115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Hawaiian TV Cop Show

Aaron Kiilau, University of Hawai'i, Manoa

This paper discusses crime fiction television series set and filmed in Hawaii, from the shows that Peter Britos described as the "first cycle" of Hawaiian paramilitary programs, Hawaiian Eye, Hawaii Five-O, and Magnum P.I., to later, less successful iterations. Placing the Hawaiian cop show within its economic, historical, and political contexts demonstrates the genre's inherent problems, especially its tendency to strategically misrepresent Hawaiians and perpetuate patriarchal colonial and Orientalist myths.


The purpose of this essay is to assess and discuss portrayals of local and native Hawaiians on American television programs, while paying particular attention to programs within the police procedural or cop drama genre such as Hawaii Five-O (CBS, 1968-80, 2010—) and Magnum P.I. (CBS, 1980-88). My focus on programs which have specifically to do with law enforcement is intended to comment directly on the social and power dynamics that are reinforced by detrimental depictions of the local Hawaiian community. This paper is informed in part by Hemant Shah’s work on representations of Asian Americans in popular TV and film. Shah observes that Asian American culture has served as “fodder for films and television shows produced in the United States” and that “negative [stereotypical portrayals] provide justifications for social control and positive stereotypes provide normative models for Asian thought and behavior” (Shah, 1). The same observation has been made about the representation and treatment of local and especially Native Hawaiian characters in Hawaii-based TV shows—that is, programs which take place in Hawai‘i, not produced by Hawaiians in general. Cristina Bacchilega’s Legendary Hawai‘i and the Politics of Place and Houston Wood’s Displacing Natives: The Rhetorical Production of Hawai‘i speak to the adaptation of Hawaiian culture—per Bacchilega’s example, Hawaiian myths and legends—and its inevitable function to promote tourism, an active military presence, and the consumption of Hawaiian cultural products more than it promotes the actual amalgamative Hawaiian culture itself. The goal of this paper is to propose possible solutions toward reclaiming and reinforcing an authentic local and/or native Hawaiian image and identity. While our state welcomes the American entertainment industry to produce films and TV programs in Hawai‘i, fair and accurate representations of the local population are rarely depicted. Therefore, state funding should seek to offset the decisively commodified and subservient Hawaiian image that the Hollywood film machine seeks to promote by providing for locally produced works for and by local and native Hawaiian producers unattached from Hollywood.