Mullet Over: The Lonely Brilliance of MacGyver

The quintessential ’80s adventure show—co-starring Yetis, druglords, and killer ants—is 30. It has not aged well.

Here is the plot of the “Trumbo’s World” episode of MacGyver, first aired in 1985 and summarized today by Amazon Video:

Deep in the primitive Amazon jungle, MacGyver teams with an entomologist friend and a local plantation owner to battle a horde of invading ants.

Yes. YES. This—the casual use of the word “primitive,” the fact that the foe faced here is “a horde of invading ants”—is classic MacGyver. The Amazon-on-the-Amazon-episode summary may not be fully accurate (Mac’s friend, in this case, is actually an ornithologist), but it gets to the heart of the show that was, in so many ways, quintessentially ’80s. The show that birthed weird spinoffs and loving satires (MacGruber!) and only-pseudo-ironic memes and, of course, its very own verb. The show that found a new way to insist to a generation of viewers that knowledge is power.
MacGyver premiered 30 years ago today,  in 1985, on ABC. It would run for seven seasons, ending in May of 1992. The show did well, ratings-wise, but not spectacularly; it was one of those series that took on a kind of mythic status that has kept it alive in the culture far after it went off the air. MacGyver is, to be clear, a pure delight to watch today, and only partially because of Richard Dean Anderson’s epic man-mullet. It is exceptionally cheesy. It is occasionally riveting. It is the 1980s, incarnate. It is like putting on a 45-minute-long pair of legwarmers.
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.
You could probably read some end of men/demise of the patriarchy/death of adulthood anxiety into all of this. You could definitely read some White Savior Industrial Complex in it. For the most part, though, MacGyver’s premise, today, just reads as boring. Without the help of other people—without, essentially, teamwork—MacGyver’s many episodes resemble action movies stripped of everything but the action scenes. There’s a lot of drama. There are a lot of explosions. (Though, notably, very little gunfire: MacGyver, famously, eschewed the weapons, looking instead for relatively non-violent solutions to his weekly life-or-death dilemmas.) There are a lot, in general, of “eeee, are they gonna make it?” tensions. Here, for example, are more of Amazon’s Season One episode listings:

The Golden Triangle
While retrieving a poison-filled canister from a crash site in Burma, MacGyver is forced to take on a powerful drug lord when he is mistaken for a narcotics agent.

Thief of Budapest
In Budapest, MacGyver obtains vital microfilmed information hidden inside a watch. But when the watch is stolen, MacGyver has to find the thief: a young Gypsy girl.

The Gautlet
MacGyver goes up against an entire army when he helps an American journalist escape across the border of a South American dictatorship.

The Heist
A Virgin Islands casino owner steals $60 million in diamonds. MacGyver and an American senator’s daughter plot to steal them back from the casino’s impenetrable vault.

Exciting, right? And yet, with all the adventure—breaking into an “impenetrable vault,” with a “senator’s daughter!”—there is very little time left over for character development, or meaningful dialogue, or relationship-building. Romances, friendships, life-and-death stakes—all of them are contained in a single episode. Outsiders, here, are largely expendable. This is the Great Man theory of adventure, basically.
There’s nothing overtly objectionable about that. It is how many TV shows operate. But MacGyver embraces its own insistent loneliness to an absurd degree. And that, in turn, makes the whole show feel distinctly retrograde. Today, in an age of television in which even the most lowbrow of sitcoms tend to offer some kind of literary merit, MacGyver sags under the weight of its old-school definition of heroism. It glorifies the single man—the single mullet—while treating other people as victims and saps. It takes the logic of Man vs. Wild, adding supporting characters who exist mostly to be saved and then forgotten. Which is too bad, because other people can be not only entertaining, but helpful! Even, and especially, when you’re fighting killer ants.