Monday, September 15, 2014

Magnum as Tigger, P.I.: Why Archetypes Work

Remember Magnum? Thomas Sullivan Magnum, private investigator, Thursday night staple throughout the 1980s, remember him?

I confess, when I watched the show as a kid, I just loved the sheer visual noise of it. Mike Post and Pete Carpenter's theme song still plays in my head as the ultimate car chase accompaniment.

I thought I remembered Magnum. Those dimples! That Ferarri! The mustache! But lately, WunderGuy and I have been bingeing on Magnum, P.I. I discovered I'd forgotten many aspects...

I'd forgotten what an anti-hero Magnum is. He suffers from PTSD. He's essentially homeless -- or he would be if he wasn't in Robin Masters' good graces. He commits several murders in cold blood (All with good reason, of course. "Did you see the sunrise this morning?"). He's cheap. He's manipulative. He's not above lying to his friends to get what he wants. And yet... his irrepressible optimism trumps all. Thirty years later, he's still loveable.

Magnum's a Tigger. His friends are his real family. When he blunders into trouble -- which is often -- his first instinct is to get physical. Whatever he does, even if he does it badly, he does with gusto.

"My dear Pooh," said Owl in his superior way,
"don't you know what an Ambush is?"
If Magnum is Tigger, Higgins is Owl. He's erudite, a bit narcissistic, and pontificates at the drop of a hat. He is the star of every story he tells.  He looks down his nose at Magnum's lack of decorum. He is continually dismayed by Magnum's lack of refinement.

However, Higgins isn't all blowhard. When the chips are down, he is quick to help -- though that help often comes with a rather wordy soundtrack.

T.C.? Well, T.C. is Pooh, of course. He's all heart. He'll do anything for his friends, but he has his own interests, too.

He's more grounded and less volatile than Magnum. While Magnum spends his free time training himself for competition, T.C. spends his coaching kids. His sense of loyalty will never let him turn down a request from a friend -- even if he knows from past experience that the request will probably lead to trouble.
Pooh was just beginning to say that it was
all right now, when he found that it wasn't.

At least once an episode, what I call the "Oh, bother" scene occurs, where Magnum wrangles T.C. into doing something both of them know T.C. would be better off not doing... Still, like Pooh, T.C. can never say "no" and make it stick.

And what about Rick? He's Rabbit. Knows everyone. Extremely hard working. Knows the rules and expects people to follow them -- though he's often guilty of ignoring them himself.

"Hallo, Rabbit," he said, "is that you?"
"Let's pretend it isn't," said Rabbit, "and see what happens."
Rick likes numbers and lists, which makes him a good manager as well as a bookie. He can be judgmental, unethical, and bitter. He tends to be rather harsh. He likes a good fight every now and then, but if given the choice would always prefer to be known as the Brains rather than the Brawn. Though he's not above making a scene, he's easily embarrassed, and can hold a grudge for a long time.

Once, at a dinner party, a friend of a friend waxed eloquent on his theory of how the whole world is peopled with characters from Winnie the Pooh. I've often had reason to think about his theory and wonder if he's right. A.A. Milne understood the importance of archetype. In the denizens of the 100 Acre Woods, Milne created a few that endure.

There is a reason archetypes work. They help writers keep characters consistent. They allow the audience to get an immediate feel for a character. As the relationship grows, the characters eventually amass their own history, their own quirks, and take on a life of their own. But the underlying archetype -- Good Guy, Pontificator, Life of the Party, Hard Ass, Bigot, Softie -- remains, providing the foundation for the rest.

My friend, the lovely Yi Shun Lai (@Gooddirt), blogged about lessons learned from bingewatching Magnum this summer.

Me? My big takeaway is the fact that the wonderful thing about archetypes is Magnums are wonderful things...

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