Tuesday, October 2, 2012

My Blind Spot: Gilligan's Island

 This will sound egotistical, but I am always shocked when I meet someone who doesn’t share my enthusiasm for a television show I love.

I remember once telling a friend about an episode of The Fugitive that I found particularly profound and moving. He watched it and responded with that all-purpose dismissal so popular among his generation: “Meh.” He is lucky I still speak to him.

Of course, this works both ways. Gilligan’s Island is one of the series that defines the classic TV era for many baby boomers…and I just don’t get it.

I mean, I get it ­– there’s not much to get, really – seven stranded castaways, catchy theme song, “Ginger or Mary Ann” debate – just as he did with The Brady Bunch, Sherwood Schwartz created another series that is much more loved than admired, and another set of characters that have penetrated the popular culture to a depth and extent far beyond their simplistic pedigree. 

For years, Schwartz tried to sell a bill of goods about how the island and its inhabitants were a microcosm of human society and there were larger themes ingrained in the stories about cooperation and acceptance…look, the guy was very gracious to me the few times our paths crossed, but nobody is buying that.

Still, it nagged at me that so many of my fellow TV enthusiasts found such pleasure in repeat viewings of this silly sitcom. So about a year ago, I borrowed all three seasons on DVD and watched every episode in order. And it still did nothing for me. Send the hate mail.

By the midpoint of the first season, I was already finding ways to make the experience more interesting. One of my favorites was the “Spot Mary Ann’s Belly Button” game, otherwise known as tracking network enforcement of the “occasional navel rule.” This was an actual network edict which Schwartz amusingly described in his Gilligan’s Island book. The CBS censors would allow belly button exposure in one scene, as long as the character covered her navel in another scene, even if she was wearing the same outfit. Most of the time the show stayed within this bizarre guideline, but every so often Dawn Wells was flashing navel all over the island without repercussion. 

While I can’t buy Schwartz’s island-world harmony hypothesis, the one theory I’ve read that does make sense is that Gilligan sabotages every escape attempt because he likes the island and prefers it to the outside world. He doesn’t do it on purpose, because he realizes that means disappointing his friends, but when it comes time to send that message or fire that flare or accomplish whatever task with which he has inexplicably been trusted, he screws it up. He just can’t help himself.

This is less an indictment of Gilligan as it is of his fellow castaways. Despite repeated blunders they still, invariably, assign him some critical task that can make or break their salvation. I don’t need realism from my escapist TV, and that ship has already sailed when you’re watching a show in which three characters wear the same outfit for three years, while four others sport new clothes from a seemingly inexhaustible supply that was packed for a three-hour tour. But at some point, the other islanders would have killed this idiot.

I found only two episodes worth singling out for special merit, and if you’re a fan you probably already know which ones. First, “Don’t Bug the Mosquitoes,” in which the famous pop band The Mosquitoes (Bingo, Bango, Bongo and Irving) land on the uncharted isle for some relaxation. The highlight is the performance of “You Need Us” by The Honey Bees – Lovey, Ginger and Mary Ann. It’s dreadful, but at least it’s dreadful in an interesting way. 

The other standout effort is “The Producer,” better known as the Hamlet show. Here our castaways create a musical version of Hamlet set to various classical themes. I was so entertained by the performances that I forgot to look for Mary Ann’s navel. I know as testimonials go that one won’t make the cut for a DVD box. But when the show is Gilligan’s Island, it’s the best I can do. 


  1. Just discovered your blog and I love it! Please keep up the good work.

    I'm right there with you on this show, though my feelings on it tend to run more toward genuine vitriolic hatred rather than apathy. Even as a kid I found it unfunny and downright moronic, and that viewpoint made me something of a pariah among my wee TV-addicted peers. Same problem with the Brady Bunch, so maybe I have some sort of pathological aversion to Sherwood Schwartz?

    1. And did you ever see SCTV's parody of this series, "Cretin's Island," in which the castaways have finally had enough of the Gilligan stand-in's perpetual idiocy and sabotaging of their escape plans? They gang up on him, murder him in cold blood, and sneeringly leave his body to be devoured by crabs on the beach. I would have loved to see Gilligan's Island end like that for real.

    2. A very late response to your much-appreciated comments - I did not see that SCTV parody but will now be on the lookout for it. And while we are simpatico on Gilligan, I dearly love The Brady Bunch, even while admitting its (many) flaws.

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