Friday, September 26, 2014

The Unanswered Questions From 'Gilligan's Island'

Fifty years ago tonight, Gilligan's Island made its debut.

I first watched Gilligan's Island reruns when I was a child. I've seen that initial episode several times, and there really wasn't anything special about it.

It mainly served to introduce viewers to the seven–member cast: The "fearless crew" of the Minnow, the Skipper (Alan Hale Jr.) and Gilligan (Bob Denver); the millionaire (Jim Backus) and his wife (Natalie Schafer); the movie star (Tina Louise), and "the rest," the Professor (Russell Johnson) and the pretty girl–next–door, Mary Ann (Dawn Wells).

In that first episode, running jokes were established — the clumsiness of Gilligan, the nerdiness of the Professor, the elitism of the Howells, the self–absorption of the movie star. It was well established that, deep down, each was shallow in his/her quirky way.

The show opened with a song written by program creator Sherwood Schwartz. It was intended to bring every viewer up to speed on the castaways and their situation by the time the opening credits had run. So we knew how they came to be stranded on that island.

But we never found out why, for example, the Howells and the two girls brought so many clothes with them on a three–hour tour. There must have been some kind of explanation for that — and, for that matter, where all those clothes were kept. The Howells did have some closet space, but it wasn't nearly enough to accommodate all the clothes they had with them. And Ginger and Mary Ann had no closet space that I can recall yet they had clothes for all sorts of occasions.

The Skipper, the Professor and Gilligan always wore the same clothes (except for the episodes with dream sequences), but the other four brought enough different clothes to sustain them for weeks if not months without ever having to wear the same thing twice.

The Professor was a handy guy to have around. He was able to make all kinds of remarkable things from just the raw material that could be found on the island, but he never seemed to be able to transform the radio into a transmitter — or even patch up the boat.

It was also established that the castaways would do anything to be rescued — and that laid the foundation for perhaps the biggest running joke, Gilligan's tendency to foul up just about every promising rescue. He wasn't always to blame — just most of the time.

And he never meant to foul things up, either. It was just in his nature to do so. He was a well–meaning fellow. His heart was in the right place.

In that first episode, the Skipper and Gilligan tried to set sail on a makeshift raft in search of help. But the raft came apart on them after they fought off ravenous sharks, and they swam to the nearest land, which turned out to be the island they had left earlier.

The fate of the castaways was emblematic, I suppose, of the cutthroat nature of the TV industry in the 1960s and 1970s. Gilligan's Island was canceled after three seasons — and the decision was made after the last episode of the third season had been shot. That was the way things were done in those days, I suppose. The same thing happened to Ed Sullivan — and his show was on the air for 24 years.

Today — I'm not sure why, maybe because of the proliferation of channels in the cable age — the cast and crew of a canceled TV series are far more likely to get enough advance notice to have the opportunity to wrap things up in the series' final episode — unless that cancellation comes only a few weeks into the new season.

It seemed to be much more competitive when there were only three networks. A show was on the air one week, then it disappeared forever the next. It was like a mafia hit job. Explanations were seldom given.

I suppose it has something to do with audience share. When there were only three networks dividing up the available viewership, the share of the audience for even an average program probably set a standard that modern programs can't hope to match, no matter how popular they are.

But when the audience is being divided up by hundreds of channels instead of three, well, that is bound to affect how things are done and how things are perceived in the television industry, don't you think?

In that environment, I suppose, silly programs like Gilligan's Island were lucky to last more than a season — and it lasted three, even though it had no supernatural or extraterrestrial characters. Well, no regular ones, anyway.

Eventually, thanks to made–for–TV cast reunion movies, viewers found out what happened to the castaways. They eventually made it back to civilization — but they were so turned off by what they found that they returned to their island paradise. As the old song says, you don't know what you've got until it is gone.

Presumably, they lived out their lives in the peace and serenity of their south Pacific island. Guess we'll never know, though. All but Wells and Louise are deceased now.