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.
Winner Take Love / The Congressman Was Indiscreet / Isaac’s History Lesson
This is a strange episode, full of contradictory messages.
In “Winner Take Love,” there’s a contest to see who’ll be the awkwardly named “Ambassadress at Large” of the Pacific Princess for a year. It’s kind of like Miss America, only it’s on The Love Boat. And like the Miss America pageant, the five contestants – Rita, Suzy, Teresa, Alma, and Jeanette – must endure swimsuit, evening gown, and talent competitions in order to win the coveted spot.
They must also be “unattached,” which poses a problem for Suzy (Maureen McCormick) when her fiancé Rick (Bobby Sherman) shows up with a ticket. What a world we live in when Marcia Brady is engaged to Bobby Sherman.
There’s a bit of not-so-friendly rivalry between the five women. Actually, most of the trouble is caused by Rita, who is openly rude to the somewhat air-headed Jeanette (Priscilla Barnes of Three’s Company) and ends up tattling to Waldo Linden from Head Office about Suzy’s romantic liaisons.
Vicki Lawrence shows up as Robin Brandt, a reporter from Scuttlebutt Magazine. It’s difficult to focus on her conversation with Julie, however, because she is wearing the most hideous rust brown knitted dress with some kind of macramé trim. It even has a matching shawl! Dear god, the 1970s certainly had its share of heinous fashions.
Brandt is agog because Congressman John P. Whitcomb (Dick Van Patten and his awful combover) is on board, posing as “Jim Smith.” Whitcomb has been in the papers recently due to a huge scandal: he left his wife for a chorus girl! “The Congressman Was Indiscreet!” Brandt assures her editor Frank that she’ll get the scoop on Whitcomb and to do so, she sidles up to him and offers a sympathetic ear.
Scatman Crothers is also on this cruise. He’s playing Virgil Gibson and in true Scatman Crothers style, he dances on board singing a tune, much to the surprise and delight of the crew who immediately fall in love with him. Less impressed is Stephanie Hayden (Vernée Watson of Welcome Back Kotter), a doctoral candidate who wants some peace and quiet to finish her Black Studies dissertation.
And it’s true: Gibson’s hamboning does come across as a kind of “shuck and jive” at first. Yet he’s so charming and friendly that it’s Stephanie who seems stuck up.
Captain Stubing, who “doesn’t usually tell jokes,” gets picked to emcee the Ambassadress competition and his jokes go over surprisingly well. They are also terribly, embarrassingly sexist, especially considering the women are all barely out of their teens!
Isaac, who’s no slouch at hamboning himself, is besotted with Stephanie and tries to talk to her about her studies. “Isaac’s History Lesson” is a nice nod to the importance of black studies. Her plaintive statements about how her ancestors had to endure their passage across the ocean in shackles are quite moving. Yet, people keep showing up doing the hambone, which makes Stephanie turn her nose up and leave in a huff. Eventually she convinces Isaac that such behavior is inappropriate. “We do have a past we can be proud of,” she pleads, insisting that when people see Gibson in action, “they think all blacks are like that.” It’s a story line that still resonates today.
After Isaac is downright rude to Gibson, though, Stubing has to step in and whitesplain a bit. It turns out that he is actually “Scattergun Gibson,” one of the best pitchers to come out of baseball’s Negro Leagues. Isaac and Stephanie feel terrible and realize that he’s just as significant to black culture as anyone in her textbooks. They apologize and make amends.
Robin is learning a lot about Congressman Whitcomb: for example, he was planning to divorce his wife before he met the chorus girl. Also? He’s no longer with said chorus girl. He’s not a bad guy and Robin finds herself falling for him. She finally works up the courage to tell him that she’s a reporter and wants to help him tell his side of the story. Just then, the latest issue of Scuttlebutt arrives and he’s front-page news again, thanks to Frank, who ran a story without Robin’s permission. When John finds out that Robin quit her job in disgust, he realizes she’s not a bad gal and they make up.
After Waldo disqualifies Suzy from the competition, she’s so upset that Rick suggests they get married in Puerto Vallarta. But wait, Jeanette has convinced Waldo to let Suzy back in! Rick seems awfully hurt by this change of plans, especially when Suzy is picked as Ambassadress. But Suzy insists that being Ambassadress for a year isn’t as rewarding as being “Mrs. Rick Leonard for the rest of her life,” so she bows out, leaving Jeanette in first place. Jeanette, who dressed like a Native American for the talent competition. Heavy sigh.
Last of the Stubings / Million Dollar Man / The Sisters
Captain Stubing holds a rare, pre-cruise meeting with the crew (Julie, Doc, Gopher, and Isaac) because he’s got some big news. “The Last Of The Stubings,” a.k.a. the Captain’s nephew Courtney, has been accepted into Annapolis and is coming on this cruise to learn the ropes.
Courtney (Peter Isacksen of CPO Sharkey) looks like a blond, incredibly clumsy version of Stephen King. He’s got the kind of voice that sounds like he’s angry when he’s not. I guess it’s because he’s six foot seven. Yowza! Stubing insists that Courtney is a “real Stubing,” and Doc cracks that it’s going to be tough because “he’s already overbearing, humorless, and bald.”
Needless to say, Courtney’s attempts to ingratiate himself with the passengers don’t work out very well. Also, he hates the sea! His real passion is to be a ballet dancer! He’s not very good at that, either, but Stubing agrees that he should be allowed to pursue his dreams and find something he IS good at.
Rose Higby (Marion Ross) and Noreen Badger (Pat Crowley) are sisters. Rose is widowed and Noreen is steadfastly single. So steadfast, in fact, that when a fellow male passenger offers to help her with her luggage, she snaps, “I’m not your dear and I don’t need a hand.” Seems legit to me, but I guess The Love Boat had an issue with feminism. (See also: the previous episode.)
Rose encourages Noreen to take the fellow male passenger up on his offer to go dancing, but she is hesitant. It turns out that the fellow – Clark Tyler – is the architect of the building which houses her business, Badger’s Dental Lab. She is hesitant to accept his invitation to go dancing, but Rose insists.
Rose is less enthused about Noreen staying out all night with Clark. When Noreen confesses she’s fallen in love and plans to marry Clark, Rose is furious. Noreen breaks it off and then Rose realizes she’s being selfish and gives Noreen her blessing.
The best storyline is between Bill (Frank Converse) and Stephanie (Marcia Strassman). Their courtship is adorable and filled with snappy banter. She’s got a broken hand; he’s got a suitcase full of cash. Only she doesn’t find out about the suitcase until she’s already fallen in love with him. The only guys with suitcases full of cash are thieves and as it turns out, Bill stole that money from his workplace. But Stephanie is a cop and feels morally obligated to turn him in. He agrees to ditch his plans to escape to Rio, but when he doesn’t come back on board after Mazatlan, she is crestfallen.
Later a drink arrives at the bar for Stephanie and it’s from Bill, who has had a change of heart. “Rio just wouldn’t be the same without you.”
Until next week, remember to let it flow, because it always floats back to you.
Fun Fact: I spent the entirety of this week’s second episode thinking that Marcia Strassman was Bailey Quarters from WKRP in Cincinnati. Nope, that role was played by Jan Smithers. Marcia Strassman was the lovely Julie from Welcome Back Kotter.