To the chagrin of some and the pride of others, no form of modern entertainment has brought Hawai‘i to the world like the TV drama Hawaii Five-0. The original series ran from 1968 to 1980, then was remade and rebranded, debuting again in 2010, and has since become an island institution. Each week, on average, more than 9 million U.S. viewers tune in to Five-0’s Friday night CBS slot. The new series plays in numerous countries, from Germany to Japan, and re-runs have already begun. A decade ago, you knew your neighborhood was gritty when you saw it on Dog the Bounty Hunter. Now it’s if the Five-0 crew shuts down your cul-de-sac to film a drug bust. Several hundred local film professionals work on the show throughout its shooting season. Numerous local businesses have received a boost in tourist traffic after being mentioned. And for the now thousands of people who’ve acted as extras, it’s the longest $100 day they’ve ever worked; most wind up sharing dry pretzels from craft services while waiting for their mere seconds of screen time.
In the intervening decades between the two shows, the iconic, symphonic sweep of music composed by Morton Stevens simultaneously became the theme song for Hawaii Five-0’s opening sequence and de rigueur for local marching bands. The original show was syndicated around the world, searing as much of an image in the minds of viewers of police and thieves in Hawai‘i as it did white sandy beaches, swaying palm trees, and surfing locals. The new exploits of the off-the-books detective team take much inspiration from late-1990s fast-paced crime dramas and Michael Bay-style cinematography. But like the old series, the new Five-0 plays like an inside joke for locals, who are quick to point out the show’s glaring inaccuracies about island life: They put a shave ice stand at the end of the pier? Who wears an Armani suit to Waimānalo Beach Park? Who can speed through downtown at 4 p.m. on a Friday to disable a bomb?
The answers are in modern TV drama, whose scripts are, arguably, more concerned about ratings and show survival than encompassing stories. Of all the fiction, nothing beats the technology in the Five-0 control room. It’s LOL funny for actual state workers. The heads-up displays, immediate access to information, and pleasant lighting are pure fantasy in a place where county workers clock in at 7:45 a.m. and do things like press CTRL + F9 to access hard drives in order to forward mileage docs to the ladies in Fiscal. The only place in Honolulu where such technology is actually displayed is the IBM building in Kaka‘ako, where a developer highlights the proximity of new condominiums to tourist attractions. The state worker who looks like she finished a month of sculpt yoga and master cleansing while wearing Manolo Blahnik heels is, in fact, a unicorn.
The series’ storylines offer some real doozies: a murder at Pipeline that leads the detectives to a North Shore heavy hitter (played by Kala Alexander, reprising his role as menacing local) who eventually leads us to the killer, a greedy real estate developer; the terrorist-style neck collar bomb fitted on poor Chin Ho Kelly (Daniel Dae Kim) in the middle of downtown Honolulu; and some gems of knowledge ripped straight from the headlines: “Those girls wanted to ride those waves as long as they could,” Kono Kalakaua (Grace Park) says of a bikini-clad gang who robbed tourists on trolleys. “Yet that love turned them into criminals, and their endless summer is over.”
To say that the show is corny nonsense is missing the point. Hawaii Five-0 has become part of local culture with historical ties to the community: a bust of Jack Lord (who played the original series’ leading man, Steve McGarrett, and spent his retirement and much of his savings in the local arts scene) now faces the parking lot of Kahala Mall and is usually adorned with a lei from an old fan. Since 2010, the red carpet events for the season premieres, held on the sand facing Kapiolani Park, are as close as most local people will get to quasi-celebrity status without flying to Vegas. To see throngs of local fans abutting the red carpet, leaning in for a chance to see Alex O’Loughlin and his new bride, surfing celebrity Malia Jones, emerge from a tinted Escalade like they’re at Cannes, illustrates how the show is more than an outsiders’ portrayal of lived Hawai‘i. Take the show for its violence, half-hearted dialogue, token nods to the host culture by naming episodes in Hawaiian, but it’s as close as we may ever come to showing the world what it’s like to live in Hawai‘i—for now, at least.