In a previous post, I noted that by the end of its sixth season, Magnum p.i. was creatively exhausted.
The original focus of the show on Vietnam veterans adjusting to civilian life in the context of a detective show had been played out and the standard 80s private eye tropes were also exhausted. The fact that the show decided to dig up yet another Higgins half-brother, demonstrated that it was essentially declaring intellectual bankruptcy.
Unsurprisingly, the ratings were also tumbling. Once one of the top shows on TV, Magnum was being destroyed by NBC's Thursday night juggernaut, led by The Cosby Show. Magnum p.i. was living on borrowed time.
In response to this, there were some behind-the-scenes changes. Tom Selleck stepped up as a producer, giving him more creative control. The show also moved to Wednesday night, giving it a needed ratings boost.
The result was one of the best seasons of the show. While there had always been call-backs and recurring guest stars, it was until the seventh season that the show embraced multi-episode plot arcs. This was becoming the norm on American prime time TV thanks to shows like Hill Street Blues, and the writers of Magnum p.i. finally got on board.
This was combined with a sense that the show itself needed to reach a conclusion. After seven years of production, the characters were visibly growing older and that demanded some sort of acknowledgement. Accordingly, one of the threads of the season is Magnum himself turning 40 and realizing that being a loafing private investigator dependent on a novelist's largesse was not a sustainable life plan.
As the season neared completion, the episodes became ever more closely aligned until the cliff-hanger, where the title character is apparently mortally wounded.
In the commentary to the series finale, Charles Floyd Johnson remarks that at the time of filming, it was assumed the show would not be renewed. When it was picked up for season eight, it was known from the start that this would be the last season of the show.
This is probably why the final season had so few episodes. I initially thought it wrapped in December, but it ran until May, there were just gaps between the shows, probably movies or other specials.
As for the finale itself, the two-part episode was apparently controversial, but it works for me. I don't know if it's possible to have a spoiler for a TV show but those who dislike them can stop reading here...
Okay, for the rest of you, I think the decision to have Magnum re-join the Navy makes sense, especially in light of his grandfather's visit. Magnum had what is known as a "break in service," and it's not uncommon. He was more than halfway to securing a pension from the Navy, so finishing that up was a logical move.
Moreover, the military of 1987 was a step up from the post-Vietnam one he left in 1980. Some have commented that he jumped up two grades in rank, which is unusual, but in a previous episode he was recalled to active duty as a full Commander so that apparently was still on the books. I'm not versed in Navy procedures, but they do tend to have a lot more direct commissions than the other services, and given Magnum's unique skills, service record and especially the fact that he's an Annapolis grad, I can see them offering him O-5 with a requirement that he go to the requisite schools upon re-accession.
The other story arcs also work. T.C.'s reconciliation with his kids and ex-wife naturally flows from the many years of him supporting youth sports teams. He's ready to be a husband and father and the gap left by his departure was never filled.
As for Higgins, er, "Robin Masters," this is the weakest plot point in the whole show, and if you watch it continuously, it does not work at all.
I will grant that after the first few seasons, the writers lost interest in having Robin as a plot element and after that gap, having Magnum speculate that it was all a ruse, isn't completely out of bounds. That being said, he's a private eye with insider access and would easily be able to see when Mr. Masters' first books were published.
The show seems to have moved away from this in the last two seasons and at one point Higgins challenges Magnum directly, who backs down. When Higgins appears to come clean in the finale, Magnum is properly incredulous and Higgins' subsequent retraction is appropriate.
All in all, it was worth seeing it again, and if I decided to re-watch, I'll definitely avoid the weaker seasons and savor the best days of the show.