asks him to help on the case he refuses. He's been shuffled off to the side – given a rubber gun as he puts it – despite fifteen years on the force, because of allegations that he took bribes. Steve believes in him though because his father believed in Chin Ho. At a meeting with one of Chin Ho's confidential informants, a Hawaiian seller of shaved ices, Steve and Danny are excluded while the informant gives Chin Ho the name of the snakehead. They need to get the man to incriminate himself. The problem, as Chin points out, is that on an island the size of Oahu, all of the bad guys know all of the good guys. They need someone who isn't known, and Chin Ho has just the woman, his cousin Kona Kalakaua. They meet Kona (Grace Park) at the beach where she's surfing. A former professional surfer, she blew out her knee which led her to enter the police academy. She hasn't graduated yet, which makes her an ideal candidate to go undercover to get information to incriminate the snake head. She goes in as a Chinese immigrant who wants to get her family out of China. Outside the rest of the team is waiting in a semi-trailer equipped with some of the latest electronics, including a special laser microphone that will allow them to hear through walls. To prove that she's not a cop wearing a wire the snakehead forces her to strip down to her bra and panties, but because she has beach sand in her hair the snakehead is convinced that she's a cop. Just as things are about to go very bad for Kona the semi smashes through the wall of the old warehouse where the snakehead is based. After a gun battle, the snakehead is defiant. He claims that McGarrett and his team are guilty of entrapment and that he'll get off. After Danny discovers a group of people locked in an shipping container, Steve has some leverage on the man. The threat of prison isn't going to break the man so he threatens to have his wife and son sent back to Rwanda, where the boy is just about old enough to become a child soldier. He gives up Victor Hesse's location – a Chinese freighter that is ready to leave Hawaii soon. McGarrett contacts the Governor and insists that she stop the ship from sailing. She's worried about an international incident if American cops invade the freighter, but McGarrett not only reminds her of her promise of full immunity for his actions but claims that if it becomes public that a known terrorist was found aboard a Chinese freighter they won't press the matter of the ship being Chinese territory. McGarrett and his team drive their car up a ramp and ont the ship. In a gunfight they wound or kill most of Victor's men. In a confrontation on top of a shipping container Victor and McGarrett manage to disarm each other but recovering a gun Victor seems to get the upper hand before Steve manages to get his hand on a gun and shoot Victor. He falls off the top of the container into the ocean, but as the body doesn't come to the surface there's some question of whether or not Victor is dead. The episode concludes with Steve surveying the new headquarters of his task force in Honolulu's Iolani Palace. As the group enjoys a beer, Kona brings up the idea that they need a team name.

In 1998 Kam Fong, who played Chin Ho Kelly on the original version of the show once spoke about the possibilities of a remake: "When you have a show that runs successfully and you try to duplicate it, people who watched the earlier version can't help but associate the current cast with the former one. If they did Five-O again, everybody would compare Jack Lord with the new guy. It's never the same. The original is always better than the remake." While anyone who compares the two versions of Battlestar Galactica critically would be inclined to disagree with the assessment that "the original is always better than the remake," it is almost inevitable that one would compare the various actors to those who played the originals. This presents a problem because of the differences in acting styles over the years. I was generally pleased with Alex O'Laughlin's portrayal of Steve McGarrett; it was looser and more relatable than Jack Lord's performance. In Hawaii Five-O at least, Lord always seemed to run the emotional gamut from A to A-; for the life of me I can't ever recall his McGarrett smiling, let alone laughing. O'Laughlin's version of the character not only smiles and laughs but he comes across as a more human character. The approach with Scott Caan's version of Danny Williams is also very different from James MacArthur's. Caan's version seems to be a more mature adult than MacArthur's even though his life off the job is probably more messed up. Caan's version of Williams comes across as more of an equal to McGarrett rather than a protégé which is how MacArthur's version of the character always seemed. Making the initial relationship confrontational created more of a "buddy cop" vibe than was ever achieved in the original series. There is big difference between Kam Fong's portrayal of Chin Ho and Daniel Dae Kim's. As portrayed by Kam Fong, Chin Ho was a garrulous veteran cop (his first line in the pilot of the original series was something like "Have no fear, Chin Ho is here!") who was very well connected, often through family connections. He also represented something of an institutional memory – he had a lot of facts at his command. Daniel Dae Kim's Chin Ho has some of these qualities. He's a veteran cop and he has plenty of connections. The allegation that he's a corrupt cop who took bribes is something that would never have been used for the original character. His link to Steve McGarrett, and the reason why McGarrett is willing to bring him into his task force is that Chin Ho was his father's protégé. John McGarrett believe that Chin Ho wasn't guilty and because his father believed in and trusted Chin Ho he's willing to trust him as well. The biggest change is of course the character of Kono/Kona Kalakaua. Zulu who played Kono was a big Hawaiian guy who quite frankly had limited acting ability. The character was essentially the group's muscle, and generally had little to do in most episodes besides providing the muscle. Grace Park place Kona (that's the feminized version of the name Kono, although apparently the show will use the name Kono for the character interchangeably), and the character has been give a lot more to do than her previous male counterpart. They've made the character a tough, capable kick-ass woman with a lot of potential for storylines. Just as an example, making the character a new cop, fresh out of the academy, and therefore unknown to the bad guys means that she is likely to be the character most likely to go undercover in many episodes. I'm impressed with the direction that they're taking with the character, making her far more visible and important than Zulu's character ever was. Where I have a problem is that they have not only made the character an Asian woman with a Polynesian name, and presumably some Polynesian ancestry, but they've reinforced this by making her Chin Ho's cousin. But as you'll see this is a problem that I have with the show in general.

I generally liked the pilot, although there are a few things that I had problems with. The decision to start the series with a pilot that explained how the "Hawaii Five-0 unit" (as it is going to become known, though I don't think that the "naming session" at the end of the episode actually got around to mentioning that particular name) was created was probably a good one. It not only gives us background as to why this particular group of people came together but it also gives the characters a back story. In what will not be the last reference to the old series in this review, that is something that was painfully absent from the original Hawaii Five-O. In fact we probably knew more about the private lives of the characters on Law & Order, a modern series that was notorious for focusing only on the professional lives of its characters, than we ever knew about Jack Lord's version of McGarrett and we knew more about him than we ever knew about any of his team members. There were other nice touches, such as an explanation of why McGarrett calls Williams "Danno" (it's the name that Danny's daughter used when she had first tried to say his name). More to the point we saw the origins of the McGarrett and Williams relationship. In the original we never knew how Danno became McGarrett's protégé/second-in-command. In this we saw the relationship develop from open hostility to grudging respect.

Turning to things I didn't like, my biggest problem with the show as a whole is that there seems to have been no effort made to use local Hawaiian talent in the show, particularly Polynesian-Americans. Of the four main cast members, not one was born in Hawaii, and none is a Polynesian American. In the original series Kam Fong and Zulu (real name Gilbert Lani Kauhi) were both born in Hawaii (in fact Kam Fong was a sixteen year veteran of the Honolulu Police Department) as was later cast member Herman Weidemeyer. Another later cast member, Al Harrington, was of Samoan ancestry. A bigger problem for me – and this is something that might improve in later episode – is the sense of pace. The episode seemed to race to a conclusion in the "hour" (including commercials; more like 45 minutes without) apparently winding up the entire case a lot faster than any other show on TV. When you consider just how many of the scenes in the episode were action sequences you have to wonder how smart a terrorist Victor was to be caught the way he was. The pace of the whole thing was frenetic, and to my mind this pace left too much unexplained. This is a show that would have benefited from slowing the pace down by either running the pilot as a two hour movie – not something that's done much anymore – or splitting the pilot between two episodes. Hopefully in later episodes they'll even out the pacing.

I'm not going to say that this version of Hawaii Five-0 is better than Jack Lord's Hawaii Five-O (the replacement of the letter "O" with the number "0" is an official edict from the show's producers). The original series was very much a product of its time, and is constructed in the way that shows at the time were done, without necessarily delving deeply into the backstory of either the people or the organization that they were working for. The viewers are meant to accept what is presented to us without questioning their origins too much. Because of what we've generally become used to in shows, this lack of exposition can make the original show feel old-fashioned. Viewing a few old episodes in a recent marathon that Spike TV ran prior to the debut of the new series, I couldn't help but feel that at times the show just didn't hold together well. Based solely on the pilot the new Hawaii Five-0 has given us many of the qualities that the original series didn't explore because they didn't need to. Where I find fault with the new series (besides the lack of local actors in leading roles) is that based on the pilot the pacing isn't right. This is something that can be readily fixed so that we aren't inundated with action with bits of exposition in between to fill in the gaps. I think that the show needs to be a bit more believable as a procedural in order to live up to its namesake. While in my opinion the show has some room for improvement, Hawaii Five-0 is still a solid performer that people are going to watch, and I doubt that few of them are going to feel short changed when they watch it.

As far as the network is concerned, Hawaii Five-0 is a safe bet for CBS in this time slot. It follows the networks formula of generally playing it safe and not taking too many risks. It builds off an established name and concept and doesn't do much in the way of pushing the envelope. This may be something that the professional critics, and amateur reviewers like me may bemoan on occasion, but I think that we all have to admit that this is a formula that works. It's a formula that CBS is riding, cautiously, all the way to the bank.


Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

for the life of me I can't ever recall his McGarrett smiling

McGarrett didn't so much as smile as grin--and that death rictus of his used to make me shudder.

The new Five-0 didn't suck as much as I thought it would, but it just wasn't my cup of Earl Grey...I've never seen the new Battlestar Galactica (hell, I'm not sure if I even remember the old one) but by and large, my hard-and-fast rule is if you did it right the first time there's really no need to do it again.

My pal Rick Brooks sums up my take on the new Five-0 by observing: "Everything was super, super fast for the first 10 minutes, even dialogue scenes, and then it 'settled' into merely super fast mode."

Toby O'B said...

I would have preferred the continuation mode rather than a remake,but since they've gone that route, now I want the guy who played Dogen on 'Lost' to be Wo Fat on a recurring basis!

Greatfan said...

Absolutely love this show. The characters are awesome. Love the scenery