Tuesday, April 19, 2011

MacGyver: Season One

Richard Dean Anderson as the resourceful MacGyver.
He can make a bomb out of chewing gum and a clothes hanger. He can escape from a maximum security prison with some duct tape and a rapier wit. He’s James Bond, if Bond was an equal rights-loving American with no fashion sense and a stubborn cow lick.

Or so the legend goes.

MacGyver is the laidback title character of an ABC show which ran from 1985 to 1992. He’s a secret agent for a private company, the Phoenix Foundation, who has contracts with the federal government. He’s a mix of sincerity and deadliness, an adult boy scout who uses low tech solutions for high tech complications.

Many episodes pit him against a dangerous, malfunctioning machine or an insane villain who wants to play a deadly game of cat and mouse. MacGyver famously defeats them all with whatever is handy--chocolate candy bars to fix an acid leak, a baking soda and vinegar bomb to block images on a surveillance camera, or, yes, even some gum just to chew while he thinks up something awesome.

The Ladies

Sometimes when the lead is a handsome, single guy, he might have a love interest who will never reenter his life after the credits roll. For television, this is called “The Bonanza Curse,” and it’s the only thing I cannot stand about MacGyver.

The obligatory kisses and such are just boring, forced and gratuitous. The episodes are often provided with female characters who are just as compelling as MacGyver. Great! But do they all have to become infatuated with the guy only to disappear forever?

In one episode, there’s an madman on the loose, who somehow instantly kills people from the inside of their bodies. He’s after a lady because she knows too much, but does our hero care? Not for the minute and a half they spend on a rushed romance which doesn’t lead anywhere.

It’s maddeningly unnecessary for the characters to find each other attractive. The lead is solid enough, the female interesting enough, the villains are crazy enough and the situation urgent enough to entertain the audience without the bland erotic element--the way they do it, it’s bland--to waste our time. Did I mention the bad guys kill people instantly and in weird, unknown ways? Who thinks of romance at a time like that?

Which leads me to my favorite first season episode because it introduces my favorite first season MacGyver lady.

"Every Time She Smiles ”

In this episode,  Penny Parker (Teri Hatcher) already has a boyfriend that she’s nuts about, so Mac gets off scott-free from amorous entanglements, for the most part. Penny discovers that her boyfriend unknowingly gave her rare jewels which belong to the Soviet government. Thinking that Penny and the guy next to her in line at the airport (MacGyver) are spies, government officials begin a chase that lasts throughout the episode.
Ms. Hatcher plays vacuous very well, staying close to the line of being annoying without actually irritating. Penny is a nicely balanced, teddy bear of a character, who tends to see the good in unexpected places, but she does not excuse evil. She’s not knowingly self-assured, she just is self-assured, which is refreshing in any show with strong characters.

MacGyver and the Movies

Plenty of these first season episodes seem like mini versions of movies, not just for the physical stunts, exotic locales and action-packed segments, but the plots themselves seem ripped out of the cinema. One episode, “Trumbo’s World,” involves a British guy--wearing jodhpurs--with a plantation off the beaten path, who must deal with a horde of ants that threatens to overtake his place; it’s like something out of The Naked Jungle. 
Another episode revolves entirely around a train full of people being held captive with certain death in the air ; this is reminiscent of Murder on the Orient Express (1974), where a train full of people is stopped by snow on the tracks and a murder occurs. Another episode has a car chase scene in a city’s aqueducts, a dramatic stunt which can be found in many mainstream films. And of course, there’s “The Heist,” which sees MacGyver not only donning a tux and playing for high stakes at a casino, but actually pretending to be James Bond while dressing for the evening.

What’s great about the first season is that you can see all of the basic elements for which the show is known. [Some would say the pilot episode shows everything you need to know.] A few tweaks would come as the years passed, but essentially it’s all there--the stunts, the crazed villains, the compelling women, the ingenuity, his aversion to guns, his inability to punch (although he tries), his altruistic spirit, and his aw shucks-ness. It’s all right there from the very beginning.

For fun, in-depth analysis of episodes from MacGyver:Season One, read "MacGyver Monday" at Rental Rehab.

This review by written by guest blogger Java from Java's Journey.


  1. Java, I hadn't thought about McGYVER in a long time, so I really enjoyed your post. Wow, Teri Hatcher looks so young in that photo that I didn't recognize her. I agree that the weekly romances in shows like this are unnecessary. After all, how many times did Paladin have a love interest in HAVE GUN--WILL TRAVEL (well, there were a couple of episodes with June Lockhart)? The best part of McGYVER was his "field-expedient" inventions. That's also one of the things I enjoy about the current TV series BURN NOTICE. Thanks, Java, for a fun trip down TV memory lane.

  2. Java, I have great memories of McGyver. My son and I used to watch it every week. I never minded the fact that Mac didn't have a love interest. I found it refreshing and so did my son who wasn't the least interested in the "lovey dovey" stuff at that time in his life. Usually that is often a show's doom when two characters who like each other but try to resist each other decide to start a relationship. The the show isn't as good anymore and the ratings drop. Look what happened to Remington Steele and Scarecrow and Mrs. King. Always enjoyed Mac's creative inventions. Enjoyed your reveiw of McGyver.

  3. Java, I didn't watch MacGyver when it aired but I thoroughly enjoyed your post. Hear hear about your "Bonanza Curse" theory! Great post!

  4. Java, I never watched this show as a kid. When I went to college my roommate loved MacGyver, so I learned a lot after the fact. I didn't miss much. LOL. Liked reading your article, but all I could hear was the theme song to MacGruber from SNL.

  5. Thanks everyone. You're very generous.