My family and I are fond of the old Magnum, P.I. television show, not because its protagonists are saints—they’re far from that—but because the writing is good, the dialogue is snappy and credible without a lot of phony wisecracking, and the general mood of the show is cheerful, not grim. It usually does not take itself too seriously—not likely, when the hero, Thomas, is frantically trying to jimmy open the door to the guest house while Zeus and Apollo, the Dobermans Higgins has trained as guard dogs, are racing across the lawn to get a piece of him. Or when Thomas’s voice-over gives us some of his experience-laden wisdom about the detective business, only to have it contradicted by the next shot we see.
But much of the appeal of the show lies in the complicated crisscross of feelings and acts of friendship among the four principal characters—Thomas; his Vietnam platoon buddies T. C. and Rick; and Higgins, a British soldier from World War II whose military and human experiences are immensely broad, though he’s often a bore and, at least in appearance, a snob.
In fact, they are unlikely friends. Thomas is a bit of a ladies’ man, though we are often made aware that he wanted something else entirely—he was separated by violence from his Vietnamese wife. Perhaps he might have grown up, then, but in many ways he’s an overgrown teenage boy—irresponsible with money, constantly hitting up his friends for favors he promises to repay but almost never does, wearing his Detroit Tigers baseball cap, and living in that guest house, which is always in a state of disorder. T. C., a powerfully built black man, usually smiling, or laughing, at Thomas’s foibles, flies his own brightly colored helicopter for tourists; Island Hoppers, it’s called, and many are the times when Thomas presses him into service, promising to pay for the gasoline—but who pays for the gunshot holes that the helicopter so often suffers? T. C. is divorced, but he is not happy with that; he has a teenage son, and he coaches a baseball team for the boys. Rick is a scrappy little guy under the direct authority of Higgins and the elite King Kamehameha Club, the beachfront dinner club he manages. Rick lost both his mother and father when he was young, and the one man who came to the assistance of Rick and his kid sister, “Ice Pick,” was a mob boss. Ice Pick now lives in Hawaii. He is one of Rick’s sources of inside information, and Rick will not hear a word of criticism of the old man. Loyalty, in fact, is the great virtue common to all four men.
Each of the four characters is fleshed out in full; not one is a stock character or a caricature. Each man, you come to understand, possesses a fund of unrealized possibilities; each one has seen and done things, or thought and felt things, that make him sharply distinct—an individual, though not one of them prides himself on being such. Each is defined by loyalties to something or someone other than himself. Such men honor loyalty in others, and that honor helps bind them together, despite the frequent clash of personalities and peccadilloes. The soldier recognizes the soldier.
Truth-Telling in TV
There are three important themes I believe the Christian can draw from this show, despite its assumption that fornication is simply a part of life—a part of life, though the show’s writers do not glamorize it; meanwhile, religion is always treated with respect. All three help to reveal some truth about man that we have forgotten.
Male & Female
The first is right in front of our noses. You cannot imagine the show with women in place of the men. It isn’t just that a policewoman up against Thomas or T. C. would be like sending a doe to fight a grizzly bear. It’s that the men behave like men, and women are not like that. Women do not insult each other, making fun of their bodies or brains, as a way to strengthen the bonds of friendship. Nor do women put their bodies on the line to save some man in distress. These men’s hobbies are masculine. They talk and walk, they shout and laugh, as men. And each of them, at many times in the series, will be called on to protect a woman in need, and will do so with decisiveness and energy. Nor must the women be love-interests. What matters is simply that they are women.
This first is important not simply insofar as it runs counter to our current celebration of effeminate men, those uneasy self-contradictions, most of whom have implicitly rejected their sex’s natural orientation toward women and for women, as if their world could get along happily without the other sex at all. It is also important for our need to reaffirm the goodness and the distinctness of the sexes.
Let us draw this matter out. Our laws now assume what does not exist: a sexless human being. What is called “equal opportunity,” as regards men and women in employment, achieves equality by assuming that the sexes are interchangeable, which is bad enough, and by denying that the sexes are supposed to be for each other. We are to forget that a married man, or a man soon to be married, works not merely for himself but for his wife and children, and thus we are to consign to invisibility that woman who depends upon him and his income. My wife Debra used to take it ill whenever women faculty members at my old college demanded “free” childcare at the school, because she knew that such care came at the expense of women like her, who took care of their own children at home, already foregoing what might have been a sizable second income.
This de-sexualizing of the employee is but a particular yet inevitable result of the de-personalizing of business, which finds its roots in the industrial revolution. Dickens saw as much when, in Hard Times, he has the fraud Josiah Bounderby, the industrialist at Coketown, refer to his employees as “hands.” They are fragments of persons, and as far as the employer is concerned, the fragmentation is essential to the massive enterprise. The industrialist’s best friend, not that they are really friends, is the utilitarian schoolmaster, Thomas Gradgrind. “Facts, facts, facts!” he cries. “Teach these children nothing but facts!” Everything else is to be extirpated. That is the educational counterpart of the amputation—hand from body, body from mind and soul, individual person from family and from other natural human societies—that the industrialist assumes as necessary or desirable. The school severs one form of reasoning, that which performs its analysis on dissections of empirically observable and testable reality, from the fullness of what the wisest philosophers placed under the purview of reason; it severs reason from imagination; it severs science from religion; it severs the present from the past; and it acknowledges no duties of loyalty, love, piety, and gratitude.
Members in Community
For the second thing I see in Magnum is precisely a refusal to make those reductions or amputations. In many a television show, the characters are hardly characters at all, but are one-note instruments to set a general comic or dramatic scene, or they are what their authors wish human beings were: wonder-women who violate the laws of physics, never mind anthropology; or grim, sour men who take nothing seriously but themselves and their jobs. But Magnum, T. C., and Rick, and we can add Higgins into the bargain, are not like parts of a machine or items in a set. They are like irreplaceable and unrepeatable members of a family—I mean in their distinctness, their areas of responsibility, and their unlike relations to one another. By that, I imply nothing about feelings, and certainly nothing about sentimentality. T. C.’s friendship with Magnum is not like his friendship with Rick, and Magnum’s often irritable and frustrating friendship with Higgins is like nothing I’ve ever known personally, but is simply and straightforwardly believable.
The characters sometimes strive for some distinction as individuals—what we might now call a drive for “authenticity”—but that striving is usually shown up as delusory or puerile. Magnum is not the world-class detective he sometimes pretends to be. Higgins is not a great author of military memoirs. The question “Who am I?” is seldom asked because more important questions must come first, such as, “What must I do? For whom or for what should I give my life? What do I owe to my teammates, my family, my country, and God?”
For there is no “authentic self” free-floating in the spiritual atmosphere, which we may turn into the false god of our hypocrisy, our play-acting, such as is all the rage now, particularly among people who have turned their sexual vices, neuroses, and puerilities into ruling principles. “Mirror, mirror on the wall,” I imagine such a person asking, “who is the phoniest of them all?” Comes the reply: “You are, O Queen!”
The Christian knows, or should know, what the wisest of the old pagans suspected—that just as he who would save his life must lose it, so you do not even become a person to begin with unless you give yourself up, in love, to the good that is beyond you—a good you may sometimes apprehend but never comprehend and that is not a matter of your definition or determination. Thrill-seekers fare ill on Magnum. Thomas spends every July 4th rowing far out to sea, not for the thrills, but to be alone with his thoughts and his feelings, because on a July 4th long before, when he was but a boy, he and his mother got the news that his father would never return from Korea. Rick keeps up his association with Ice Pick, not because he enjoys skating on the edge of the law, but because he loves and esteems the man as a human being. T. C. can do anything he likes with a helicopter, but what he really wants is for his family to be intact again.
Echoes of the Faith
And that is the third thing I find in the show. It is not the Christian faith, but it is in accord with an approach to the faith; it does not get you into the sanctuary, but it points you in the direction of the church. It tells important truths, and it does a good job of it. And for that, these days, we should be grateful.Anthony Esolen
is the author of over thirty books and many articles in both scholarly and general interest journals. A senior editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, Dr. Esolen is known for his elegant essays on the faith and for his clear social commentaries. In addition to Salvo, his articles appear regularly in Touchstone, Crisis, First Things, Inside the Vatican, Public Discourse, Magnificat, Chronicles and in his own online literary magazine, Word & Song.Get Salvo in your inbox! This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #66, Fall 2023 Copyright © 2023 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo66/a-few-good-men