You know what “Love Boat’s” secret is? It’s got that theme song that sucks you right in. First it draws you in with the buildup of the verses (Love, exciting and new/come aboard we’re expecting you), a buildup that swells and swells before finally paying off with that triumphant chorus (The Looo–vve Booo-at!!).
Remember, they didn’t have music videos back then, so any time there was a fully formed two-minute ballad with a hook, a payoff, and an inspiring visual on television, people pulled up a chair.
It’s said that “Love Boat” was patterned after “Love American Style,” whose secret to success was also its great theme song and intro. Once people imbibed that infectious Cowsills-sung tune and technicolor 4th of July fireworks display, they pretty much had to stick around to see how the episode played out. And that’s what they did with the Love Boat, too.
If the theme song didn’t get you on board, the ensemble of guest stars usually did. Where else could you see TV royalty like Jaclyn Smith, John Ritter, Sherman Hemsley and LaWanda Page all sharing the screen together on the same channel?
Only in your dreams, right?
And yet, that’s exactly what you get on Season 1, Episode 2 of the Love Boat, in the form of three minisodes entitled “A Tasteful Affair/Oh, Dale!/The Main Event.”
“A Tasteful Affair” features Jaclyn Smith as an unhappy wife in a loveless marriage. As her emotionally distant husband sees her onto the ship, they quarrel some more and she tells him, “I don’t give a damn about any of those things!”
You wouldn’t catch Jaclyn saying “I don’t give a damn” on Charlie’s Angels, now would you? This is Jaclyn Smith as you’ve never seen her before, on a cruise alone having some me time and getting her head together.
What she doesn’t know is that her husband is having her followed by a private detective (Dennis Cole) because he suspects her of having an affair.
Next up are LaWanda Page and Sherman Hemsley in “The Main Event.” They too are bickering away as they step onto the Love Boat, but their verbal sparring is punctuated with a laugh track. (I forgot that Love Boat had a laugh track. It seems like a weird thing to have on a ship, and it totally takes you out of the moment.)
Speaking of laugh tracks, this segment is directed by none other than Stuart Margolin, better known to many as Angel Martin, Jim Rockford’s two-timing, and two-time Emmy winning, no-goodnik best buddy on the Rockford Files.
LaWanda Page and Sherman Hemsley are basically playing Aunt Esther and George Jefferson here, the same characters they portray on network TV. Instead of being George Jefferson the dry-cleaning magnate, Hemsley plays Maurice Marshall, the Sausage King, who hands out sausage-shaped business cards to everyone he meets (I wonder if that was Stuart Margolin’s idea?), and LaWanda Page is his long-suffering wife, Stella.
The Marshalls bicker constantly, but underneath it all they still love each other very much. They’re coming on the cruise to rekindle the flame. This is “The Main Event.”
Last but not least, “Oh, Dale” stars John Ritter as the title character. Dale is a spurned boyfriend trying desperately to keep the object of his affections, Joanne, from going through with a cruise alongside her new man. “What’s he got that I don’t?” Dale asks in so many words.
“An expensive car.”
Women are often furious at Jack Tripper, and usually with good reason. In this case, Joanne’s boundless fury results from the fact that he thinks he can simply get her the way he is, as if she didn’t have any expectations of her own in a mate.
We enter their story at a moment that looks pretty bad for Joanne–she’s belittling Dale because he doesn’t have a better car.
But what’s really going on here? Is Joanne being cruel and shallow, or is she reacting because Dale is still following her around like a puppy-dog (some would say stalker) after a week-long fling that didn’t mean as much to her as it did to him. She’s obviously moved on, but he hasn’t.
Either way, I struggle to understand what Dale sees in this woman. He’s a people person and her only passion is materialism. Plus, she acts like a 10 even though she’s barely an 8. But, we’ve already reached an understanding on Three’s Company that Jack Tripper is a hopeless romantic whose heart wants what it wants, and it wants Joanne.
So Dale comes down to the ship to beg Joanne to reconsider, and when that doesn’t work he tries to book last minute passage on the cruise himself. Gopher the Yeoman Purser explains that he’d like to help, but since Dale is a man, there’s nothing he can do. Now, if Dale were a wo-man, it would work out perfectly, you see, because there happens to be exactly one spot available, but it’s in a female cabin. Since Dale’s a man, and not a wo-man, there’s nothing that can be done.
Apparently Gopher has never seen Three’s Company, because he doesn’t know what John Ritter is capable of. After profiling a female passenger who is about his height, Dale steals the woman’s luggage and disappears into the Love Boat’s mens’ room, emerging from a stall minutes later in a wig, polka-dot dress, hoop-earrings, and caterpillar-sized false eyelashes.
Despite having had a detailed conversation about the last available bed on the ship with the male Dale within the hour, Gopher doesn’t suspect a thing when a female Dale shows up at the ticket counter in really bad drag, an unconvincing high-pitched voice, and Nixonian five o’clock shadow to request a last minute booking. He cheerfully sells Dale the ticket and wishes her a bon voyage.
So once again, it’s John Ritter doing what he does best in 1977, maintaining a hopelessly false pretense to the audience’s approval, because we are in on the joke with him. Needless to say, Dale fools everybody on the show, from his female cabin-mate, to the girl who’s trying to get rid of him (Joanne), to the two dirty old men of the crew, Doc and Captain Stubing.
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The detective hired to follow Jaclyn Smith is played by Dennis Cole. You know him as the guy who rocked the Malibu Ken look in 1977. He used to be on a lot of these shows and usually stood out as the most strikingly handsome man on the screen, with the most chiseled features, blondest hair, and evenest tan. He’s got the face that says he should be the star of his own show, but all he ever does is Love Boat and Fantasy Island walk-ons.
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The remainder of “Main Event” (Aunt Esther/Sherman Hemsley) plays out in an elevator. They hop inside to go down to the lobby, but Esther decides she wants to go back to the cabin, and presses the button for their floor. “No, the lobby,” George says, pushing “L” once more.
“I’m tired and I want to go back to the room,” Aunt Esther insists, pressing her button again, a little more emphatically this time. They go back and forth like this a little longer, each time hitting the elevator button a tad more urgently to punctuate a conversation that grows ever more heated, until finally smoke comes out of the elevator button panel and the machinery shorts out, leaving them stranded in the shaft between floors, with no apparent way out.
In the age of modern terrorism, I don’t think we can laugh at the spectacle of public infrastructure being so easily sabotaged the way we used to. And that goes doubly so for cruise ships. The notion of an ocean liner breaking down and leaving people stranded in darkness is a little too real for a laugh track today.
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John Ritter’s cabin-mate, Susan (portrayed by Tovah Feldshuh), is a jilted lover, like Dale. In fact, the reason the extra bed has opened in her room is because her fiancé dumped her at the altar. The female Dale proves to be such an invaluable consolation and (literal) lifesaver to the despondent Susan over the course of the episode, that when she learns the shocking truth about Dale, there’s no fear and anger, only lust and joy as the Love Boat works its magic yet again.
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“The Love Boat” was just beginning its nine-year run when this episode ran. Confounding critics, “The Love Boat” ranked among the top-20 most watched TV shows for every one of its first seven seasons. Social historians are still trying to figure it out.