Why do we like Tom Selleck so much?
Tonight, Tom Selleck will star in another of his Jesse Stone TV-movies, this one titled Jesse Stone: Innocents Lost. In it, Selleck’s Jesse has lost his job with the Paradise, Mass., police department, he’s drinking heavily, and he’s haunted by the death of a girl he once tried to help. In other words, it’s Jesse just the way we like him: broody and depressed, but never missing a clue or a chance to get back at someone who’s done him wrong.
When you lay out his characteristics like that, Jesse Stone seems like the sort of man you’d want to move down a few bar-stool seats to avoid. Yet Tom Selleck has taken the character created by the late Robert B. Parker and made him a very appealing loner — separate out the alcoholism (all heroes need a tragic flaw), and Selleck’s Jesse actually lives a life many of us might envy. He lives in a nice house on a pretty slip of land, has a faithful dog, few responsibilities, women much younger than him can’t wait to hop into bed with him, and he’s got the most shrewd, available therapist anyone could want (a nod of gratitude, as always, to William Devane).
I’d say that Innocents Lost isn’t the best of the Jesse Stone movies — its plot is more reminiscent of a Ross Macdonald missing-daughter plot than a Robert B. Parker bestseller, and would suggest that next time around, Selleck hire someone else to write the script, now that there aren’t more Stone books to adapt. But really, this is a minor complaint, because when we sit down to watch the latest installment of this character’s life, it’s Selleck and Stone we want to spend time with; the details are just there to keep the narrative moving along.
Even if you don’t pay attention to the credits to note that Selleck is a producer of the Stone adventures as well as an occasional co-writer of them, you instinctively know the actor is in full control. It’s not because Selleck is in nearly every frame (though that’s true), because the Jesse Stone TV-movies are the most modest of vanity projects. It’s not that Selleck needs to dominate the proceedings; it’s that we want him to — we revel in the idea that he’s offering himself up to us a middle-aged man who’s both tired but still sharp, weighed down with melancholy yet buoyant with hope that he can right a few wrongs before he has to hang up his baseball cap.
It’s the same kind of gravity that Selleck brings to his role as Commissioner Frank Regan in Blue Bloods, which recently wrapped up its first season. As he’s gotten older, Selleck uses his chipped-from-granite bulkiness and dour poker-face as measures of authority. At the same time, he hasn’t lost those flashes of sarcasm and more straightforward humor that make him the kind of guy both women and men think would make him kinda fun to hang out with. And “being fun to hang out with” in TV language translate as a high Q rating: Selleck is always rated one of the medium’s most-liked actors.
It was Magnum P.I. that made Selleck a star, of course. That 1980s series was a more Hawaiian-shirt-bright, light-hearted affair, in general. But it also carried a dark undertone: Magnum, you’ll recall, was a former Navy SEAL commando who’d done three tours of duty in Vietnam. This was the character Selleck used to establish himself as a TV star, and one definition of a TV star is that he’s someone you want to spend time with him every week. (It’s why so many movie stars have flopped trying to transition into weekly TV.)
When Blue Bloods was first announced as a series, my first thought was, “Oh, no — no more Jesse Stone movies?” So I was relieved to have read that Selleck agreed to do Bloods with the stipulation that he also continue with an occasional Stone. (This could be a dictionary definition of “getting blood from a stone,” I think.) At a time when the broadcast networks aren’t investing in made-for-TV movies anymore, the star has made the Jesse Stone franchise viable.
It’s clear that Selleck connects to this character on both an intellectual and gut level. He’s made Jesse more complex at every opportunity, even at the risk as alienating some viewers who might find the pace slow or the themes depressing. Me, I find the deliberate pacing a luxurious pleasure, a respite from the frantic cross-cutting and end-every-scene-with-a-climax style of network storytelling. And Selleck had made sure to dole out the details of Jesse’s increasing, sad, but logically-motivated alcoholism with great care and discretion.
The link between Magnum and Frank Reagan and Stone is that they’re hard men who do their jobs well and resist excessive displays of emotion. But roiling just beneath the surface is a swirl of fear and anger and regret that suggest the full life of each man. One reason we like Tom Selleck so much is that he makes us feel as though we’re not alone in having such feelings ourselves, and that it’s okay to lose control sometimes, or to reach out to others for help… while always, of course, being ready to punch a bad guy who deserves it, or to set aside our self-absorption to help someone more in need of help than ourselves.