After a three-year absence, I just reviewed all seven seasons of my favorite boyhood TV show, MacGyver, this past summer. I've seen the episodes enough times that there were no surprises when reviewing these DVDs, but through more mature eyes that have absorbed many hours of television over the last three decades, rewatching these episodes put into focus what worked for this show, defying all odds year and year and perservering for an extended run long after its much more successful action-show contemporaries had gone boom and bust. If there are two buzzwords that can encapsulate the MacGyver success story, they would be "variety" and "evolution". Year after year, MacGyver shook up its narrative formula in a way that kept its loyal audience coming back for more. A premise that could have burned out in a couple short years instead thrived based on the range of its stories and risk-taking of its showrunners who effectively turned the show into a near anthology, with the protagonist foisted into a wildly diverse set of scenarios in a way that no other crimefighter series has, at least in my lifetime.
Certainly not every direction the series took us down was an effective one, but even the journeys into preachy social dramas often cited as the series' low point by many fans nonetheless kept the show interesting for quite some time. Even those who most abhorred the series' issue-of-the-month hokum couldn't resist tuning in, at least for awhile, to see how MacGyver's talents would be used to take on drug gangs, pimps, and racists. It wasn't until the show's storytelling began to tangibly suffer before the house of cards finally collapsed, and that was a few years after even the show's few vocal supporters expected. Upon rewatching the series, it was fascinating to observe how MacGyver effectively reinvented itself each season in tone, style, and story content. It evolved very dramatically over the course of seven seasons but there seemed to be a methodology to the evolution (even if there wasn't in reality), thus keeping it from feeling forced or contrived. The best way to chronicle this evolution is to evaluate each season as I will do in the paragraphs ahead....
Season 1 can be described as the high adventure/mystery man season, but can also be described as the disorganized season. MacGyver was an incredible underdog right from the get-go with an uninspired inception born out of a corporate boardroom, and the result was a comedy of errors with bickering producers and network suits never able to reach a consensus about the show's format or the character's profile in the first half dozen or so episodes. And the lack of focus behind-the-scenes was abundantly clear to the viewer in the early episodes as well, but that early lack of focus ended up being the show's best long-term asset. The character was such and unformed blank slate in the early episodes that the series was able to build his mythology slowly in the years to come, leaking the information out in trickles over several seasons and filling in the blanks about a character that ended up being quite unique....and was much different than the character that likely would have emerged based on an early consensus by producers and the network. And that left viewers to take those early episodes at face value, focusing almost exclusively on the globe-trotting action, above-average production values, and the key gimmick of the character's brainy Mr. Fix-It in tense secret agent settings. And there was a definite appeal to the "mystery man" nature of the character whose nonexistent backstory kept everyone guessing, ranging from the damsels in distress he was rescuing to the viewers. Interestingly, the character's tone was brash, cocky, and sarcastic in the first season in a way that contrasted with the character of subsequent seasons. That can most likely be written off as more confusion by the show's producers on how to define the character, but looked at more generously, it can also be viewed as a smartass young agent who humbled and matured as he approached middle age. Whatever the case, the first season has plenty of critics who see it as standing out like a sore thumb amidst the rest of the series, but it mostly worked with me, producing some of the most thrilling hard-core adventure show hours of the 80s and offering a sample of both the lighthearted and more intense stories that represented varying directions the show would take in future seasons. It was uneven, but hit the mark far more often than not, albeit sometimes completely by accident.
Season 2 was the lighthearted season, where MacGyver took on more of a Jim Rockford-meets-Tom Magnum persona, complete with folksy narratives holding the viewer's hands throughout the hour. It's fascinating how polarizing this incarnation of MacGyver was, as many fans and reviewers thought it was the series in its prime while others thought it was too lighthearted and silly. Count me in the latter category as I thought the series went in a disappointing direction following season 1. It was a tough balance for a series like this to put the character in credibly tense action-show environments yet still not take itself too seriously but in season 2 it seemed as though the series was settling into a tongue-in-cheek mold that worked less well than when the threat level was more ominous. In fact, the few episodes this season that did have a little bit of edge really stand out amidst the sea of lightheartedness surrounding them. This was by no means a bad season of MacGyver, and the lighthearted tone certainly worked on the majority of episodes to create an entertaining hour where MacGyver's off-the-cuff inventions still guided the stories in a way that was not necessarily the case in future seasons. Still, count me with producers and Richard Dean Anderson himself, who gritted their teeth through the network marching orders for folksy narration guiding the episodes in season 2, and ultimately delaying the show's foray into more substantial storytelling that would come in the seasons ahead.
Season 3 was the first season in Vancouver, which altered the show's trajectory by providing a woodsy backdrop that authenticated the adventure episodes and offered winter landscapes that further expanded their horizons. I can't refer to season 3 specifically as "the woodsy season" because adventures in the forest didn't necessarily define the season but it certainly nudged the series towards ecological themes, subtly at first but more flamboyantly in seasons to come. And while network intervention still hampered the show's creative progression to an extent, particularly the ill-advised insertion of a female partner for MacGyver in ABC's attempt to turn MacGyver into a second "Moonlighting", the series found its voice tone-wise in season 3 with a generally sharper-edged and more suspenseful set of stories, often times partially lifted from feature films set against a MacGyver backdrop. And the character grew a little bit darker as season 3 saw a number of deaths and betrayals, particularly among the women in his life, which hardened and entrenched him in his personal comfort zone while still driving his instinct to right wrongs based on past failings. This trajectory helped fill in the blanks of the character while simultaneously keeping the show primarily about the action rather than upstaging love triangles and pretentious detours so many current shows engage in to "raise the stakes" or else just keep the mythology expanding because they gave away too much at the show's outset. Even though season 3 was only my third favorite season, I think they probably hit the sweet spot with the show's tone this year, even delving quite successfully into teen angst in a couple of episodes that felt more like really good afterschool specials when they clearly needed to cool off on the annual budget by producing a couple of cheaper and mostly action-free, character-driven episodes. An undercurrent of lightheartedness still kept the show from taking itself too seriously by this point in its run, but things seldom got silly this year the way they did too often in the previous season. And best of all, they cut way back on the folksy narrations.
Season 4 was the dark season. Perhaps due to the dankness and dreariness of Vancouver creating a natural direction for the show to go at that stage in its run, producers decided it was time to see a darker side of
MacGyver this year, and it represented the most dramatic-yet change in direction from anything seen in prior seasons, even if we got a few samples of the show's darker edge in season 1. While the stories themselves were decidedly dark in only about a third of the season's episodes, the look, tone, and attitude took on an edge throughout the season, as MacGyver even traded in his brown leather jacket for black this year to fit the mood. And even if there wasn't a tangible blackness to the story on every episode of the season, it seemed the majority of episodes this year had at least one moment that made me go "Whoa! Did they just do/say that on MacGyver?" For the most part, the threat level rose, the violence threshold increased, and the body count soared in MacGyver's fourth season. Sometimes this darkness had a tongue-in-cheek feel to it but other times it was deadly serious, and out of this seriousness came the earliest incarnation of the series' social worker episodes. The early social worker episodes were rather intriguing given their narrative darkness and the aforementioned novelty of MacGyver in these outside-the-box settings, but of course they set the stage for the series' nadir of self-important soapbox morality in the seasons ahead. But for me it's a slam dunk to say that MacGyver's fourth season was its peak as the change of direction served as a bridge to grow the show's fan base to adults with the more mature content, while walking a tightrope and keeping the show acceptable viewing for kids (although just barely at times this season).
Season 5 was the anthology season, where the settings and story content were most diverse week to week. The season served almost as a potpourri of the previous seasons' format with a blend of adventure episodes, darker-themed episodes, and political/social dramas, frequently with clever hybrids of ambitious adventure episodes with social issue themes such as the sub-Saharan Africa rhino poaching episode. Season 5 was also distinguished by the fact that the character's narrative history felt like it was finally revealed in completion by season's end after the epic Christmas episode and the season finale featuring MacGyver's out-of-body experience. The darkness was nowhere near as tangible overall in season 5 as it was the previous season, particularly in the production values, but there were still a number of darker-edged stories that felt like a natural progression from the episodes in season 4. The lighthearted tone from season 2 was pretty scarce by this point as the series had, at least for the time being, settled into a more aggressive mode of storytelling, but threw curve balls at the audience more frequently than ever before. The downside was the preachiness, as the series was unable to articulate its social conscience without condescending to the audience with all the subtlety of a tire iron to the crotch, and the older I get, the more cringeworthy it is to see the show climb onto soapbox, and there was no shortage of that by season 5.
Season 6 was the political season, but also the season where the series frequently reverted back to the lighter-hearted fare from season 2. It was a strange hybrid as the preachy social issues hit their peak and the series was now taking itself way too seriously, yet bounced back and forth between being our "stern, humorless college professor at the lecture hall" and our "carefree fraternity buddy yucking it up" with some of the silliest episodes the show ever made. They were trying to have it both ways and it generally worked for the season's first half, but at some point midseason it just seemed like the producers weren't having fun anymore....and that they were merely going through the motions to satisfy the episode contract. Viewers can always tell when the crew of their favorite show loses interest or gets burned out, but in MacGyver's case there were just enough solid episodes sprinkled in with the wearier episodes in season 6's second half to keep ratings from falling off a cliff. Furthermore, the show got a PR boost by featuring co-star Dana Elcar's real-life loss of sight and melding it with his Pete Thornton character. There were some genuine moments in the arc where Pete comes to terms with losing his sight, but overall it was a just a little too melodramatic and served as a metaphor for the series' decline. In retrospect, the show could have saved some face by wrapping things up at season 6's end, but of course it trudged on for one more weary season. While season 6 unquestionably represented the early and middle stages of the series' decline, it was good enough to have avoided closing with a thud if they had bowed out at this point.
Season 7 was the over-the-hill season. There have been long-running series that have had worse final seasons than MacGyver did but it was rather remarkable how obviously checked out and creatively exhausted the series' crew was this year. There were only a few moments of genuine embarrassment but the show just seemed tired, going into the season determined to lessen the social drama preachiness and feature more throwback adventure episodes. Unfortunately, these episodes were like the nursing home cousins of prior seasons, drawing upon the worst tendencies of every format of episodes.....lighthearted episodes that were far sillier than the lighthearted episodes of season 2....adventure episodes that leaned on gimmicks borrowed from superior episodes of season 1 and season 3....and, they just couldn't control themselves, but some final issue-oriented preacher episodes. I guess it's reasonably impressive that MacGyver held out this long before burning out, especially given the challenging economics of network television in the early 90s which put far greater budgetary limitations on action shows than existed six years earlier when MacGyver premiered. Still, it's a safe bet that any serious fan would consider season 7 the hands-down weakest of the series' run.
And then there were the two TV movies which can be described as MacGyver's "British period". Sadly, the more I watch the movies in the immediate aftermath of the series, the more out of place they seem. The British feel of the production was like a thick London fog of suppressed energy that did not feel right for MacGyver, and it didn't help that even the better of the two movies needed a little more time in the oven before being served as the story just didn't come together with the seamlessness of most of the best episodes of the series. The other movie was a complete mess, so bad that I was depressed when it ended in 1994 and feel depressed when I conclude my MacGyver Marathon by watching it in 2013 as well.
As I've said before, there's something very battle-worn about a series that lasts seven seasons as opposed to merely six so MacGyver deserves to wear that longevity as a trophy, particularly given the low expectations it had been given by nearly everybody at every stage of its run. The fact that the series gets more acclaim today than it did a quarter-century ago says a lot about a popular culture asleep at the wheel at the time that failed to seize upon the potential of a franchise that was always right on the cusp of breaking out as a major cultural force but never really did. But even as the series' cultural footprint has risen, the specific nature of its unlikely resurrection from nearly being stillborn and its relentless uphill slog through mud and snow for years and years and years is rarely appreciated. Even less appreciated is the offbeat course the series took on its seven-year journey, when just about any other course the series could have taken would have likely resulted in a more abbreviated run. Warts and all, I wouldn't have wanted it any other way.