In 1977, when other kids were discovering The Sex Pistols, I was discovering The Love Boat. I stayed at my grandparents’ house on most weekends, so on Saturday nights at 8 p.m., I’d settle down on the sofa with the two of them to watch Aaron Spelling’s marine masterpiece. This column is my attempt to reclaim the wonder of those weekends.
Ex Plus Y / Graham and Kelly / Golden Agers
It’s the first bona fide fantastic episode of The Love Boat! The intro shows Kristy McNichol (as “Kelly”) boarding The Pacific Princess with her family and although she only has one line about her annoying little sister, she is so charismatic that it’s unreal. It’s not just McNichol who dazzles, though, because this particular narrative (“Graham and Kelly”) includes Scott Baio, who is also absolutely adorable. Naturally, these two are drawn to each other, but being young teens, they have no idea how to flirt or act on a date and thus their first attempts end horribly.
Still, it’s not even remotely cringe worthy. In fact, their entire storyline feels like a sparking romantic comedy from the late 1970s but starring teenagers. It’s hopelessly charming and made me grateful for those rare casting directors who allowed teenage parts to be filled by actual teenagers..
If you’ve only seen Loretta Swit as Hot Lips on M*A*S*H, then you are in for a treat with “Ex Plus Y.” Swit portrays Terry, on the cruise with her husband Ron, played by the wonderful Richard Mulligan and his crazy eyebrows. Mulligan has the kind of sonorous voice and sturdy presence that elevates anything, and his chemistry with Swit here is great.
Terry is still bitter about her ex-husband Barney and wouldn’t you know it, he happens to be on the cruise with his own new love. (womp womp womp!) Robert Reed portrays Barney, and he is far more than just “the dad from The Brady Bunch.” His character is nuanced and believable, although you can understand why Terry divorced him: he’s also self-centered and annoying. Yet, when the two of them are forced to make peace for the sake of everyone’s vacations, their repressed sexual attraction returns, and well… you can probably figure out what happens.
Instead of coming across as contrived, it works beautifully and the dialogue in those scenes is realistic and poignant. Of course, the former spouses realize that what they have with their new partners goes beyond just good sex and so they go their separate ways once again, only this time with mutual respect. It’s lovely and one of the best portrayals of adult relationships that I’ve seen on TV.
Only slightly less enjoyable is “Golden Agers,” in which Julie and passenger Jim (“Mr. Right”) Wright fall head over heels in love with each other at first sight. No, they really do. Jim is in charge of a group called “Life Begins At 60” and the old-timers run him so ragged he never gets to consummate his passions for Julie. The seniors are a pain in the ass, yes, but they are also undeniably spirited. Eagle-eyed viewers will recognize one of them as Grandpa Baker from Sixteen Candles. In the end the group apologizes for monopolizing Jim’s time and it’s quite sweet.
If I had one complaint about this episode? There is way too much terry cloth clothing. Both Richard Mulligan and Robert Reed have button-up terry cloth shirts and Scott Baio sports two different terry cloth tops. Even Charles Frank as Jim wears terry cloth at some point. The episode is not a total fashion disaster: I do love Loretta Swit’s amazing royal blue mesh hooded lounge jacket.
Message For Maureen / Acapulco Connection / Gotcha!
Episode Four is a bit of a mixed bag. In “Gotcha!” Milton Berle portrays Cyril Wolfe, a lifetime practical joker who drives his wife Anita (the inimitable Audra Lindley) to the point of utter frustration. Randy Quaid look alike Britt Leach (Al Wallace in Weird Science) is the Reverend Dickerson, who along with his wife Martha, plots with Anita to get back at Uncle Miltie, I mean, Cyril. The scheme works, but the freeze frame of Berle’s face after he realizes the joke’s on him is kind of creepy and bizarre. This is one storyline that I remember like it was yesterday, so it clearly either made a huge impression on me, or got a lot of reruns on TV.
The tender narrative thread in this episode is fulfilled by “Message For Maureen,” in which injured, wheelchair-bound tennis pro Maureen Mitchell (who looks strikingly like Sean Young) is miffed that her ex-boyfriend, sports writer John Ballard (Bill Bixby) is on the cruise, too. (Were there so few cruises in 1977 that you ran the risk of encountering exes? Inquiring minds want to know.) Turnabout is fair play, however, so when Ballard sprains his ankle and has to use a wheelchair for a few days, he’s humbled into realizing that he’s still in love with Maureen and vice versa.
In an interesting precursor to my favorite episode of The Love Boat ever, Season 3, Episode 13’s “Not Now I’m Dying,” it turns out that Maureen might actually be wheelchair bound for life and not just a few months. Ballard convinces Doc to let him break the news to her. Against his better judgment, Doc agrees, but of course, miscommunications result in tears and anger. The couple resolves their issues in the end and decides to marry. It’s a nice segment that has more than a few 1940s comedy flourishes, thanks to some snappy dialogue.
Welp, I’ve saved the best for last, folks. “Acapulco Connection” boasts the first of eight (!!) appearances by everyone’s favorite from The Love Boat, Charo! April Lopez is desperate to get to the United States so she can earn enough money to support her large family in Acapulco. She decides to stow away in the linen closet, much to the chagrin of Captain Stubing and his rather grouchy housekeeper. Stubing insists that April stay with Doc (which is terribly inappropriate; why can’t she stay with Julie?) until they can put her on a bus back to home.
April being April sneaks onboard again and hijinks ensue, including a “Crew Night” talent show, in which she wows everyone on board with her singing, dancing, and guitar playing. (Charo is actually an accomplished flamenco guitarist.) Captain Stubing works it out so that she can legally stay on the cruise line as a performer and get paid. Although the Mexican stereotypes are uncomfortable, overall, it’s not terrible, and Charo is genuinely cute. Even though she’s actually Spanish. D’oh!
Until next week, remember to let it flow, because it always floats back to you.
Fun Fact: Charo’s real name is María del Rosario Mercedes Pilar Martínez Molina Baeza.