People associated with “Hawaii Five-0” on CBS love to throw around the word ohana, the Hawaiian term for extended, interdependent families. The show’s hero, Steve McGarrett, uses it to refer to his fictional team of crimefighters, but it always sounds a little awkward coming out of the mouth of Alex O’Loughlin, an earnest Australian actor who after seven seasons of playing McGarrett still seems like a tourist on vacation from a Hollywood action movie.
And ohana rang just as untrue this week when the executive producer and showrunner, Peter Lenkov, used it to refer to the show’s cast and crew — while trying to tamp down the controversy surrounding the departure of the show’s two Asian-American stars, Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park.
Kim (born in South Korea, raised in the United States) and Park (born in Los Angeles, raised in Canada, of Korean descent) are leaving before the show’s eighth season this fall. The circumstances are murky. Kim posted on Facebook: “The path to equality is rarely easy,” which could refer to billing or screen time, but the public discussion quickly focused on salary — Kim and Park make less per episode than the show’s headliners, O’Loughlin and Scott Caan — and CBS seemed to confirm that by saying it had offered “significant salary increases” to keep the two actors on board.
Given the limited opportunities for Asian-American actors, the news about Park and Kim was immediately seen in racial terms. “Hawaii Five-0” wasn’t being whitewashed, but it was being de-Asianized. (Though they are likely to be replaced by actors of Asian or Hawaiian heritage.) The reaction was something of a weary lament: Shouldn’t Park and Kim be paid as much? Aren’t their characters just as important as the nominal white leads?
I’m not here to defend CBS’ decisions. Indeed, there isn’t enough information out there to be sure of who decided what, and on what basis. But I think that the current criticism of CBS is a little beside the point. The battle over “Hawaii Five-0” was lost a long time ago.
I may bring a little more experience to the table than other commentators. I’m the rare — possibly unique — television critic who has watched every episode of the show. (That’s 168 of them, or around 115 hours of my life.)
For better or worse, Kim’s and Park’s characters — Lt. Chin Ho Kelly and his cousin, Officer Kono Kalakaua — are definitively supporting characters. They’re on screen as much as the leads, and they get their own storylines. But the show is built around the bantering, bromantic, Lucy-and-Desi relationship between Steve and his sergeant, Danny (aka Danno) Williams (Caan).
There’s an impulse here that’s probably well meaning but results in stereotyping. Chin and Kono get dreary, topical plots: He tries to rescue a young girl from the drug cartels; she goes on a crusade against human trafficking. These plots line up with the show’s often heavy-handed attempts to celebrate its adopted state, which last season yielded episodes involving the separatist Nation of Hawai’i and the former Hansen’s disease colony on Molokai.
Meanwhile, the writers and producers focus all of the fun on McGarrett and Caan — Danno whining about Steve’s reckless driving, Steve pompously criticizing Danno’s parenting. And the best thing about the show — best being a relative term — is the way O’Loughlin and Caan handle the back and forth. They’re not comic geniuses, but they’re good enough, and they’ve developed a rhythm over the seasons.
Could the writers have done something similar for Chin and Kono? Sure. A different type of series could find a different way to share the riches among its stars (which number five, including the African-American actor Chi McBride).
But “Hawaii Five-0” is resolutely formulaic, and writers and producers get into comfort zones that resist change. Through seven seasons, Kim and Park spent a lot of their screen time smiling and rolling their eyes in reaction to O’Loughlin and Caan.
CBS (which also owns the show) is a business, and it is better than just about any network at knowing its audience. The show’s casting decisions are made with that relatively old, Friday night audience in mind. It’s betting that people tune in for the scenery, the gunplay and the O’Loughlin-Caan relationship. Everything else is interchangeable.
And this is not a “Friends” or “Big Bang Theory” situation, where keeping an ensemble together is seen as vital to the continued success of a huge moneymaker. “Hawaii Five-0” is a solid performer: In the 2016-17 season, it was 15th over all in prime time, and ninth on the network, with an average of 12.15 million total viewers. But because of that older-skewing audience, it tied for 43rd overall, and 13th on the network, in the more profitable 18-to-49 age group.
That said, there is a race problem with “Hawaii Five-0,” but it happened in 2010, not this week. When the original “Hawaii Five-0,” which ran on CBS from 1968 to 1980, was re-envisioned, it would have made all the sense in the world to cast the central partnership in a way that reflected the state’s population, which is more than half Asian, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander. A caustic Hawaiian Danno might not have improved the ratings but would have done wonders for the show’s credibility.
So why am I a “Hawaii Five-0” completist? My mother lives in Hawaii, I’ve spent a lot of time there over the years, and I started watching the show for the scenery — calling out the locations, moaning over the blatant shilling for the Hilton Hawaiian Village hotel. My mother is also Korean, and I felt some additional loyalty to the show because of Kim’s and Park’s prominence.
But I also thought it was kind of amusing that the state’s Asian population was being represented primarily by two Korean actors, when people who identify as Korean make up about 2 percent of the population. If the performers who take their place are of Japanese, Filipino or Hawaiian heritage, “Hawaii Five-0” will actually have become more representative of Hawaii.