And yet. I am extremely sorry to report that MacGyver has not, all else considered, aged well.
I’m also surprised to report it! My early childhood roughly coincided with MacGyver’s run on network TV; in my vague memory, MacGyver is the ultimate non-super superhero—ultimate because his superpower is, yes, his mind. MacGyver, ever resourceful and armed with a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of engineering and chemistry, can make dynamite out of … well, pretty much anything. He can save himself from an avalanche using a jury-rigged straw; he can track down a “Yeti” in the Canadian wilderness using only the ground; he can get himself out of pretty much any scrape imaginable. MacGyver is also, as a kind of problem-solver-for-hire, almost magically omnipresent, effortlessly hopping around the world to help those in need of his services. (You shudder, today, imagining his carbon footprint.) He’s Olivia Pope, basically, except his goblet of red wine is a weaponized stick of deodorant.
“MacGyver, what do you do by profession?” one of his foes asks him.
“I, uh, move around,” comes the reply.
It turns out, though, that while Angus “Mac” MacGyver may well be the heroic supernerd I recall from my childhood, he is also, more simply, a nerd. (It’s a running joke throughout the series that no one is exactly sure what his profession is, technically—what “uh, moving around” actually entails. Is MacGyver an engineer? Is he a chemist? Is he a walking, talking Swiss Army knife sent from the future to save humanity, one adventure at a time? “I’m sort of a repairman,” Mac tells the little brother he volunteers with, in the pilot episode of the show. That seems to sum it up best.)
MacGyver also narrates the beginnings of episodes with a distinctly aw-shucks tone, Doogie Howser/Kevin Arnold-style. In the “Trumbo’s World” episode, Mac confides to the audience:
Oh, what a life I lead: riding the rapids in the Pyrenees Mountains one day, and the next crossing half the world to help out a friend with a very weird problem in a very strange part of the Amazon. I think I should get an unlisted phone number!
Wah-wah. You get the sense that, were MacGyver around today, he’d definitely be rocking some dad jeans along with his MacMullet.
But the problem here isn’t really MacGyver. It’s the show itself that reads, ultimately, as outdated—and not just because of the hyper-synthed score that plays whenever MacGyver Encounters Danger. The problem is, instead, precisely the thing I remember so fondly about the show: MacGyver’s (super)man premise. One man, doing everything for himself, being everything to everyone! One man, whose damsel in distress is basically the whole world!
MacGyver’s format—each episode a self-contained puzzle—is familiar today from shows like Sherlock and House and pretty much every procedural that has ever aired on American television. What makes MacGyver different, though, is how much the show relies on the single guy—armed with knowledge and a nail file—to solve the puzzle. Even House has his diagnostic team. Even Sherlock has his Watson. MacGyver may occasionally be saved by his best friend and boss, Pete Thornton; he may occasionally enlist the services of an “entomologist friend” and “a local plantation owner” as he solves the problems a particular episode throws his way. For the most part, however, everyone relies on him. He—well, the show that gives him life—is everyone’s savior.