Though probably few would admit it now, back in the late 1970s pretty much everyone not on a date or otherwise engaged on a Saturday night tuned in to ABC's one-two punch of The Love Boat at 9:00 and Fantasy Island at 10:00pm. Though often unpardonably corny and melodramatic, The Love Boat was also daringly innovative from a production standpoint, lured big-name stars that rarely made television appearances, and so glamorized and exoticized cruise vacations that it singlehandedly transformed that industry into the leisure industry powerhouse it is today.
Seen today, the series is quaintly charming, still. The show more or less peaked during its third season, its ratings success prompting an elaborate two-hour premiere, mostly filmed on location in Alaska. Rewatching these shows after nearly 40 years, I was unexpectedly impressed by most of the regular cast members and its dizzying array of guest stars, a mash-up of Hollywood movie legends, TV show icons, has-beens, and never-beens. And despite a lot of clever production cheats imperceptible to audiences of the time (some episodes appear to have been filmed entirely on soundstage recreations with back-projected vistas), it's still pretty incredible what the series managed to crank out on a weekly basis for nine straight years.
For the uninitiated, The Love Boat follows the mostly romantic-comedy adventures of both the passengers and crew aboard a cruise ship, usually but not always the Pacific Princess on its regular three-day jaunt along the west coast of Mexico. Most hour episodes are composed of three stories, written and directed by separate sub-units, resulting in some profoundly inelegant episode titles (e.g., "The Critical Success / Love Lamp Is Lit, The / Take My Boy Friend, Please / Rent a Family / Man in Her Life"). Typically one of these would be broadly comic; one a trifle more serious involving a younger couple, played by actors associated primarily with series television; and a third featuring an older couple, usually played established Hollywood stars known primarily from movies, or older classic TV shows from the 1950s. One tale would end tragically or bittersweetly, while the other "serious" love story would teeter headlong toward total disaster until its inevitable happy ending. The series' regular characters ("Your Love Boat Crew") would intersect with these one-shot guest stars, and usually one cast member would play a major role in one of the three stories.
Unrealistic but dramatically acceptable, the crew characters on The Love Boat were limited to the ship's captain, Merrill Stubing (Gavin MacLeod, late of Mary Tyler Moore), ship's physician "Doc" Bricker (Bernie Kopell, of Get Smart!), yeoman purser "Gopher" Smith (Fred Grandy, Maude), bartender Isaac Washington (Ted Lange), and cruise director Julie McCoy (Lauren Tewes). Almost never do they interact with anyone else, drone-like background extras with no lines. Watching the series, you'd think the entire cruise ship was essentially manned by just five people.
Though structurally similar to the sitcom anthology Love, American Style (1969-74), The Love Boat was unusual in myriad ways. It was, apparently, the last one-hour American sitcom to date, and the last series of any kind to feature a laugh track. The bulk of most episodes were actually filmed on dry land, on carefully recreated sets at 20th Century-Fox Studios in Century City. Based on the episodes watched for this review, it appears that roughly every third episode was shot entirely on soundstage sets, with second unit stock footage filling the gaps, every third show shot partly aboard a real cruise ship for exterior scenes, and every third episode much more extensively filmed at sea, and occasionally at one or more of its ports of call. Obviously, offering Love Boat's biggest, more elusive guest stars a free cruise on top of their appearance fee was a pretty shrewd move.
So, too, was the symbiotic relationship between the show's producers and the Princess Cruises line. They got priceless free advertising while their real-world customers were mostly delighted to ride along with Love Boat's stars and guest performers, and sometimes even appear as extras themselves. For the producers, they got huge production values (i.e., an entire cruise ship and exotic locations at their disposal) for next to nothing.
In retrospect, the show's regular cast were integral to its success. Gavin MacLeod's Capt. Stubing was a bit of a disappointment after years of his entertainingly wise-cracking, self-effacing news writer on Mary Tyler Moore. Initially, Love Boat's producers fashioned him as a by-the-book taskmaster, but by season three he'd mellowed into more of a father figure, especially toward normally cheery, outgoing Julie McCoy, who faces a series of emotional crises throughout Love Boat's run. (In the season three premiere, she's determined to marry a passenger, played by Tony Roberts, she fell in love with the previous season. It's obvious to all her hopes and dreams are a-gonna get shattered before the episode's over.)
Fred Grandy and Ted Lange are entertaining as Gopher and Issac, but The Love Boat real star was Bernie Kopell, a fact that the show's producers seemed to recognize: Kopell reportedly earned nearly $40,000/episode - huge money for a regular supporting actor in series television back then. His understated comic timing is really impeccable and his everyman appeal a real surprise for those of us who remembered him primary as Siegfried on Get Smart.
Guest stars in Volume 2 include: Charo, Forrest Tucker, Don Adams, Juliet Mills, Marjorie Lord, Ross Martin, Donny Osmond, Pam Grier, Loni Anderson, Eve Arden, Slim Pickens, Richard Roundtree, Vicki Lawrence, Joe Namath, Cleavon Little, Phil Harris, Diane Ladd, Connie Stevens, Florence Henderson, Ethel Merman, Johnny Yune, Haley Mills, Audrey Meadows, Jane Wyman, James Gregory, Maureen McCormick, Eve Plumb, Lois Nettleton, Noah Beery Jr., Alice Faye, Britt Ekland, Rex Smith, David Hasselhoff, Shelley Fabares, Jane Withers, Ann B. Davis, James MacArthur, Mildred Natwick, Maurice Evans, Catherine Bach, and Martin Short
Video & Audio
Presented in 1.37 full frame, The Love Boat: Season Three looks quite good, with an expectedly sharp image and good color. The Dolby Digital mono is strong for what it is, and English SDH are included on this region 1, four-disc set.
The lone supplement are episode promos, which I wish video labels would position where they belong, at the end of each preceding episode, rather than at the beginning.
More entertaining than one might remember, The Love Boat is enjoyable fluff, nicely executed, and therefore Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian largely absent from reviewing these days while he restores a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.