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.
Please note: I accidentally switched the discs on the DVD set! I’ll be going backwards slightly to recap episodes 5 – 8 over the next two weeks.
Lonely At The Top / Divorce Me, Please! / Silent Night
It’s the first Christmas episode of The Love Boat and it’s incredibly charming. Julie is sad because it’s her first holiday away from her Oregon family, while Doc waxes nostalgic about how “every year his ex-wives get together and treat me to a big turkey dinner” in Las Vegas. Enter Captain Merrill “Scrooge” Stubing. I swear I don’t remember him being THIS grumpy on the show when I watched it as a kid.
Maybe the writers realized that it was a slightly tiresome shtick, because in “Lonely At The Top” Stubing opens up to friend and frequent passenger Father Mike, who is on his annual Christmas cruise accompanied by the gaggle of orphan boys of whom he takes care. Stubing says, “I understand the sea, but people…” He confesses that he’s lonely and doesn’t know how to get close to his crew. “At best they tolerate me,” he says wistfully.
In “Silent Night,” a wonderfully realized homage to It’s A Wonderful Life, Dan and Lila Barton are taking a bittersweet holiday cruise. Dan is a former lawyer who has just been paroled from prison, where he did a three-year stint for a crime (embezzlement) he didn’t commit. He’s played by the dashing John Gavin, who looks shockingly youthful considering he was a matinee idol in the late 1950s and early 1960s. (You might recognize him from Spartacus, Imitation of Life, or Psycho.) His wife is the lovely Donna Mills, who I adored on Falcon Crest back in the day (perhaps when I run out of The Love Boat episodes I could recap that show?).
As it turns out, Dan’s ex-law partner Walter Perry is also on board and doesn’t look too thrilled to see him. In fact, Dan overhears him telling a fellow passenger that Dan is basically a scumbag. Trouble is, Dan knows that Walter is the one who actually committed the crime and he’s brought a gun on board to get his revenge. Unlike most episodes of The Love Boat, this isn’t a coincidence; Dan knew Walter was going to be on board. Lila convinces Dan to let Walter live, but it isn’t until Dan hears the crew and a few passengers singing Christmas carols that he changes his mind. Walter later reveals that he’s contacted the police in L.A. about both turning himself in and restoring Dan’s license to practice law.
This heavy plot thread is somewhat lightened up by “Divorce Me, Please!” in which Audrey and Paul Baynes (Florence Henderson and Shecky Greene) pretend to be the perfect couple. Yet their internal monologues (which only we can hear, through the magic of television) prove otherwise. Paul comes up with the idea to get so drunk Audrey begs him for a divorce, while Audrey decides to max out the couple’s credit cards (note the issue of Kitten from the first episode in the background of the gift shop scene!). But their antics only make them realize that they still love each other. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it works.
All this time, Stubing is failing miserably at getting the crew to warm up to him: Julie gets weirded out when he expresses an interest in needlepoint, no one laughs at his (admittedly poorly told) jokes, and he even tries to “talk black” to Isaac in a super cringeworthy scene.
To everyone’s dismay, Captain Stubing then decides to play Santa on Christmas Even, but when he hands out presents to Father Mike’s orphans (one of whom is named Peanut!), he forgets the present for Tony. Tony runs away, heartbroken, while Stubing looks like the world’s most depressed Santa. Later, Stubing gives Tony the ship’s sextant that was handed down to him by his grandfather and we all try not to cry. When Stubing returns to his cabin, the crew is waiting for him because, as they put it, they are his “second family.” Then it’s Julie’s turn to wipe away tears (“this darn beard!”) in a genuinely heartfelt scene.
The Old Man & The Runaway / A Fine Romance / The Painters
If that weren’t enough, the next episode is an even bigger tearjerker. Will Geer is Franklyn Bootherstone, a grumpy old man who alienates everyone until he finds a a stowaway in his cabin. No, it’s not April Lopez, it’s 16-year-old Nancy Brown (Bayn Johnson, giving Kristy McNichol a run for her money), whose parents died as a kid. She can’t stand her overbearing foster parents, so she’s running away to Acapulco to marry 18-year-old Randy, a guy she met in line for concert tickets back home in Santa Monica.
Sure, grouchy widowers and sassy teens are a cliché, but with the clever dialogue and charisma of Geer and Johnson, it’s one of the most enjoyable versions of the cliché I’ve seen. Between the dinner segment and the shuffleboard tournament, I could watch an entire movie of “The Old Man & The Runaway.”
“A Fine Romance” reunites Julie with Anson Williams (yes, Potsie from Happy Days) as Sean McGlynn, a friend of her older brother Bobby. Of course, Sean hasn’t seen Julie since she had braces and he called her “Metal Mouth” but Julie’s still nursing a huge crush on him. She keeps hinting at it, but he finds excuses to write postcards and essentially do anything but make out with her. His cabin mate is a slightly toned down version of Mr. Furley from Three’s Company, Mickey O’Day. Played by a leering yet self-deprecating Tom Poston in a leisure suit, it makes for some truly comedic moments. That is, until Mickey thinks he’s having a heart attack and calls for a doctor and a priest. Then it turns out that Sean IS a priest. It seems like a convenient narrative ploy, but it’s handled tastefully.
Meanwhile, Franklyn has told the crew that Nancy is his granddaughter and paid for her trip, all the while trying to convince her to forget about Randy and go back home. It seems to work until she doesn’t show up when the ship leaves Acapulco. Then it’s back to Grumpy Grandpa. Nancy and Randy got to talking and ended up just missing the boat, so he drives all night so she could meet up with the ship in Puerto Vallarta the next day. Along with a spicy burrito. Franklyn is over the moon. Later, a tearful Nancy is thrilled when it turns out that Franklyn has applied to be her new foster parent.
The hijinks in this episode all focus on “The Painters,” portrayed by Pat Morita and Arte Johnson. Stubing is sick of his drab office and Julie has found a couple of “tint engineers” to transform it with a shade that Stubing himself has concocted: Singapore Sunset Saffron.
Since the painters are portrayed by Pat Morita and Arte Johnson, however, nothing goes according to plan, and Stubing gets frustrated when they paint the wrong cabin. His wildly original color creation then turns out to be the same yellow that covers the hallways of the ship, so he tells them to paint everything blue. They do, right down to the plants. It sounds ridiculous and corny and it is, but my goodness, is it ever funny.
Until next week, remember to let it flow, because it always floats back to you.
Fun Fact: Bayn Johnson, who plays Nancy Brown, was originally from New Orleans, Louisiana and acted in 260 episodes of The Electric Company in the late 1970s.