Grading Hawaii Five-O

If there is an Asian American home on American network TV these days, it has to be CBS’s Hawaii Five-O. It’s set in the nation’s only Asian-majority state. Two of the four main characters with marquee credits on this 70s series remake are Asian American: Lost survivor Daniel Dae Kim as Chin Ho Kelly, a savvy HPD veteran wrongfully disgraced by a bribery scandal, and Battlestar Galactica’s hot android number Grace Park as rookie cop Kona Kalakaua.

For me the biggest draw of Hawaii Five-O remains the rousing theme music by Morton Stevens and the Ventures. The producers had the wisdom to leave perfection alone. The music counterpoints the show’s real star — the scenery. Especially with HDTV, the dazzling blues, greens and whites are straight out of an opium dream or, at least, fond memories of my days in Hawaii. Seeing so many Asian extras makes me feel more at home than watching anything else on TV.

But as I settle back to enjoy the music and scenery, the foreground action insinuates itself into my consciousness. That forces me to start tallying the Asian image points scored by Kim and Park. It’s that old Asian American reflex. With so few of us in the American mass media every Asian seems to represent us.

In that respect the remake is a couple notches better than the original. For one thing, Daniel Dae Kim is younger, hipper and studlier than Kam Fong (Chun) who played Chin Ho Kelly. Daniel has about him a tough street-smart mojo. That’s nice. But you can’t help wondering how it’s possible that his Chin Ho Kelly character can be the same cop who worked with Steve McGarrett in the original series when he doesn’t look that much older than the new McGarrett junior, son of the original. Is this a veiled nod to how well we Asians are supposed to age?

That generational confusion also unfairly imputes old-fart status to Daniel Dae Kim who is now just 42. Kam Fong was already 50 when he began his 12-year stint as the original Chin Ho Kelly in 1968. By the time the series wrapped in 2980 he was an old guy. Now, some 42 years later, we have Kim, who was born in 1968, playing the same character. Chin seems to have lost a few decades in that transition.

Anyway, Daniel has obviously been pumping a lot of iron while Kam Fong looked like a tired old cop who had had a few too many donuts (which he actually was) even when the original series began. It would have been more logical to make Daniel the son of the original Chin Ho and be of the same generation as Alex O’Loughlin who is 34. This little inconsistency exposes the old American media impulse to assign Asian male characters to one of three stereotypical character types: villain, nerd or wise old fart.

But Daniel Dae Kim, with his catlike walk and street-cat talk, may be giving the slip to the producers’ original intentions. Last week’s episode had him joining McGarrett in the climactic chase scene while Danno (Scott Caan), fortunately, is lamed by an injured knee. You suspect the show’s writers are creating more situations to better tap Kim’s star qualities despite the original concept of Chin as a senior citizen.

The producers’ old-school reflexes is also apparent in the fact that Grace Kim’s character Kono Kalakaua is Chin Ho Kelly’s cousin, ruling out any romantic interest between the two Asians. Any such involvement would put an Asian pair at the show’s center which is taboo in Hollywood. But I have to admit that Kono is a far cry from old-line Asian female TV regulars like Mrs Livingston (played by Miyoshi Umeki) on The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, for example. Kono’s sass and toughness is a bit too pat and politically correct, but at least she speaks unaccented tough-babe English. And Grace Kim is one of very very few genuinely pretty Asian females cast as a regular on an American TV series, for which I am grateful.

I am also noticing how careful the writers are to make sure Daniel Dae Kim gets his fair share of assertive/intelligent lines. During last week’s jungle chase sequence when the upstart boss McGarrett jumps into the pilot’s seat of the police chopper before Chin gets to it, Chin asks if he knows what he’s doing. In trying to figure out what direction to give chase, McGarrett points out that a flock of birds that has just been flushed by their quarry is flying away from danger. Moments later Chin comes back by telling McGarrett not to drink the Molokai water because it contains pathogenic microbes that can put a man down in an hour.

Of course, McGarrett gets to take the final shot that nails the vicious killer. It’s all very measured. But at least the measuring cups are becoming more even than in days of old.