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Hawaii Five-0: Broadcast Takes a Vacation from Ambition

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The premise behind the remake of Hawaii Five-0, debuting Monday night, is that Steve McGarrett (Alex O’Loughlin), head of an elite Federal task force in the Aloha State, has been given carte blanche, nearly unlimited resources and tools and vast leeway to accomplish his job by almost any means necessary. That also, it would seem, was pretty much the philosophy behind the making of the pilot of Hawaii Five-0, a big, loud, lush, not especially original or risk-taking, but flashily executed and intense opening hour that looks like CBS upended a dump truck of money on Oahu and told the producers to make it disappear.

Having seen only a pilot, I have no idea whether subsequent episodes will match the movie-like look and feel of the original. (This was the downfall of another “surefire hit” CBS remake, The Fugitive, a decade ago.) But while it doesn’t seem to have the ambition that will keep me watching every week (spending a lot of money and ambition are two different things), the explosive pilot should promise enough to generate return business, both from CBS’ core fans of its many dark crime procedurals and from less-hardcore fans attracted by a sleek crime show with lush scenery.

The new Five-0 keeps the famous theme music and many character names (the title sequence features blue water and surf again, this time accessorized with those ubiquitous high-tech graphics to let you know it’s modern). The story this time: McGarrett, a former Navy SEAL, is investigating his father’s murder at the hands of Irish terrorists. The case and his work attracts the attention of Hawaii’s governor (Jean Smart), who—Irish terrorists evidently being a big problem in Hawaii—asks McGarrett to head up an elite force with “blanket authority” to get bad guys “the hell off my island.”

McGarrett assembles his team: Danny “Danno” Williams (Scott Caan), a New Jersey cop who moved to Oahu to be near his daughter after a divorce; Chin Ho Kelly (Daniel Dae Kim), an old pal of McGarrett’s who was kicked off the police force after wrongfully being accused of taking payoffs; and Kono Kalakaua (Grace Park), Chin Ho’s cousin and a newly minted cop. If it’s dangerous, has sinister international connections, and can blow up against a picturesque island background, they’re on it.

I have foggy memories of the original Hawaii Five-0 from early childhood, and I considered going back to that series to see how this one compares. I decided against it, because (1) I want to judge this show on its own merits and (2) let’s be honest, the comparison is going to be irrelevant to most of the 18-to-49 demographic which will determine if the show stays on the air.

And in a way, this show feels less like a remake of Hawaii Five-0 than an effort to make the next 24. Not literally: it’s lighter in tone, narrower in scope, prettier in aesthetic and seemingly has no interest in telling long-term stories. But it uses Hawaii’s quasi-exotic setting to tell stories enmeshing a global group of baddies. (Besides the Irish, the pilot somehow manages to involve Chinese, Rwandans and criminals of other international origins.) And it juices up what would otherwise be a standard cop-show setting with the power-boost of making McGarrett the head of an extra-legal outfit with no restrictions on how it gets the job done.

Unlike a show like Rubicon, or The Shield, or even 24, there doesn’t seem to be much thought given to whether there may be any downsides to the group’s absolute power. But then Five-0 is not really interested in harshing anyone out with deep thoughts on law and society. This is Hawaii! Chill out! Have a shave ice before something blows up! The producers (including Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci of the Star Trek reboot) work lightness into the dark storylines, sometimes successfully (the jabs between McGarrett and Danno are well-done), sometimes less so (we learn about Danno’s ex-wife via the needs-to-be-retired Character Has an Amusing Ringtone for Another Character gag). And the pilot makes transporting use of the Oahu locations, even if you’ll half-expect the sonic-fence from Lost to show up at some point.

Of course, the reminders of Lost and 24 also remind us that this fall, the first after they went off the air, is a season of sharply curtailed ambition for the broadcast networks. There’s lots of flashy diversion, like NBC’s Chase and UnderCovers, but if you want to be challenged, or drawn into a story that requires week-to-week attention, cable is the place for you. (There are a few exceptions, two of them also debuting Monday: Fox’s promising Lone Star, and NBC’s much-less-promising The Event, which suggests the networks may be right to leave the ambition to cable.)

That makes Hawaii Five-0, in a way, a perfect poster child for the new broadcast TV season. It is, by default, one of the better new shows on the big networks, and it does what it’s trying to do very well. But what it’s trying to do is very limited in its aims and upside. Broadcasters are not swinging for the fences as they have done in past years. (And to be fair, 2009 was a good fall for them, with newbies like Modern Family and Glee.) To the extent that they’re taking any lessons from successful cable, it’s from the middle-of-the-road likes of USA and TNT. Forget about trying to create the next Sopranos, or Mad Men, or for that matter, Lost. The big networks would rather have the next Burn Notice or Rizzoli and Isles.

That said, if you’re just looking for a weekly hour’s thrill, you can do worse than Hawaii Five-0. It will try to deliver it by any means necessary.