Career Changers

Hawaii in TV and Movies

September 22nd, 2010

Television and movies play a big role in Hawaii's economy. Projects shot here create many behind-the-scenes jobs that range from casting and catering to make-up and wardrobe. What appears on screen often helps sell the islands as an exotic location and boosts tourism. Growing up in New Jersey, I think the original Hawaii Five-O and Magnum, P.I. series created a subconscious desire to move here -- in part, because I was half-Japanese and a lot of the people I saw on those shows looked like me. For the only hapa-Asian kid in a 20-mile radius, that was no small thing.

But in addition to producing a no-budget OC16 show, I'm also a screenwriter who has won awards for my scripts and have optioned stuff to legit producers in Hollywood. So it pains me to say I think the new Five-O is more like the short-lived Hawaii cop series that flopped than Lost, which hooked me from the start. If not for the name and the iconic theme song, I doubt Five-O would have scored the ratings it did. Meanwhile, overlooked in the hype was the fact that Hawaii also was used as a locations backdrop in another new series -- The Event, which aired Monday night on NBC. (In a confusing flashback-within-flashbacks structure, Oahu doubled for Antigua when a young couple goes on a cruise and comes ashore.)

Before I tell you why I think the rebooted Five-O falls short, I just want to mention what is possibly the worst ever original episode. Recently, a Five-O mini-marathon ran on the Spike channel, and I happened to catch the "Samurai" episode in which Ricardo Montalban plays a Japanese character named Tokura. BTW, it wasn't the first time either that Ricardo had to speak with a fake accent or have his eyes made up to appear more Asian -- he did the same for the movie, Sayonara.

The new Five-O doesn't have any Mexicans playing Hawaiian or Japanese characters. But it also doesn't have many Hawaiians or locals playing significant parts either. Sure, you can say that about Lost, Magnum, or nearly any other Hollywood production filmed here. Casting is a business decision. Still, one of the charms of the old series was catching glimpses of real local people in minor speaking roles or background shots. I'll never forget seeing a Magnum rerun in which a shady character appears on screen wearing an absurd Star Trek aloha shirt -- the very same shirt I had bought from a shop on Kapahula that sold "vintage" aloha wear! It was so kitschy, I couldn't resist (plus I thought I could resell it to some Trekkie fan for a profit).

The biggest complaint I had though was the pilot seemed over-produced. For some reason, the opening credits have some weird line pattern or filter that makes the images appear grainy instead of sharp and colorful. Is it supposed to be a "high tech" look? Beats me. Then we're subjected to constant close-up shots that cut off the characters' heads! I know this is the trend, but I don't get it. Instead of seeing Diamond Head crater, we get to see craters on actors' faces. Thanks to high definition widescreen TVs, we can also count the lines in the crow's feet around Jean Smart's eyes.

By contrast, watch on old Five-O show with the sound off. What you'll notice is there are very few close-ups of a single character, and virtually no EXTREME CLOSE-UPS (Wayne's World nailed it years ago). In older TV programs and movies, those were reserved for key moments. Now it seems virtually every other shot is an extreme close up. The actors' faces are literally in our faces. Which is a bad thing for acting in general. I forget which movie critic pointed this out, but he wrote that in classic film comedies and TV sitcoms, the best actors used their entire bodies. And that's how they were shot. You could see not only most of the actor's body, but often the person they were interacting with was in the same frame. In the new Five-O, even when McGarrett and Danno are in the same car, the director keeps cross-cutting as if they were in two separate locations. Why?

Another thing my wife noticed was that many of the exterior shots had a strange yellowish tint. No, it's not my television. This is another trend among younger directors and film editors that I dislike. Instead of taking advantage of natural light and colors, they start tinkering with color saturation to give scenes a more "artsy" feel. Hey, even on the shoestring budget my little TV show is shot on, we know enough to take advantage of Hawaii's natural beauty whenever we get a chance to shoot outdoors! I mean, I've taken random photos and Flip video shots that were better than some of the background stuff I saw in the pilot.

Story-wise, I'll give the writers credit for trying to give the characters some plausible backstory. However, they did it through a lot of exposition. Eg., lines like: "I see from your file that you used to live in New Jersey and got divorced," or "Gee, how long has it been since we went to school together? Fifteen years? What have you been up to, my old friend?" Okay, it wasn't THAT bad... and granted, it's a challenge to work backstory into a pilot. However, look at the premier episode of Lost, and you see examples of hinting at backstory without revealing everything upfront. The opposite of an effective opening can be seen in The Event premier episode. The constant shifting from what you think is the present to three days ago or three weeks ago, back to three days ago or now -- I lost track --  just becomes annoying. As my wife blurted out, "Just tell the damn story!"

Anyway, I'm hoping the new Five-O finds its legs and starts coming up with fresher story ideas that really are organic to Hawaii. Lord knows (pun intended) there are plenty of local angles that could make it stand out from all the other cop shows set in LA or New York.


Due to high interest, we're going to leave the Miracle Hawaii weight management program on our home page for at least another week. You can view it here at or tune into this month's show, which airs daily on OC16 at different times (viewing times listed on our site, along with a link to the CCTV YouTube Channel for other videos).

7 Responses to “Hawaii in TV and Movies”

  1. theDman:

    I understand your point(s) Rich, and I do think that the show has many areas that it needs to work on.

    The next three weeks will be very telling to what happens to this show in the longer run.

    This was just an intro episode, so I can cut it some slack. It was just a way to introduce the characters, but yes, the storyline was not original by any means...think "Lethal Weapon"...

    I see some trouble spots too, and if I may, I want to say that if the producers intend on turning this series into a beach "T & A" theme, which is something they hinted at in the pilot, this show will not last one season!

    I do not agree with you on Lost however Rich, I thought that show was a mess and plagued with poor writing.

  2. Summer Houston:

    I must say, I agree with you an your wife's critic of the new H5-0. I'm a big fan of the original and know Jack Lord like the back of my palm. Coincidentally, I too have wrote screenplays. One of the first pilots for H 5-0 titled "Forever Lani." I was lucky enough to have it read by Mr. James McArthur himself. He was excited because I wrote him in as a retired Danno, an adviser to the new team. I was honored to have him be the first to read it. All I can say is, it's totally different then the new one that just aired. More exotic men and also a gorgeous Hawaiian Gov! He is also a close friend of the lead. Sadly, I don't think this new one is going to cut the mustard. It lost me after 40mins, I turned it off. My new pilot is very similar to the original and that's the way I wanted it. If in case CBS would like it, I'd be more then happy to swim Waikiki once again-

    S. Houston

  3. Rich Figel:

    Dman -

    Usually, you want to bring your A game in the premier episode and really wow audiences. While I get the opening scene in "South Korea" was meant to establish McG's background and his relationship with his dad, I dunno... felt like it took the "Hawaii" out of the Hawaii Five-O, and maybe that's the intent: the focus is on McGarrett instead of Hawaii. Okay. But one reason I think the Law & Order franchise has been so successful is that series has always been more about the stories than the cops... they could, and did, frequently change lead detectives and rarely got into their personal lives or romances.

    The other thing I noticed about the new series that premiered this past week (Lone Star could be good) is how so many of them spend a lot of time showing couples making out or simulating steamy sex scenes. Okay, I get it. They're in love! Eh, why should I care when I don't even know who these characters are yet?

    As for Lost, I thought the first season was great. Second season was still pretty good... but when they started doing time travel, I just gave up. I think they wrote themselves into a corner, and relying on the time travel device was a cop-out.

  4. Rich Figel:

    Summer -
    Thanks for sharing! However, I don't think the producers of the new Five-O have any interest in getting input or stories pitched to them by local writers. At least Baywatch Hawaii actually hired a local writer (Charley Memminger) for some episodes that never aired.

    Awhile back, I asked my former manager in LA to set me up with a meeting with the producers of the "Hawaii" cop show, but it got canceled so fast I never had a chance to pitch anything to them. If you want to write for TV though, your best chance is to swim to LA... that's where the action is for screenwriters.

  5. theDman:

    Well Rich, I was going to say that all the 5-0 scripts are going to be written in that sealed vacuum called LA...but you already knew that.

    Interesting, all three of us commenting on this topic are writers.

    I cannot argue your premise about the story taking so long to unfold, it did not get to the point for quite awhile, they seemed to be trying to tie in the old 5-0 with the new show (...and that did NOT work by the way...).

    I am thinking that this may be a character based show more than a plot driven one, and that IS one of the trouble spots I was referring to. They only have one actor in that main cast that can pull that off. If they put the characters above the story itself, they are going to quickly discover that they have bigtime casting problems.

  6. Rich Figel:

    Dman -
    Re the LA vacuum, yeah, that goes back to even the old Five-O (although I did meet a local writer at a UH screenwriting workshop who scripted an episode for the original series). It's tricky for any writer to try to incorporate local or foreign culture into story lines because it's so easy to get things wrong... For instance, in the old Five-O "Samurai" episode in which Ricardo Montalban played a Japanese character, he refers to "bushido" as if they were a class of samurai or something like yakuza -- at the end, Ricardo spots a couple of mean-looking Japanese men and says, "Bushido!"

    So Dman, what kind of writing do you do? Okay to plug your stuff here, unless you want to remain anonymous!

  7. theDman:

    I am a screenwriter Rich, I think we both used to be in the Hawaii Screenwriters Association awhile back. I sold a short, but only one. I have completed three feature length screenplays with several more unfinished. I am involved in the biz in other ways besides writing.

    I better keep a low profile here, I will get myself into trouble if I give out Yoda would say, "...too much, have I already said".