Earlier this week, scriptwriter Phill Barron wrote online about what he called ‘the Magnum voice’ and how it was a tool he uses in writing. He explains why it’s needed but the short version of what it does is keep him conscious of what his characters are feeling when he may have written the previous scene a month ago.
He names his internal writer’s monologue after a technique I’d forgotten was used on screen in the 1980s US detective drama Magnum, pi. Nobody remembers the ‘pi’ bit of the title, incidentally, just as no one remembers the ‘medical examiner’ bit of the title Quincy, m.e.
Er, except apparently me. But even remembering title minutiae, I’d forgotten that after every ad break in Magnum, pi, the title character would give us a quick voice-over narration to remind us what was going on.
I think I’d forgotten that because I loathe narration. At least, I loathe narration that is there solely because otherwise we wouldn’t know what was going on. Narration that does other jobs, most especially voice overs by unreliable narrators who are lying to us, I love those.
Thomas Magnum wasn’t lying in this show’s narration so I think I erased it from my mind.
But I’m disappointed that I’d forgotten the show because what looked like a glossy American drama from the roughly same era as Miami Vice was and is a rather remarkable piece of writing.
One reason that as much as I love novelist Jeanette Winterson’s writing but don’t really warm to her personally is that she once claimed to have invented what she called the spiral narrative. It’s when you leave one character to follow someone else for a bit and when you come back, the story of that first character has moved on. I read her saying this somewhere and before the end of the sentence I was thinking ‘but I saw that on Magnum years ago’.
In case I’m misrepresenting her, let’s call it the Magnum narrative instead. For it’s what was at the heart of this show and it’s why I think this detective series still stands up some preposterous 37 years after it first aired.
Let me say first that everything you might think Magnum, pi is, it was. Originally. Glen A Larson created a series, wrote a pilot episode and it was never filmed. Don Bellisario is brought in, keeps the name Magnum, the Hawaii setting and the two dogs, Zeus and Apollo, from that first script and starts again.
Incidentally, Hawaii was the one bit he would never have been allowed to change. The whole reason Larson got to pitch a detective show was that Hawaii 5-O had been cancelled and there were all these film crews and production facilities about to go out of business.
Maybe it was the setting that prompted Larson but his take on the show was seemingly more of a standard 1980s macho gloss kind of series. Then Bellisario turned it into a character piece. There’s still plenty of action but riddled through the entire 162 episodes are two rules.
One was that every third episode or so must be about the Vietnam background of the main characters. Lou Grant beat them to interesting explorations of that conflict, but Magnum made it part of the format.
More interesting to me and more why it’s worth still catching is the other rule. As far as possible, all of the plot of an episode must take place wherever Thomas Magnum isn’t.
So if he’s racing across Hawaii to find a suspect, he’ll get a flat tyre on the way and we’ll stay with him.
It did make for a lot of tension. I remember how it was deliciously frustrating but in retrospect, as a writer now, I get it.
When you focus on the character more than the plot of the week, that character has to be worth focusing on. He or she has to be interesting enough to keep us watching.
Character comes first. That’s why Magnum, pi, stands up, it’s why Columbo does, why The Rockford Files does. And it’s why Miami Vice doesn’t.