Why you should care
Because fiction over fact makes for success.
Gilligan’s Island ran only three seasons, from 1964 to 1967, but it went on to become the most rerun show in American television history, topping even I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners. Over the past half century, it has also become perhaps the most maligned show in television history, a whipping boy for critics and smarty-pantses who cite it, almost reflexively now, as the lowest of the low, the absolute sludge of what we jokingly refer to as “the television arts.”
Funny thing is, most of the arguments concerning the show’s supposedly execrable nature focus not on the acting, the writing, the direction or the production values, but instead on the lack of strict logical coherence in terms of narrative and character. Why would the Howells take a lousy three-hour tour on a scurvy little boat when they own a fleet of yachts, and why would they bring so many changes of clothes and steamer trunks full of cash? Why is it the Professor can make batteries out of coconuts and palm fronds, and medical instruments out of bamboo and, well, coconuts, but can’t fix a damn boat? And my God, for being a supposedly uncharted desert island, they sure do get a lot of important visitors.
By reveling in its inherent dumbness, it was able to become more subversively intelligent than viewers would ever choose to believe.
The same sorts of arguments could be leveled at nearly any sitcom, cartoon series or soap opera, but for some reason Gilligan’s Island really pisses off people who take things like TV a little too seriously. Considering most of the episodes were written by screenwriters whose backgrounds were in cartoons like The Flintstones, maybe it only makes sense the show played like a live-action cartoon, with a cartoon logic and sensibility. But I guess some people take that as an affront to their intelligence.
When I was a kid, I dismissed Road Runner cartoons as repetitive, predictable and dull. In my late 40s, I at last tapped into how fucking hilarious they were, brilliant exercises in flawless visual comic timing. Around that time I also came to appreciate and love Preston Sturges, W.C. Fields, Buster Keaton and Gilligan’s Island, finally seeing clearly, in the case of the latter, how very sharp, funny and even unexpectedly clever the show had been, with some of the best line readings and slapstick that TV sitcoms of the era (and later) had to offer. No, I wouldn’t use the term “brilliant” so much, maybe, but by reveling in its own inherent dumbness the way it did, the show was able to become more subversively intelligent than viewers would ever choose to believe.
It was an unlikely blend, beginning with archetypal characters based on both the seven deadly sins and Hollywood icons (Marilyn Monroe, Laurel and Hardy, Mary Pickford) forced into a sometimes uneasy social contract within a Beckettian framework, where the comedy, while decidedly absurdist, can also take surprisingly dark turns. Show me another mainstream sitcom in which, for instance, so many of the characters contemplate suicide, or in which every single episode ends on a note of failure and disappointment. The show also offered up regular spot-on satires of everything from the space program and the Cold War to the media, modern art, Broadway, pop music and classic films. (Its musical version of Hamlet remains a thing of wonder.)
Credit for the show’s success should go not only to creator Sherwood Schwartz but also to a core cast of seasoned character actors who were able to fully embody what may have been one-dimensional stereotypes on page, giving them depth and complexity and making them real even within the midst of the most ridiculous of circumstances. I think part of the spark, however counterintuitive, is that most of the people involved with the show, with the exceptions of Schwartz and Bob Denver, weren’t known for comedy. Director Jack Arnold was the king of intelligent ’50s sci-fi, having directed the likes of It Came From Outer Space and The Incredible Shrinking Man. Alan Hale Jr. had always played the same jovial but imposing character, but usually in dramas like The Case Against Brooklyn. Jim Backus had played James Dean’s hapless father in Rebel Without a Cause. And Russell Johnson played it straight in a number of low-budget genre pictures.
I can’t say what made the show work, but when you gather a seasoned and serious cast and crew and hand them a cartoon script, they somehow have a way of making it funnier than it should be. Or maybe I’m just suffering from early-onset dementia.