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The Love Boat, “Marooned/The Search/Isaac’s Holiday”

Sometimes a single TV episode can exemplify the spirit of its time and the properties that make television a unique medium. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.

Jeraldine Saunders was a 27-year-old divorcee with a child to raise and a budding interest in astrology when she decided to change her fortunes by embarking on a modeling career. She had a rough start because of her age, and because she was curvy at a time when the fashion industry preferred straight lines. But Saunders kept asserting herself, and kept getting jobs well into her 40s. Then one day, after her daughter grew up and got married, Saunders worked a show on a cruise ship, and was so impressed by the hostess that she started sending her clippings to the cruise line’s main office, offering her services. Eventually, Saunders landed a hostessing gig of her own, and then worked her way up to cruise director. In 1974, she turned her experiences into a book called The Love Boats, a poorly written but entertainingly sordid collection of anecdotes about sin on the high seas.

The book received terrible reviews, and rightfully so. It’s disorganized and frustratingly coy at times. Plus, Saunders’ preoccupation with pop spiritualism leads to a lot of descriptions like, “Steve is a Pied Piper with planets in Sagittarius,” which Saunders presumes the reader will find meaningful. In 1975, though, TV producer Douglas Cramer read a pan of The Love Boats in The Los Angeles Times book review section, the day before his scheduled pitch meeting with ABC. Coincidentally, the ABC executive Cramer was meeting had read the same review, and had already asked the network’s lawyers to pursue optioning the book for a TV movie. But Cramer’s lawyers beat ABC to the punch. The network would have to settle for airing Cramer’s movie—called The Love Boat—in 1976, then airing the sequel in 1977, before booking a weekly hourlong series that ran from September of 1977 to May of 1986 (and then in syndicated reruns around the world).

The TV show also received terrible reviews, and rightfully so. As conceived by Cramer and his co-producer Aaron Spelling, The Love Boat is formulaic pap, mixing the low-impact adventures of a cruise-ship crew with the stories of some of the passengers, balancing romance, tear-jerking melodrama, life-lessons, and cornball comedy—complete with a laugh track. (It says something about the aesthetic of the era that when sitcoms went laughless, it was considered risky and even pretentious, yet it didn’t seem strange at the time for hourlong shows like Eight Is Enough and The Love Boat to add pre-recorded chuckles.)

The Love Boat never lacked for guest stars. Between game shows, talk shows, disaster movies, Battle Of The Network Stars, and story-of-the-week series like Fantasy Island and The Love Boat, the ’70s and ’80s were fat years for fading celebrities and flashes-in-the-pan. Over its 10-year run, The Love Boat would book Hollywood royalty, Borscht Belt comics, TV veterans, singers, models, teen idols, and ingénues, all of whom could look forward to a light shooting schedule (since they’d only be appearing in roughly a third of any given Love Boat hour), and sometimes even a trip to an exotic locale, for the flashier episodes.

And in its early years at least, The Love Boat never lacked for viewers, because, let’s face it, it’s fun to fantasize about taking a trip. The stories on The Love Boat never mattered much. The stars never mattered much. The Love Boat satisfied the same need that HD travel infotainment like World’s Most Extreme Waterparks does now, or that dramas set in glamour-spots (like Hawaii Five-0, Royal Pains, or Miami Vice) have in the past. It’s escapism in one of its most literal forms. The show practically beckons the audience with the low toot of the Pacific Princess’ horn and the polyester polyrhythms of its disco theme song.

The Love Boat’s second-season premiere aired on Sept. 16, 1978 as a two-hour “event,” with a special plot to suit the special length. The episode starts out the way every Love Boat episode does, with the passengers boarding the ship and unloading their problems on the staff. Singer/comedienne Edie Adams and mustachioed comic Avery Schreiber play a married couple on the brink of divorce. Playboy staple Barbi Benton plays a standoffish bombshell who rebuffs the advances of the ship’s doctor/lothario, Adam Bricker (Bernie Kopell). Dancer Lola Falana is similarly aloof, as she reads her Camus paperback and tries to brush off the ship’s bartender Isaac Washington (Ted Lange), who’s spending his vacation on the Pacific Princess and pretending to be a big shot.

David Birney plays a soap-opera villain who tries to help grown orphan Donna Mills follow through on her plan to confront the mother who gave her up for adoption. And Three’s Company/The Ropers star Audra Lindley plays a bumbling older woman who’s just received a terminal diagnosis from her doctors. Also on-board: Malaprop comic Norm Crosby as Isaac’s substitute bartender; MGM regular Laraine Day as Birney’s mother (who, in a not-so-shocking twist, turns out to be Mills’ mother as well); and Laugh-In goof Dick Martin as a pompous ship’s captain, who’s on the Princess for a “refresher course” before he takes command of a new vessel.

It’s Martin’s character who drives one of the episode’s two main plotlines, when he cluelessly ignores a hurricane warning and allows the ship to head right into the path of the storm. In the other plotline, Captain Merrill Stubing (Gavin MacLeod) leads a group on an expedition to a remote lagoon that he discovered when he was in the Navy, and there the entire party—which includes Adams, Schreiber, Benton, and Lindley from the passenger side, and Doc, Gopher (Fred Grandy), and cruise director Julie (Lauren Tewes) from the crew—is held captive by a crazed hermit played by Addams Family patriarch John Astin.

The hurricane and the hostage-taking bring some of the other stories to a head. Back on the ship, Isaac has just about convinced Falana that he’s the kind of rich jerk she’s looking for—which he does by complaining about the quality of Crosby’s tequila sunrises, and stressing to the captain that “Chablis should be chilled… not frozen”—when suddenly the storm hits and ruins his plans. With Captain Stubing away, and with the replacement captain proving incompetent, Isaac has to take command of getting the passengers to safety, which means he has to admit publicly who he is, and thus disillusion the woman he’s been trying to impress. (Of course, Falana eventually forgives Isaac because he’s so heroic during the crisis, and they live happily together until the closing credits, at which point she’ll never be heard from or mentioned again.)

Meanwhile, in the secluded lagoon, the dangerously delusional Astin demands that his captives throw him a surprise birthday party, complete with cake, ice cream, and Tinkertoys. The prisoners try different methods of distracting him, including allowing Julie to play seductress (though Astin’s actually more interested in Lindley), and some of their schemes are almost effective, because as Astin himself cheerfully admits, he’s “gullible.” Before they can sneak away, though, the hurricane lands, and Gopher is knocked unconscious by a felled tree. With Gopher to attend to, a storm outside, and a gun-toting nut threatening them, Captain Stubing and company are stuck.

While they’re waiting out this mess, Adams and Schreiber have a chance to really talk. She abandons her usual habit of tearing down everything he says, and instead admits, “I don’t hate you; I just don’t care anymore.” Fearing that he’s about to lose everything, Schreiber makes a desperate play, rhapsodizing about all the mistresses he’s had during their marriage. Adams is initially outraged, but after the storm is over and they’re back on the ship, her passion for him is rekindled, because she no longer thinks of him as a UFO-obsessed, unsexy loser. (Schreiber later admits to Doc, though, that he made everything up, except for the UFOs.)

While this is going on, Benton—who’s been such a brat this whole trip that Doc has given up trying to seduce her, and even the perpetually chipper Julie has told her to “stop flapping your lips”—is moved enough by their collective plight that she sneaks off in the night to write an SOS message on the beach. While she’s out, she checks Astin’s rifle, which she learns is full of dirt, meaning that the hostages have the upper hand, and are able to leave as soon as the storm abates. (They do throw Astin his imaginary party first.)

Throughout the whole ordeal, the captain gets to put on his “serious Stubing” face, giving earnest speeches about the greater good and doing what’s right, then capping the episode by hailing Isaac for his steadiness, promising “some stripes in your next pay envelope.” (He then awkwardly asks Isaac to “gimme five,” because this is how white people related to black people on television in 1978.)

The one story that’s not directly affected by high winds and bearded lunatics is the one involving Birney, Mills, and Day. The revelation of Birney and Mills’ shared parentage doesn’t stop their budding romance, because it turns out that Day is only Birney’s step-mother, which allows them to proceed non-incestuously. The bad news is that Mills is having a hard time suppressing nearly 30 years of ill feeling toward the woman who abandoned her, until Day explains that back when Mills was born, society wouldn’t have accepted a single mother, and that she honestly thought she was sending her daughter off to a better life. The scene between the two of them is touching and heartfelt, and way out of place in an episode that’s otherwise excessively silly.

The Love Boat is by no means clever or sophisticated. The writers would go back to the same well over and over for stories and character types, and rarely did much new with the core cast from episode to episode. Doc would chase skirts, Gopher would be goofy, Julie would be super-organized, and so on—week after week, year after year, from premiere to cancellation. But intention and results aren’t always in sync. Sometimes, The Love Boat could stumble into something like truth, or could at least convey an idea or an image that resonated with the masses of people stuck at home on a Saturday night in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

For example, in this season-two premiere, Gopher is driving everyone nutty with his pranks and gags—including his inevitable Groucho glasses—because he’s excited that his vacation is coming up as soon as this cruise is done. Sensible Isaac, on the other hand, is taking his vacation where he works, which reinforces the idea that the Pacific Princess is a better destination than anywhere that crazy ol’ Gopher might want to go. Isaac’s choice is one that anyone who’s ever worked in the hospitality industry will recognize. Those of us who’ve waited tables, torn tickets, sold popcorn, or loaded passengers onto amusement-park rides all know the feeling of creeping envy—bordering on resentment—toward the people who are enjoying themselves while we’re working to make them happy. That feeling rises throughout the shift, until all we want is to clock out and be catered to. Like coal miners spending scrip at the company store (well, sort of), Applebees servers everywhere doff their aprons at the end of the night and hand their tips back to the bartender in exchange for Bahama mamas, Bourbon Street steaks, and the contented feeling of being at rest.

In that same busman’s holiday vein, David Birney’s character on this Love Boat takes a vacation from his job as a soap star—where he has to deal with fans walking up to him on the street and hissing, “You’re the guy who murdered his wife!”—only to find himself in a situation even soapier than anything on All My Loves. And Astin’s character wins some sympathy from the people he captures when he explains that the reason he’s retreated into his own fantasy kingdom is because he used to work at Disneyland as Humpty Dumpty, and grew frustrated when he realized that he’d never be as beloved as Mickey Mouse. In the end, Captain Stubing decides not to have this loon arrested, and Lindley decides to live out her remaining days in Astin’s grass hut. Then, in a final twist, the disgraced would-be captain played by Martin announces his intention to give up sailing and maybe become a hermit on a desert island—“like my brother.” It’s an extremely closed-off world, this world of Love Boat. Each cruise boils down to roughly a half-dozen passengers, taken care of by roughly a half-dozen employees, all giving each other exactly what they need to supply a happy ending.

So The Love Boat is undeniably artificial; but then, so are cruise ships, with their interiors designed to fool passengers into thinking they’re strolling safely through a combination hotel and upscale shopping mall, and not speeding across a dark, deep, all-consuming ocean. The Love Boat reflected the “city on the sea” aspect of cruise ships in its shots of Captain Stubing’s office, which looked like it could be sitting in a strip mall storefront in Pasadena, and in the boat’s corny nautical-themed bars like “Pirate’s Cove,” which could just as easily be abutting some mainland Red Lobster. The Love Boat filled each episode with evocative on-location footage of ticket-taking, disembarking, and docking….

… but the majority of the show was shot on set, which here means that Astin’s mini-kingdom has the stage-bound look of Gilligan’s Island, while Birney and Mills have meaningful conversations in front of a giant photograph.

In Kristoffer A. Garin’s book Devils On The Deep Blue Sea: The Dreams, Schemes And Showdowns That Built America’s Cruise-Ship Empires, Garin devotes half a chapter to the effect that The Love Boat had on the cruise industry. A business that once mainly catered to customers on the coasts saw a surge in tourists from the middle of the country, people who’d assumed that cruises were for rich people until they saw the likes of Avery Schreiber and Norm Crosby schlubbing their way around the lido deck on their TVs.

The Princess cruise line was wary of the show at first, because the higher-ups were concerned about the sexual innuendo in Saunders’ book, and because they questioned whether the actors playing the fictional crew sent the right message. (Garin quotes Cramer as saying that the Princess execs were dismayed by the casting of a black actor as the bartender, until the company saw an upswing in the number of black people buying tickets.) But The Love Boat’s sex chat—while persistent—was soft, cute, and practically family-friendly. The same is true in Saunders’ book, where she makes even the drunken groping of would-be rapists sound like part of the harmless “let your inhibitions go” attitude of life at sea.

In actuality, according to Garin, during those years that Saunders would’ve been on the job—before The Love Boat made cruising so popular that the major lines had to clean up their act—cruise ships were a hotbed of illegal activity, from drug-smuggling to prostitution to racketeering. It got to a point where a major part of any port-visit was collecting extortion money from the local businesses in exchange for favorable mentions in the cruise director’s daily “shopping talks” to the passengers. Cruise ships had their own floating economy, and not all of it was on the books.

The Love Boat kept all that in the background, though. (Way, way in the back. Like, behind the painted backdrops and in the dressing room, where Tewes was feeding her cocaine addiction.) Instead, the show helped ease the transition from the ’70s to the ’80s by legitimizing conspicuous consumption. Earlier in the decade, the naked greed displayed on the game show Let’s Make A Deal so alarmed cultural commentators that they wrote about it in the same cautionary tone that columnists use today about Jersey Shore or Toddlers & Tiaras. But by the time The Love Boat ended its run, the era of Dynasty was in full sway, and there was much less hand-wringing about whether television was encouraging people to covet luxury and live beyond their means.

Some detest The Love Boat for this. And yet there’s something deeply American about the show’s pervasive message of mobility, this idea that in a country so big, we can always pick up stakes and start over somewhere else. That if we meet the right people, we can solve all of our problems. That for a surprisingly small amount of money, we can live like kings, if only for a few days.

You could do it too, you know. Right now. Maybe you’re sitting on your couch, looking for something worth watching on your DVR. Maybe you’re scrolling through your RSS feeds during another long commute. Maybe you’re chained to your desk at work, putting off dealing with your inbox. Just a couple of clicks, and you could be spending your weekend with lavish all-you-can eat buffets, casino gambling, Broadway-style revues, beach excursions, movies, dancing, swimming, shopping, and a steady supply of tropical rum drinks. It’s just so easy—so easy that even the possibility of it nags and gnaws.

That’s why it’s no accident that in opening credits, The Love Boat regulars are assigned to you. Gopher is “your” yeoman purser. Julie is “your” cruise director. They’re ready whenever you are. Come aboard. They’re expecting you.

Next time, on A Very Special Episode… Saturday Night Live, 12/15/84 (Host: Eddie Murphy)