The Man Who Wouldn’t Go Away

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After an absence of a few years, “Hawaii Five-O” is back on local television in the Bay Area. For nostalgia’s sake, and because our hundreds of channels of DirecTV are filled with a whole lot of crap, Kate turned it on last night while she was stringing lights on our tree, and I wound up watching nearly the whole thing. The show became a favorite back in the ’80s in reruns because the shallow characters, formulaic plots, cliched scripts, and bad acting made it ideal for the “Mystery Science Theater” treatment: We’d watch and supply our own dialogue. Fun for the whole family, no controlled substances necessary.

As bad as ” Hawaii Five-O” looked back in the ’80s, it hasn’t aged well. I’d guess it looks worse than ever largely because a host of superior — at least as far as commercial TV goes — police dramas have come out since McGarrett, Dan-O, Chin Ho, Zulu as Kono, and Herman Wedemeyer as Duke vanished after their 13 seasons on CBS (then the longest-running police show in prime-time history; I think  ABC;s “NYPD Blue” is in its 13th season now). First, “Hill Street Blues,” which died a more or less noble death, canceled before it could get bad. Then, in no particular order, “Homicide: Life on the Street” (killed prematurely), “NYPD Blue” (which has long overstayed its welcome), “Law and Order” (which has produced one-spinoff too many with “L&O: Criminal Intent”), “CSI” (the Las Vegas original; the Miami version’s David Caruso is the Jack Lord of the now generation, a portentous and puffed-up mainland McGarrett), HBO’s “The Wire,” and, for good measure, the British import “Prime Suspect.”

The main thing all these shows have going for them is that — while all too often succumbing to the temptation to tie up stories with neat endings — they’ve dropped the pretense that cop business is clean, orderly, or enlightened. It’s sort of the same thing that’s happened with medical dramas: “Dr. Kildare,” “Ben Casey,” and “Marcus Welby” gave way to “St. Elsewhere,” “Chicago Hope,” and “ER”; the newer generation of shows appear to resemble actual hospitals and maybe even real life a bit more than the earlier doctors-as-demigods offerings.

But back to last night’s “Hawaii Five-O.” The episode involved a wrongly convicted murder suspect, a prison siege, a doctor with a shotgun taped to his neck, a crooked defense lawyer, a frightened witness, cartoonish thugs, an inscrutable Chinese gambler who actually said, “Things are not always as they appear,” and lots of the usual Jack Lord pose-striking. Everything about the show reeked, even the lighting, camera work, and sets. How did it get the ratings to stay on the air so long? One clue: at one point, Kate said unprompted, “Jack Lord was really handsome.” And obviously they were the product of an era where lots of people wanted to believe in an invincible, two-fisted straight-shooter like McGarrett.

What I started to wonder, though, is whether the current crop of cop shows are going to look just as wretched, crude, and artless in 25 years, when they’ve been superceded by something newer and better and we’re looking at them with different eyes.

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