MACGYVER: Season 1 - Blu-ray (Paramount, 1985-86) Paramount Home Video
The late comedian, Robin Williams once quipped that Angus MacGyver was the only man alive who could take a stick of chewing gum and a tampon and make a nuclear bomb. There’s no doubt about it. Throughout its ‘seven season’ run, MacGyver (1985-92), in the embodiment of Richard Dean Anderson’s resourceful super spy, was an intriguing man of action whose utilitarian skill set could seemingly diffuse any grave situation with a little bit of ingenuity and more than a light smattering of scientific know-how. That virtually all of his resourcefulness owed much to ‘science fact’ rather than ‘fiction’ made the series all the more appealing to novice MacGyvers everywhere who, ostensibly, hoped to duplicate the results, should they ever find themselves in similar circumstance. Don’t try this at home, folks! The series’ popularity was perhaps all the more startling as its star hailed from six years on the long-running (and still going strong) soap opera, General Hospital; not usually the best proving ground or springboard for any actor’s lasting career aspirations outside of daytime TV. And, indeed, after hanging up his doctor’s duds, Anderson’s prospects nose-dived fairly quickly, appearing in two failed CBS shows: a reboot of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1982-83) and in a ‘reoccurring’ role on Emerald Point N.A.S. As such, producers, Henry Winkler (yes, TV’s Fonzie) and John Rich were taking a considerable gamble on Anderson as their star. Created by Lee David Zlotoff, MacGyver was not an immediate ratings bonanza for CBS, although it had a very loyal following in the U.S. and abroad – ‘MacGyvering’ entering the popular lexicon as code for anyone capable of getting themselves out of a sticky situation.
Like most TV serials spawned during the 1980’s (a great decade for television, by the way), MacGyver now appears to have been conceived, not just in another time, but to have come from another planet entirely. Then, as now, the idea of an earthy wunderkind, left to his own devices – mostly – and able to bend the rules of physics to his own purpose to escape any squeeze between the proverbial ‘rock’ and ‘hard place’, played like a stripped down/summer stock James Bond, but one who actually made all his own gadgets from scratch. What can I tell you? It was the eighties. Audiences were less likely to question the immensity of such knowledge encapsulated in one superman. And Anderson, to his credit, always played Angus MacGyver as a quiet and slightly countrified every man, devoid of the uber-suave sophistication or steely-eyed intellectual austerity that his analytical and computing brain would then uncannily reveal. Better still, Anderson had sex appeal to bolster interest from female audiences too – his lanky frame, rocking a pair of perpetually weathered blue jeans and the eighties’ affinity for awfully big hair. Reviewing MacGyver from an absence of almost thirty years, it is rather refreshing to see how well the show has held up. Anderson’s performance has not dated one iota, even if some of the situations Mac’ finds himself in – ‘cold war espionage’ – have. And the stunts, then considered state of the art, while not exactly pushing the boundaries in today’s overblown realm of pyrotechnics, nevertheless look authentic to the period and add to MacGyver’s vintage quality as a quaint action/adventure franchise. Interestingly, given the popularity the show has maintained after all these years, no ‘big screen’ reincarnation has emerged, although CBS rebooted the franchise again on TV – with a much younger cast and flashier production values to compensate for their lack in overall maturity (a nauseating trend in Hollywood these days).
MacGyver’s first Season is an enjoyable blend of the light and fantastic, following the exploits of our secret agent/troubleshooter, employed by the fictional L.A.-based Phoenix Foundation (an undercover offshoot of the U.S. Dept. of External Services). For back story, Mac’ was schooled in Physics at Western Tech and served his country in the Army Special Forces as a Bomb Team Technician/EOD during the Vietnam War. Quick-witted with encyclopedic comprehension and a photographic brain, Mac’s specialty is mastering the complex by using whatever ordinary objects are at hand. Have Swiss Army knife, duct tape, and a book of matches…watch out! Despite his affinity for demolitions, Mac favors non-violent resolutions; gun shy, since the tragic death of a good pal. Mac’s split-second practical application of scientific knowledge, vetted by a small army of scientific consultants on the show, and implemented in life-or-death situations from episode to episode, had major appeal. Although the basic principles behind these stunts (mixing common household cleaners to create a bomb, as example) were grounded in fact, producers openly admitted that a good deal of luck and timing was also required under ‘normal’ circumstances for any of Mac’s feats to be properly executed. They also deliberately muddled the particulars of their hero’s chemical engineering, lest some enterprising MacGyver ‘wannabe’ attempt to replicate the experiment at home and blow himself to smithereens. MacGyver: Season 1 concentrates almost exclusively on our hero’s involvement with the U.S. government and his eventual coming under the microscope of the Phoenix Foundation. As the series evolved, it would also take on more ballast, dealing with social issues.
It is saying a lot about a series when it becomes rife for parody. And MacGyver has been repeatedly made the figure of fun by some of the best, including Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons; Anderson, getting into the act as a voiceover talent, and even appearing in a MasterCard commercial spoof made for Super Bowl XL. While Mac’ would refrain from using any firearm in the conventional way throughout the series, he had absolutely no compunction about dismantling, then reassembling more than a handful to be employed in a more resourceful manner. He is also seen firing an AK-47 during the pilot episode and holding a pair of kidnappers at bay with a rifle in Episode 10. In later years, MacGyver’s skepticism, regarding guns would extend to his pacifist’s view of war and general contempt for the U.S.’s involvement in violent law enforcement at home and abroad. Of course, Mac’ could never have taken on the world alone. And so, the show’s writers gave him a memorable boss in Pete Thornton (Dana Elcar). Aside: those interested in continuity errors will note Dana Elcar appears in the pilot as Andy Colson, Chief of Operations at KIVA Laboratories. Mac came to Pete’s attention after his resourcefulness helped hunt down an international assassin, Murdoc (Michael Des Barres). Running on the cliché about ‘a good man’ being ‘hard to find’, Pete eventually brings Mac into the Foundation after he is appointed its Director of Operations. Producers also gave Mac’ a sidekick: Jack Dalton (Bruce McGill) – a soldier of fortune/bush pilot with an eye for the ladies, but an uncanny knack for bungling even the most benign situations and thus involving everyone in his short-sighted follies.
Timing, as they used to say, is everything; the producing team of John Rich and Henry Winkler coming together under the unlikeliest of circumstances to create this hit. Indeed, at the time Winkler had just come off Happy Days’ (1974-84) eleven-year run as TV’s favorite greaser with the proverbial heart of gold, while Rich found himself unexpectedly out of a job when his sitcom – Mr. Sunshine – suddenly tanked and was cancelled by ABC. Meanwhile, Lee David Zlotoff was a producer on NBC’s runaway hit, Remington Steele (1982-87). Together, Zlotoff, Winkler and Rich pitched MacGyver to Paramount’s television division – the concept gaining momentum at ABC. In casting Richard Dean Anderson, Winkler and Rich found the actor’s low key and intelligent delivery of the lines refreshing, as every other actor briefly under their consideration had ‘hulked’ their way through the part, believing they were looking for someone to ‘butch up’ and play tough as tough. Anderson gave a more cerebral reading and won out. Even so, MacGyver would require Anderson to be athletically fit. For authenticity, Anderson agreed to do most of his own stunts during the early seasons, apprenticing with several stuntmen in Hollywood to get his moxie on. Nevertheless, the action sequences took their toll on his body – a severe back injury and broken foot, requiring surgery and necessitating Anderson relinquish most of the ‘heavy lifting’ to the professionals for the later seasons.
For the first two (and its final) seasons, MacGyver was shot entirely in California; production moving to Vancouver, Canada for seasons 3-6 to buffer the escalating cost of producing such an ambitious show. The relocation maintained the myth MacGyver still resided in California, although he would trade in his waterfront Venice Beach apartment for a houseboat (actually photographed at Vancouver’s Coal Harbor). The template for MacGyver’s early exploits took a cue from the James Bond franchise, featuring a pre-title ‘action sequence where our hero is already embroiled in a bit of hair-raising espionage from which he must escape, employing only his wits and the most sparsely assembled of resources. From here, each episode segued into Randy Edelman’s marvelously high-octane MacGyver theme, and the main titles; then, a commercial break, followed by the time-honored 3-act structure of hour-long TV writing at its best.
The series’ pilot wastes no time setting up this actioner premise: Angus MacGyver atop a vertical rock face encampment on a mission to liberate a downed Air Force pilot in Central Asia. Returning home, Mac is recalled into service to rescue scientists trapped in an underground New Mexico laboratory after a major explosion. It is a race against time as sulfuric acid is leaching through the wreckage, and Mac later discovers the incident was no accident, but actually perpetrated by one of the scientists to destroy his own ozone research files, as most certainly they would be used to create a doomsday weapon. Herein, we pause to doff our caps to the writers of Season 1; their best ‘feet’ forward and thinking caps on for an ingenious spate of ‘globe-trotting’ adventures. Henceforth, MacGyver gets involved in all manner of mayhem: intercepting top-secret missile launch codes, retrieving deadly toxins from a downed jetliner in Burma, recovering a valuable horse from an Arabian tribesman, saving a computer hacker from arms dealers, intercepting coded messages from a Russian double-agent and a gypsy thief in Hungary, retrieving a downed satellite in Afghanistan, infiltrating a terrorist cell in the Middle East, rescuing an American journalist caught behind enemy lines in Central America, becoming embroiled in a diamond-smuggling operation, liberating a kidnapped scientist from foreign mercenaries, diffusing a hostage crisis, protecting a mob witness, escaping Bulgaria with secret microfilm, outwitting a professional assassin out to murder him, diffusing a bomb aboard a packed cruise ship, destroying a Middle-Eastern nuclear reactor, discovering an antidote for the hallucinogenic drug he has been poisoned with, and escaping East Berlin assassins in a coffin. And this is just a glimmer of the harrowing exploits to arise in the first season. Indeed, the writers have thrown everything but the proverbial ‘kitchen sink’ at the screen, MacGyver, densely packed with enough thrills to fill at least two or three ordinary TV episodes at a time.
Arguably, the cleverness of these early episodes was never again equaled throughout the series’ run. In fact, after Season 3, the party was pretty much over – MacGyver, lingering on its reputation with many of its story lines merely regurgitated but only slightly altered as the franchise lumbered through its final years with far less originality and energy than what is on display herein. MacGyver: Season 1 is superb, ‘must see’ TV, produced during a decade richly populated by such quality programming that appealed to a wide audience. Television in the 1980’s was awash in such goodies. Even so, MacGyver is unique among these offerings for several reasons. First, its hero is a questioning individual, imbued with superior intelligence and an ever-evolving pacifist’s streak, eventually to undo his blindly-valued loyalties to the state. Also, MacGyver plays very much like an anthology series – its only reoccurring cast members, apart from Richard Dean Anderson’s adventurer, are his boss, Pete Thornton, and, comic relief/best friend, Jack Dalton. Re-setting the locale of each episode, ostensibly, in a different part of the world, MacGyver’s production values are impressive to say the least; the credit here, owed to production designer, Stan Jolley, and, in later seasons, Rex Raglan, who would take over the duties.
Over the series run, a small army of cameramen contributed to the stylized look of the show. But in Season 1, credit is due to four men: Frank Raymond, Donald H. Birnkrant, Jules Brenner and Tak Fujimoto. Cumulatively, these skilled cinematographers have conspired on an exotic landscape apart and above from the everyday – no small feat, given the production never left L.A. In Season 1, composer, Randy Edelman shares his underscoring duties with Dennis McCarthy and Michael Melvoin; this triumvirate achieving remarkable continuity. In later seasons, Edelman’s main title would be re-orchestrated by other composers. But it’s still his exhilarating theme we hear, and, an integral part of what primed the audience weekly for another great tale of intrigue and espionage. Since its debut, MacGyver has been reconstituted as a catch-all verb to explain anyone who can seemingly pull off an impossible feat. Indeed, as late as 2007, a popular poll suggested Anderson’s chemistry-inclined spy was the one man most anyone would vote for to get them out of a terrific plight. While in production, the show’s writers came up with the gimmick of offering prize money to anyone who sent them in an ingenious ‘trick’ this fictional hero could perform in an upcoming episode. And while one fan’s suggestion Mac’ could use an egg to patch a radiator was eventually featured in the episode, ‘Bushmaster’, very few unique concepts were exploited by the series in this way.
Interestingly, MacGyver was not all that popular during its first season run. Only in summer reruns did it begin to gain steam with audiences, becoming a bona fide sleeper hit for ABC during Season 2. Exploited as a lead into ABC’s Monday Night Football programming, MacGyver steadily built its solid fan-base, despite Richard Dean Anderson’s complaints that the network only thought of the show as ‘filler’ for its popular time slot. The clashes between Anderson and the network reached their crescendo when ABC unceremoniously pulled MacGyver midway through its seventh season after only twelve episodes, suspending it from December until April, and then cancelling the series outright on May 21, 1992. It was probably just as well, since Anderson later admitted he had pretty much burnt himself out and the writing was getting stale. Nevertheless, MacGyver today remains a fondly recalled part of television history and rightly so. In the interim, Richard Dean Anderson would move on to do other series TV including Stargate-SG1. And while finding lucrative work elsewhere has kept him in the public spotlight, he will likely, forever be known to fans as television’s most hands-on super spy.
MacGyver’s home video history has been muddled for far too long. Owing to an oversight, it was long thought that all original negatives of this popular series, originally shot on film, were lost for all time. As such, Paramount’s endeavors to bring MacGyver to home video on DVD left much to be desired; the image culled from digital tape copies, severely plagued by chroma-bleeding, digitized artifacts and an atrocious softness that made any attempt at enjoying the series’ once lush and evocative cinematography a thoroughly painful experience to wade through. Well, you can officially retire those DVDs now, because a little over a year ago, Paramount announced it had successfully re-discovered MacGyver’s original film elements and was engaging in a restoration effort to bring the luster of the franchise back to life. They have since made good on this promise with this new to Blu release of MacGyver’s first season in hi-def. The image is so vastly improved it bears no earthly comparison to the former fiasco, except to say that fans of MacGyver are in for a robust visual treat. Colors, previously faded and muddy, are now rich, fully saturated and properly balanced. Contrast is superb. Age-related dirt and other artifacts have been eradicated. And best of all, the disastrous nature of all that color bleeding, inherent in digital tape, but not a part of film stock, is GONE! MacGyver looks solid, colorful and magnificent on Blu-ray. Owing to the limitations in its original mono audio, it doesn’t sound nearly as good as it looks. Still, the remastering efforts have managed to stabilize any inherent audio distortions for an adequate, though not as remarkable, home video presentation. Point blank: it sounds like a series made in the early 1980s. Bottom line: MacGyver is required viewing. Fans and newbies to the series should find this a most welcomed flashback to a simpler era when prime time TV viewing was fun-filled and fantastical. Let us sincerely hope Paramount is hard at work remastering subsequent Seasons for Blu-ray release in the very near future. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)