To say that MacGyver made a lasting impression is an understatement—it is the only television show whose title has become a verb (recognized by the OED, no less!). You don’t need to have seen a single episode of the show or even have been alive in the ‘80s to know what it’s about: a guy building weapons and contraptions out of miscellaneous junk and stuff.
In the pilot, from 1985, we come to know MacGyver as a secret agent and a mulleted ‘80s bad ass. Like later TV characters Fox Mulder and Gregory House he is considered a screwball, yet his peers acknowledge his skill set, calling him in for the cases nobody else can handle. Although it’s clear how Mulder and House earned their reputations (believing in aliens and being an asshole, respectively), I’m not sure where the gripe with MacGyver comes from. Maybe it’s because he refuses to use a gun normally? He is crafty, of course, but not in the same way as somebody in the wilderness who builds traps and weapons out of necessity—he’s more like a guy who just hates buying tools. He uses firearms twice in this episode: he rigs a rifle up to shoot directly into the ground, as a diversion, and he uses a handgun to propel himself off a ledge, which, come on, who wrote that scene, cocaine?
His abilities are not immediately impressive. His first feat is to disarm a bomb by poking a paper clip into it. You know, the same method you use to reboot your computer when it’s really frozen. He does soon prove himself. In addition to the gun contraptions from above, he also does impressive things with a firehose among other things. There’s a reason the show is known for his impromptu engineering—it’s pretty much the only thing that happens here. There is just enough dialogue as needed to put him in a situation, and each situation is full of dead ends that can be circumvented only by using nearby items. It’s pretty much a videogame. Also, there were so many explosions that you just know a 20-year-old Michael Bay watched this on VHS until the tape broke.
1991’s final episode is called “The Mountain of Youth,” no matter how much my brain wanted it to be called “The Fountain of Youth.”
The episode begins with MacGyver parachuting to the ground. Interestingly, the pilot begins with him climbing a mountain—ascending as the series began, and descending as it comes to a close. Subtle, brilliant, and almost certainly unintentional.
A local tribe not only witnesses his descent, but foresaw it in a prophecy. So yeah, things have gotten better for Mr. MacGyver. Being savior to a tribe in wherever-the-fuck is way better than being the guy the other secret agents don’t want to eat lunch with. It’s also much more over the top, and as such, I’d assumed his contraptions would be equally outrageous. You know what you get when you assume? I’m not really sure, but what you don’t get is a bazooka made out of pocket lint and a Pringles tube. MacGyver builds exactly zero contraptions in the final episode. What’s that about? Had the show gotten criticism for goofy contraptions during its run, causing the writers to back off a bit? The closest he gets is breaking some glass and cutting wires with the shards. That’s not a brilliant solution from a genius agent, that’s just something a drunk person would do by accident. He also uses a tracking device. He didn’t build it or anything, he just had it in his pocket. He probably bought it at K-Mart. Yes, most special agents use tracking devices, but MacGyver isn’t most special agents. That’s the point. Using a device for its intended purpose isn’t a life hack.
By the finale, MacGyver isn’t as cool and confident in the pilot. He was clearly the alpha male in the first episode, yet here he begrudgingly allows himself to be talked into things he doesn’t want. The pilot episode was most definitely a story about MacGyver, whereas the last episode was more like a story that had MacGyver in it. He seemed less in your face. More ordinary. Blonder.
Oh, and the bad guys are Middle Eastern now instead of American.
The one thing that was most consistent between these two episodes was MacGyver lurking in corners and sucker punching guards and other various thugs. It happened a lot in these episodes, and I’m sure it happens much more throughout the series, and I honestly wouldn’t ever get tired of it. I would watch a two hour montage of just guards getting sucker punched by Richard Dean Anderson.
Watching MacGyver rig up his contraptions was pretty entertaining, even if they were a bit silly even in the first episode. I’m obviously not going to go out and buy MacGyver DVDs (since it would be much more MacGyver-y to make them out of band-aids and a paper plate), but if an episode came on TV in 2015 for some reason, I would watch it.
Matt Pass is a writer in New Jersey and can be found on Twitter @mattpasscomedy. Shout suggestions for next week’s show at him.