‘The Love Boat’ (Season 4): The ABC juggernaut’s highest-rated season

Welcome to the fourth DVD voyage of The Love Boat’s Pacific Princess, where the hook-ups are plentiful and the penicillin shots are always free!

By Paul Mavis

CBS DVD and Paramount keep the good times sailing along with the two-volume release, The Love Boat: Season Four, featuring the 25 episodes from ABC’s smash-hit 1980-1981 season. The Love Boat landed its highest Nielsen rating ever this fourth go-around—it was the 5th most-watched series for the year—and it’s easy to see why: they didn’t change a thing. The has-been major stars and the up-and-coming future nobodies all pile on board; their variously silly, dramatic, or heartwarming romantic tribulations are expertly cross-cut with the wacky antics of our mugging Pacific Princess crew; and (mostly) everybody goes home happier and more in love than before they boarded. Now I ask you: what more could you want in escapist television? Well…I’ll answer that for you: nothing, that’s what.

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If this isn’t a return voyage for you to Drunk TV’s land of recycled, out-of-date, and wholly irrelevant (not to mention highly sexist and largely intolerant) TV reviews of The Love Boat’s previous seasons, then here’s a brief rundown (with some new insults) of the players and the show’s formula. Fashioned like an episode from Love, American Style set at sea (ABC’s earlier romantic comedy anthology hit—ask your Grammie about it when she’s done washing down the Doan’s Pills with Geritol), the premise for The Love Boat was remarkably clean and simple and therefore, comfortably, reliably predictable, week after week.

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The crew of the Pacific Princess, docked in Los Angeles (doesn’t that oily, dirty harbor look icky?), welcome aboard six hundred passengers every week for a three-day cruise down to Mexico (with stops at Mazaltan and Puerto Vallarta, usually). And among those six hundred passengers, the TV audience gets to know about half a dozen or so, featured (usually) in three subplots during the hour-long episode, which are cross-cut and linked with the crew members’ sequences.

RELATED | Read all of our Love Boat reviews

The ship’s crew oftentimes are featured prominently within these subplots—particularly the romantic ones—where they interact with the passengers (invariably inappropriately), as well as having stories centered around their jobs and lives aboard the Pacific Princess.

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Cruise Director Julie McCoy (Lauren Tewes) is the incredibly perky, corn-fed, blue-eyed beauty responsible for making sure everyone on board has a good time. Now if that includes acting like a pimp and hooking up two lonely passengers, or giving herself sexually to a lonely, handsome bachelor or an old college chum (she has a lot of men friends…), Julie doesn’t seem to mind the implications of those unlisted job duties.

RELATED | Read more 1980s TV reviews

She’s aided frequently in her efforts by good-natured, perpetually horny goofball Yeoman Purser Burl “Gopher” Smith (Fred Grandy). Isaac Washington (Ted Lange), head bartender on the Pacific Princess, always has a ready smile and a drink for the passengers (curious: he gets less action than anyone, including the Captain…), while Ship’s Doctor and resident satyr Lothario Adam Bricker (Bernie Kopell), always has a ready bed for any gorgeous girl who happens to cross his path (he’s good to go if it doesn’t hurt to pee).

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Overseeing this energetic, happy, disease-riddled crew is the stern, fatherly Captain Merrill Stubing (Gavin MacLeod), who often has to warn his rambunctious charges to stay in line and maintain the dignity expected of them on board ship (you’ve got to be kidding). But sometimes, Captain Stubing lets down his guard and shows the crew that he’s capable of sharing in their fun (translation: he almost never “gets any,” but when he does…he almost seems human).

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Since the producers wisely kept the structural format for The Love Boat unchanged during its long 9 season run, it proved to be reliable ratings performer, year after year, in that same comfy, reassuring, family-friendly 9pm Saturday night time-slot. The only different variable this 1980-1981 go-around was the degree of that ratings’ success: this fourth season of The Love Boat scored its series’ peak as the fifth most-watched show in America.

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Why? After all, ratings had been trending steadily down for the Pacific Princess since its launch in 1977, so why the bounce back from the previous season’s 23rd Nielsen showing? It may have helped a bit that “CHiPs” was no longer siphoning off a few younger demographics in the eight o’clock hour over on NBC. More likely, though, was the effect of the three-month actors’ strike that crippled TV and motion picture production during the 1980 summer months.

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Many shows, new and old, didn’t hit the airwaves until November and even later that season. ABC had a big fat hole at its Saturday 8pm timeslot, while they waited for their heavily-promoted TV version of the cult movie, Breaking Away. To fill it, local programing and even paid political spots were aired (due to the upcoming Presidential “thank God America was saved from a second Jimmy Carter term” election).

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So when The Love Boat’s first episode of the season aired on October 25th (at least a month overdue), viewers were grateful that anything was on besides reruns of The Farm Report.

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Of course it helped The Love Boat, too, that it had a solid lead-out (Fantasy Island, 17th for the year), making for a fun, escapist two-hour block on Saturday night (its 8pm lead-in was a disaster, with no less than four series plugged in to no avail: heavily promoted movie spin-off nobody saw in the first place Breaking Away, the last season of tired Charlie’s Angels, the dull-as-dishwater actioner 240-Robert, and the last go-around of Eight is Enough). As well, no competition anywhere else on that otherwise D.O.A. Nielsen night didn’t hurt The Love Boat, either, with CBS and NBC running a movie in early fall, until big screen-spinoffs Freebie and the Bean and Walking Tall, respectively, both jumped off the ratings’ roof and splattered on the pavement (I watched them both…I loved them both…).

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So let’s look at this fourth season. Here are the 25 episodes of The Love Boat: Season Four:

Sergeant Bull / Friends and Lovers / Miss Mother (October 25th, 1980)

Nothing says New Wave 80s excitement like Vic Taybeck, Nipsey Russell and Harvey Lembeck (oy vey…). Their old Army buddies story is as creaky as Lembeck’s mugging…but it gets a considerable boost when Doris Roberts shows up as a chambermaid enlisted to keep cranky old Vic occupied. Roberts is agile and funny with the equally charming Taybeck (yassss, I wrote, “charming!”). They’re a good example of the unexpected “Love Boat” effect I’ve written about in my other reviews. Sleek, gorgeous Shelley Smith (she cries super-pretty: a must to be considered truly beautiful) is single and pregnant and…unashamed, so she hooks up with Dennis Cole (watch that left hook, Shelley—ask Jaclyn!). The big surprise this episode is the romance between Julie and Gopher (surely a mating of eagles!). Grannies all over the country flipped their girdles for this match made in sitcom heaven, and to the writers’ and performers’ credit, they handle the inevitable split quite nicely (Lauren Tewes may have lost her waist this season…but she’s sexy as hell speaking in that low voice about Gopher’s kissing skills). A socko opening to the season for this incestuous coupling alone.

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The Family Plan / The Promoter / May the Best Man Win / Forever Engaged / The Judges (November 1st, 1980)

This is one of those “real” cruise ones, where they shot the episode on an actual boat (sorry—everything looks cruddy). “Hey, kids! Tonight on a very special Love Boat, we’re going to see the magnificent U.S. of A. creation called…the Panama Canal! Yea! And come November, don’t forget to tell your parents that Jimmy Carter gave it away!” Darren McGavin and Debbie Reynolds give their section that old pro aplomb (he’s the shady promoter of this Latin American “marriage-a-thon” contest, and she’s his fed-up wife). I love to see the genuine affection that Gavin MacLeod shows towards the big legends that come on the show (that’s Debbie, not Darren). Donny Most is back as that same hapless loser from last season’s Alaskan cruise (why do I remember useless trivia like this?…). This time he gets Charlene Tilton (how?). Dangerously skinny Erin Morin romances one of those Kerwin guys (I can’t keep them straight), while It’s a Living’s Ann Jillian (criminally underutilized, as usual) and Dawn Wells play up to judge Gopher. The stand-out story belongs to Rue McClanahan and Ted Knight; he wants to stay engaged forever (I can’t tell what’s funnier: Ted in a dress shirt and speedo, or Doc trying to manipulate Ted’s face into saying, “I do,”). Crew highlights include Gopher screaming, “I need drugs! I have a lot of money for drugs!” as the Mexican police haul him off…and Doc waiting patiently for a three-way with Jillian and Wells (yes he is—watch it again).

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Target Gopher / The Major’s Wife / Strange Honeymoon / The Oilman Cometh (November 8th, 1980)

The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders are back! Thank God! Actually…they’re all terrible, but who can resist those white boots and short-shorts (they could kick my teeth in—I wouldn’t care). Dynasty’s Al Corley hops aboard to further flog his then-notoriety as network TV’s first openly “out” character, by sharing a cabin with his male friend. Lots of jokes abound (when Doc finds out, he tells Isaac his odds just got better with the cheerleaders), but before you retroactively scream “homophobia!” you touchy, humorless millennial snowflake—nobody treats them any different than anyone else on the cruise. Dale Robertson (also of Dynasty…but not for long) gives a very funny, cartoony slapstick performance, but Robert Culp—clad in that same Members Only jacket he wore in everything—gives the impression he always gives off: “I’m bored; I’m hot-sh*t; I wish I was somewhere else,” (can’t abide this performer…). David Cassidy, all three feet 11 inches, with a ‘stache to boot, looks like a queasy little teen pimp. Who knew he was so tiny and uncool? Pat Harrington, in full-on “Man Tan,” scores as an Arab oil sheik, looking for…some wives (“Allah be praised!” he breathes when Cassidy brings him a gorgeous blonde). And before you scream “Islamaphobia!” you touchy, humorless millennial snowflake…I don’t care. Thickening Julie seriously needs to get back on the coke (or up the usage). The finale has the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders doing their big dance number, their sinful choreography driving the placid Pacific Princess passengers into paroxysms of orgiastic sex and violence (I wish).

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The Mallory Quest / Julie, the Vamp / The Offer (November 15th, 1980)

A real schizo episode. First, it’s another trip to the Panama Canal on a real boat (look how crowded the deck is with those unattractive commoners—I prefer the studio set: hot, anonymous Hollywood babes at a discreet distance from each other). Strike one. Next, it has an unsmiling, over-enunciating Pernell Roberts in it, heading up a bad Helen MacInnes foreign intrigue plot about some pendant and dead relatives. Strike two. And…“comedian” Skip Stephenson is in it. Strike three—you’re out (and at this point do we really need yet another stab at “the Captain is worried about Vicki growing up on the boat” subplot?). There are positives here, though. Personal good friend of mine Bart Braverman shows up, although he’s not given a whole lot to do (“good friend” equals he sent me an email ten years ago saying he liked my Vegas review. He wouldn’t answer my 114 replies, the p.o.s.). Bernie Kopell has a surprisingly effective moment with the Captain, where he explains why he’s a ship’s doctor (he’s still trying to “find” himself). The great Walter Slezak—as a locksmith who lost his key to his shop—shows up out of nowhere and blows everyone out of the water with his laid-back, amused line deliveries (what a pro). Best of all, Connie Stevens is sashaying around—a delight—playing grab-ass with Peter Lupus (she’s hysterical when greeting speedo-clad Lupus with a, “Hey you big old hunk!” with a resounding slap of the beefcake…or when she checks out his ass, giving an appreciative, believable, “Oooooh!”). Too bad she’s in this tired episode….

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The Horse Lover / Secretary to the Stars / Julie’s Decision / Gopher and Isaac Buy a Horse / Village People Ride Again (November 22nd, 1980)

This episode starts off the way all truly “right” Love Boat episodes should start: The Village People board the ship, launching an impromptu a cappella version of In the Navy…and immediately sink the show. I love the network’s attempt at mainstreaming, as the Captain says, “Seem like a great bunch of fellas,” as the Cowboy checks out Julie’s ass. Rrrrriiiiiiight. Movie star (heehee!) Loni Anderson is the “Sour Apple” winner, trying to pass herself off as her own secretary to avoid men who can’t stay away from her…until she meets the original “Old Spice” guy with the untalented comedian son. No, wait…it’s the pedophile guy from the first Star Trek movie. Wait. No…I don’t know, all those guys from back then looked alike. Allen Luden and Betty White are here (they’re okay), but David Doyle is far too normal for my liking (Doyle was such a funny guy—why the hell would you ask him to play it straight?). They should have done more with the horse running around the ship—that seems like a natural, but there is a minor steeple chase right out of an Abbott & Costello movie at the end.

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Tell Her She’s Great / Matchmaker, Matchmaker Times Two / The Baby Alarm (November 29th, 1980)

Now Farley Granger’s the kind of actor I like to see on The Love Boat. He’s a has-been…but he doesn’t care. He’s positively beaming in his porthole credit spot. All in the Family cultists rejoice! The O.G. Henry (George’s brother) and Wheezy Jefferson—Mel Stewart and Isabel Sanford—are reunited for a funny subplot about Isaac’s aunt, who’s convinced she’s a great actress. I love Susan Howard on Dallas…but she’s far too grim here as single mother with a baby (another one this season—that baby is sure cute, though). Can someone please explain Troy Donahue in 1980 to me? I mean, I know why he was popular before (I liked him in those Warner Bros. mellers), but…seriously: get a haircut and quit making those weird faces. And stop looking so dissipated. Terry Moore I could never figure out. She’s just…I don’t know. Forget it. You know who’s funny, though, but almost never given a chance to be? Lorenzo Lamas (yaaass, you smartass I wrote, “Lorenzo Lamas!”). Too bad someone couldn’t have found something for him better than this crap (the sublime garbage Body Rock doesn’t count). Marginal episode.

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She Stole His Heart / Return of the Captain’s Brother / Swag and Mag (December 6th, 1980)

One of my favorites this season, with all the elements that make a great Love Boat episode. First, some really great old hags: Zsa Zsa Gabor and Arlene Dahl, both of whom look terrific, while acting like they’re still big, important stars on the set at Metro or Fox…instead of the reality of getting hustled on and off the Paramount lot so the likes of Gavin MacLeod and Fred Grandy aren’t inconvenienced. Speaking of MacLeod, he gets to play his two brothers here, getting big laughs doing so (his “Sonny Wilde” porthole appearance in the opening credits is hilarious: he looks like a debauched 60-year-old boy band member). A particular favorite, Joan Van Ark, is delightful as a kleptomaniac (not only adorable but quite adept at comedy, with solid timing—why she didn’t cross over into movies I’ll never know). And finally, we get a very nice “Love Boat” effect pairing of Ron Ely and Erin Gray, with big, graceful Ely in particular coming off well against the jaw-dropping Gray (Ely was another handsome actor who might have had a different career if he had come up during the golden age of the Hollywood studios).

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Boomerang / Captain’s Triangle / Out of this World (December 13th, 1980)

There’s no TV aboard the “Love Boat,” according to Gopher? The hell? At first you think, “Low wattage” when you see the roster of stars in their portholes, but then this outing really starts to work. The least here is the Captain’s tale of trying to avoid aging Sue Ane Langdon’s attentions. She’s married to the Captain’s friend, Monte Markham (a good actor who looks properly chagrined to be here). Langdon, one of the sexiest comedic actors of the 1960s, is saddle with a most unfortunate Harpo Marx ‘do, and it’s fatally distracting (and what’s with her confrontation scene with the Captain, where she’s obviously had lines cut? Was that done at the time…or now for the DVD?). I don’t normally like the “serious” subplots on The Love Boat (I ain’t tuning in for Pinter), but the writers execute a nice twist I didn’t see coming when married Pamela Sue Martin (sigh…) falls for Herman Munster Barry Van Dyke (huh?). And finally, against all odds, I enjoyed another fun “Love Boat” effect pairing of Helen Reddy (yaasss you smartass I just wrote, “Helen Reddy!”) and Tommy Smothers, where Tommy is convinced Reddy is an alien (Smothers is so good at the delays and pauses and double takes—a bigger career just didn’t pan out for him in the long run).

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That’s My Dad / The Captain’s Bird / Captive Audience (December 20th, 1980)

“Tonight, on a very special Christmas Love Boat, let’s see an abused kid with welts on his back!” Cripes. I prefer my Love Boats to not have graphic evidence of child abuse, thank you very much. It’s a holiday episode, ferchrissakes (check out that scene of the Captain wrestling off the kid’s shirt—hoo boy what were they thinking there?!) Too bad, too, because that kid actor, Meeno Peluce, is tops: he’s got better comedic timing than a lot of the old pros that show up this season. It’s cool seeing Jack Jones belt out The Donkey Serenade with his pops, Allen Jones…but seriously? You have Jack Jones on…and you don’t have him sing a live version of The Love Boat theme? What jackass’s non-idea was that? The whole “Vicki gets a parrot that Gopher and Isaac inadvertently teach to say, ‘Captain Stubing is a jerk!’” doesn’t cut it (although all the parrots at the Mexican market screaming that phrase was a pretty good gag). An exceedingly lame Christmas effort.

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The Frugal Pair / Doc’s Dismissal / The Girl Next Door (January 3rd, 1981)

Okay. Okay. Aside from Sal Viscuso (always a welcome TV sight when I was a kid) and his usual funny turn, and old, old pros Lew Ayres and Janet Gaynor as a bickering couple (she scrimped for 40 years so they could be rich…while he’s pissed they were poor for 40 years), there’s really only one thing of note here: Jessica Walter in a series of extremely flattering swimsuits and casual-wear. I’ve had numerous emails, texts, cablegrams, and ship-to-shore phone calls from readers who tell me they like my stuff…but that they could do without the ga-ga-ing over the actresses from vintage television (I believe the pejorative “panting” is the most-often employed). Well…to them I say, “Fie!” Walter looks insane here, and nobody is going to stop me from obsessing over it. You watch TV your way, I’ll watch TV my way. Fascists. Other than that…I don’t know. It’s an okay episode, I suppose. Alex Cord is appropriately weaselly and villainous as her letchering husband (birds of a feather, the author is warned, don’tchaknow…), but some marginal (at best) performers—Lynda Goodfriend, Stephen Shortridge, Denise DuBarry—upend the balance.

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Isaac’s Teacher / Seal of Approval / The Successor (January 10th, 1981)

Now this is the kind of uplifting/humiliating Love Boat episode I live for. Let’s get Florence Henderson’s appearance out of the way (did she have nude photos of the producers at a farm or something? She’s on like every three weeks). She thinks she’s going to croak, so she sets up husband Jeffrey Tambor with hottie Christina Hart (who’s a funny doll). Tambor’s amusing…but Flo ain’t (and yes, apparently things are loosening up on The Love Boat—Tambor did get to sleep with Hart…with no repercussions! Cash back!). On the (big) plus side, genuine screen legend Lillian Gish shows up as Isaac’s old teacher…and she’s just as luminously gifted and skilled—in such a nothing part—as she was all those many decades before, up on the silver screen (I wonder how many people watching this back in ’81 even knew who she was?). On the even bigger plus side, we get the exceedingly cruel, continuing career humiliation of talented dancer and comedian Donald O’Connor. It’s well known that O’Connor felt demeaned and marginalized by Universal when the promising newcomer was relegated to all those wonderful Francis the Talking Mule fillers (don’t want to co-star with a talking mule and make a lot of money and have kids and families forget their troubles for a few hours? Well…then shaddup and go back home). Well…he’s definitely moved down in the world by 1981: here, he gets to co-star with a seal (and just like Francis, he gets all the laughs). The by-the-numbers contempt, and the barely suppressed seething, with which O’Connor executes his role (he even sneers in his porthole credit) is something to cherish for lovers of movies and TV and the crybaby stars who bitch about typecasting while they down another fifth of vodka. It’s a magnificent bit of trash TV that should make any fan want to take a shower. Bless The Love Boat for moments like this.

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The Trigamist / Jealousy / From Here to Maternity (January 17th, 1981)

Is it me…or is Julie not around as much? A scheduling thing? Something else? Hmmmm…. Okay. Well…another Vicki/Captain subplot (she’s jealous of Pat Crowley), but it’s handled with care, particularly by Jill Whelan (I don’t know what her training was, if any, but she’s a good actress) and MacLeod. The whole pregnant Murphy Cross and frantic father Michael Young is played, okay? Not funny. However, another fun “Love Boat” effect pairing—“Lonesome” George Gobel and Nancy Walker—yields some solid laughs as judge Walker snags bigamist Gobel (by ’81, a gifted craftsman like Gobel—a huge TV star just 25 years before—was largely forgotten by the industry…but not by audiences, thanks to The Love Boat). Love those support hose he’s wearing with those Bermudas. Kopell has a very funny subplot, too, with the luscious Rebecca Holden (their scenes together are well-built farce, as Doc becomes increasingly frustrated that he can’t bed Holden, up to the point where he simply…can’t). A perfect example of a well-built Love Boat episode.

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First Voyage, Last Voyage / April the Ninny / The Loan Arranger (January 17th, 1981)

A dream TV cast. Maureen McCormick (in a surprisingly effective performance) doesn’t realize she’s dying. Her parents, Ty Hardin (Bronco!) and Kathleen Nolan, haven’t told her her cancer isn’t in remission. They just want her to have a good time and maybe fall in love. For the first and last time. It’s the kind of straightforward and most importantly, unashamed, melodrama that The Love Boat did so well. On a lighter note, Richard Kline and Lisa Hartman play extremely well off each other (Hartman seems much more interesting a performer when she can bounce off someone like the talented Kline), as mob enforcer Kline finds out his target is “degenerate f*cking gambler” (R.I.P., Tony S.) Hartman (she’s delectable—whatever happened to her? Where’d she go?). And PTL, bombshell Charo is back, full of energy and barely holding in her bust, becoming the nanny to Larry Linville’s obnoxious kids. I’m a big fan of Charo—a talented singer and guitar player, and an expert comedienne (her timing is flawless). I suppose some would say her accented act is now “politically” insulting (to that I say, “Put a taco in it,”)…but not for me: funny is funny. Period. And a special shout-out to another talented comedienne: Dody Goodman, who could dither and pause and stumble over her lines with the best verbal comedians. She’s priceless here (when she ad-libbed sticking her tongue out at that kid, I hit the floor).

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Gopher’s Bride / Love with a Married Man / Not Tonight, Jack! (January 24th, 1981)

A tad more serious outing. Patrick Wayne wins the jackpot when he brings Trish Stewart aboard, gets evicted (she didn’t know he intended on sharing a cabin), gets laid with gorgeous blonde Pamela Jean Bryant…and then is forgiven when Stewart takes him back. Back of the net! Didn’t we see Gopher hiding a woman before, or helping her get a job before, like he does here for the French-Canadian pen pal that Isaac and Doc set up as a prank? Anyway…it’s dull. Much better is Paul Burke, playing a former workaholic who’s fed up with his newly workaholic wife, Dana Wynter (was there any actress more…clenched, than Wynter?). Susan Oliver is glad to take her place…but she ultimately gets nowhere (Oliver doesn’t even get a goodbye scene with the crew—who’d she piss off?).

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Lose One, Win One / The $10,000 Lover / Mind My Wife (January 24th, 1981)

Jill St. John is back this season, and not disappointing us in that too-tiny bikini (thank god she’s not screwing Gopher again because that would put me right off). This time, she’s after Doc or the Captain or anybody who will pay more attention to her than her husband James MacKrell does. Kopell has a lot of fun trying to convey failing willpower and mounting hysteria as St. John throws herself at him. When the Captain asks Doc what he’s doing to stop her, Doc responds, “I’ve steered her away from dark places, watered down her drinks, and kept the conversations completely de-sexed…I just hope all these bad habits I’m picking up aren’t permanent,” (watch that scene with Kopell and MacLeod, and see how easy and relaxed the chemistry is between these two experts). There’s also a subplot about Dorian Lopinto who might be a twin or something (she’s not), but quite frankly, the performers and the writing in this section were so ponderous that when they came on I, 1) went to get a sandwich, and 2) went to the toilet. Snooze.

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Isaac and the Mermaids / Humpty, Dumpty / Aquaphobic (February 7th, 1981)

Louis Nye and The Pointer Sisters in the same episode? Check and double check! Okay, first off: there’s been some post-broadcast editing here: The Pointer Sisters’ big number is cut out, no doubt for music rights issues (you get a two second glimpse of it in the original bumper promo that you can play at the beginning of the episode). Ten years ago something like this would have been cause for internet outrage among DVD collectors and enthusiasts (…along with death threats aimed at yours truly, depending on what I wrote—yaaasss you smartass I wrote, “death threats!”), but now? I don’t think anyone really cares all that much anymore. I was disappointed the song wasn’t there…but I also understand Paramount isn’t going to pay more for the rights to the song than they can realize back with the sales of the DVD set (there are some DVD collectors who refuse to believe this: “those evil corporations and their greed,” blah blah blah blah: shaddup along with Donald O’Connor). Without the music to concentrate on, I did notice something else about the group: they’re quite good in their dialogue scenes, with a natural, relaxed comedic timing that’s not all that common with musical performers who try out acting. Oh hey! The Hoff is a creep who’s stuck in the past, and former college girlfriend Julie ain’t having it (I love it when they let Julie break out of her “good girl” mildness when she lays out a direct, forceful, “Up yours,” to whichever loser she laid that week). Not unexpectedly, this episode belongs to Louis Nye and Audra Lindley. Nye, an old favorite from the 60s, has one of the best Love Boat entrances I’ve seen: wearing a huge Mae West (life jacket), he goes up to the check-in desk and immediately asks how many life boats are there on the Pacific Princess. Lindley works so well against Nye (watch her coax him like a baby taking his first steps, as Nye tries to navigate the Lido Deck), getting laughs but also delivering effective, low-key dramatic moments, also. Their segment—funny but sort of touching, too—is exactly the kind of nice little surprise that kept fans coming back to the show for 9 years.

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Return of the Ninny / Touchdown Twins / Split Personality (February 14th, 1981)

Charo is back! This time, she doesn’t like Larry Linville’s new fiance, Arlene Martel (neither do the royal “we,” either). Unfortunately, the writers don’t create enough funny conflicts for this subplot to justify Charo’s return. It feels like an anticlimax (and come on: she’s with Linville, she’s not with Linville? Just make a decision!). Ralph Bellamy is suitably crusty and austere (but unfortunately not allowed to be funny) as a tycoon with a radical liberal feminist daughter Laurette Spang, who wants to change his business model…and a protege Michael Lembeck, who wants Spang. It’s one of those even-steven subplots that’s designed not to offend anyone in the audience, regardless of which character they identify with (it’s also colorless). Unfortunately, the one segment I had high hopes for, featuring hot mom Samantha Eggar (don’t even get me started on that crush) and her son’s best friend, Vincent Van Patten, turned out to be a complete bust: she’s not even the slightest bit tempted, and he’s immediately chagrined. I’m sorry, but I like my smut a little smuttier than that. A bummer episode.

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Quiet, My Wife’s Listening / Eye of the Beholder / The Nudist from Sunshine Gardens (February 21st, 1981)

Yes, Barbi Benton is nude, and no, you can’t see her body, and yes, she’s not bad when she’s allowed to play off a talented pro, like Peter Haskell here, who seems quietly amused at the silly subplot he’s been handed: a lawyer threatening to sue the cruise line if nudist Benton isn’t allowed to sunbath in her altogether on the Pacific Princess deck. Leslie Uggams plays a blind, annoying designer who hooks up with handsome, bland David Hedison, who instantly wants to show her the world through his eyes (jesus christ…). You’ve seen it a million times before, but when race is suddenly dragged into it out of nowhere, you remember again (like the kid-with-the-welts Christmas outing this season) that The Love Boat never had a good track record going heavy. The surprise this episode is Dick Martin, who plays it (relatively) straight in his even sillier subplot: a soon-to-be divorced husband who thinks his wife is electronically bugging everything around him. Martin could mug with the best of them, but here he’s fairly restrained, and works well with Mary Ann Mobley (who’s dumb idea was it to put Martin’s girlfriend, the foxy Judith Chapman, in a one-piece? I mean…what is wrong with you?).

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Black Sheep / Hometown Doc / Clothes Make the Girl (February 28th, 1981)

I’m always down for some Demond Wilson on The Love Boat, because the former Sanford and Son “superstar” always puts on a deliciously un-self-conscious, grotesque display of greasy, smarmy “charm.” And that’s exactly what I’m looking for in my barf TV. And true to his unbuttoned shirt, he doesn’t let me down this time, playing Isaac’s conman uncle (my wife watched him for five minutes, snorted, “Gross,” and walked out—kudos to you, Demond!). Funny for action fans to see Robert “The Exterminator” Ginty here…but blink and you’ll miss him. Doc’s subplot of blah Randy Powell not wanting to follow through on being a small town country doctor?…yikes. Coma-inducing (did they even put his rich, snooty girlfriend, Caddyshack’s knee-weakening Cindy Morgan, in a swimsuit? Did I hit the can when that happened?). The standout in this episode is Larry Breeding, the talented, ingratiating sitcom actor who died tragically in a car accident just about a year after appearing here. Breeding was a familiar face to TV audiences back in the 70s (I had particularly liked his failed The Last Resort, in 1979). He could have had a Tom Hanks career, if things had panned out differently (he was certainly as amusing as Hanks, without Hanks’ phony “everyman” front). He doesn’t have a lot to work with in this episode, playing a poor waiter trying to impress a rich girl…but what he does here, he does expertly, with a light comedy touch that’s just right for TV. A real talent that was snuffed out too soon.

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I Love You, Too, Smith / Mamma and Me / Sally’s Paradise (March 7th, 1981)

If you’re like me when watching The Love Boat, those porthole credits are a source of high anticipation. Will this episode feature an old favorite? An old teen crush? A big star fallen on hard times? A big star now who was a nobody when they first appeared here? This episode has two actresses I adore—Juliet Mills (oh, Phoebe…) and Joanna Pettet—and one actor I can’t stand (The Big Ragu!). But sure enough, in that perverse “Love Boat” effect, after it was over…I was most impressed with Eddie Mekka (yaasss you smartass I wrote “I was most impressed with Eddie Mekka!”). Joanna Pettet is alternately sweet and abrasive as the customs agent who falls for Gopher, but the real revelation in this subplot is the introduction of Christopher Pennock as one of, if not the, sleaziest guys to ever board the Pacific Princess. Pennock is a model of repulsive giggling and mugging, his character treating Pettet like dirt (laughing at her homemade dress), until he tries to manipulate his way back into her bed (cruelly telling her that Gopher gets paid to “jolly” up the lonely girls…and that maybe she didn’t tip him enough when Gopher rejects her dinner invitation). He’s hilariously slimy (in Bizarro World Love Boat, he’d be Gopher!). Well-scrubbed, tautly-skinned Juliet Mills looks a little too glam and sophisticated to be working in the boat’s gift shop, and we never really buy that she’s stringing along three fiances (and yes…she did sleep with at least one of them on the boat). At the end? She’s keeping them all (ooooh the grannies didn’t like that, I’ll bet). The biggest surprise for me was Eddie Mekka’s sweet, Marty-esque turn as a meek son trying to get out from under the shadow of his dead father, and his controlling mother (Sylvia Sidney, in a typically polished turn). When Mekka would start that obnoxious, “You know I’d go from rags to riches!” shtick on Laverne and Shirley, I’d hit the crapper, but here, playing off a legend like Sidney, he’s quiet and capable, and rather touching (yaasss, I wrote Eddie Mekka is “rather touching!”).

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The Duel / Two for Julie / Aunt Hilly (March 14th, 1981)

One of the best episodes this season, if only for the appearance of screen legend Olivia de Havilland, playing the Captain’s Aunt Hilly. She takes a shine to Vicki, and wants to put her in boarding school (yep—another “Vicki in danger of being taken away from the boat” subplot). de Havilland can do no wrong in my book; she’s lovely and classy playing a potentially unattractive character (a true measure of a real star), while little Jill Whelan just beams whenever she’s in the same scene with her. It’s also fun to see a mini-Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte reunion here, with her world-weary, slightly cynical husband Joseph Cotton also on board. Bernie Kopell gets some big laughs playing a chicken Errol Flynn in a duel with Alejandro Rey, over lush, c-tease Linda Cristal (zowie), while Don Ameche is completely wasted in a throwaway role as a tycoon disapproving of his two over-eager proteges, Dack Rambo and Ken Kercheval (Kercheval, suffering from what looks to be a home Toni permanent, could be the stand-in for Leonard Frey in The Boys in the Band).

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Vicki and the Gambler / Love with a Skinny Stranger / That Old Gang of Mine (April 11th, 1981)

One of the better entries this season, with a well-balanced trio of subplots. First up, familiar (and welcome) face Charles Siebert gets some chuckles as a former fatty (hey—it’s the 70s. Nobody screamed for the police; they just got on with their lives) who now gets more attention than he needs from increasingly shoved-aside girlfriend, Vicki Lawrence. No great shakes, but Siebert and Lawrence work well together. Suave, assured Gene Barry shows up as the Captain’s gambling friend, and he instantly sweeps Vicki off her feet…something the Captain doesn’t like when he worries Vicki’s morals are being corrupted. We all know how this story is going to pan out (as George—of George and Martha—said, the best stories are the most familiar ones), but it’s a pleasure seeing it unfold in the capable hands of Barry and Whelan (I’ve written it before, but she’s a natural—so many kid actors from that age were obnoxious one-liner machines. You buy her as a real kid). Best of all, pro laugh-getters Jesse White, Jack Gilford, and Kaye Ballard reunite in this very amusing Asphalt Jungle spoof, with Gilford a total delight as “Fingers,” a safe-cracker just out of the joint…with a bad hearing aid battery (“Was that a clickety-clack? Or a clackity-click?”). Gilford, adorable as ever, gets solid yoks commenting on how nice the “guards” (the crew) are, while walking the lobby like he’s in line with a bunch of other cons. Someone even went to the trouble of shooting a scene with the gang (after they rob the boat’s safe…and regret it) with some bona fide noir lighting. This is the kind of episode—featuring talented performers not seen too regularly on TV at the time—that I think of when I fondly look back on what was unique about The Love Boat.

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Model Marriage / This Year’s Model / Original Sin / Vogue Rogue / Too Clothes for Comfort (May 2, 1981)

The gayest Love Boat episode ever…thank god! I distinctly remember the p.r. hoopla over this outing, where designers Bob Mackie, Halston, Geoffrey Beene, and, ahem…”designer” Gloria Vanderbilt showed up on the Pacific Princess for a good old chinwag and a fashion show. Their entrances here are to die for. Mackie is up first and he smacks it out of the park, trimly clad in a tux and bouncing in with a big smile like Bob Montgomery in some 30s drawing room comedy. He’s charming. Next, Gloria Vanderbilt strides in, with that curious combo she had of confidence and utter terror (as a child I remember running away from the TV whenever she was on…), before Geoffrey Beene waddles by, looking like a cross between Truman Capote and Mastro Geppetto (that stupid f*cking jacket collar…). Of course, if you want your Love Boats to be bizarre–as you know I do–then Halston is your dream celebrity cameo. Gliding up to the Love Boat crew like a rogue Disney animatronic channeling Andrew Prine (google it), a clearly glazed Halston cocks his eyebrow and barely gets out his one-liners before he’s led off for his fifth injection of the day. In two words: gloriously grotesque. Anyhoo…the rest of the episode can’t match that initial boost, but it does have its moments. It’s a star-studded episode…along with McLean Stevenson. Anne Baxter is amusing as a bitchy, butchy model agency owner pushing around McLean. Cosmetics magnate Robert Vaughn oozes greasy charm as he puts his spidery claws all over a clearly in-shock model Morgan Brittany. Like all classic 30s backstage musicals (without the music here), Julie gets her big break when model friend Cristina Ferrare can’t appear in the fashion show finale. Let’s just say that Julie’s going out on that stage a nobody, but she’s coming back out…a nobody. Dick Shawn scores the biggest laughs as a maniacal dress designer (Richard Gilliland can’t keep character; he cracks up during Dick’s “My son!” routine). As for that fashion show…well, I’m straight, so I could take it or leave it. Mackie’s stuff was nice, Beene…snoozers, Halston’s stuff actually looked pretty cool, but Vanderbilt’s clothes had all the originality and spark of public school uniforms. Oh! I almost forgot! The Captain gets some with Swedish beauty Camilla Sparv (…who then immediately jumps overboard to her death).

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Maid for Each Other / Lost and Found / Then There Were Two (May 9, 1981)

Anything after that fashion show episode is going to be a come-down. Here, we meet Gopher’s aunt, Jane Powell, who used to be rich but now works as a maid for wealthy bitch Mary Wickes (I love bright-eyed, trim Jane Powell…but what’s the point of having hilarious Mary Wickes on…if you make her play it straight?). Big guy Howard Keel (always a welcome smile and plenty of energy) romances Powell (great to see these two iconic Metro stars together). Joe Namath is too tan here, romancing Karen Grassle, who’s quirky and funny, and sexy in some strange way (like a large, gawky, exotic bird). Oh, and TV’s answer to Cary Grant, Gary Burghoff, abandons his baby with the crew. Okay, I know he’s supposed to be a widower, but didn’t anyone clue in “the bulldog” on how these Love Boats play out? It’s supposed to be light and fun–even the tragic storylines (cripes). His love interest, cute Belinda Montgomery, can’t stop staring at that beard….

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Tony and Julie / Separate Beds / America’s Sweetheart (May 16, 1981)

And we close out the season with a romantic cliffhanger! First things first: there’s a reason people only know William Christopher as Father Mulcahey on M*A*S*H. He’s a terrible actor, otherwise: mugging and rolling his eyes, and with that terrible squeaky voice that makes you keep tilting your own head up, like your drowning. Watching him trying to romance on The Love Boat is disturbing…although he doesn’t have much to work with, admittedly, with big goony bird Toni Tennille (sorry: I don’t care if there’s only room for one captain on the Pacific Princess. No “Captain”? No Tennille). Jill Whelan has a fun subplot, getting razzed by Hollywood brat Alison Amgrim who uses Vicki as a stand-in for all sorts of calamities, like getting a pie in the face (Amgrim is amusing playing the little horror, while we get to see what it might look like to have all the camera equipment and crew on The Love Boat set). Best of all, Julie falls in love!! British actor Anthony Andrews, cashing Hollywood checks left and right after making waves with his turn in the previous U.K. mini, Brideshead Revisited, has a rather unfortunate porthole appearance (the very model of sickly smirk, indicating not a British heartthrob but rather an insipid, inbred English twit), but he’s charm personified throughout the episode. He’s a vet accompanying two baby monkeys (awwww!) who “meets cute” with Julie (they fight over a cab), before they’re bickering and bantering and loving all over the decks of the Pacific Princess (ick). Lauren Tewes has no trouble looking like she’s falling for the slick, ever-so-slightly-slumming Andrews…but the big question is: will Julie return to the Princess after her vacation in Australia with love Andrews? Stay tuned!

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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. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s TV reviews here. Read Paul’s film reviews at our sister website, Movies & Drinks.

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4 thoughts on “‘The Love Boat’ (Season 4): The ABC juggernaut’s highest-rated season”

  1. Uh, Mel Stewart never played George Jefferson. He played George’s brother, Henry Jefferson. I would expect you of all people to know that, Paul. I’m not so much hurt as… disappointed. 🙂

    Like

      1. No need for such extreme measures. 🙂 I greatly enjoy your reviews and am glad to have found your new home. Your review of Harry O (a series I remember being on when I was a kid, but never watched) has led to me requesting the entire series for Christmas, sight unseen.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Just started watching this season. The Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders were horrible. How do you screw up attractive women in skimpy outfits? They found a way.

    Liked by 1 person

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