Taken from The Boston Phoenix's "Character Sketches," a celebration of
viewers' favorite TV characters. Click here for the full article.
It was the contrast between his steely, no-nonsense gaze and luxuriant
pompadour that drew me in: hard-edged efficiency melded with tropical
indulgence. Steve McGarrett, as played by auteur and control freak Jack Lord,
embodied the contradictions of law enforcement in what mainlanders saw as an
"anything goes" paradise. The emotive twin of Dragnet's stolid Joe
Friday ("That's what these kids get for trying drugs"), McGarrett combined
Clint Eastwood's edginess with a West Coast sensibility: Dirty Harry
goes surfing. Viewers were even treated to tantalizing glimpses of his
personal life -- McGarrett was "a bachelor who enjoyed sailing" -- as our man
in the lei worked over various island ne'er-do-wells.
When the series debuted in 1968, I was a mere tot in Corvallis, Oregon, glued
to the black-and-white TV set while Mom and Dad spun Meet the Beatles on
the hi-fi. The psychedelic '60s, flying out of control at this point,
didn't interest me at all. Instead, it was McGarrett's staccato delivery, his
contemptuously polite way with his minions, and his general disregard for
constitutional niceties -- "Gentlemen, I want you to turn this place inside
out" -- that freed me from my parents' grad-student ranch house. McGarrett
chasing after fingerprint-less thieves (they worked in a pineapple-canning
factory); McGarrett ordering around the state's governor; McGarrett hunting
down his nemesis, Wo Fat, "a Red Chinese agent in charge of the entire
Pacific Asiatic theater." It was the world writ small, infinitely dense and
utterly exotic, yet with a strangely familiar Fleurs du mal scent. It
was both sordid and glorious, and Steve McGarrett, omniscient and unknowable,
was its lord of creation and death.
Hawaii Five-O was the last TV show I watched regularly. After McGarrett
sailed off into the sunset in 1980, why bother?