Gilligan’s Island: A variation on 10 themes

Gilligan’s Island: A variation on 10 themes

With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD every day, it gets harder and harder to keep up with new shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. If you watch these 10, you’ll have a better idea of what that series was about, without having to watch the whole thing. These are not meant to be the 10 best episodes, but rather the 10 most representative episodes.

Gilligan’s Island is a classic sitcom whose popularity doesn’t match its critical reputation. It’s a silly show, and silliness has a way of alienating anyone searching for greatness. The show is anchored by a broad, vaudevillian physical-comedy duo and never veers far from its conventions, both in character and situation. But that doesn’t mean there is no “there” there. The broadness is an essential part of the show’s perspective: Life is but a joke.

Start with the demonstrative theme song, which now precedes the show itself in terms of popularity. After decades of syndication, “The Ballad Of Gilligan’s Isle” won the TV Land Award for best sitcom earworm in 2003—and again in 2005. Co-written by Gilligan creator Sherwood Schwartz, it’s a theme song that lays out the premise of the show: Five passengers set sail from Hawaii aboard the S.S. Minnow, crewed by the quick-tempered Skipper Jonas Grumby and enthusiastic screw-up Gilligan. When a storm shipwrecks them on a deserted island, what was supposed to be a three-hour tour turns into a three-year limbo, the passengers forever on the verge of escape but never quite succeeding.  The concept is elemental right down to the characterizations: wealth (Thurston Howell III and his wife, Lovey), sex (Ginger), logic (Professor), the other one (Mary Ann). That’s not just a joke. Mary Ann most often stands in for a sort of old-fashioned, resourceful self-sufficiency, having grown up on a farm in Kansas, but her role regularly bleeds into those of the others, most notably when she plays Jackie to Ginger’s Marilyn in a world without pop culture.

What does get exaggerated is everything outside of that theme song. Yes, visitors frequently show up on the island and leave without taking anyone with them. That’s part of the joke: Gilligan and company are cosmically stranded, Schwartz resetting the status quo each week like a playful god. Gilligan isn’t just a screw-up, though, and his good nature is a beacon to his more wrathful companions. Similarly overblown are reports of Ginger’s endless wardrobe (she frequently wears a dress made out of the boat’s tarpaulins) and the Professor’s coconut radio (actually they have a battery-powered radio from the mainland that they have to recharge every now and then). Why a high-school teacher knows so much about Polynesian natives remains a question for the ages, however.

The point is, like several 1960s sitcoms, Gilligan’s Island is weird enough without having to exaggerate. What begins as a comedy about a group of people struggling to recreate civilization while trying to escape their island purgatory (without losing their humanity) gradually becomes a vessel for all kinds of mid-’60s goofiness. A Japanese sailor still fighting WWII takes them hostage. Cosmonauts land on the island. The castaways develop superpowers on a few occasions. Through it all, Schwartz and company (including his brother and co-head writer Elroy) return most frequently to 10 different themes and motifs, interrelated concepts that together create the existential space-age hodgepodge of Gilligan’s Island.

Money: “The Big Gold Strike” (season one, episode nine): The first handful of episodes set up camp—literally and figuratively—but the standout episode about castaway basics comes a little later. First is a lark about money where greed comes into conflict with an escape plan. Schwartz and company repeatedly exaggerate the pointlessness of money and class on the island: Plot points include the Howells going broke, the couple adopting Gilligan and trying to refine him, Gilligan winning the lottery on the mainland, and more. “The Big Gold Strike” dives in headfirst when Gilligan and Mr. Howell fall into a pit containing gold—a cave of deep blacks dusted with sparkly dazzle, in case there’s any confusion about what’s to come. One by one, the castaways succumb to greed, starting with the already filthy stinkin’ rich Mr. Howell. Gold, diamonds, and pearls compromise everyone, even incorruptible Gilligan. In the end, the castaways smuggle so much gold aboard their new life raft that it sinks right there in the lagoon, and they’re left crawling back to shore in embarrassment.

Politics: “Water, Water Everywhere” (season one, episode 14): In season one, the writers were still taking the castaway premise relatively seriously (as a launchpad for slapstick, at least), but several of the season’s scripts read like social experiments: What happens if you isolate a group of people and add gold? Or in this case, what happens when you subtract water? Written by brothers Tom and Frank Waldman (who co-wrote The Party with Blake Edwards), the episode begins with a pan across the castaways’ glorious system, Gilligan bamboo-biking a pulley attached to a water wheel that irrigates crops brought by the Skipper for the Professor to plant. (Presumably the ladies are cooking and the Howells are taking a load off. Nobody said this system was an improvement.) But when the spring dries up, it turns out dehydration just makes everyone irritable, causing them to turn on the low man on the totem pole, hapless victim Gilligan. Ignoring the sexlessness of five singles on an island for three-plus years, the social organization of the castaways is a major recurring element, and it often relies on alienation. But there’s another important side to “Water, Water Everywhere”: Excommunicated Gilligan gets to be the hero at the end, finding a frog (voiced by the show’s resident animal player, Mel Blanc) that leads to a new source of fresh water. Contrary to popular belief, Gilligan doesn’t always screw everything up at the end.

Sex: “St. Gilligan And The Dragon” (season one, episode 20): Picking up on the gender politics, sexlessness, and everything else in the other two episodes, “St. Gilligan And The Dragon” kicks off with the women going on strike. Lovey explains why by way of Lysistrata, lingering just so: “She persuaded all the women in her town… to ignore the men… completely. Unless they got what they wanted.” That “completely” is probably just meant for her husband, but nevertheless, the episode openly addresses the retrograde labor distribution in a camp where the women do all the cooking and cleaning and the men still haven’t built Ginger and Mary Ann a hut. It takes some shoehorning on the men’s side—the Professor’s male chauvinism is particularly unconvincing, but Gilligan goes along with Mr. Howell like it’s a game that he’s not enjoying—but the women finally get their due. Best of all, typically aloof Lovey shines in a leadership role. When the men dress up as a wild animal to scare the women back to the men’s camp, Lovey spots the ruse and loudly improvises: “We’ll kill it,” she shouts with glee. “And we’ll send its head back to the men!”

Fantasy: “The Friendly Physician” (season two, episode 29): Of all the season-two changes (color cinematography, naming “the rest” in the theme song), what stands out the most is an embrace of outright fantasy. In one episode, Gilligan can read minds; in another, the castaways develop superpowers from radioactive vegetables. Marvel comics, the Cold War, the space age, and more led to a certain amount of technological or magical leaps, but “The Friendly Physician” stands out because the castaways actually get off the island. The impact of seeing real interiors is surprising, like all of the show’s occasional scenes on the mainland. In this case, wild-eyed Dracula/Frankenstein pastiche Dr. Boris Balinkoff (Vito Scotti in one of four guest appearances as two different recurring island visitors) shows up in a boat to rescue the castaways. But first he stops at his nearby island, a creepy castle with a secret laboratory where he practices a mind-transfer experiment on the them. Directed by ’50s Universal horror maestro Jack Arnold, the episode is mostly an excuse for the actors to play each other and engage in some light Abbott And Costello genre-spoofing, but it’s one of the many weird stories the castaways encountered as the ’60s wore on.

Dreams: “‘V’ For Vitamins” (season two, episode 30): This is the quintessential resource-crisis episode, with Gilligan left in charge of not only the planted seeds from the castaways’ final orange but also making sure the fire doesn’t go out on the coldest night on the island. Naturally, Gilligan dozes off, and that’s where the fun begins. Early in season one, Gilligan’s Island started to indulge in dream sequences where the cast would slot into genre types, starting with a Western shot on the set of Gunsmoke (the show that would get Gilligan’s Island canceled when its timeslot expanded to a full hour). In seasons two and three, the dream sequences popped up more often and stayed for longer. The orange seeds inspire Gilligan to dream of a “Jack And The Beanstalk” story: Gilligan trades Mother Lovey’s jewels for magic beans from swindler Thurston. They produce a magic beanstalk that he climbs to find Maid Mary Ann working in giant Skipper’s castle. (Professor and Ginger really go wild as old hags who have been locked up in the castle for years.) As usual, the dream is an elaborate, blunt metaphor, this one for the preciousness of oranges (that and Gilligan’s desire to see Mary Ann in a skimpier outfit), but it stands as one of the series’ strongest.

Doppelgängers: “Gilligan Vs. Gilligan” (season three, episode two): The motivations behind the series’ three doppelgänger episodes seem obvious at first: The writers get to give the castaways a new Other without bringing in another performer, and the actors get to show some range. “Gilligan Vs. Gilligan” even begets a Marx brothers’ mirror gag with Bob Denver’s character playing opposite a Soviet spy made to look exactly like him. The spy is investigating what the castaways are really up to, suspecting an American plot, and that’s where the doppelgänger episodes stand out. In all three, the doppelgänger is a predatory, Bizarro castaway: Gilligan’s Soviet spy, Thurston’s con artist, and Ginger’s Eve Harrington. The fake Mr. Howell claims the real one’s fortune, at least before authorities determine he’s an impostor, and the fake Ginger Grant escapes to Hollywood to resume the real one’s career. Nobody but Gilligan sees the fake Gilligan, and at the end two things happen: First Gilligan convinces himself he never actually saw his doppelgänger at all, and then the discovery of the doppelgänger’s high-tech pocketknife lends credence to the wild stories Gilligan had been telling everyone about this nightmare version of himself. The knife even has a death ray, whatever that is. Has a sitcom ever packed that much national anxiety into five minutes?

Visitors: “The Producer” (season three, episode four): Visitors are as frequent as sunshine on Gilligan’s Island, since they make a handy external force to pit against the castaways. But the real cookies are the ones with friendly arrivals like lost aviator Wrongway Feldman (Hans Conried) or conquering socialite Erika Tiffany Smith (Zsa Zsa Gabor). Or season three’s demanding Hollywood producer, Harold Hecuba, played by Phil Silvers. The castaways concoct a scheme to impress the producer with Ginger’s talents, and the result is a dudded-out, opera-remixed Hamlet musical. The highlight is Mr. Howell’s climactic Polonius speech set to Carmen’s “Les Toreadors”: “There’s just one other thing you ought to do / To thine own self be true!” All the while Harold is lurking in the jungle watching the surprise show, and eventually he intervenes, personally taking over to teach the castaways how it should be done. After two acts of big-shot arrogance, Silvers finally gets to let loose, singing and dancing all the parts in thrown-together costumes. Unfortunately he goes the way of all the visitors to the island, even the friendly ones: The civilized world always turns out to be self-involved in the end.

Parody: “The Hunter” (season three, episode 18): Like the Gunsmoke-set dream sequence suggests, Gilligan’s Island has a way with cultural parodies, taking on mid-’60s phenomena like Get Smart and Beatlemania. “The Hunter” is a riff on “The Most Dangerous Game,” a much older story, but it has the added benefit of playing up the show’s elemental premise: What happens when you add a gun to this isolated mini society? Rory Calhoun oozes as hunter Jonathan Kincaid, and the moment he gives the castaways his ultimatum—he’ll rescue them if one of them can evade him for a full day—the wacky tone suddenly goes very heavy, because they all know it’s a risk they’re willing to take.

Natives: “High Man On The Totem Pole” (season three, episode 23): The natives on Gilligan’s Island aren’t far from those in ’30s B-movies about Victorian explorers. They show up often enough not to be uniformly exotic bad guys—in some cases they come seeking romance, in others they’re merely voodoo exporters—but in this case, Gilligan is concerned with headhunters. The reason being he discovers his likeness atop a totem pole that leads him to believe he has headhunter genes. It’s a very silly plot, like all of the show’s episodes about native culture. At least this one is enlivened by Gilligan’s last-act heroism, decapitation gags galore, and a look at the leisure phase of the island’s development: The Howells take a ride in a bamboo taxi, and Ginger and Mary Ann relax in a mud bath.

Dashed Escapes: “The Pigeon” (season three, episode 28): The show always comes back to the dashed escape, but “The Pigeon” is quintessential Gilligan’s Island. The castaways find a homing pigeon and use it to send for help. When the pigeon returns, they have a new pen pal in Sterling Holloway’s Burt, and his scenes even dangle civilization in the viewer’s face. The only problem is Burt’s an inmate on Alcatraz. The symmetry is irresistible, and it goes beyond both parties being trapped. Mr. Howell sends a $1,000 bill to convince Burt that he is the real Thurston Howell III, but Burt puts it to use feathering a nest. (Even in civilization, Mr. Howell’s money is useless). It’s Gilligan’s Island in a nutshell. The castaways are in their own prison, forever incarcerated on the island for no crime but humanity. Hilarious.

And if you like those, here are 10 more: visitors: “Wrongway Feldman” (season one, episode five); natives: “Waiting For Watubi” (season one, episode 10); politics: “So Sorry, My Island Now” (season one, episode 15); money: “My Fair Gilligan” (season one, episode 35); sex: “Beauty Is As Beauty Does” (season two, episode two); dashed escapes: “Smile, You’re on Mars Camera” (season two, episode four); parody: “Don’t Bug The Mosquitoes” (season two, episode 12); fantasy: “Pass The Vegetables, Please” (season three, episode three); doppelgängers: “All About Eva” (season three, episode 14); dreams: “The Secret Of Gilligan’s Island” (season three, episode 25).

Availability: All three seasons are available on DVD, as well as for digital purchase on Amazon and iTunes.

Next time: Les Chappell supports his dreams by toiling away on the 10 representative episodes of Taxi.