Monday, May 18, 2015

GUEST POST -- The Anatomy of a "Great MacGyver Episode": Why My List Is Ranked As It Is

Special thanks to Nick for giving me the opportunity to do a "guest post" at the sunset of his "MacGyver Project" countdown.   It's always fascinating (and sometimes infuriating) to see how devoted fans of a series, in this case "MacGyver", can nonetheless have very different views on favorite episodes.  I'm quite passionate about the elements of "MacGyver" that I like, and am often surprised when other fans have a different take on things.  With that in mind, I thought I'd break down a top-10 list of plot points and recurring themes that help explain why a given "MacGyver" episode is higher on my personal favorite list than other episodes, along with a shorter list of recurring themes that didn't work as well for me and may have exerted downward pressure on a given episode's rankings.  After that, I'll average out my own ranking and Nick's revised numbers by season and see if the math broke down as predicted.  Anyway, in honor of David Letterman's final week on the air, I'd like to present you my top-10 list......!!

#10.  The Music--Nick and I share a passion for the first-rate compositions in "MacGyver" episodes in all seven seasons.  The three primary composers--Randy Edelman, Dennis McCarthy, and Ken Harrison--did a first-rate job of setting hundreds of scenes in the series to outstanding original music that fit the mood and setting beautifully.  Where Nick and I differ is that I don't necessarily give bonus points to episodes with particularly strong musical scores.  As it happens, the majority of the musical scores that impressed me most came in episodes I already really liked.  That wasn't always the case though.  An episode that jumps out at me with great music that I didn't like was "A Prisoner of Conscience", particularly that speedboat chase through the former Soviet Union that was my favorite scene of the episode and had a great James Bond-ish soundtrack accompanying it.  The music helped make the scene more memorable, but since I didn't like most of the rest of the episode, I wouldn't consider a 10-point "music bounce" in my rankings.  On the other hand, maybe it's no coincidence that episodes I like best all have some of my favorite music from the series.  Perhaps my enjoyment of the music has subconsciously improved those scenes to the point that I've inadvertently rated them higher than I otherwise would.  I doubt it though.  I try my best to rank the episodes on their story content and look at the quality music as mere gravy.

#9.  Happy, Sad, or Angry MacGyver....but Not Grumpy or Campy MacGyver!--I've made some negative comments about the tone of season 2 being too lighthearted for my personal taste, but I'll concede that MacGyver seemed the happiest in the second season, and the character's perky vibe was contagious to the viewer and probably enhanced my enjoyment of episodes like "Silent World" and "Birth Day".  Nonetheless, I thought the character's tragic background and ongoing betrayals and tragedies as the series progressed required the emergence of a darker side.  I thought his pity party in "The Widowmaker" was a little self-indulgent but generally hit a tone I felt was appropriate.  And I've cited how MacGyver's darker side emerging enhanced my enjoyment of "The Challenge" and "Lesson in Evil", landing both episodes in my top tier as a result.  Inversely, when MacGyver exhibited character traits that were campy, arrogant, or grumpy, it took away some enjoyment for me.  Even though I loved "Hellfire" as an adventure story, there seems to be a definite consensus that MacGyver's banter with his old friends here felt off for the character.  Our MacGyver isn't supposed to act this goofy.  And at the risk of incurring Nick's wrath, I felt the same about a certain tow truck driver scene in the next episode in succession.  Now there were moments of MacGyver's first season swagger I liked, but there were just as many moments that made me cringe.  But since those were early episodes where the character was being flushed out, I'm more willing to forgive them than the episodes where "MacGyver" was just plain grumpy and checked out, which seemed to be the case through most of season 7 and in the movies.  I wonder if the writers, directors, and RDA were even conscious of how much of a groaning, grimacing curmudgeon the character had become by the final season or if it just stemmed from being burned out and ready to move on.  Was it just easier for MacGyver to be the guy who reacts Dean Martin-style to the Jerry Lewis-style goofballs like Pinky Burnett, Abe Sherman, and Mama Lorraine that surrounded him or was there a method to their madness that can at least partially explain the checked-out tone?  Either way, he certainly needed the emergence of a long-lost son to revitalize him.

#8.  International Settings--Very few shows were able to convincingly feature international plotlines on a regular basis.  Nick's favorite opening gambit was an excellent example of the attention to detail this series paid to capture the look and feel of a foreign setting as authentically as is possible for a weekly TV show before the era of generic CGI backdrops so often used today for similar scenes.  And I took note of it in my rankings as well.  "Second Chance" was not an episode I loved and I ranked it #103, but I was impressed how well they captured the impoverished streets of southeast Asia on a TV show filmed in Vancouver, Canada!  It's a fair bet that I wouldn't have rated "Second Chance" as high as I did if not for the ambitious production efforts, to say nothing of the authentic international settings provided in episodes I liked better such as "The Golden Triangle", "The Treasure of Manco", and "Black Rhino".

#7.  Social Conscience--This is a double-edged sword as the series developed a tangible social conscience at some point in season 3 with "The Negotiator" and "The Spoilers" representing a bit of a tipping point where the series discovered its long-term calling.  This progressed nicely into season 4 as the audience got to watch MacGyver's character grow by seeing his volunteer work at the Challenger's Club and go the extra mile to help a teenage runaway who spiraled into prostitution.  Unfortunately, the show's social conscience morphed into a something a little too aggressive in the final three seasons.  While I still appreciated morally complex stories about the plight of the homeless and migrant workers exposed to pesticides, there was an undercurrent of preachiness to some of the episodes that I found needlessly heavy-handed.  Some people hate the "issue episodes".  I never hated them and mostly appreciated the sentiment in a medium where few boats were typically rocked, although an episode like "The Gun" felt more like a political propaganda piece than did "Black Rhino", the latter of which gave the viewer a greater appreciation of what makes MacGyver tick without wagging a finger quite so self-righteously in the faces of those who may not entirely agree.

#6.  Oddballs and Curveballs--Most TV adventure shows follow a pretty tight formula, especially in the old days, and as a result, many of the genre's heaviest hitters in the annals of TV history endured spectacular flameouts as the audience tired of the formula rapidly.  "MacGyver" defied the traditional formulas with story ideas that did not fit the template, and did so almost right away with an episode like "Trumbo's World" which pitted our ingenious hero not against a corrupt military dictator in a hostile nation, but an invading army of ants in a South American cocoa plantation!  There were even more oddballs and curveballs as the show progressed, and a large percentage of them worked wonderfully.  "Ghost Ship", "Hell Week", "Thin Ice", and "The Outsiders" stand out as prime examples of well-executed hours of television that deviated considerably from the adventure show boilerplate that most shows of "MacGyver's" ilk followed, and I've ranked them all in my top and second tiers of episodes at least partly because I appreciated that range of storytelling.  The later seasons produced more polarizing efforts along these lines, such as the dream episodes, but I still say the variety kept the audience interested and helped "MacGyver" stay interesting years longer than anyone would have predicted at the outset based on the show's concept.

#5.  Engaging Sidekicks--While "MacGyver" was crafted with the concept of being a lone wolf secret agent, and I enjoyed that element through much of season 1, there's no denying that some of the episodes where he had engaging sidekicks were more memorable because of them.  Obviously there are the returning wingmen and women such as Jack Dalton, Penny Parker, and the Colton brothers, all of whom had moments to shine but were a bit uneven for me, but plenty of one-timers helped add tremendous sizzle to various episodes and boost their overall rankings.  "Off the Wall" would have probably ranked 20 positions worse for me if not for the colorful Lobo.  R.T. Hines was responsible for nearly every great moment in "Tough Boys".  And Luke Chen killed it in "Murderers' Sky".  Those are three examples where great sidekicks boosted my rankings for a given episode.  There were plenty of other examples where it went the other way.  "Legend of the Holy Rose" made my top-10 for a number of reasons but Zoe Ryan was definitely not one of them.  And Lulu and Abe Sherman made "The Lost Amadeus" and "Honest Abe", respectively, downright insufferable.

#4.  MacGyver Versus His Historical Equivalents--In general, MacGyver's Indiana Jones adventures get high marks from fans but on this website there's some dissent which I find confusing.  There seems to be a general mindset in the public that globe-trotting adventure was something Steven Spielberg and George Lucas invented in 1981 with "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and everybody else dare not breach their trademark and venture into territory that could be deemed a "ripoff" of that franchise, a premise I wholeheartedly reject.  There were a couple of specific stunts in the "MacGyver" adventure episodes that were undeniably lifted from Indiana Jones movies, but the stories were all custom-built for "MacGyver" and featured a means for MacGyver to be challenged by his intellectual equals from the past, whether it be the crafty pilots for Colonel West's downed cargo plane in "Gold Rush", a 12th century alchemist in "Legend of the Holy Rose", the creators of Alexander the Great's tomb in "Eye of Osiris", or the head of a tribe of 16th century Incans looking to protect their food crop from rival tribes in "The Treasure of Manco".  It was fascinating territory for this series to mine, giving us a pseudo-history lesson and putting our hero in a position to be challenged by history's most creative minds and, for my taste, produced some of this series' most clever and elaborate moments ranging from solar-powered ancient lasers to lock mechanisms that function based on the four elements working together in tandem.  A MacGyver spin on Indiana Jones fit this series like a glove and it felt like the writers and directors rose to the occasion, inspired to get the feel and the look right even more than usual.

#3. Production Quality--"MacGyver" was always one of the best produced shows on television, and that attention to detail was pretty easy to take for granted.  I didn't realize the extent to which much of the footage from season 1's international adventure episodes relied on stock footage (I had no idea until Stephen Kandel mentioned it that a lot of the imagery from "Slow Death" was lifted from Gandhi, nor did I know that the car with a parachute stunt from "The Heist" was lifted from a commercial) but there was still a lot of spectacular production work that went into those early episodes, particularly the opening gambits.  I'm pretty sure "To Be a Man" didn't feature much if any stock footage, and it stands out as one example of an episode that rates a few points higher for me than it otherwise might have simply because of the impressive and authentic look.  The series used less stock footage in subsequent seasons while filming in an entirely different setting in the mountains of western Canada, hitting the mark regularly with imagery that dazzled.  "The Widowmaker" and "Gold Rush" are both examples of episodes where the quality of the production was apparent even as a casual viewer, enough so that it was probably worth a few points for me in my rankings as there's no way I could rate an hour of television as well-produced as "Gold Rush" below "Thin Ice", for example, despite my gut-level enjoyment of the stories being about equal.  The aforementioned Indiana Jones-style episodes also featured a production quality "bigness" for network television that was impossible for me not to reward.  Now obviously there are exceptions.  "MacGyver's Women" was a marvelously produced hour of television, but it was also 47 minutes of uninterrupted stupid from a story standpoint.  The episode needs to have other things going for it besides production for me to give it too much of a bonus.

#2.  Heightened Threat Level--"MacGyver" had semiregular flirtations with lightheartedness, especially in season 2, that seldom flopped but didn't represent the best of what this series had to offer.  Part of the reason "Phoenix Under Siege" was one of my favorite episodes from season 2 was the looming threat level was ominous and the villians meant business and were to be taken seriously.  Contrast that with "Soft Touch" a couple of episodes later or even more so with "Honest Abe" in season 7 where the villains were effectively live-action cartoons and it was harder to be as engaged in the story.  Even moments like the head mob guy's phone call from his wife reminding him to pick up milk in "Out in the Cold" undermined rather than helped the narrative.  With a few minor exceptions, the series moved past that lighter-hearted tone in the middle seasons and I suspect that's why those episodes came to define the "MacGyver" experience for more fans than not.  Whether you liked the episodes or not, there was no denying that the conflict MacGyver faced in episodes like "Blow Out", "The Spoilers", "The Endangered", "Fraternity of Thieves", "Easy Target", "The Ten Percent Solution", and "Cease Fire" very much needed to be taken seriously, creating an intensity to the hour that wasn't there in the lighter-hearted episodes.  Now I didn't hate all lighthearted episodes by any stretch and the deviation in tone was a nice change, particularly when the script was good like "Faith, Hope, and Charity", but I'm glad the series didn't stay the season 2 course in subsequent seasons where a habitually cheeky tone acted as a wet blanket on the intensity.

#1. Intelligent, Colorful, And Flamboyant Villains--My top tier of episodes is filled with, above all else, fun and clever bad guys capable of giving MacGyver a genuine challenge.  Whether it was army ants or Sandy the computer or Murdoc, "MacGyver" worked best when his tormenters were operating somewhere at least close to his level.  Much as I loved "The Golden Triangle" as a boy and still have a soft spot for it,  it doesn't hold up as well because the bad guys were incompetent idiots, and it's not as satisfying when MacGyver gets the better of bumbling morons than it is when he repeatedly lays the smack down on Curt Nielsen, his surrogates, and a hallucinatory poison injected into his veins, an example of a season 1 episode where they got the tone of the conflict right.  The series found a number of worthy challengers for MacGyver over the years with Murdoc, Zito, and Piedra at the top of my list as I believe they are on Nick's list, but delivered on a more consistent basis by the middle seasons with General Recubian from "Lost Love", Deborah from "The Negotiator", Centina from "On a Wing and a Prayer", Edith and Edward Mantu from "Brainwashed", the Black Dove Front on "Easy Target", and Nicholas Von Leer from "Legend of the Holy Rose".  On "The A-Team", "the plan" always went off without a hitch because the protagonists were always smarter and more capable than the bad guys.  "MacGyver" was a better show for a number of reasons, not the least of which that he more frequently ran into stiffer resistance and had to move to Plan B to save the day on the occasions where he was outsmarted.

Having now cited a top-10 list of things that elevated "MacGyver" episodes on my list, I'll give a much shorter list of recurring themes that worked the other direction for me.

#3. Weak Female Characters--The 80s wasn't exactly an era known for its gender equality and, unfortunately, "MacGyver" was no better than most of the offenders of its era in the female characters it produced despite otherwise being more progressive than its peers.  Most female characters fit in the mold of a damsel in distress, femme fatale, or bimbo of the week.  And while some actresses like Teri Hatcher were capable enough to own the cliched characters they played, it was frustrating that so few female characters ever emerged that were as nicely drawn as R.T. Hines from "Tough Boys" or any of the Colton brothers, as a few obvious examples.  For the few and far between examples of Carol Varnay, Kate Murphy, and Laura Sand, there were about a dozen examples such as Karin Blake, Zoe Ryan, Lulu, Wendy Riley, and Ellen Jerico.  I try to cut them a little slack for being products of their time but it's hard to believe that the writers weren't aware of how cringeworthy some of these women characters were when they were cranking out the scripts.

#2.  Voiceovers--Nick and I disagree on this one.  I'll concede that with the complexity of some of the MacGyverisms in the early seasons, the descriptions in the voiceovers were helpful in informing the audience what he was up to.  "Burn Notice" also employed voiceovers primarily as a means to explain specifics in a way that was enhancing.  But particularly in season 2, the voiceovers ventured more into a cliched Tom Magnum-meets-Jim Rockford quirk that did not enhance the exposition.  Nick pointed this out in "Eagles", an episode right in the epicenter of the series' overused voiceover era, an era where viewers were subjected to random asides about MacGyver's bean sprout lunch, how he doesn't love museums as much as he did when he was a kid, and his thoughts on the people who use car phones which felt overwrought and distracting to me.  As is always the case, this sentiment is hardly unanimous among fans.

#1.  Clip Shows--While I can grudgingly accept differences of opinion among fans on most episodes, the biggest head scratcher for me is that the not-even-trying clip show episodes chock full of clunky flashbacks aren't at the bottom tier of everybody's list.  Yes, I get that a show like "MacGyver" needed a few low-budget hours now and then to stretch the season's budget into 22ish episodes, but any episode of "MacGyver" that appears to have cost less to produce than your average high school musical belongs in the 130s...the HIGH 130s!  Highlander made a good point on her blog that these flashback episodes can be fun to watch the first time to see which episodes they flash back to but don't hold up well at all to repeat viewings.  That's generally true but the writers all too often screw up the context of the original scenes in the exposition for the flashbacks, such as in "Hind-Sight" where Pete said he "sent MacGyver on that assignment" leading up to the scene from "Passages" where he got tossed off the parking garage.  No you didn't, Pete....MacGyver simply had the common sense to step out of the way of a tear gas bomb and pursue the guy who attacked them while you were standing in the middle of it!  Even though I didn't like "Unfinished Business", I won't categorize that with "Friends" and "Hind-Sight" in that at least there were some production values and a credible action plot.  Whatever the case, these episodes are a chore to sit through and the only thing that can be said in their favor is that without "Friends" they might not have been able to afford "The Road Not Taken" and "Pirates" in season 2 and without "Hind-Sight" they may not have been able to afford "Eye of Osiris" in season 6.

And now, as promised, my rankings versus Nick's on a season by season basis.  I did these calculations for my own rankings months ago and discovered a few minor surprises.

Season 1--3, 5, 12, 18, 25, 29, 43, 44, 46, 47, 49, 54, 56, 76, 87, 88, 97, 100, 111, 121, 126, 127

Season 2--16, 20, 21, 37, 40, 58, 63, 72, 74, 78, 79, 81, 83, 84, 92, 96, 107, 114, 119, 132, 134, 137

Season 3--17, 19, 26, 28, 31, 35, 38, 39, 41, 45, 52, 69, 75, 85, 89, 94, 102, 104, 117, 124   Average--61.5

Season 4--1, 2, 8, 11, 13, 23, 24, 32, 42, 65, 67, 77, 80, 99, 101, 109, 128, 133, 136

Season 5--6, 9, 10, 14, 15, 36, 50, 51, 55, 59, 61, 66, 68, 93, 95, 103, 106, 110, 120, 129, 131

Season 6--4, 7, 22, 48, 53, 57, 60, 64, 70, 73, 82, 90, 98, 105, 108, 112, 113, 115, 123, 139, 141

Season 7--27, 30, 33, 34, 71, 86, 91, 116, 118, 122, 125, 130, 135, 140

Some passing thoughts from the rankings.....

I figured season 4 would be further ahead of its competition.

I expected season 1 to be next in line rather than third place.

I always liked season 3 but didn't expect it to be up there with seasons 1 and 4, which I'm sure will make Nick happy.  I think season 3 averaged out so well for me because there was such a glut of episodes in my first and second quadrants, making it the tortoise that nearly won the race amongst the hares of seasons 1 and 4.  Season 4 had five episodes I liked better than any season 3 episode, but it also had three episodes that ranked worse than my least favorite episode from season 3.

I wasn't surprised that season 5 also ranked above the median (71.0) as the season produced a handful of classics and an impressive selection of additional episodes.  I never thought "MacGyver" seemed like a burned out series at any point this season.

Season 2 came in about where I expected it.  There was a glut of episodes from season 2 that were enjoyable but below the center of gravity and not that many episodes in my first or second tier to offset the lower-ranking episodes.

I was a little surprised that season 6 was only barely beaten out by season 2.  While I've never held season 2 in as high of regards as the rest of the early and middle seasons, I still looked at it as a season where "MacGyver" was in his prime while I've always looked at season 6 as a season of decline, with a selection of episodes like "Jerico Games" and "High Control" that had entertainment value but seemed like the work of a series that was starting to check out creatively.  Having two top-10 episodes in my rankings appear to have helped the average and there were fewer bottom tier episodes than I expected even though two of my least favorite episodes were in season 6.

Not at all surprising season 7 was last by a considerable margin, and that was with four episodes rated in the second quadrant.

Out of my 15 favorite episodes, 10 of them aired in 1989....five in season 4 and five in season 5.

Moving onto Nick's rankings, here are his season averages before and after the updates...

Season 1 Original--67.59  After--64.45
Season 2 Original--64.27  After--69.18
Season 3 Original--50.21  After--52.37
Season 4 Original--63.79  After--63.37
Season 5 Original--78.15  After--76.35
Season 6 Original--80.67  After--79.43
Season 7 Original--76.31  After--75.54

Nick always speculated that seasons 5 or 7 would probably be his weakest-ranked seasons but the numbers before and after the update suggest it was season 6.  He had quite a few episodes in the 90s and 100s in season 6 that appeared to have quietly lowered the season's average much the same way that season 3's glut of episodes in the 30s and 40s quietly raised my average for that season.  No surprise that season 3 was Nick's runaway favorite but at least based on averages season 4 came in ahead of season 1.  One possible wild card here on both of our lists is that the intensity of the higher-ranked and lower-ranked episodes may not neatly average out.  For instance, Nick's love of "The Gauntlet" and "The Prodigal" at the top of his lists may propel season 1 to second place for him despite what the average says much like his loathing of "Honest Abe" and "The Mountain of Youth" at the bottom of his list could be responsible for his thinking season 7 was the weakest even though the averages show differently.  I guess it doesn't matter that much anyway, but it's fun to speculate.

I stumbled into this website about 20 episodes into Nick's countdown and feel fortunate that I did, not only to compare lists with Nick and other fans, but especially to arrive in time for Nick's ambitious efforts to reach out to these crew members for interviews.  I idolized several of these people growing up and wanted to follow in their footsteps into my own scriptwriting career.  In retrospect, I doubt I'd have had the patience for it, but I've never lost my admiration for those that do, especially on my favorite TV series in the medium's history!  And having been screwed out any "extras" on Paramount's "MacGyver" DVD sets, the interviews with the cast and crew provided some genuinely amazing inside information about the series that I feel rewarded for having learned.  So thanks for your hard work, Nick, and looking forward to what else you may have in store for the blog.


  1. Excellent post! This seems a bit like a dissertation for your graduation from doctoral studies with a degree in MacGyverology!

    I'm with you on the boat chase from A Prisoner of Conscience - not a great episode but some great music. Also agree on Point 9 that grumpy MacGyver is not much fun. I'll talk more about this in my Atlantis review coming soon, but he is grouchy throughout and it's a bit annoying. On Point 8, I thought they did a decent job on the Second Chance set except for the numerous elderly white women in the marketplace. And in general they did do a solid job with turning Vancouver into somewhere else despite the sight of pine trees. On Point 7, I'm with you that I never hated the issue episodes like some people and I thought they helped illustrate the depth and range of the series, though I still preferred the more standard adventure fare. Point 6 is a strong point, and I've talked often about how the diversity of the series was incredible -- one week he'd be riding in a convertible on a desert highway and the next week he'd be on an Amish farm or as an undercover migrant worker.

    1. Hopefully my dissertation gets an A! I figured with your Atlantis review forthcoming that MacGyver's grumpiness would be a very timely issue. I really enjoyed "Mask of the Wolf" and include that to a degree in the category 4 grouping as there were some pretty ingenious trappings by those Indians who rigged the trap inside the cave.

      Considering you had half of season 3's episodes left in your top-30 (or so) I knew season 3 would come in head and shoulders above the rest on your list. As for season 4 still being my best season, an even better average for me would have come in if I had only included episodes aired in 1989 (parts of seasons 4 and 5) with an average of 54.44.

    2. Haha, yeah I'll give you an A and officially confer your PhD in MacGyverology!

  2. On Point 4, don't forget about Mask of the Wolf! On Point 3, the production was indeed amazing and the result of very hard work, and it is much appreciated by you and I. For Point 2 and 1, I definitely noticed that the villains got much better as I moved up my rankings - in fact, a quick check of my top villains list revealed only two out of 17 that were in the bottom half. Jack in the Box is another one that comes to mind when I think of the dire situation and menacing villains that MacGyver and Dalton faced.

    I've come around to take more of a middle ground on the voiceovers (i.e. somewhat less enthusiastic than when I first started). I do still like them a lot especially when he is doing a MacGyverism, but I also appreciate it when there is just some Ken Harrison background music and no words. And as you said, there are some episodes like Eagles where it's too over the top.

    I'm not huge on the clip shows either -- I think the reason that I have them higher than you is that there's not much that I dislike them (like there is with some of the others), but there's also not much to get me too excited either.

  3. Thanks for putting the numbers together -- that's funny that we both have Season 3 and Season 4 as our top 2 seasons. Amazing how big of a gap there was between my Season 3 and anything else - if not for Kill Zone it would have been an even bigger gap!

    I'm also very glad that you and Al and Highlander found the blog while the rankings were going on because it was always very fun to see what you all were going to say about the episodes.