Welcome to Retro Television Reviews, a feature where we review some of our favorite and least favorite shows of the past! On Wednesdays, I will be reviewing the original Love Boat, which aired on ABC from 1977 to 1986! The series can be streamed on Paramount Plus!
It’s time to spend the holidays on the big seas!
Episode 1.11 “Lonely at the Top/Silent Night/Divorce Me, Please”
(Dir by Alan Baron, originally aired on December 10th, 1977)
Yay! It’s a Christmas cruise!
Every season, The Love Boat did a special Christmas episode. Last year, MeTV presented a marathon on Love Boat Christmases and what I discovered is that every Christmas episode featured the crew working through the holidays and missing their families. Nearly every Christmas episode also featured someone dressing up as Santa Claus and at least one veteran of the Golden Age of Hollywood.
The very first Christmas episode opens with the Julie, Isaac, Gopher, and Doc talking about how much they miss their families. We find out that Gopher’s family lives on a farm. Julie is from Oregon. Doc is from Las Vegas. (The show always tried to portray Doc as being some sort of Sinatra-style swinger, despite the fact that he was played by the very even-tempered Bernie Kopell.) Their conversation is interrupted by Captain Stubing who explains that 1) he’s divorced and 2) he’s a middle-aged man who doesn’t get along with his stepmother. Not only does he not have a family but the sea is his home and he has more to worry about than everyone’s holiday spirit.
Much as with Doc being a swinger, Captain Stubing being a stern taskmaster was a recurring theme during the first season of The Love Boat. The crew was always talking about how Stubing had a reputation for demanding perfection for those working under him and being quick to fire anyone who failed to live up to his standards. And yet, we never really see anything that would back up Stubing’s fearsome reputation. Just as how Bernie Kopell was a bit too even-tempered to be believable as a legendary playboy, Gavin MacLeod was a bit too naturally pleasant to be believable as someone who would strike fear in the hearts of his crew. While I have no idea what Gavin MacLeod was like offscreen, when he’s onscreen he comes across as being likable and friendly. Whenever Captain Stubing is meant to be upset or disappointed with his crew, he comes across as being more petulant than fearsome. That’s certainly the case in this episode. Captain Stubing may say that he’s not into the holidays but you never believe him.
Of course, that works to this episode’s advantage. Realizing that he’s failing to bond with his crew and that his lack of holiday spirit is rubbing everyone the wrong way, Stubing turns to Father Mike (Dick Sargent) for advice. Father Mike is escorting a group of children to an orphanage in Mexico but he still takes time to give Stubing some counseling. Let the crew know that you care about them, Father Mike says. Stubing attempts to do so but his attempts at small talk are so awkward that the crew just becomes more frightened of him. Finally, Stubing resorts to dressing up like Santa Claus. The crew may be scared of him but Father Mike’s orphans love him. Anyway, it all works out in the end and believe it or not, I actually did find myself getting invested in this very silly storyline. Gavin MacLeod may not have been believable as a stern captain but he was likable enough that it’s hard not to feel bad about him having a bad holiday.
While this is going on, Dan Barton (John Gavin) and his wife, Lila (Donna Mills), attempt to enjoy the holiday cruise. The only problem is that Dan has just been released from prison and he is struggling to adjust to being on the outside. No soon has Dan boarded the ship then he spots his former law partner, Walter (Dean Santoro). Walter committed the crime that Dan went to prison for and Dan becomes obsessed with getting revenge on him. Lila, meanwhile, wonders if Dan will ever give up his anger. There’s something a bit jarring about going from Captain Stubing dressing up like Santa Claus to Dan Barton plotting to murder someone. John Gavin gave a good performance but the shift in tone between his story and the rest of the episode was almost too extreme. It’d be like if they had made an episode of The Office where Pam suddenly found herself tempted to cheat on Jim with a member of the documentary crew. Tonally, it just felt out of place.
Finally, everyone thinks that Paul (Shecky Greene) and Audrey Baynes (Florence Henderson) are the perfect couple but actually, they’re both sick of each other and they spend most of their time thinking about getting a divorce. The gimmick here is that we hear their thoughts. So, Paul will tell Audrey how much he loves her and then we’ll hear him think something like, “Yeah, I’d love to toss you overboard.” It’s a one joke premise that gets old pretty quickly. Also, needless to say, this is The Love Boat and not The Divorce Boat. Things work out.
My reaction to this episode was a bit mixed but, to be honest, I like Christmas shows. Even if they’re not perfect, I still like them. And it was hard for me not to smile at the Christmas tree in the ship’s lounge or at all the decorations hanging on the ship’s walls. The Captain’s story had a lot of Christmas spirit and I enjoyed that. If you can’t spend the holidays at home, The Love Boat seems like a good substitute.