TV execs were sure that a show that went off the air more than thirty years ago still had plenty of potential – and they were right. The reboot of Hawaii Five-0 – with a hot, young foursome fighting crime in surf and sand – has been a huge hit for CBS. How long can it last? Well, how high is the sky?
Issue 3, 2011
By Shawna Malcom
As a teen in his native Australia, Alex O’Loughlin nearly drowned trying to learn to surf. The experience proved so harrowing that, for twenty years, he refused to get back on a board. Then, in 2010, he landed a starring role on Hawaii Five-0 and, with it, a move to the Aloha state. Renting a house on one of Oahu’s picturesque beaches, the actor suddenly found himself drawn to the waves that have seduced thrill-seekers from around the globe. Ultimately he realized, “I’ve got to push through this fear,” he says. “If I don’t do it now, I’m never going to do it.”
O’Loughlin recounts his story one Sunday in the lobby bar of Honolulu’s Waikiki Edition Hotel, shortly after wrapping his Emmy photo shoot in an upstairs suite. As he does, it becomes clear the actor – clad in jeans and a T-shirt that doesn’t quite cover the tattoos inked on both biceps – has come not only to appreciate, but enjoy, the sport. “I feel like I’m 80 percent through my fear,” he says, between sips of hot tea. “I go out now whenever I can. It’s changed my life. For the first time, I’m experiencing how truly therapeutic being in the ocean can be.”
Spend some time with O’Loughlin and a theme starts to emerge: At this point in his life, the thirty-four-year-old actor is all about confronting challenges that scare the daylights out of him. Like fronting another series for CBS after his first two – 2007′s Moonlight and 2009′s Three Rivers – swiftly got the ax. “I did think, ‘What if this one doesn’t work?’” O’Loughlin says of returning to the TV beat with Five-0. “‘Where does that leave me? Will I be able to get another job?’”
Fortunately, he doesn’t need one. Five-0 – an adrenaline-fueled reboot of the classic 1968-80 series that revolves around an elite crimefighting task force led by the stoic Steve McGarrett (O’Loughlin, taking over for Jack Lord) – is a hit. In its freshman season, the show’s mix of high-stakes cases, flawed (and, yes, hot) heroes, breathtaking scenery and hard-hitting action packed a Hawaiian punch, averaging some 12 million viewers and becoming the number-one new drama in the coveted demo of adults eighteen-to-forty-nine.
Along the way, Five-0 proved that – despite recent groan-worth remakes (RIP, Bionic Woman, Knight Rider, Melrose Place) – it’s possible to reinvent a treasured franchise in a way that feels fresh yet honors the spirit of the source material.
“It’s really well done,” says CBS entertainment president Nina Tassler. “The [producers] took the original series, deconstructed it and reassembled it in such a way that it’s an homage that resonates with older fans but has great appeal to a younger audience.”
Striking that balance wasn’t easy. The network had tried twice before to relaunch Five-0, first in the mid-’90s with a pilot produced by Stephen J. Cannell and starring Gary Busey, then again in 2008 with a pilot script by Criminal Minds mastermind Ed Bernero. Along the way, Warner Bros. also briefly flirted with plans for a big-screen adaptation.
Still, execs had faith in the potential of the property. “Any time you said the title, you always got a positive response,” says David Stapf, president of CBS Studios. “It also felt like an easy show to understand and wrap your arms around. But we weren’t going to do it unless we got it right.”
One of the pros who ultimately cracked the case, executive producer and showrunner Peter Lenkov, had spent much of his life unwittingly preparing for the gig. Growing up in Montreal, he parked himself in front of the TV each week for the original Five-0, which helped forge the crime-procedural template and received a Primetime Emmy nomination for outstanding drama series in 1973.
“It was my dad’s favorite show,” Lenkov reports, “I remember sitting by his knee watching it and feeling how important it was to him.”
When approached about breathing new life into the brand, Lenkov – then showrunner on CSI: New York – didn’t hesitate. “I didn’t even think about the fact that I could kill the whole franchise,” he says with a laugh. “I just felt like I knew the original so well that I’d be doing it from the right place – because I was really passionate about it.”
That enthusiasm is evident as Lenkov sits in his office on the Paramount lot in Hollywood, surrounded by memorabilia he’s collected from the first Five-0 (“How cool is that?” he exclaims about a vintage View-Master.) His reverence helped persuade initially reluctant executive producers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman to join the project.
“We were ready to do original stuff,” explains Orci, who along with Kurtzman and Lost’s Damon Lindelof, had scripted 2009′s brand-resuscitating Star Trek prequel. “It was like, are we just going to become the reboot kings? But Peter got us excited about what the series could be.”
Together, the trio set about reimagining the world of Five-0, dialing up the action and humor for what Orci calls “a Lethal Weapon feel” and fleshing out an origin story for the core quartet of characters – McGarrett, Danny “Danno” Williams (Scott Caan), Chin Ho Kelly (Daniel Dae Kim) and Kono Kalakaua (Grace Park), whose gender was wisely changed to reflect the modern reality of women in the workplace.
“In the twelve years I’d watched the original show,” Lenkov says, describing what he felt was a weakness, “I never knew who those people were. I never knew how they met, why they were working together or who they were outside of the job.”
Inspired by Lenkov’s personal connection to the material, the characters’ back stories are defined by family ties: Former Navy SEAL McGarrett returns to Hawaii and ultimately forms the specialized police unit when his father is murdered. Fish-out-of-water sidekick Danny is a by-the-book, if sarcastic, New Jersey cop who moves to Honolulu to be close to his beloved daughter. Chin Ho is a former HPD officer whose downfall was inadvertently caused by his uncle, and he recruits his cousin Kono, a former pro surfer-turned-rookie.
A few golden nuggets from the original, however, were considered too valuable to lose and were woven prominently throughout season one, including McGarrett’s “Book ‘em, Danno!” catchphrase; the character of Wo Fat, who remains the show’s “big bad” and McGarrett’s archnemesis; and, of course, that ironically catchy theme song.
“We did wonder, should we try and trick it out, or get a famous rock guitarist to re-record it?” admits Orci, who considered both Lenny Kravitz and Slash. “But everybody’s first question when they found out we were working on the show was, are you going to keep the theme song?’ Enough people asked that it seemed stupid to say no. I think we were smart enough to leave it alone.”
They were also savvy in casting. Lenkov had previously met O’Loughlin and remembered feeling at the time that the actor had been miscast in his previous TV roles as a sensitive vampire and dedicated surgeon. “In person, I thought, this guy’s an action hero,” Lenkov says. “He shouldn’t be playing anything but the guy who carries a gun, saves people and solves crimes. All this physical, heroic stuff that we needed for our McGarrett – that’s Al.”
O’Loughlin threw himself into preparing for the part, enduring rigorous training with real Navy SEALs and employing same single-minded determination that helped him conquer surfing. It’s obvious he’s relieved and thrilled to have finally found a role that fits.
“This character is a cool cat,” O’Loughlin says. “He’s got that Jason Bourne-Jack Bauer thing, where he has his own moral code. And I love the action stuff! I’m not a stuntman, but I’m athletic, and [as McGarrett] I like hanging people off buildings and tying them to the hoods of cars and then driving really fast.”
Caan is happy to let his partner in crimefighting handle the action sequences. Early on in the show’s production, he tore a ligament in his knee doing jujitsu and had to have surgery. “I’ve hurt myself in my life so much doing stupid sports,” he says, “so I’m cool with just doing acting.”
Five-0 fans are cool with it, too. Caan – who exudes an easy charisma on screen, whether doting on Danny’s daughter or bickering bromantically with McGarrett in the show’s now-patented “cargument” scenes – quickly became a breakout star, earning a Golden Globe nomination for his performance earlier this year. Clearly, producers booked the right Danno.
Ironically, though, Caan came close to passing on the role. “I definitely struggled with whether I should do it,” the actor says during an interview on the Five-0 headquarters set, as his beloved Blue Heeler, an Australian cattle dog named Dot, lounges nearby. “My first instinct was no. I have no desire to do just a straight procedural.”
The character-rich pilot script eventually changed his mind. Even so, since the show became a hit, Caan – who’s also a writer and director – has openly struggled with the likelihood that he’ll spend the next several years of his life working pre-dominantly on the show, which shoots far from his Los Angeles hometown. “There have been times when I’ve been, like, there’s no way I’ll do anything twelve seasons,” he says, “because there are other things I want to do.”
At this point, though, he seems to have made peace with the idea. “This is my job and I’m doing it with full passion,” Caan says. “If it runs twelve seasons, I’ll be in my forties, and I can parlay it into whatever I want, you know? I’ll have a bajillion dollars from this show, and I can buy a block in Hollywood, set up a theater company and do nothing but write and direct plays and be completely fulfilled.”
The potential for fulfillment, both personal and creative, also persuaded Kim to join the TV team. The actor, who spent six seasons on the Oahu-based drama lost, was, unlike his character Jin, in no hurry to leave the island when the ABC hit wrapped last year. “My kids are in school here,” says the married father of two during a break at Emmy’s photo shoot, “and all their friends are here. As important as my career is to me, my family is as important.”
With Five-0, he’s hoped to showcase a different side of himself as an actor. “That people see that Jin was actually a character, and not who I was, is meaningful to me,” he says. “I loved my experience on Lost and I’ll make no bones about it. That said, it was a huge ensemble and I wanted to make sure that I was an integral part of [this] show.”
While the actor has infused the wounded Chin Ho with a poignant gravitas, his loyal (and very vocal) fan base has grumbled that the character isn’t quite integral enough. The actor himself admits he’s eager to spend more time on character development and less time downloading case-related exposition in season two. “Chin Ho started with a rich back story, and I think he has a lot to offer the group,” Kim says. “I look forward to seeing a diversity of experience for him. I understand that season one was about establishing the brand, so people knew what they were getting. But I think what makes a television show good in the long run is depth of character.”
Park, who was previously best known for the cable cult-favorite Battlestar Galactica, has wrestled with finding her footing off screen.
“This has been a really interesting journey,” admits the shy actress of the fame that comes with starring on a high-profile network series. “I’m really grateful [for the opportunity], but with that comes a lot of exposure. There’s an inordinate amount of attention put on actors. Some people want to make their lives public, but that doesn’t mean everybody does. It kind of feels like you landed in – well, not really Alice in Wonderland, because it’s not that fun.”
Park is looking forward to spending the summer hiatus with her husband, real-estate developer Phil Kim, who stayed in Vancouver while she filmed in Hawaii. (“People were like, ‘Isn’t your husband moving with you?’ I’m like, ‘He’s got a life!’” she says with a laugh.)
But for the show’s producers, any R&R will be short-lived. After May’s explosive season finale, which threatened to dismantle the Five-0 team, Lenkov is already bubbling with ideas for the fall. “There are certain emotional moments from the first season that I want on my life reel,” he says. “But season two is going to be even better.” Expect “tighter plots,” says the producer, and likely at least one new series regular: Larisa Oleynik, who appeared in a handful of episodes toward the end of season one as a CIA analyst who helps McGarrett in his ongoing quest to bring down Wo Fat.
Even now, though, the man who grew up worshipping the original series can’t quite believe he’s played a major role in introducing the brand to a whole new generation. “Nina Tassler said to me once, ‘You did it. You brought it back,’” Lenkov marvels. “But, really, as corny as it sounds, I just wanted to make my dad a fan.”
For the record, he’s succeeded. “He even watches the reruns,” Lenkov says with a hearty laugh. “My dad will call me up and say, ‘That was still pretty great, even the second time.”
The same might be said for the series as a whole.
- I do not agree with Peter Lenkov on his thoughts that the only thing Alex can be good at, is being an action hero cop. And I definitely disagree that he was ever miscast as either Mick St. John of Dr Andy Yablonski. Maybe I am just an ignorant fangirl for thinking that Alex is so much more than just McGarrett? 😕
- “When in doubt, don’t.“ – While I was reading this article, the quote from Benjamin Franklin crossed my mind. But then again, will we ever do anything if this was true?