‘The Love Boat’ (Season 1): TV for the true TV lover

It’s Love, American Style on water! Or, Nine Years of Constant Nautical Fornicating and Not One Sexual Harassment Law Suit!

By Paul Mavis

It’s been eight long years since CBS DVD and Paramount hauled that old ABC rust bucket The Love Boat out of dry dock for a DVD release…and then they stopped at just the first two seasons. So to christen the home video launch of The Love Boat’s long-awaited third season this year, we at Drunk TV thought we’d soften you up for that momentous occasion by fobbing off on you some old reviews that have been cobbled together and reworked to look just like new! So break out your bikinis and plaid golf shirts (Julie and Gopher always have extras), mix up a pitcher or two of Isaac’s patented margaritas, get that Vitamin E shot from Doc, and kick back for a nostalgic backwaters cruise as Captain Stubing guides you to the fluffy, romantic Island of Pleasant Television!

The Love Boat, in my humble opinion, is one of the three or four classic litmus tests for whether or not you truly love TV (it’s currently being re-run on MeTV—swipe Granny’s remote ‘cause she’s got it at the top of her favorites). Now I’m not just talking about “liking” TV. We all like TV, whether we admit it or not. And we all watch it, despite those few poor liars we work with or know who sniff, “I never watch TV.” No, I’m talking about loving TV, as in, “I was born and raised on endless hours of absolute junk crammed into my skull from the earliest possible age,” kind of TV. A lot of TV is good, or even great; a very small portion of it you could even call “art” (Gilligan’s Island. I kid you not). But quite a bit of it is puerile swill, too, and you have to love that—faults and all—before you can say you love the medium of TV as a whole.

Now, I’m exaggerating to make a point. I don’t believe for a second that The Love Boat is “puerile swill”—not at all. In fact, I think it’s light and fluffy, and rather charming in its openly calculated, commercial way. But most “TV critics” (yeech) in 1977 certainly hated it, and over the years, the words “The Love Boat” have become an easy, convenient way for people who haven’t actually seen the series to take a cheap shot when comparing other shows thought to be similarly brainless or trivial. But I take my stand and say, “Nay!” There are many pleasures to be derived from The Love Boat—chief among them Lauren Tewes in short shorts—particularly in the earlier seasons. Just as importantly, The Love Boat gave a lot of pleasure to millions and millions of fans who responded to its silly premise and its sunny, innocent, sweet-natured attitude (which covered up a delightfully smutty, smirking undertone). And I’ll take that aim any day over TV that deliberately offends, or shocks, or titillates, or exploits, in the specious pursuit of faux-gritty, spuriously “real,” bogus “art.”

Now, a little background for the younger readers who have no idea what the hell I’m talking about. The Love Boat series grew out of a series of three TV specials guided by producers Aaron Spelling (Charlie’s Angels) and Douglas Cramer (Dynasty), based loosely on a best-selling tell-all about cruise ships called The Love Boats. The first TV movie, The Love Boat, aired in September, 1976 (featuring none of the series’ actors), and was a surprise hit in the ratings. A second TV movie, The Love Boat II, was quickly commissioned for January, 1977. Fred Grandy as Gopher, Ted Lange as Isaac the bartender, and Bernie Kopell as the ship’s doctor (called Dr. O’Neill here), all soon to be regulars on the series, appeared for the first time. A third TV movie, The New Love Boat, aired during the May sweeps of 1977 and garnered even bigger ratings, with new actors Gavin MacLeod (as Captain Merrill Stubing) and Lauren Tewes (as Cruise Director Julie McCoy), rounding out the soon-to-be iconic cast. High Nielsen ratings for all three TV movies made it a cinch that The Love Boat would sail on ABC’s 1977 fall slate.

The premise for the series was quite simple (and therefore, comfortably predictable week after week: a must for network TV back then). The crew of the Pacific Princess, docked in Los Angeles, welcomed aboard six hundred passengers every week for a three-day cruise down to Mexico (usually Puerto Vallarta). And among those six hundred passengers, the TV audience would get to know about half a dozen or so, featured (usually) in three subplots during the hour-long episode (structured similarly to ABC’s earlier anthology hit, Love, American Style, but with the ship’s crew providing better linkage and continuity between the three cross-cutting short stories). The ship’s crew featured prominently within these subplots (particularly Julie, whose romantic life was fodder for many episodes), where they interacted with the passengers as well as having stories centered around their jobs and lives aboard the Pacific Princess.

Cruise Director Julie McCoy was the incredibly perky, corn-fed blue-eyed beauty who was responsible for making sure everyone on board had a good time, aided frequently in her duties by good-natured goof Yeoman Purser Burl “Gopher” Smith (Fred Grandy). Isaac Washington (Ted Lange), the head bartender on the Pacific Princess, always had a ready smile for the passengers, while Ship’s Doctor (and resident Lothario) Adam Bricker (Bernie Kopell), always had a ready bed for any gorgeous girl who happened to cross his path (and there were plenty of them). Overseeing this energetic, happy crew was the stern, fatherly Captain Merrill Stubing (Gavin MacLeod), who often had to warn his eager, rambunctious crew to stay in line and maintain the dignity expected of them on board ship. But often, Captain Stubing would let down his guard and show the crew that he was human, and capable of sharing in their fun.

As for the passengers this first season, they consisted mainly of TV stars on the way up or on the way down (increasingly over the years, The Love Boat would become a haven for former glamorous stars of the silver screen). Lots of actors from other ABC hits at that time show up (John Ritter and Suzanne Somers from Three’s Company, Diana Canova (twice) from Soap, the incomparably gorgeous Jaclyn Smith from Charlie’s Angels, along with visits from popular competing network stars like The Jeffersons’ Sherman Hemsley, Maude’s Adrienne Barbeau, Scatman Crothers from Chico and the Man, or WKRP in Cincinnati’s Loni Anderson, all picking up a fast buck for a couple of days’ work.

The revolving subplots on The Love Boat didn’t vary greatly from episode to episode, consisting of standard romantic comedy conflicts such as a suitor pursuing an unwilling lover, a married couple trying to rekindle their old flame, the sudden appearance of a former lover disrupting someone’s current relationship, or the inevitable attraction of total opposites. Leftover “shocking” taboos that hadn’t been shocking to anybody for years—such as divorce, living together “in sin,” one-night stands—were grafted onto the familiar stories (one straight, one slapstick, one inbetween per episode generally) to give them an air of “with-it-ness” while giving the whim-whams to all the grannies out their waiting to see their favorite stars on the tube. And of course, any troubling suggestions that this largely dysfunctional romantic world view pictured on The Love Boat might actually be real, were gleefully dashed at the end of each episode: happily, all the newly formed (or reconstituted) couples filed out past the crew, letting the audience know that love (and sex) had once again triumphed.

A real trip down memory lane for viewers who grew up during the 1970s, The Love Boat is a great exercise in, “Hey, who the hell is that?” when spotting actors who look vaguely familiar, but for whom a name or a more noteworthy role can’t be placed (it took a few episodes for them to figure out the neat trick of superimposing the faces of the guest stars over their names in the porthole opening credits, so we can say, “Hey, David Groh! Rhoda’s husband’s going to be on tonight!”). As well, The Love Boat provided a low-charge vicarious thrill for many Americans who still viewed taking a cruise as a relatively luxurious novelty in 1977. With quite a few scenes staged on the actual cruise liners, viewers were given the impression that all one had to do was buy a ticket on a cruise, and all their unhappy romantic realities would be whisked away by the smiling, friendly Love Boat crew (it has been said that the series was instrumental in broadening the appeal of cruising to the general public).

Certainly the spirited, talented cast had something to do with the popularity of the show, as well. Gavin MacLeod, an unusual choice to head up the show, was probably the most familiar name in the cast, having just come off the highly successful The Mary Tyler Moore Show as that series’ resident one-liner king—a role that Bernie Kopell, also familiar to TV fans for his numerous appearances on series like Get Smart! and Bewitched, inherited here as the wisecracking, bed-hopping Dr. Bricker. Getting most of the good jokes (as well at being the most adept at delivering them), Kopell acted as the show’s resident Lothario, which the matrons at home ate up. I remember reports at the time commenting on MacLeod’s status as a middle-aged “sex symbol,” as well, for all the little dears out there watching the show (my grandmother thought he was “cute” with his shiny bald head, piercing blue eyes and blazing white shorts). I don’t think anyone would have predicted that out of all the cast members of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Gavin MacLeod would be the one to have the most successful post-series career, but he’s excellent here, providing just the right amount of authority that the role needs, while balancing his skillful comedy timing.

As for the newcomers, Ted Lange as Isaac was an instant hit with viewers, coming off as the most relaxed and laid-back member of the Pacific Princess (he was also lucky to create the one identifiable trademark move out of the whole show: the jaunty, double barrel gun-pointing finger routine, with an accompanying big grin, seen in the opening credits). Fred Grandy’s Burl Smith hasn’t at this first stage become too over-the-top with his boyish goofiness (it happens real fast as the series progresses), while lovely Lauren Tewes pretty much takes center stage as the series’ lead character (in just 24 episodes, Julie meets up with a former lover, three old friends of hers, two former boyfriends, and Frankie Avalon and Paul Williams). Clearly, Spelling and Cramer saw the value of having Tewes take the spotlight to attract the largely female audience for The Love Boat. And she’s quite effective, making sweet, pretty Julie the kind of career girl women either wanted to be, or for the older viewers, the kind of woman they wanted their sons or grandsons to bring home (I admit to having a terrible crush on her for several months when this first came out, since I always caught The Love Boat at my crazy old granny’s, where it was required “safe” Saturday night viewing—pass the Geritol and Doan’s pills!).

Initially premiering in September, 1977, at 10:00pm on Saturday nights, The Love Boat moved back down an hour to the more family-friendly 9:00pm time slot at mid-season, and stayed there for the next seven and a half years, becoming a Saturday night tradition for many families. Initially put up against former powerhouse The Carol Burnett Show (which had dropped out of the Nielsen Top 30 the year before), and the underperforming The NBC Saturday Night Movie, The Love Boat proved to be an immediate hit with audiences, coming in as the 14th most popular show of the year. Saturday nights were weak for the networks in 1977. CBS’ sterling Saturday night lineup had lost some of its luster, with The Bob Newhart Show and The Jeffersons out of the Top 30. NBC’s The Bionic Woman, a hit the year before, was soon to disappear, while ABC’s run-up to The Love Boat was faltering, as well, with Fish, Operation Petticoat, and former hit Starsky and Hutch failing to perform.

So The Love Boat, coupled with Spelling’s other soon-to-be smash Saturday night hit, Fantasy Island, which in January, 1978, came in as a mid-season replacement in The Love Boat’s old 10:00pm slot, seemed like a sunny breath of fresh air for audiences looking for a little bit of escapism during the weekend. Sure it was silly and corny overall, and even maudlin at times, but it never talked down to its audience. The Love Boat was very clear about its intentions: if viewers took the time to tune in, The Love Boat would provide an hour of light entertainment that might make them feel just a little bit better than they did when the show started. The Love Boat respected the experience of watching “disposable” TV by making the series as pleasant as possible. A little romance, a little humor, some glamour from by-gone stars, and some exotic locales to liven up an hour of escapist TV watching. That’s what The Love Boat was, nothing more nor less. And what’s wrong with that?

Now that you’re aware of how great The Love Boat is…wanna know who’s screwing whom? Of course you do! Here goes for season one of The Love Boat:

DISC ONE

Captain & The Lady / One If By Land / Centerfold
Meredith Baxter Birney tries to cover up her past centerfold shoot; Jimmie “J.J.” Walker plays a pest exterminator trying to win the heart of his long-time live-in girlfriend Brenda Sykes…with the help of Suzanne Somers, and Captain Stubing must deal with his bitchy, demanding ex-wife, Bonnie Franklin (typecasting…).

Oh, Dale! / The Main Event / A Tasteful Affair
Brunette bombshell Jaclyn Smith has a suspicious husband who sends Dennis Cole to spy on her—only to have the two fall in love (Cole and Smith were married in real life at this time…if a mere mortal actually can marry a goddess); Sherman Hemsley and LaWanda Page are a bickering married couple, and John Ritter dresses up in drag to share a room with Tovah Feldshuh.

Ex Plus Y / Graham and Kelly / Golden Agers
Robert Reed and Loretta Swit, since divorced, cause headaches for their new partners Richard Mulligan and Pamela Bellwood; Kristy McNichol tries to figure out how to land Scott Baio (she seems strangely uninterested…), and Julie falls for a handsome tour guide for senior citizens Charles Frank.

Message For Maureen / Acapulco Connection / Gotcha!
Milton Berle has pulled one too many practical jokes for his fed-up wife, Audra Lindley; Bill Bixby falls—literally—for athlete Brenda Benet, and Charo’s an illegal immigrant stowaway (she, for one, can stay).

DISC TWO

Help! Murder! / Isaac the Groupie / Mr. Popularity
Michele Lee thinks her husband, David Groh, is trying to kill her; Isaac bags a superstar, the sexy Diahann Carroll, and everyone thinks Jim Nabors is the most boring person alive.

The Joker is Mild / First Time Out / Take My Granddaughter, Please
Maureen McCormick decides to help out virgin Robert Hegyes (it’s okay; he has a note from his mother); Patty Duke Astin’s romance with Tab Hunter is squashed by her grandmother Ruth Gordon, and Phil Foster, a friend of Julie’s father, guilt-trips her into letting him perform his old stand-up act.

The Identical Problem / Julie’s Old Flame / The Jinx
Diana Canova stars as identical twins—one of whom likes Doc; Ray Bolger and Harriet Nelson are the ship’s jinxes, and David Hedison, Julie’s former lover, shows up unexpectedly via the Seaview’s Flying Sub.

The Understudy / Married Singles / Lost & Found
Steve Allen and Polly Bergen break up, with Steve finding solace with Loni Anderson (!); Sandy Duncan and Jim Stafford try to forget the death of their son (lotta yoks there), and va-va-va-voom Jo Ann Harris tries to steal Julie’s job.

DISC THREE

Romance Roulette / The Captain’s Captain / Hounded (A Dog’s Life)
Jane Curtin finds love with the ship’s plumber Vincent Baggetta; Captain Stubing’s father, Phil Silvers, shows up to terrorize the crew and romance Diana Canova, and Gary Burghoff gets locked in his cabin with an attack dog (the dog sadly died…).

Dear Beverly / The Strike / Special Delivery
Leslie Nielsen almost leaves his “Dear Abby” wife, Ava Gabor; famous chef Al Molinaro almost gives Captain Stubing heartburn, and Pamela Franklin gives birth on board, while husband Robert Urich plays shuffleboard with “old friend” (uh huh, right) Julie.

Lonely at the Top / Divorce Me, Please! / Silent Night
Ex-con John Gavin and his wife Donna Mills try to escape his prison past; Shecky Greene’s and his wife Florence Henderson’s private thoughts are exposed for everyone to hear, and bah humbug Captain Stubing gets some good advice on Christmas from Father Dick Sargent (Durweed).

The Old Man & The Runaway / A Fine Romance / The Painters
Will Geer befriends a hapless runaway; old letch Tom Poston eggs Anson Williams to give old friend Julie a big surprise (yep), and Pat Morita and Arte Johnson paint the Captain’s cabin…incorrectly.

DISC FOUR

Cinderella Story / Too Hot to Handle / Family Reunion
Kathy Bates and John Rubinstein can’t seem to make love on their honeymoon (you fill in the joke); realistically sleazy Bob Crane finally meets up with Dori Brenner, the daughter he abandoned all those years ago (don’t watch the home movies, Dori…); and Bruce Solomon pretends to be an ace ad man, acing out ad man Don Defore from businessman David White’s lucrative contract.

Isaac’s Double Standard / One More Time / Chimpanzeeshines
Ex-show biz partners (in business and in the bedroom) Don Adams, wearing painted-on pants, and Nanette Fabray reunite to perform on The Love Boat (Don dresses to the left); Isaac gets very nervous about his mom, Pearl Bailey, having sex; and Gopher shacks up with a chimp.

DISC FIVE

Eyes of Love / Masquerade / Hollywood Royalty / The Caper
Desi Arnez, Jr. sees Stephanie Zimbalist for the first time…but she can’t see him; Fernando Lamas maintains the crease in his pants, even around foxy wife Michele Lee; Juliet Mills can’t decide whether or not to dump Dan Rowan when she discovers his lover, Adrienne Barbeau, on board; and Harold Gould, John Schuck, Larry Storch and Karen Valentine make No Deposit, No Return look like Citizen Kane.

Winner Take All / The Congressman Was Indiscreet / Isaac’s History Lesson
Scatman Crothers embarrasses Isaac because he smiles a lot and wants to entertain people, regardless of their race (Isaac’s a straight up racist); Vicki Lawrence, journalist, hooks up with Dick Van Patten, embattled congressman; and Maureen McCormick vies for a beauty contest…while banging one of the judges, Bobby Sherman (as the world cracks in two with this mating of pop culture eagles).

Last of the Stubings / Million Dollar Man / The Sisters
Peter Isacksen is the ballet-loving nephew of Captain Stubing; Frank Converse, embezzler, falls for Marcia Strassman, cop; and Pat Crowley makes her sister, Marion Ross, quite jealous by falling in love with Brett Halsey.

DISC SIX

A Very Special Girl / Until the Last Goodbye / The Inspector
Paul Burke dies slowly in the arms of beloved daughter Susan Blanchard; Debralee Scott can’t get arrested on The Love Boat; while everyone thinks persnickety Jim Backus is the secret cruise line inspector.

Memories of You / Computerman / Parlez Vous?
Frankie Avalon likes what he sees in Julie McCoy (nails her); Patty Duke brings Ricky Nelson back into the light (funny little butterflies); and Barbie Benton hooks up with Gopher (lucky S.O.B.).

Taking Sides / Going by the Book / A Friendly Little Game
Diana Canova spars with hunky new husband Robert Urich; Georgia Engel…does her Georgia Engel thing; and Harry Morgan tries to dupe the crew out of their money with a marked deck of cards…and cries like a baby when he’s caught (be a man!).

A Selfless Love / The Nubile Nurse / Parents Know Best
Lynda Day George is the younger, hotter wife to oldster Leslie Nielsen (they look the same age); Monty Hall wants his son set up in a relationship; Elaine Joyce looks starched and pressed (and gorgeous) in her traditional nurse’s uniform; and Joe E. Ross rolls his eyes in one of his last screen appearances (Ooo, Oooo!).

DISC SEVEN

Musical Cabins
Everybody thinks everybody is screwing everybody else. Dick Gautier, Michele Lee (again), statuesque Barbara Rhoades, beanpole Marcia Wallace, and elfin Paul Williams are the screwers and screwees (my crush on Lauren Tewes ended the night she offered herself to Paul Williams).

This Business of Love / Crash Diet Crush / I’ll Never Fall in Love Again
Michael Callan and Annette Funicello bond over their shared loss of a spouse (grim); Christopher George hooks up with delectable hooker Caren Kaye; and Jessica Walter plays cheerleader under the sheets with Captain Stubing (Sis! Boom! Bald!).

Pacific Princess Overtures / Gopher, the Rebel / Cabin Fever
Gary Collins works for Pat Morita while wooing cool, sexy Diane Baker; Antonio Fargas (Huggy Bear!) has a secret affair; and Eve Plumb’s a stinking Commie!

Unfairly labeled “junk TV” during its run, The Love Boat is a feather-light little confection, expertly conceived and executed, with a good cast, fun guest stars, and a well-meaning intention: to entertain. That’s all. And it does this quite well.

Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.

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