ENTERTAINMENT RE-ORIENTED: How far have we come? ‘Hawaii Five-O’ 40 years later


Any TV producer who wants to court Asian Pacific American viewership benefits from having a very low bar to hurdle. If an Asian character pops up in a sitcom and the proceeding 26 minutes aren’t full of lazy racism, it’s generally considered a small triumph. If you have a show with several Asian Pacific Islander faces and no blatant racism, then you’re making history. That’s why, when CBS announced it would be “reimagining” the wildly popular cop drama “Hawaii Five-0,” it created a lot of buzz in the API corners of the Internets. Bloggers speculated that the show — set in a state that is more than 70 percent API, Native Hawaiian or mixed race (U.S. Census Bureau 2008) — would prominently feature Asian American actors. It turns out, they were right — Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park both landed roles in the regular cast. But a larger question still remained — would the show be any good?

Recently, I took to Hulu.com to find out. Unfortunately, the answer was largely “no.” There was some silver lining: In the process, I discovered the original “Hawaii Five-0,” which I checked out for comparison’s sake. While I won’t go out of my way to see any more episodes, the ones I did see were pretty good. I watched three random first season episodes from both the vintage and resurrected versions of “Hawaii Five-0” and I have to say — in this random sampling at least — the new one doesn’t measure up on any level. In fact, given that the new one had 40-plus years to improve on the old one, it can be looked at as a pretty miserable failure in terms of storytelling, politics and API representation.

The “Hawaii Five-0” resurrection focuses on the same primary characters from the original and it keeps the same haole ratio. Steve McGarrett, the main detective guy, and Danno, his partner, are both white. The two biggest supporting cast members are Chin Ho Kelly (a specialist in weapons or something, played by Kim) and Kono Kalakaua (the “rookie” who inexplicable gets sent on highly dangerous missions, played by Park). The casting of Park improves the show’s gender ratio; the original character was played by a man. But it’s a step backward in terms of Islands cred. In the original, Kono was played by local actor Gilbert Lani Kauhi. Park is Korean Canadian. Kim also took a part originally played by a local actor, Chinese American Kam Fong, although this is mitigated, somewhat, by the fact Kim has lived in Hawai‘i for several years.

The new version also features more API guests in its initial episodes than the old version. The three episodes that I saw had Masi Oka, Kelly Hu, Jason Scott Lee, Taylor Wily and Will Yun Lee.

So the new version has more Asian faces, I’ll give it that. But it doesn’t count for as much because it’s a crappier show.

“Lanakila,” the first episode I saw, was particularly terrible. It kicks off with the governor making a special request of McGarrett: find the ambassador’s daughter! It turns out she’s a rich party girl (because there aren’t enough of those on TV), so McGarrett and Danno head out undercover to Hawai‘i’s sexiest, trendiest nightspot to get some information. After engaging in some boring macho guy talk (they act like they don’t care about each other but they really do!) McGarrett and Danno spot a guy trying to roofie a young party girl. They send the young women off and make him swallow the roofie himself. I assume this is supposed to be ironic and we are to think he is getting “a taste of his own medicine” but there is never any indication McGarrett and Danno plan to bring this poetic justice “all the way” either directly or by proxy, so in the end, they pretty much just make the guy black out — which is what most people go to those kinds of clubs to do anyway. When the guy wakes up, though, they give him a lil’ “enhanced interrogation,” because, according to bad cop dramas and Dick Cheney, that’s how you get reliable information.

It turns out that the guy is paid to drug young women in clubs and then deliver them to a man named Kang. Because his victims are rich, gorgeous, white young women, no one even notices they are gone. So McGarrett and Danno follow Kang and find out he works for an Asian-run underground sex-slave ring (seriously). The cops raid the brothel, arrest everyone and interrogate the cold, elderly Asian Madame (again, seriously), who won’t talk until Kono promises to take care of her prized pure-breed miniature dog. Did I mention this was a bad show?

The Madame reveals that the ambassador’s daughter was not abducted to be used as a sex slave, but instead was kidnapped at the behest of a Filipino terrorist group and then delivered to them.

All of this happens fast, too fast to make you care about it. McGarrett and Danno are macho jerks, which would not be a problem if they weren’t supposed to be likable. “Mad Men” centers on Don Draper, a rich white bigot who works for an even more loathsome rich white bigot, Roger Sterling. While there is some attempt to make them sympathetic — Don has occasional bouts of conscience and suffered a terrible, impoverished childhood and Roger had a terrible privileged and wealthy but emotionally dead childhood — it doesn’t matter. We tune in partly to be appalled and the show itself, with the author’s voice beneath the surface, subtly condemns them. “The Sopranos” was the same deal.

The new “Hawaii Five-0” wants us to find the asshole characters charming and likable. We don’t. Which means we don’t care what happens to them and whether or not they defeat the bland terrorist villain.

Which brings me to the episode’s politics. In this episode and others, they get information by abusing suspects. McGarrett also says the reason Filipino terrorists would target a U.S. ambassador is because the U.S. gives aid to their democratically elected government, brushing aside the very real controversy about that aid and whether or not it is a bribe to keep U.S. bases on the Islands.

The next episode “Mana‘O” was somewhat better. The story was a little more focused and we get some interesting guest characters courtesy of Jason Scott Lee and Will Yun Lee. Jason Scott Lee is great as always and adds a little more Hawai‘i to the show, but he is in the episode for a very small amount of time, and it looks like he won’t be coming back. Will Yun Lee moves beyond the stereotypical Asian gangster baddy just enough to keep his character from being a complete disaster. Kim’s character also gets a bigger role in the episode. But there is also a distinct air of white superiority that runs through the episode. Without giving away too much of the details of the plot, the white guy plays the savior. He avenges his Asian friend against the bad Asian guy, by convincing another Asian guy to help him. And he reunites another Asian guy with his family. And punches out a guy who calls him “haole” and we are supposed to cheer.

“Lanakila” the Filipino terrorist episode, shows similar tendencies. In it, McGarrett arrests and humiliates a security contractor, the only black guy in any of the three episodes.

I was about to write the show off completely but the third episode, “Ho‘apono,” was a pleasant surprise. It featured a great guest turn by Adam Beach, a Canadian Saulteaux actor, as a war vet suffering from extreme post-traumatic stress disorder who may or may not have killed his wife. Robert Loggia, an 81-year-old character actor, also guests as a retired navy vet who proves he “still has it.” It’s definitely good to see substantial roles for both older and First Nations actors. Politically, the episode is more progressive than the others. It touches on the underreported issue of war trauma in U.S. soldiers.

“Ho’apono” is also just better crafted, story-wise. It has characters to care about and puts them in peril. Since they are guest stars, there is a real possibility they will die. There is also a mystery as to whether Beach’s character actually killed his wife. Again, since we like him, we care if he did it or not. The storytelling is significantly tighter than other episodes. There are fewer subplots, settings and characters, which helps the pacing and creates some genuine suspense.

This episode indicates that the show has some potential. Both McGarrett and Danno are more charming when they’re not together doing the macho guy chemistry cliché. Kim’s character is probably the show’s most endearing, and maybe he can be brought into sharper focus.

But while the new show looks like it needs to grow, the vintage “Five-0” started strong. The three first season episodes I watched were of consistent quality. Good pacing, good acting and avoidance of complete off-the-wall action movie silliness made for a more grounded viewing experience.

The original show focuses pretty squarely on McGarrett, played by Jack Lord. While the new show goes to great lengths to let the viewer know the protagonist is a bad ass, the original gives him an understated charm. Despite the increased focus on McGarrett, the episodes don’t delve much into his personal life, which allows for a greater focus on other things like, say, plot.

The real surprise about the original show, though, is that its politics are more progressive than the current show. Hippies and student activists appear in two of the three episodes I saw and McGarrett — and by extension the show — displays some counter culture sympathies. One episode even features a character that is implied to be gay, though his portrayal is of the highly problematic Patricia Highsmith variety.

The vintage “Five-0” also has a surprising number of API faces for a 1968 TV show. Not quite as many as the new show, but they are of better quality. In the three episodes I saw, there wasn’t a single Asian accent, and no Asian sex traffickers either. One episode, “One Day We Will Be Strangers in Our Own Land,” even focuses on the issue of development displacing local people and destroying culture and environment. It also features several Native Hawaiian actors.

There is, however, one measure of progress that can be found in the new “Five-0” — Asian male sexiness. I’ve seen posters all over San Francisco with images of Kim looking hunky. In fact, Park and Kim are featured prominently in all publicity material for the show that I’ve seen, which suggests to me that even if the producers at CBS don’t recognize the potential of the Asian American TV audience, its marketers do.

Ben Hamamoto is a writer born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. He currently edits Nikkei Heritage, the National Japanese American Historical Society’s official magazine.

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