(Pictured: Steve McGarrett, played by Jack Lord, interrogates witnesses played by Susan Kay Logan and Carole Kai in a 1968 episode of Hawaii Five-O.)
Hawaii Five-O is one of the most remarkable franchises in entertainment history: 12 seasons in its original run and 10 more in its new-millennium reboot. I last rewatched the whole original series in 2013; this time around, I find myself paying less attention to the stories and more to the seams that show.
Television production was less sophisticated back then. The show was filmed entirely in Hawaii, and many locations are endearingly scruffy. If a sign for some identifiable national business appeared in a scene, they left it in; today they’d either shoot the scene so it didn’t appear, or take it out in post-production. Crowds milling in the background of certain scenes are not extras, but bystanders who came to watch the filming. I enjoy the casual way the characters use Hawaiian slang without explaining it: telling someone to hurry by saying “wiki wiki,” or one man referring to another as “bruddah.”
Spotting familiar faces is one of the great pleasures of 70s TV, and Hawaii Five-O has them in droves. A guest role meant that an actor got to spend a couple of weeks in Hawaii at someone else’s expense, so why wouldn’t you want the job? After a while, it also becomes easy to spot members of the show’s company of regulars, several dozen local people who appeared in countless small roles, sometimes different roles in back-to-back episodes.
The show began in the fall of 1968 at a remarkably high level. There are few weak episodes in the first seven or eight seasons; it’s only around season nine that the quality slips noticeably, and it falls off a cliff starting in season 11. That said, my favorite episode of the series came in that year: a two-parter called “Number One With a Bullet.” I wrote about it back in 2013.
It’s about a local singer hoping to make it big, and her brother, whose popular Honolulu disco becomes ground zero for a war between Hawaiian and mainland mobsters. The singer, played by Yvonne Elliman, has a songwriting partner, played by James Darren, who involves himself with the mob guys and promptly gets greased right after he and Yvonne confess their love for one another.
There’s a ton of disco-era color in the episode, with a couple of long scenes set in the club. When the episodes were originally broadcast (part 1 on December 28, 1978, and part 2 on January 4, 1979), the disco scenes featured songs from Saturday Night Fever, although they have been replaced on the Netflix versions. The replaced music sometimes makes it seem as though the dancers are suffering from some sort of arrhythmia, but everybody looks great. . . .
I’m watching on Paramount Plus this time and the replacements are still there, but the original Saturday Night Fever songs, the Bee Gees’ “Night Fever” and David Shire’s instrumental “Manhattan Skyline,” are on the DVD release.
(Weeks later, another episode, “The Execution File,” used a re-recorded version of Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” as a major part of its soundtrack, just as the original record was completing its run at #1. It has been entirely replaced for streaming and DVDs by generic funk music. Mike Quigley’s fabulously comprehensive Hawaii Five-O fansite has a comparison of the original and replaced music here. But I digress.)
Elliman is eminently believable as the struggling local girl hoping to make it big—she’s not glamorous, and by modern standards she’d be plus-sized. She sings the Danny Kortchmar song “In a Stranger’s Arms,” which was on her then-current album Night Flight, and “I Can’t Get You Out of My Mind,” which doesn’t appear to have charted anywhere, although I swear I can remember playing it on the radio. The episode closes with the latter, filmed during a real Elliman concert in Hawaii with several Five-O cast members in the audience, including Jack Lord, who almost never made public appearances anywhere.
Steve McGarrett is one of the most iconic characters in all of television, but what makes Jack Lord’s contribution to TV history even more impressive is that after the show’s creator, Leonard Freeman, died in 1974, Lord took over as an uncredited showrunner through the end of the series.
TV isn’t real life. It isn’t today, and it wasn’t in the 1970s, either. But 70s TV is a congenial world to visit, especially for a resident of the 21st century. It’s a place where somebody like McGarrett is always looking out for us, and the bad guys always get what they deserve.