Thursday, March 12, 2015

#21: The Battle of Tommy Giordano

Season: 4

Synopsis in 3 sentences or less:
MacGyver's co-worker, Mary Ruth, wins custody of her son, Tommy, but her husband, Richard, kidnaps Tommy and takes him to Canada. They go a ranch owned by Richard's uncle, "Uncle Joe" Catano, a mob boss who is hiding out because he has is being targeted by a rival family. MacGyver and Mary Ruth go to Canada to rescue Tommy and end up getting caught in the middle of the mob war.

Memorable Quote:
Is this a prank, lady?  ~Motel Clerk
Does it look like a prank?!  ~Mary Ruth Giordano 

The entire second half of the episode is pure gold.  First of all, I love the locale: a nighttime, woodsy, Canadian retreat with mobsters everywhere.  What a fantastic, danger-filled setting for MacGyver to find himself in. The scene in the motel (discussed more below) is great, and everything at Uncle Joe's house where MacGyver is sneaking around is as edge of your seat as it gets. Oh, and did I mention the insanely sublime Ken Harrison score? Just measure after measure of minor key, ethereal wonder. Unbelievable stuff.

Wow, is the father a sleazeball or what.  Nothing redeeming at all about that guy.  

Best MacGyverism:
Mixes alcohol, ammonia, and coffee descaler acid and puts it in a dish attached to Tommy's remote controlled toy. Then pushes a power button which charges the wires and ignites the mixture to cause a smokescreen.  Nice plot element as the mobster kicks it and gets the wires out of whack, causing MacGyver to have to adjust on the fly (he drives the toy into the wall to reset the wires). 

Other thoughts, observations, and questions I didn’t ask when I was in fourth grade:
  • Nice job by Tony Dakota as Tommy Giordano.  We also saw him briefly in High Control. MacGyver says that he's 8, but he looks more like 6 to me.  
  • I had never realized until checking IMDB just now that Joseph Wiseman, the actor who plays Uncle Joe, also starred as Dr. No in "Dr. No."  That's a big time role right there.  And he's very strong in this episode playing the role of a likable and sympathetic mob boss.  
  • Some Godfather parallels here, first with Uncle Joe not wanting to get into the drug business (just like Vito Corleone), and then Richard coming to Uncle Joe for help is somewhat reminiscent of Johnny Fontane coming to Don Corleone.  Fortunately, there are no horse heads to be found in the episode.
  • Conversation at the aquarium:
    • "Wow, he's a giant!  What are they called, MacGyver?"  ~Tommy
    • "Arapaima Gigas."  ~MacGyver
    • Nerd.
  • 11:18 - shot from the opening credits of MacGyver getting thrown into the garage screen.
  • I'm a big fan of Mary Ruth (played by Penny Peyser) and always liked her as a kid. Seems like a really nice, sweet lady. Hard to believe her marriage to Richard Giordano lasted as long as it did.
  • MacGyver and Mary Ruth meet the FBI agent at Catano's house and he lays out the situation: Catano has taken Tommy to Canada, and they're in danger because there's tension between the Catano and the Vaccaro families.  The FBI's hands are tied, and the only way to get Tommy back is for his mother to cross the border and bring him back.  A huge, seemingly insurmountable challenge - one reason this episode is as great as it is.
  • After MacGyver is done messing with the phone lines in the motel room wall, funny of him to casually tell Mary Ruth that he has to get in the bad guys' room and that it's her job to get them out while he can sneak in. And then a fun scene as Mary Ruth starts screaming and throwing things in order to distract the bad guys.  Great job by Peyser here and later when she passionately asks the motel clerk to call the police (see memorable quote).
  • The whole scene in the motel room does make me wonder if MacGyver would have been better off trying to take out the two hit men right there rather than following them and dealing with them at Uncle Joe's ranch, but perhaps it was better for him to let it play out the way it did. But it wasn't better for the guys who got shot at the ranch. 
  • No chance that MacGyver could dive into the bushes without the guys in the van seeing or hearing him from 10 feet away. Lucky for him they didn't because these guys would likely shoot on sight. Amazing that MacGyver is able to keep as calm as he does in these situations - I would be beyond petrified.
  • Bold move by Mary Ruth to drive up to the ranch at the end, and a good thing she does because she takes out the bad guy with a skillet to the head.
  • I reached out to Ms. Peyser and asked if she had any memories from being on the show.  She was kind enough to respond and said: 
    • I really enjoyed the shoot - that I know - and being in Vancouver was great.  I guess the only thing I could say was that episode was the only time I had to wield a rubber frying pan!  I felt shy about clobbering the actor on the head (stunt man) but once I got into it, it was fun. 

Final Analysis:
This isn't an episode that will likely produce a "Wow" factor for the majority of people like some of my past reviews, but it hits me totally right and is one that I absolutely love to watch.  The first half is some solid exposition and development, and then the second half is fantastic with unbelievable music, suspense and action in a memorable nighttime locale.  Next up, we venture into the top 20!   


  1. You're right that this was never a "wow" factor episode for me but I did enjoy it and really can't think of anything bad to say about it beyond it being the episode generally considered the catalyst for the "MacGyver: Social Worker" genre often cited as a jump-the-shark moment for the series. I don't agree with that assessment though and think this episode was on the mark in introducing a young boy who was very relatable to a lot of the young boys out there who were "MacGyver" fans in 1989. Tommy was an impressive kid and Tony Dakota, the actor who played him, really hit the mark in making him believable and not the least bit annoying the way some child actors may have played the role. Not sure of the actor's name, but Richard was a perfect sleaze all around and he also played Carlo in "Rock the Cradle". Compared to Carlo--gunned down climbing the fence by the counterfeiters--Richard Giordano should be happy the worst he got was Uncle Joe's right hook!

    Joseph Wiseman was great as Uncle Joe and he and Tommy had some really chemistry as well. Wiseman actually has a perfect mobster vibe but I don't think he played too many mobsters over the years. He was fresh off of two years as a semiregular on the 1960s-era Michael Mann-produced mob show "Crime Story", which ran from 1986-1988, before playing the vaguely similar role of Uncle Joe in this 1989 "MacGyver" episode. Uncle Joe had more personality than his "Crime Story" character though and allowed Wiseman to really show off his acting chops. I was less impressed with the hit men who seemed a few ticks less than professional in their very casual manner. One fun little piece of trivia from the motel scene though. When the hit men have the "hockey game" on their TV as MacGyver is piggybacking on their phone line, the "game" footage is actually lifted from the "MacGyver" hockey episode "Thin Ice" from season 3, and you can clearly hear "Thompson" telling the announcer "that kid Kirby seems to know where to put the puck...he could be just the material the Mustangs are looking for". A friend of mine who isn't that big on MacGyver absolutely loved "Thin Ice", and he rented the DVD of this episode just so he could watch that scene and see for himself.

    Very nice of Penny Peyser who played Mary Ruth to respond to your questions. I remember seeing her name on a couple of my other 80s action show favorites and am pretty sure she guest starred in a 1984 episode of "The Fall Guy". I enjoyed Mary Ruth's Mama Bear instincts kicking in throughout the episode and getting the opportunity to save the day with her frying pan grand entrance at Uncle Joe's estate. Good point though that MacGyver would have been better off foiling the hit men at the motel than following them to Uncle Joe's and having two more people to take on. And how did MacGyver seem to instinctively know that Uncle Joe wouldn't shoot him on the spot when he made his "I've come to take Tommy home" declaration? I'd have figured Joe was as bad as everybody else in the house if I was MacGyver. I enjoyed the remote control toy bit with the alcohol, ammonia, and acid surprise (similar formula to what he used to create the chemical fog in "DOA MacGyver" and "Hell Week) that ultimately foiled one of the bad guys. Solid all around episode and, as I said, not one I have any serious faults with, but I didn't connect with it the way you did. I ranked this one #109.

    1. Whoa, nice piece of trivia on the Thin Ice/tv hockey game - that's awesome! I'm going to go back and check that out right now. And I still have to check out the Brainwashed / Gold Rush set comparison - unfortunately I am dead tired so will do that another night. I don't see this as a "social worker" episode at all like many of the ones in Season 6 - surprised to hear that others see it that way.

      And nice we got your 109 out of the way! Looks like your lowest left is 97.

    2. I mentioned the hockey game in my review: =)

    3. Nice job picking up on that - that is MacGyver trivia that only the most knowledgeable fans would ever notice!

  2. Another interesting personal connotation with this episode....

    I was in the fifth grade this year and one day, when we were all staying in the classroom rather than going outside during recess, I ventured to the games in the back of the classroom and found this interesting little toy called Capsela. It was a slightly less sophisticated version of the toy Tommy had in this episode, a remote control toy where an assemblage of battery-powered gears wrapped in plastic bubbles were connected like tinker toys. I got such a kick out of it that I asked for it for Christmas in 1988. It was not cheap (like $80 way back in 1988!!) but my parents did get it for me and I got a fair amount of enjoyment out of it. I remembered recognizing the toy instantly when I watched this episode and breaking it out of the closet to mess around with after watching it on the first run and after the ABC rerun in June 1989. Now I almost want to tear apart the folks' attic and basement the next time I go home and see if I can find it again!!!

    Google "Capsela" and you might get a useful photo of the toy.

    1. I don't need to google - I remember Capsela! I actually thought of it too when seeing Tommy's toy but it didn't look quite the way I remembered so I didn't mention it (maybe there were different versions). My older sister had a set but I played with it some - I remember thinking it was a lot of fun.

    2. I think you're the first person I've talked to who remembers it. Usually when I bring it up today I get blank stares of confusion.

    3. I have a vague recollection of commercials for Capsela. I don't remember wanting it, but I remember the ads. =)

    4. This model looks somewhat familiar - maybe this is what we had. I remember the big yellow bulbs and that it worked in water too.

  3. Yeah - like Mark, I didn't connect with this one the same way you did. (It's #117 on my list.) The asshole dad using his kid like some kind of one-upmanship token grates me a lot. And the middle of the episode is kind of flat. All of the action happens at either end. I like my stories to move at a little bit steeper angle than this one.

    Though, I agree - Tommy's a great kid. Smart too. I like him and 'Uncle' Joe.

  4. Interesting the impact of the music on my top 20. Like this particular episode, I didn't go into it remembering that I loved the music so much, but it must have made a subconscious impression on me and is one of the major reasons why I enjoy watching this one so much.

  5. I think you’ve said it all! I agree, Tony Dakota was excellent (but I’m with Nick, he can’t be a day over 6) as was the character of Joe Caetano and his increasing dislike of his nephew. The boy and the old man’s relationship was played out well so that by the end the viewer has almost total sympathy with a ruthless mob boss. Richie is unredeemably vile from the beginning - ‘go back to law school, jerk’ is a great line; its hard to believe he’s supposed to be a surgeon. Its good to see Mary Ruth, whose confidence has been shattered by her awful husband, coming in to her own, protecting her child, being awesomely quick –thinking at the motel and confident in her actions (all under the tutelage of MacGyver of course!).
    Enjoyed MacGyver knowing the latin name of the fish – even he knows it’s a bit too clever with his slightly smug smile and shrug after he’s said it. He also later knows what the Fed means when he says Joe Caetano has ‘gone to the pads’ (?) . I’ve never heard that before and neither, it seems, has the Internet, so any info on that phrase is very welcome!
    Great reflex southpaw punch from MacGyver as he comes through the door but ouch! as he bounces off the window. Mary Ruth doesn’t seem to be very concerned about him after she runs out but I guess that’s understandable in the circumstances.
    I like it when MacGyver puts on his sunglasses to look more Californian as he uses the numerology trick to get the right motel room. Thanks for the trivia about the tv hockey game - would never have spotted that! A good SAK lock-pick, this time using the tweezers! I agree, The motel scenes are full of suspense and MacGyver jumping on the van and creeping about the ranch full of mobsters is exciting; There are jumpy moments when the phone rings next to him and when one of the mob gets up to go to the fridge when MacGyver’s just by the door. The MacGyverism that needs resetting is a nice touch. but somehow the ending seemed all a bit too easy after all the build-up.
    Back at the office MacGyver is sporting another cool stripey tshirt and having fun with the remote control toy that he really doesn’t want to hand over to Pete!
    I agree ,the music is great throughout and constantly reminiscent of the Godfather theme tunes but with its own riffs. Difficult to rank somehow , I think its in the early 60’s for me- lots to enjoy but not a truly great one.

  6. The kid really looks like a 6 years old boy, but Wikipedia says he was born in 1981, if the data is correct, he could probably be 8 or 9 years old here.

    Amazing actor...he did a great job here.

  7. Did anyone notice that the score included a scene that began with the first five or six notes of the theme from The Godfather?