We are all MacGyver now

Over the last several years, The Girlfriend and I have periodically gotten a disc or two of MacGyver from Netflix. At this point, we’re well into the sixth season (of seven) and so are likely among the foremost experts on the show currently living. As the years went on, it clearly became more and more of a kids show, and it’s in that perspective that I’ve started to view it as more insidious — in essence, it served as ideological training, preparing my generation for the brave new post-Fordist world they would inherit.

The resonances are almost too obvious to notice. MacGyver is a contract worker, to start with, even though he seems to work exclusively for one employer. That employer is the Phoenix Foundation, which is basically a mega-NGO with its fingers in everything — the government brings them in to consult on every conceivable project, from nuclear disarmament to adult illiteracy (which people my age will remember as apparently the most pressing social problem of the early 90s, judging from the attention it received on “very special episodes”). The government is implicitly incompetent, constantly running to private philanthropists, and on the rare occasion that a direct government employee (including even military officers!) pushes back, it always turns out that MacGyver and the Phoenix Foundation are right.

MacGyver is also the ultimate flexible worker. The famous duct tape contraptions — which actually play a surprisingly small role on an episode-by-episode basis — are only the beginning. He is an expert in every conceivable field. His specialty is perhaps chemistry (necessary for causing the explosions that he habitually uses as elaborate distractions), but he is just as adept in forestry, computer science, aviation, auto repair, etc., etc. (At one point, he was planning to retire from the Phoenix Foundation, and I quipped, “But MacGyver, where will you be able to find a job? You only have every conceivable skill!”) The only skill he lacks is any foreign language competence — on the rare occasion when he tries a basic Spanish or French phrase, he says it in the halting, half-sarcastic way of a typical American. Yet that doesn’t stop anyone from bringing him in to consult on going through the archives of the East German secret police after the fall of the Berlin Wall!

MacGyver can stage an elaborate heist, escape a Third World guerilla camp — or mentor an at-risk youth. He is the ultimate hedge fund manager-slash-philanthropreneur. He can parachute into any situation and help people facing any conceivable social issue, and do it better than the people who have been working in the community for decades. (I would not be surprised if the founder of Teach for America was a devoted fan of the show.) Yet he still has time to cultivate seemingly hundreds of intimate friendships. Particularly in the early seasons, it seemed that every episode featured some long-time friend that MacGyver had dutifully kept up with — so that he amounts to a kind of one-man Facebook — and he was always game for whatever they ask him to do, be it helping his friends with their new oil strike or (in what remains one of the most ridiculous episodes ever) visiting a South American plantation that is threatened with hordes of killer ants.

The corrolary of MacGyver’s absolute flexibility is his refusal to be tied down. Indeed, his most iconic home is precisely a houseboat — he doesn’t even need to pull up stakes, if it comes to that. Early seasons portrayed him as a lady’s man, but he ultimately comes to reject nearly all female advances, preferring the company of inappropriately young platonic friends (like Penny Parker, Terry Hatcher’s first major role), hard-driving spinster career women, or his boss Pete, with whom he develops a weirdly homoerotic partnership in some seasons. (Internet research reveals that there is fan fiction pairing MacGyver with his arch-nemesis Murdoc, but none with Pete — a curious omission, until we remember that Pete is unattractive and is also perhaps the least compelling character in television history.) A family, like a career or a clear specialty, is too limiting for our renaissance man, who needs almost literally nothing — indeed, he is often parachuted into dangerous situations with nothing but a Swiss army knife — and yet is universally indispensable.

In this sense, he is, perhaps strangely, the prototype for the contemporary TV sociopath. Certainly he’s “nicer” than our current crop of anti-heroes, but arguably there’s an even greater degree of emotional vacancy — Jack Bauer at least experiences stress, while MacGyver remains ironically detached in even the most dangerous situations. He even punches people ironically, almost always pausing to register the pain in his hand.

There is one episode when the writers confront the abyss — strangely enough, in the form of a “clip show.” MacGyver, worn out from yet another dangerous mission, decides to retire from the Phoenix Foundation. As he talks to various friends and remembers various highlights from past episodes, the viewer comes to feel that he is more and more justified in quitting such an insane job. In the end, he obviously decides to stay on, but what’s remarkable is that there is no reason given. In the last two minutes of the episode, he just abruptly… changes his mind.

Here was a chance to explore MacGyver’s motivations, to understand what he gets out of his work, and the implicit answer is: nothing. There is nothing underneath. MacGyver is pure effectiveness, pure flexibility, ready to be put to any conceivable use and asking nothing in return — the perfect post-Fordist worker, without remainder.

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