Why MacGyver?


It’s not news that the quality of a Saturday Night Live show can’t be predicted from just looking at the name of the host. Some of the worst shows this year have had reliable types like Hugh Laurie and Alec Baldwin, while the most recent show made very good use of The Rock. He does a much better Obama than Fred Armisen (even with the Hulk dialogue, he got Obama’s inflections and speech mannerisms and frequent “uh”s more accurately than Armisen).

They also had another MacGruber bit, this time with Richard Dean Anderson finally appearing on the show itself rather than in Pepsi commercials. You can watch it here before NBC pulls it off and restricts it to the U.S.-only Hulu.com site. This is something I’ve been thinking about ever since the MacGruber sketch started in 2007, but it’s surprising that MacGyver has had the kind of cultural impact that it’s had. When The Simpsons first introduced the idea that Patty and Selma were obsessed with MacGyver, it was either just before or just after that show went off the air, and the joke was that it was the last show you’d expect anyone to be obsessed with: a show that was on for years without anybody really paying much attention, and got canceled without much fanfare. A reliable placeholder show, not a memorable one.

But MacGyver has had a reach and a staying power beyond almost any other action-adventure show of its era. All the seasons were released on DVD, a sign of unusual popularity for a non-current show. (Most shows of that era don’t sell well enough to have every season released in a short period of time.) It inspired a successful Saturday Night Live sketch, a failed attempt to revive it for the WB network, a possible feature film, many commercials, and TV science shows that ask whether MacGyver’s science solutions could actually work in real life. MacGyver is one of those TV characters whose name has become instantly recognizable and resonant: if you say “MacGyver,” most people will not only know who you’re talking about, but what he can do — make live-saving inventions out of household materials. It was not the best show of its time, nor the most popular, but the name, the actor, the character and the formula all kind of fuse together in people’s minds and have become synonymous with the very idea of being able to make something out of nothing.

I wonder if there are any shows today that are like that — shows that aren’t huge hits or cultural signifiers now, but will eventually become culturally significant for some reason or another? I’m sure there are; I just don’t know what they are, because, well, that’s in the future.

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Why MacGyver?

  1. A couple of months ago, I took my bicycle in to have the rear splashguard repaired. When I picked up the bike, the repairman told me had had to “MacGyver” the bracket into place with a improvised plastic tie.

    So, he’s a verb, too.

    • LOL Yup he’s definitely a verb, like “to google”.

      I’m not sure if it was the first time the name was used as a verb, but one of the funnier (in a grin short of way, not a lol sort of way) instances was early on in the Stargate series, where Amanda Tapping’s character mentions having to take years to “Macgyver together” an Earth based system to make the Stargate work. Richard Dean Anderson’s character kinda rolls his eyes, just a bit, but if one were young enough to not remember the actual show, one might have missed the “insideness” of the joke (Which is also an interesting point. I’d bet there are people who understand the meaning of “macgyver” as a verb perfectly well, who simultaneously have no idea that Richard Dean Anderson played MacGyver on the show, because while they fully understand what the whole “MacGyver” thing’s about, they’ve never actually seen the show!).

      I also always liked how Richard Dean Anderson’s character on Stargate was such a huge Simpson’s fan. I think that owes to Anderson’s own feeling’s about the show, but I also thought it was kinda MacGyver returning Patty and Selma’s love. LOL

  2. Maybe it’s the hair.

  3. I died laughing watching that macgyver/macgruber skit last night. so funny!

  4. The Rock was really good – but I suppose he’s had a lot of practice with his time as a wrestler. I’d really like to see him in a more dramatic role though. I worry he might be forever relegated to the ‘Adventure Dad’ style movies that Brendan Fraser does so well.

  5. I think the cultural significance of MacGyver is much more about the PREMISE of the show than the show itself per se. I mean, pretty much every episode was simply “something bad happens (usually to a friend or acquaintance of MacGyver); MacGyver tries to help, and there’s trouble; MacGyver saves the day with a paper clip, a piece of gum and a meter of string”.

    It’s not so much the show that’s significant as it is the character, and more particularly the conceit of his ability to use “science” to turn household objects into various means of defeating evil. Even Patty and Selma aren’t so much fans of the show as they’re fans of MacGyver the character (to the point where it’s sometimes not at all clear that they realize that MacGyver’s a character, and not a real person). In fact, part of the plot of the episode with Richard Dean Anderson was that Selma and Patty are disappointed to discover (after kidnapping Anderson from a Stargate convention) that the actor (in the context of the episode) wasn’t really all that into MacGyver, and just did it for the money (ironically, he then discovers an affinity for (and love of) escaping their clutches using a variety of mundane household items).

    I wonder, are there other instances of a character from a show having a cultural significance seemingly out of proportion to the significance of the show itself?

  6. I don’t think I ever watched an episode of MacGyver, but I feel like I have, and I definitely use the term. I think it’s true that they captured an idea that expressed something useful very succinctly, and that ended up very much transcending the show itself.

  7. Lord Kitchener’s Own – I’d say Steve Urkel is a similar situation. People forget the name of the series (and the Winslow family), but they remember Urkel, and the name is still shorthand for that particular type of nerdy stereotype. But no one really talks about anything else related to Family Matters.

    • Nor should they.

  8. I STILL watch SIMON & SIMON. It is my favorite show of all time!
    Remember Rick and AJ SIMON??? They put a smile on my face…especially Rick. :)

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