Steve McGarrett Goes Disco

As I continue to binge-watch the original Hawaii Five-O, I can’t help noticing the stark difference between television storytelling in the 70s and today. Almost nothing was serialized back then—there were no “story arcs” as we know them now. Personal and professional traumas begin in the first act of an episode and are wrapped up in the last one; come the next episode, it’s as if they never happened. McGarrett is kidnapped and tortured by his nemesis, Wo Fat, but in the following episode, he carries on as if the horrors had never happened. We see McGarrett in love, only to have his ladyfriend murdered halfway through the episode, but neither the woman nor the murder is ever mentioned again. Even the death of beloved 10-season character Chin Ho Kelly takes place in a single episode—and about 15 minutes into the episode at that, as weak, undignified, and unsatisfying an adios as has ever been visited on a well-established TV character. Today, any one of those stories would play out over several episodes, or maybe even a whole season.

The only exception to the no-carryover rule involved multi-part episodes. Hawaii Five-O did several of these over the years. In Season 11, “Number One With a Bullet” is one of the season’s better episodes, and one of the more elaborate in the history of the series. It’s about a local singer hoping to make it big, and her brother, whose popular Honolulu disco becomes ground zero for a war between Hawaiian and mainland mobsters. The singer, played by Yvonne Elliman, has a songwriting partner, played by James Darren, who involves himself with the mob guys and promptly gets greased right after he and Yvonne confess their love for one another.

There’s a ton of disco-era color in the episode, with a couple of long scenes set in the club. When the episodes were originally broadcast (part 1 on December 28, 1978, and part 2 on January 4, 1979), the disco scenes featured songs from Saturday Night Fever, although they have been replaced on the Netflix versions. The replaced music sometimes makes it seem as though the dancers are suffering from some sort of arrhythmia, but everybody looks great—if you can get past the white suits and big collars the men are wearing, women’s disco fashions circa 1978 are often damn sexy.

Elliman is eminently believable as the struggling local girl hoping to make it big—she’s not glamorous, and by modern standards she’d be plus-sized. She sings the Danny Kortchmar song “In a Stranger’s Arms,” which was on her then-current album Night Flight, and “I Can’t Get You Out of My Mind,” which doesn’t appear to have charted anywhere, although I swear I can remember playing it on the radio. The episode closes with the latter, filmed during a real Elliman concert in Hawaii with several Five-O cast members in the audience, including Jack Lord, who almost never made public appearances anywhere.

(“In a Stranger’s Arms” is one of those records that sounds great until you listen closely to it. The lyrics are utter nonsense, and I do not know what in the actual fk is going on with the electronic noises in the last half-minute.)

By Season 11, Hawaii Five-O was showing its age. Many of the episodes are pretty lame. Kam Fong, the actor who played Chin Ho, had already bailed out; James MacArthur, who played Dan Williams, would leave at the end of the season. I have read that a majority of the series’ weakest episodes are in Season 12, when the show was retooled with several new regulars (so I have that to look forward to). The 12th season would be its last, however. Hawaii Five-O went off the air in 1980 as the longest-running cop show of all time, a distinction it would hold until Law and Order passed it by.

2 responses

  1. It’s a shame that more TV shows didn’t warm to the idea of the Very Special Two-Part Disco Episode.

  2. […] genuinely un-hip 70s TV hero got caught up in the disco craze, while one of his contemporaries proved to be a little more with […]

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