From the moment it first set sail, The Love Boat had TV viewers hooked; instantly addicted to its comedy, romance, drama, and then some.
Popping in the first disc and playing episode one of the freshly packaged, reissued box-set of The Love Boat Seasons 1-3, I realised three things. Firstly, the producers of this show were not going to hold back on presenting delicate subjects and touchy issues. Secondly, the star-count is massively high – indeed, if you didn’t know the actors by name, you’d certainly recall having seen them in some popular retro series or another. And thirdly, while the show was always tailored to achieve mainstream appeal, it never patronised its audience with dumbed-down humour or drama but instead adopted a quick wit in its scripting.
Indeed, despite its polished aesthetic (well, the props and backdrops seemed polished back then), The Love Boat was actually rawer than a lot of the shows on television at the time. Remember, this was the late ’70s, when society didn’t shy away from straying and swinging. Hence in the very first episode, Meredith Baxter (you’d know her as the Mom in Family Ties) is sprung having posed for a Playgirl-type magazine while desperately trying to hide her racy past from her new politician fiancé (who ends up accepting the nudity in the end). In episode two, John Ritter (of Three’s Company fame) dresses in drag so as he can fill a vacancy that happens to be a suite for women only. While all frocked up, Ritter’s character is cracked on by practically every male staff member of the ship, but it’s their surprisingly progressive conversations that make you forgive the blatant ‘sexism’.
Ritter (ie: in fairly dodgy drag): “Isn’t it a crime these days what they’re doing to the sexes?”
Gavin MacLeod (as Captain Stubing): “Very sad. If things keep going like this, we could end up one big sex.”
Ritter: “Better than no sex at all. Tee hee.”
A fascinating thing also realised while watching the show in retrospect, is that each episode is actually divided up and penned by different writers, often with three writers tackling the one episode. This clever technique keeps each of the sub-plots tight for the sake of clarity – in a show that could otherwise be viewed as overwhelming on an aesthetic level. (When you note the high number of extras, you realise Aaron Spelling’s budget must have been huge).
By episode three, the cruise liner is so laden with star power, it’s practically turning on its side: Scott Baio (Happy Days), Kristy McNichol (Family), Loretta Switt (M*A*S*H) and Robert Reed (dad Mike from The Brady Bunch), weave in and out of hilarious storylines. Heck, by 1985, The Love Boat’s pull was so strong, even Andy Warhol boards ship for a wild vacay on the high seas.
As the seasons progress, you notice the main actors (ie: the ship’s crew) maturing, but always maintaining their unique quirks. They all pretty much look the same by season three, except for Julie (Lauren Tewes) whose hair ends up very Farrah Fawcett by the time it aired in 1980.
In sum, for a retro TV series that could have dated drastically by now, The Love Boat is still very on point, which could well be due to the fact that its scriptwriters avoided holding back in their clever and colourful dialogue. Between 1977 and 1980, sex was beginning to be talked about more openly, divorce rates were starting to rise, and big diseases with little names were still a while off so that decadence and opulence often took precedence. Fast forward four decades, and thanks to the infiltration of political correctness, social mores, and a heightened senses of risk-versus-security, television scriptwriters have turned somewhat uptight. Sure, our screens may be filled with murder porn and drug dealers, but while each character is minding his Ps and Qs, the most crucial thing – the dialogue – has gotten kind of safe; boring even.
Indeed, it’s surprising just how much sordid storytelling, racy dialogue and political incorrectness the producers of The Love Boat got away with. And it’s certainly worth reflecting on, in a time when the wrong move in Hollywood can lead to the ruining of a career, or indeed an entire industry.
Relive a time when characters were allowed to let it rip, and enjoy the camp shenanigans aboard The Love Boat. It really is more than just a retro trip of a soap opera. Antonino Tati
‘The Love Boat: Seasons 1-3’ is available in box-set through Shock Entertainment.