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Review: ‘Hawaii Five-O’ pilot a winner

This project has so much baggage attached it might as well be clinking chains like Marley’s ghost. “Hawaii Five-0” was one of those seminal shows that helped define modern episodic television — snappy, colorful, unusual, exciting. The world it portrayed seemed bigger than the screen, unlike the backlot procedurals set, invariably, in Los Angeles. Even with our short attention spans today, it still plays well.

The world has changed. Networks no longer dominate the airwaves, and cable-channel shows can be made edgier and more colorful. No wonder CBS has looked back on the glory days of “Five-0” as a way of regaining ratings momentum.

A previous attempt at a “Five-0” reboot fizzled so mightily that it was cast down a well never to be seen again by human eyes. Now CBS has tried again, hoping the third time will have the charm of the first.

That they have largely succeeded owes a lot to the original show’s bizarre dramatic structure. Essentially, the only cast member allowed to have a personality was Jack Lord’s Steve McGarrett, and McGarrett — let’s be realistic about this — was essentially a fascist control freak, a steely-eyed megalomaniac, a Terminator with a badge, a dark mystery in an even darker suit. Everyone else in the show was a cipher, standing around saying “Yes, boss,” whilst McGarrett did all the crime solving and exposition. I’m convinced people tuned in every week to see if McGarrett would crack, oh, just a little bit. Or better yet, blow up like a nitro-enriched dragster. The fun characters were the criminals, all of whom were filmed with greasy, sweating faces. It was the show’s hallmark.

“Miami CSI’s” Horatio Caine is Steve McGarrett’s demon offspring.

Which means, of course, the new show can take the physical trappings of “Hawaii Five-0” — the memorable theme song, the exotic locales, the colorful local characters, the rip-snortin’ action, the traditional escalating four-act plot, the faintly ominous opening kicker that jolts into a breaking wave and the theme music — and pump it all up into a modern high-def TV show, with more scenery and more grit and more action and way, way more volume.

That’s the easy part. When it comes to the characters, we’re dealing with blank pages.

Danny Williams, for example. We learn more about “Danno” in the first 10 minutes of the new pilot than we learned in 12 years of the series. That’s a good thing. We need to care about the characters. As played by Scott Caan, Danno is a divorced father trying to do right by his kid, and that means doing legitimate police work, the old-fashioned way. Right away, he’s shanghai’d by McGarrett, who’s some sort of Navy intelligence operative used to working outside the rules, and who has been charged by Hawaii’s governor (Jean Smart, looking quite Republican) to create a kind of quasi-official police task force.

McGarrett and Danno immediately butt heads over dueling procedurals. It’s fairly entertaining, and also illuminating, and that’s the idea. We have two personalities here, designed by committee to keep the dialogue snapping; Butch and Sundance — oops, I mean McGarrett and Danno.

As McGarrett, Alex O’Loughlin has a big, dark suit to fill, and to the show’s credit, it’s left hanging in the closet. My favorite quick shot here is McGarrett pulling back a cover on his father’s car, and it’s a big, black car like the original McGarrett used to drive, but the hood is off and the engine is missing. He tosses the cover back over the old car. It’s done.

O’Loughlin is skinny and stubbly in the modern anti-hero mode. He’s no stolid goosestepper like Lord’s McGarrett, but neither is he so anti- an anti-hero that you might question his moral compass. Judging by the pilot, he’s a decent sort who despises red tape. What’s not to like? And yes, that’s deliberate on the writers’ part.

Daniel Dae Kim, as Chin Ho Kelly, and Grace Park, as Kono, are introduced in such frankly ridiculous, cringeworthy ways that it’s best just to move on quickly. They are given just enough backstory to make them human, not enough to make them cartoons. Suffice to say they’re part of the team by the time the pilot wraps.

Will the “Hawaii Five-0” reboot succeed? There’s no reason it won’t. After all, unlike something with sharply defined characters like “Star Trek” or “Gunsmoke,” the original show was a blank slate with a snazzy frame.

Much depends, however, on ratings and the patience of network executives.

What’s to like in the new show? It’s bright, it’s fast, it has wit and charm, plus some astounding action sequences. Best of all, although it’s simple and formulaic, it’s not stupid. The structure has some real potential to examine Hawaii’s diverse ethnic backgrounds. For example, McGarrett, even though he grew up in Hawaii, is still a “haole” to the perps he’s catching, and it’s frustrating for him, just as it is to local haoles. I think “haole” is uttered more times in this pilot than ever in the original series, if at all. Anyway, that’s a canny, writerly insight that illuminates the character, and I hope there will be more of that.

I also like that the police have to reload their guns during shootouts. And does anyone believe that the bad guy, played by James Marsters (Spike of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) won’t be back some day?

But some things never change. Like in the old “Five-0,” the cops in new “Five-0” never Mirandize their arrests. And like the old show, viewers shouldn’t rely on the new show for driving directions. I didn’t know the way to the Honolulu waterfront was through Ford Island.

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