Why Is Hawaii Five-0 So Popular?

Several theories.

Steve McGarrett (Alex O’Loughlin) and Chin Ho Kelly (Daniel Dae Kim) in Hawaii Five-0

Earlier this year, the New York Times reported that CBS’s Hawaii Five-0 is the most popular new show of the 2010-11 TV season. It isn’t an offshoot of a blockbuster franchise like CSI, it isn’t a critical darling, and characters don’t make a habit of bursting into song. How to explain the success of this old-fashioned procedural?

Some of its draws are obvious. It’s a reboot of a TV classic, so most viewers understand the premise as soon as they see the title. As in the original, which ran for 12 seasons from 1968 to 1980, the action centers on a special task force empowered by Hawaii’s governor to investigate serious crime. The cinematography is gorgeous, and the scenery is stunning—a viewer recently wrote to TV Guide complaining that the show’s creators were unnecessarily enhancing the islands’ beautiful colors, only to be assured that no retouching had been done. But the show isn’t all tracking shots of pristine beaches and lush greenery; often the series cannily sets the action in places that viewers who have vacationed on Oahu would likely have visited: a hotel luau, the U.S.S. Missouri, the shave-ice stands of Waikiki.

The actors aren’t hard to look at, either. There’s no shortage of attractive people in prime-time, but Hawaii’s sun and sand provide ample opportunities for the buff Five-0 cast to strip down to their swimsuits: Kona “Kono” Kalakaua (Grace Park), a former pro surfer who is now a rookie cop, gets to ride the waves in itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny bikinis, and the scriptwriters don’t have to stretch too far to give Alex O’Loughlin, who plays Steve McGarrett, an excuse to show off his hairy chest and oversized shoulder tattoos. (Oddly, he often keeps his cargo pants on when he hits the ocean.) Even when they’re fully clothed, there’s a likable insouciance to the squad, with their casual attire and, in the case of the haoles, several centimeters of stubble.

The cast is also fabulously diverse, which allows a good chunk of the viewing public to recognize itself on-screen. Although Park and Daniel Dae Kim, the actor who plays Chin Ho Kelly, a disgraced ex-cop whom Steve recruits to the team, are of Korean descent, their characters are more vaguely multicultural. Like many real Hawaiians, their ethnic roots are mixed and slightly mysterious: Chin can read enough Chinese to decipher a restaurant menu, and Kono has a cousin in Kyoto, Japan. The supporting cast, meanwhile, is more multiracial than the riders of the R train to Queens—Asian, Caucasian, African-American, Latino, Pacific Islander, and Canadian First Nations actors have all earned a paycheck on the show. It’s also probably the most physically diverse series on television, with more plus-sized characters than The Biggest Loser. For viewers craving a little exoticism, the show also provides a carefully calibrated dose of Hawaiian culture—the episode titles are Hawaiian-language phrases, and the characters occasionally deploy the shaka sign and speak “bird” (though the pidgin rarely extends beyond endless repetitions of “brah,” “da kine,” and “howzit?”).

Of course, there’s more to the series than pretty people hanging out in pleasant places. It also does an impressive job of appealing to the interests of men and women alike. For the guys, there are fast cars (and in a bit of everyman appeal, these vehicles are shockingly ordinary and domestic—seeing bad-ass good guys drive a common Chevy in decidedly uncommon ways will reassure viewers that you don’t need a Ferrari to be a hero), motorbikes (no helmets, of course), helicopters, and speedboats. Although there are none of the slick “this is how the bullet ruptured his spleen” reconstructions you see on CSI, that doesn’t mean viewers are denied their fix of tech porn. Five-0 doesn’t skimp on the gadgets, including iPads, smartphones, and table-top surface computers with monitors the size of movie screens. McGarrett, a Navy SEAL, can even call up old friends on aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf and access top-secret satellite feeds.

The tropes borrowed from the buddy-cop playbook are likely also a draw for male viewers. The scriptwriters always manage to squeeze in five minutes of barely relevant banter between Steve and his partner, Danny “Danno” Williams. If you watch 10 episodes in a row, as I did, this bromantic back-and-forth (frequently conducted in a fast-moving vehicle) can get a little wearying, but it does provide a welcome dash of levity. McGarrett is dour and brooding—at various points in the series, characters have described him as “tall, dark, and uptight” and have commented on his “constipated look” and his “aneurysm face”—but in combination with charming cut-up Danny (the surprisingly compelling Scott Caan), he comes across as a good guy who’s having a hard time dealing with his dad’s recent death.

If McGarrett sounds like unsmiling Jack Bauer, that’s because there’s also a lot of 24in the new Hawaii Five-0: McGarrett’s task force is separate and superior, isolated from the corrupt influences the fictional Honolulu PD is susceptible to. Hawaii has always been a global crossroads, and the original Five-O squad battled its share of international master criminals, but the 21st-century team is on the front lines of the war on terror. So far this season, they have taken on Chinese human-traffickers, Irish and Filipino terrorists, Japanese yakuza, and Italian-American mobsters fomenting war between Chinese Triads and Samoan gangs. As in 24, the good guys don’t always have time for the niceties of proper police procedure—they fire real bullets at bad guys, and they seldom shoot to wound. When the clock is ticking and they need information, they’re as likely to throw a suspect into a shark tank or hang him over the side of a tall building as they are to duck into an interview room. For better or for worse, American viewers seem to prefer these improvised methods, at least when it comes to prime-time entertainment.

And what does the series offer the ladies? Surely a desire to appeal to the female audience explains the show’s focus on family. Kono and Chin are cousins, and Steve agreed to interrupt his Navy service so that he could investigate the murders of his parents. (As if that isn’t bad enough, his sister also gets kidnapped in one episode.) Danny moved to Hawaii from New Jersey because his ex-wife remarried and relocated there along with his daughter, Grace, whom he feels driven to protect. The Five-0 team has a lot of discretion about which cases they take on, and in almost every episode their decisions are driven by parent-child relationships: a son left fatherless by a careless criminal, a quest for justice for a bereaved mother and child. In one episode, Danny asks Steve, “Why is it that every time somebody’s father is involved, you get all goofy?” Even the bad guys are motivated by family concerns: Career criminal Sang Min twice cooperates with the cops for the sake of his wife and son.

Modern procedurals are usually emotionally cold—Law & Order turned cops and lawyers into interchangeable cogs in a story-telling machine—but for all its fast cars and hand-to-hand combat, Hawaii Five-0 is dripping with sentimentality. The sappy bits are also typically the clunkiest—as when Kono tells Danny about a murder victim who was also a father figure to her: “Surfing was more than just a sport to him. It was the Earth, and the sun, and the sky, and the water, and the heart. It was everything.” But just because those speeches are as wooden as a ukulele, that doesn’t mean they aren’t effective. I’ve found myself rolling my eyes at the very same moment I was swallowing a lump in my throat.