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!
This week, things get awkward as we set sail on The Love Boat!
Episode 1.17 “Winner Take Love / The Congressman Was Indiscreet / Isaac’s History Lesson”
(Dir by Jack Arnold, originally aired on January 28th, 1978)
It’s the most awkward cruise ever!
A beauty contest is being held on the ship! The winner becomes Ms. Pacific Princess and, along with getting a lot of money, she also sacrifices a year of her life so that she can go on free cruises and promote the Pacific Princess line. Along with being beautiful, the winner is also expected to be “virtuous.” Of course, judging from The Love Boat, the cruise line seems to specifically cater to people who are desperately looking to get laid so the rules seem to be a bit hypocritical.
The head of the contest, Waldo Linden (Graham Jarvis), recruits Captain Stubing to act as host. Unfortunately, after Stubing gets a few laughs from the jokes that Waldo has written for him, the Captain turns into a prima donna. He starts punching up the script on his own. Waldo, however, has even more to worry about than the captain. Suzy (Maureen McCormick), one of the contestants, is secretly traveling with her boyfriend, Rick (Bobby Sherman). When Waldo tries to disqualify Suzy for not being “virtuous,” another contestant, the klutzy Jeanette (Priscilla Barnes), asks that Waldo help her zip up her dress and, after Waldo kisses her, she points out that Waldo hasn’t been living up to his own standards. Due to Jeanette’s blackmail, Suzy is allowed to compete and she wins! But then she refuses the crown so that she can marry Rick and, as a result, Jeanette becomes Miss Pacific Princess.
While that’s going on, scandal-plagued Congressman John Whitcomb (Dick Van Patten) falls in love with Robin Brandt (Vickie Lawrence). What the Congressman doesn’t know is that Robin works for a tabloid newspaper and Robin’s editor expects Robin to report on whether or not allegations of an affair are going to led to Whitcomb resigning his seat.
All of that is certainly awkward but it’s nothing compared to the third storyline. Almost everyone loves passenger Virgil Gibson (played by the engaging Scatman Crothers), who is always the life of the party and who loves to make people laugh. The only person who doesn’t like him is Prof. Stephanie Hayden (Vernee Watson), who is on the cruise to work on a study about African-American history. Hayden feels the Virgil is acting like a fool and playing into all of the demeaning stereotypes that white people have about black people. Hayden encourages Isaac to learn more about his background and soon, Isaac is being rude to Virgil and telling him not to call people “boss.”
Captain Stubing notices this. He approaches Isaac — while Isaac is working — and says, “I notice you’ve been reading a lot of black history.”
AGCK! As soon as the very white Captain Stubing says those words to Isaac, the cringing begins.
Stubing goes on to explain that Virgil was a pitcher in the Negro Baseball Leagues and that, if not for him, blacks would never have made it into the major leagues. “And I wouldn’t be serving drinks on this cruise,” a remorseful Isaac says. “And I wouldn’t be teaching,” Stephanie agrees. Stubing goes on to explain that Virgil is acting the way he acts because that’s the way blacks were expected to behave when Virgil was a young man. After being chastised by the ship’s white authority figure, Isaac and Stephanie agree that they were wrong to judge Virgil.
And, in many ways, Captain Stubing does have a point about judging people and Isaac and Stephanie were being a bit harsh in their dismissal of Virgil. But that doesn’t change the fact that this episode features the extremely white Captain Stubing explaining black history to not only the ship’s only black employee but also a black college professor who has spent her entire academic career researching and writing about black history. Stubing is essentially telling two black people how they should interpret and feel about black history. It’s incredibly weird to watch and one has to wonder why the writers thought that Stubing — as opposed to Virgil himself — was the correct character to explain Virgil’s past and Virgil’s character. It just doesn’t feel right, at all.
That said, there was a lot to like about this episode. Scatman Crothers shows the same charm here that he showed in The Shining. As cringey as Captain Stubing is when he lectures on black history, the plotline of him turning into a diva was actually pretty funny and Gavin MacLeod seemed to be having fun playing up the pompous side of the character. The beauty pageant subplot was dumb but Maureen McCormick actually gave a pretty good performance as Suzy. This episode had its moments though, in the end, it will always be defined by the awkwardness.