Saturday, May 14, 2005

TV: Happy Memories of Duct Tape and Home-made Hang Gliders

Toward the end of its run, MacGyver got goofy, preachy and derivative, and I lost interest. So when I picked up the DVD boxed set of the first season, it'd been a long time since I'd seen any of it, and I wasn't expecting a lot. I bought the set out of loyalty to something I'd once enjoyed very much, as a final gesture of affection.

Maybe it's that low expectations can help a TV show tremendously, but what a happy rediscovery these discs were. I'd forgotten how irresistibly likeable the MacGyver character was, how hunky Richard Dean Anderson was back then (not that he's not still easy on the eyes), and how much fun creative kitchen chemistry became when it was used to blow up bad guys or escape from corrupt (and not especially competent) Bulgarian officials or greedy (and not especially competent) South American drug dealers.

The missions against minions of the now-defunct Evil Soviet Empire are almost the only thing about this series that feels dated -- repeated references to East Berlin are slightly jarring these days. OK, there also are those shirts with the standup collars, and the hooky pop-rock soundtrack is almost too perky to be endured, but most of the story lines were serviceable enough at the time to retain a viewer's interest even now. It's still possible to wait with pleasant anticipation to find out what mundane set of objects MacGyver will slap together to create a bomb or a rocket or a hang glider...or God only knows what else.

And of course, that was the main point. I say the plots were serviceable, but they weren't so inventive or original that they would've stood up well without the improvized gadgets. The story lines went like this: Bad guys do something bad or plan to do something bad; Mac is called in to stop them; bad guys try to thwart Mac's efforts and almost succeed; Mac invents something out of junk and thin air that swats the bad guys down like drunken gnats. That general plot scenario pretty much sums up every action/adventure TV show that's ever aired; it's the cleverness of the home-made, low-tech gear that distinguished this series.

Perhaps more importantly, the series made science look cool and fun, so much so that the producers sometimes left an ingredient or two out of the recipes for explosives, for fear little kids would blow themselves up while emulating the hero. (Those of us who've always thought science was cool and fun felt vindicated.) And MacGyver made resourceful genius look easy. Anybody with half a lick of common sense and a roll of duct tape could do a lot of what MacGyver did -- we'd just never thought of doing it until Mac pointed the way. We believed that MacGyver could build a bomb out of a stick of chewing gum, and if we paid attention, we could figure out how, too. And the scripts managed to explain how it all worked without huge amounts of exposition, in language the average viewer easily could understand.

The show demonstrated that it was possible to be scientific without being geeky. You could even be a girl scientist, which was tougher to swallow back then than it is today. Then again, MacGyver had moments of sublime geekiness, like an attempt to cook breakfast for his landlord with a robot he obviously hadn't tested beforehand. Thus, another part of the show's message was that it's OK to be a geek, as long as your motives are pure (and you keep plenty of paper towels on hand to wipe up the broken eggs).

I suppose the series' age is part of the reason why there aren't any special features with these discs. Probably back then nobody was thinking there'd be a need for a "making-of" featurette or for keeping any deleted scenes or bloopers. But a fair number of people involved, including Anderson and recurring guest star Bruce McGill, are still around, and a few of their reminiscences would've made this set a real gem. We couldn't have had an interview or two? Nevertheless, for those who loved the series before it went all mystical and started doing things like a cheesy parody of Raiders of the Lost Ark, this set's a must-have.

And now I'm eagerly awaiting the May 24 release of another old favorite -- Airwolf. Hit the turbos, Dom.


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