Friday, March 06, 2015

The Castaways' Commitment

The nature of television has changed in unpredictable ways over the years — and I am not talking about the rise of pay–TV services like cable and satellite. That is a separate issue.

I'm talking about the kinds of stories that were written, especially for the sitcoms. In the 1970s, Norman Lear was behind the emergence of socially/politically conscious programs like All in the Family, Maude, The Jeffersons and Good Times that contributed to increased awareness of things that are considered outrageous today. In hindsight, that was an important step in TV's maturation process — not to mention the country's. By comparison, the story lines that had been used in sitcoms prior to that time seem preposterous, childish and immature. They made audiences laugh, but they didn't make them think.

To be fair, there was a certain amount of truth to the stereotypes. The sitcoms of the '50s were unrealistic in their depictions of individuals and families, then or now, and, frankly, the premises of many of the sitcoms of the '60s (in fact much of the programming of that decade, sitcom and otherwise) were just plain silly — talking horses, Martians and witches and genies living among us and passing themselves off as one of us, hillbillies who strike it rich and move to California to live among the other millionaires, a high–society couple who throw away their city life to live on a farm in the country.

But there was also a genuine commitment to certain principles on those shows that are still worth celebrating, even though their importance was de–emphasized by the issues that were squarely in the spotlight of the more socially aware sitcoms.

In the Gilligan's Island episode that aired on this night in 1965, Gilligan (Bob Denver) was suffering from an inferiority complex. The Skipper (Alan Hale Jr.) had rescued Mary Ann (Dawn Wells) when she had a cramp while swimming. Actually, Gilligan had tried to rescue Mary Ann, but, as usual, he fouled it up, and the Skipper wound up saving both of them. Everyone made a fuss over the Skipper, and Gilligan was jealous.

(At least, that was Mrs. Howell's diagnosis. As I recall, she had taken a college class or two in psychology. She wasn't a psychoanalyst. She didn't have a degree. As nearly as I could tell, none of the castaways had college degrees in anything — except the Professor, who had several and could make all kinds of things with just the raw material on the island, like coconuts and vines, but he couldn't figure out how to patch a hole in a boat.

(In spite of the absence of a degree, though, Mrs. Howell's diagnosis was accepted without question by her fellow castaways. I'd be tempted to say she and Mr. Howell stayed at a Holiday Inn Express the night before the three–hour tour, but such things didn't exist in the 1960s.)

So the castaways decided to concoct a scenario in which Gilligan could rescue someone and be a hero, too.

Some people think it was corny for the castaways to be so worried about Gilligan's mental and emotional well being. After all, there were so many more critical things to occupy their attention, like trying to be rescued or avoiding headhunters from nearby islands.

Personally, I thought their concern for Gilligan was admirable. It is the kind of quality you don't see much from TV characters anymore.

And their plan might have worked, too, if, in their attempt to avoid being overheard by Gilligan, they had not chosen to go to a spot in the jungle where Gilligan happened to be, and he overheard everything.

In their scenario, the Skipper would be positioned with his legs trapped beneath a fallen tree — as if that tree had just fallen on him. It would be up to Gilligan to free him.

In hindsight, this was just plain silly. After all, it was a small island. The tree had been laying there for a long time; surely even Gilligan would have noticed it and known that it hadn't just fallen on the Skipper, that it had been in that position for weeks, maybe months. In their zeal to help him, though, Gilligan's friends must not have realized that.

Anyway, Gilligan was hip to what was going on, and he played along with it — until he managed to get both himself and the Skipper caught — for real — beneath the log. Ginger and Mary Ann ran off to find the Professor to get him to help them with the log.

While they were gone, an honest–to–goodness headhunter started to zero in on the prone pair — but he had to retreat into the jungle when he heard the girls returning with the Professor.

Gilligan got a chance to be a hero for real when the headhunter captured all the other castaways and bound them to poles.

Gilligan found them all while the headhunter was searching somewhere else on the island, but Gilligan still believed that it was a con job. I wonder how he rationalized the fact that all six of his fellow castaways were bound to poles. Who did he think tied them up?

Well, anyway, he rescued his friends, and, in what can only be regarded as a slapstick moment, the headhunter wound up sitting in a campfire and running into the lagoon to put out the blaze — which really wasn't a blaze at all, just a lot of smoke.

All in all, it was a better–than–average sitcom for the '60s.