Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Love Boat: Sailing Away from Cynicism

My classic TV viewing is rarely influenced by current events. However, at those moments that the world situation seems more depressing than usual, I often find myself drifting toward less challenging shows.

When a temporary escape from dire headlines is warranted, the carefree appeal of a frivolous series like The Love Boat is particularly welcome. What sounds better to you right now – another story about Ebola, lone-wolf terrorism, school shootings and contentious political campaigns, or an open smile on a friendly shore? 

Escapism was always one of the series’ selling points, even if viewers were only escaping something as mundane as winter. From 1977 to 1987, the show embarked on each new season as autumn leaves began to fall, and sailed through the months when days were shorter and weather forecasts promised blizzards and cold, bleak temperatures.

Growing up in the Chicago suburbs I can still recall watching The Love Boat on Saturday nights and gazing, longingly, at the bright sunshine and clear blue skies as the Pacific Princess sailed out of port. As each week’s swimsuit-clad voyagers lounged on the Lido deck, sipping tropical drinks and discussing day trips into Mazatlán or Puerto Vallarta, it felt like a virtual vacation from the frozen wasteland outside my bedroom window. 

Critics hated it, of course. It didn’t have the gravitas of Hill Street Blues (as if that was the objective). How dare any series possess no higher aspirations than showcasing nice people in attractive scenery, and simple stories of romance. But in the era that brought us the Iran hostage crisis, the last throes of the Cold War, the Unabomber, the murder of John Lennon and other depressing news, I’m sure millions of viewers appreciated the break. The show came along at a good time.

And the timing was also favorable when it came to casting. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, many of Hollywood’s golden age stars were still performing, even if opportunities to do so were not as prevalent. The Love Boat‘s prestigious passenger list includes June Allyson, Van Johnson, Lana Turner, Joseph Cotten, Olivia de Havilland, Greer Garson, Joan Fontaine, Stewart Granger and Ginger Rogers.

Television stars past and present filled out the remaining roles, along with a few frequent travelers who qualified as celebrities, though at the time we didn’t know why, exactly: Bert Convy, Mary Ann Mobley, Dr. Joyce Brothers, and the ubiquitous Charo, who seemed to check in at least once a month. 

The Love Boat crew was as responsible for the series’ success and longevity as its guest stars. I can’t prove it, and have not found any polling on the subject (academia is shockingly bereft of scholarly research on The Love Boat) but for me it was the friendly and reliable presence of Gavin McLeod, Fred Grandy, Ted Lange, Bernie Kopell and Lauren Tewes that anchored the series though episodes good and bad.

What a wonderful job that must have been. With the stories carried by the passengers, your captain, yeoman purser, doctor, bartender and cruise director received scripts with one-third of the lines they would have to memorize on a typical hour-long series. Kopell and Grandy had so much free time they also wrote several stories. And once or twice each season a crewmember would get to play a moment that required extra depth and effort, and they were always up to the task.

I had it bad for Julie McCoy, who seemed like one those sweet and wholesome girls that you would be proud to take home to mom. That says something about my naiveté as a viewer, because in nine seasons she invited a lot of guys back to her cabin. At the time I thought they were just getting together to sip hot chocolate and play some board games. 

As with any long running series, even one with such a pliable premise, The Love Boat eventually began to lose its mojo. I never thought Jill Whelan was the Cousin Oliver of the cruise lines, but most people didn’t get why Vicki was necessary. Lauren Tewes’ one-season departure disrupted crew chemistry, and the late addition of the Love Boat Mermaids and series-killer Ted McGinley (as ship photographer Ace) smacked of desperation.

But even in its least inspired moments, The Love Boat was a refreshing oasis of optimism in a desert of cynicism. It was weekly wish fulfillment that reassured all of us losers that there really was someone out there for everyone. 

And if nothing else, it was a time capsule for an era of film, television and popular culture that we rightly recall as magical. Artist Andy Warhol sailed on the Pacific Princess. So did Donna Reed and Dolly Parton, Hulk Hogan and Lillian Gish, the Hudson Brothers and the Pointer Sisters. Luise Rainer, who won back-to-back Oscars in 1936 and 1937, appeared on The Love Boat (playing twins!). Janet Jackson was there at the beginning of her career, and it was where Janet Gaynor, the first Best Actress Oscar winner in 1928, gave her final performance. 

The first two seasons of The Love Boat are available on DVD. In discouraging times like these, the rest of the run cannot be released too soon. 


  1. Believe it or not, Marcy Walker did neither "The Love Boat" nor "Fantasy Island." The fact that "All My Children" was usually done out of New York in the early '80s may have been a factor, but both Susan Lucci and Laurence Lau did "The Love Boat" during that period.

  2. Mr. Hofstede, what should I say to someone who insists that the late Aaron Spelling pandered to the lowest common denominator?