Saturday, November 29, 2008

I Shot Him. You Killed Him.

Most HAWAII FIVE-0 fans will concede that "'V' for Vashon" is the series' magnum opus. The three-part episode, which CBS aired on consecutive Tuesday nights in November 1972, chronicles Five-0's attempt to destroy the Vashon crime family, the most powerful mobsters on the islands (that over 100 episodes had been produced with nary a mention of the Vashons was part and parcel for episodic TV back then). With this month's release of HAWAII FIVE-0's fifth season on DVD, you can watch one of the show's finest stories without commercial interruptions and looking better than ever.

Each "'V' for Vashon" episode carried a different subtitle. In Part 1, "The Son," Steve McGarrett (Jack Lord) and his Five-0 unit—Danny Williams (James MacArthur), Chin Ho Kelly (Kam Fong), and Ben Kokua (Al Harrington)—look into a minor hotel robbery, when one of the victims reports he was punched by one of the three masked thieves…and has a V-shaped mark on his face to prove it. Leaving the imprint of the Vashon family crest on crime victims was a notorious tactic enforced by patriarch Dominic Vashon (Luther Adler) decades earlier, and it's easy to assume that "Nick"'s grandson Chris (Robert Drivas) is reviving the tradition.

At the end of the hour, after Chris initiates a fatal shootout with McGarrett, the boy's father Honore (Harold Gould) vows revenge. In "The Father," Honore hires professionals to arrange the top cop's assassination. After a car bomb meant for McGarrett takes out another cop instead, Honore, aided by trusted mob lawyer Tosaki (Kwan Hi Lim), brings in shades-wearing Hayward (Don Knight, who appeared on FIVE-0 six times in 12 seasons) from Melbourne and agrees to pay him $60,000 to get the job done. Five-0 tumbles to the plot and sets up a sting to trap Hayward, who testifies against Honore, who becomes the first Vashon to go to jail.

It's Dominic's turn for vengeance in "The Patriarch," who tricks three-time-loser Fred Sullivan (Robert Luck) into shooting McGarrett in a parking garage. Unbeknownst to Sullivan, his gun is loaded with blanks, and Vashon's elaborate frame makes the pistol disappear before the police arrive at the scene, making it appear as though McGarrett has killed an unarmed man. While no contemporary jury would believe McGarrett's guilt in a million years, Honolulu D.A. Manicote (Glenn Cannon) files Murder Two charges against him, which doesn't prevent the Five-0 head from asking his men to find evidence to clear him.

When they do, which involves impeaching the unimpeachable witness against McGarrett, a trusted criminal attorney named Harvey Drew (John Stalker), the confrontation involves a surprisingly mature plot point that was unusual for episodic TV at the time. The startling dénouement set in Dominic's home office is a real stunner that marks the end of the Vashons' reign over Hawaii's criminal underground.

"'V' for Vashon" was a highlight of writer Alvin Sapinsley's career. The venerable scribe had worked in television since virtually the beginning of the medium, etching credits on prominent shows like STUDIO ONE, OMNIBUS, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., and THE VIRGINIAN. Sapinsley was one of hundreds of freelance writers who made early television such a diverse platform from which to tell dramatic stories of all types, basically the consummate TV dramatist. It isn't known whether "Vashon" was originally intended to be a three-parter; Sapinsley must have enjoyed the security of three confirmed paychecks from a single story.

Versatile director Charles S. Dubin bounced between comedy and drama with ease, earning three Emmy nominations for M*A*S*H episodes, but "Vashon" earned him a respected Director's Guild of America Award nomination from his peers. He lost to THE WALTONS' Robert Butler, but won the trophy the next year for directing a KOJAK. Dubin uses movement within the shot and deep focus tricks to keep the visuals lively without needing a lot of coverage. I was especially impressed with a scene in "The Father" that plays in one long shot staged inside an actual house and incorporates at least six different actors, one of whom pulls up in a car seen through the front window and enters the living room to begin his dialogue. As with any FIVE-0 episodes, particularly after the death of executive producer Leonard Freeman, star Jack Lord was the true boss on the set, and it's he and not Dubin who has to take the blame for Lord's atrocious wardrobe in this scene.

HAWAII FIVE-0 was at the top of its game during its fifth season, earning an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Continuing Drama Series (losing to—what else?—THE WALTONS). It was the third highest-rated television series in the U.S., behind perennial front-runner ALL IN THE FAMILY and SANFORD AND SON. With high-class scripts and productions like the "'V' for Vashon" trilogy, it's not hard to understand why.

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