Tune In Tonight: "The Love Boat Fall Preview Special"
Some years ago, I did marketing for a medical supply company. When you think marketing/advertising, you think Mad Men, three martini luncheons in which you reel in potential new clients with drawings and mock commercials that will surely help them move at least twice as much product as the last quarter, and celebrate a deal with a few lines of coke in a restaurant bathroom. My experience, however, was closer to that of Tom Hanks in Joe Versus the Volcano, right down to the flickering fluorescent lights in the office.
As creative a person as I like to imagine myself to be, it turned out to be pretty challenging to promote neck braces and toilet chairs as good gift ideas. People don’t usually browse medical supply company websites if they don’t need to, and no amount of promotions, advertisements, or “buy one, get the rest of it free because we can’t get rid of this shit” discounts will convince them to stock up on “necessities” like dental bibs and urethral catheters. Needless to say, I’ve learned to look at marketing executives with some level of sympathy, even those who earn several times more per year than I did doing the same job. It’s a thankless job, in which recognition is only earned when the marketing campaign fails and the product is a flop. Even if you don’t believe in whatever it is that you’re selling, you better damn well make it seem like you do, otherwise the consumer is going to smell the indifference from a mile away.
1983’s The Love Boat Fall Preview Special suffers from a distinct lack of confidence in the new shows it’s shilling, while somehow still managing to be Hollywood auto-fellatio at its wettest and sloppiest. A strange crossover in which the fictitious characters of The Love Boat interact with the real life celebrities in ABC’s television lineup, it boasts no less than 62 guest stars from A to Zmed, most of whom don’t do much more than stand around in the background and pretend to make conversation with each other. The sole purpose of the program is for ABC to bestow endless praise upon itself, while promoting eight new shows which you’ll be sure to love–and of which less than half made it past one season.
Gavin MacLeod, in character as Your Ship’s Captain Merrill Stubing, gushes over what an honor it is to have such luminaries as the guy who played McCormick in Hardcastle and McCormick on board, then regales the audience with a rendition of “Consider Yourself” from Oliver! Is MacLeod a natural singer? Absolutely not, but he performs with far more enthusiasm than a contractual obligation deserves. After that, he pays homage to the stars of ABC’s most popular programs, such as Happy Days and Three’s Company, both of which would be canceled the following season. The stars are called up and brought out to dance together, like they’re the in-laws in a very large wedding reception.
Next, in a clumsy format that couldn’t possibly be the first idea the promotions team came up with, ABC’s new shows are introduced by having the Love Boat cast members, in character, make “casual” small talk with the stars, none of whom can make up their minds if they’re supposed to also be in character, or just appearing as themselves. Lauren Tewes as Your Cruise Director Julie chats with T.K. Carter and Richard Gilliland, the stars of the sitcom Just Our Luck, in which Carter plays a wisecracking genie named Shabu, who makes life better for Gilliland, a dorky weatherman. The show looks atrocious, but Tewes almost convincingly declares “I’m gonna watch Just Our Luck every Tuesday!” She would have been the only one who was watching–plagued by bad reviews and an audience that just wasn’t interested in a show about a black man who exists solely to do a white man’s bidding, Just Our Luck was canceled by the end of the year.
After that, we’re introduced to the newest and cutest jewel in ABC’s crown, Emmanuel Lewis, the star of Webster. Your Ship’s Bartender Isaac can barely contain himself over this magical pixie child, who, in the pilot episode of his show, is handed over to his soon to be adoptive white father by a deliveryman like a bag of groceries. I mentioned a couple times in my review of A Christmas Dream, an otherwise unremarkable serving of holiday schmaltz, how unnerving it is from a modern perspective to see Emmanuel Lewis, age 13, playing someone more than half his age. It’s way worse here, because this is the audience’s first real glimpse of him, looking and acting like his TV character, a five year-old boy, right down to the adorably awkward, stilted manner of speaking and inability to make eye contact, even though he was really 12 at the time. Hopefully unaware of how old Lewis actually was, Isaac musters up something that sounds close to enthusiasm and says “Well, I know what I’ll be doing on Friday nights…watching Webster!”
It didn’t really need his help, though–one of the first shows in what would eventually become ABC’s powerhouse Friday night sitcom lineup, Webster lasted an improbable six seasons. If you’re doing the math, that means that when the show ended, Lewis was playing an 11 year-old while being old enough to vote in real life. Please feel free to take a moment to work that shudder out of your system.
As it turns out, Isaac is seeing another show behind Webster‘s back–it’s Oh, Madeline, a terribly named sitcom vehicle for the great Madeline Kahn. Kahn must have shown up after the Pacific Princess already left the port, because it’s up to Isaac and Captain Stubing to have a perfectly natural conversation about a television show neither of them have ever seen, and how great Kahn is in it. Neither of them make a commitment to watch it, though, but that’s probably for the best–despite the fact that it actually looked pretty funny going by the preview clip, Oh, Madeline was a critical and ratings bomb, and was canceled after one season.
Gopher, Your Ship’s Yeoman, runs into Brian Keith and Daniel Hugh Kelly, Hardcastle and McCormick on Hardcastle and McCormick. While Keith makes a workmanlike effort at looking as though he’s enjoying himself, Kelly just looks annoyed at the concept of having to promote his own show. Gopher’s banter with them is so stiff and uncomfortable that he all but flees for safety, but not before saying “That sounds like a great show! I’m gonna look for that every Sunday starting tomorrow!” Fondly remembered by no one, Hardcastle and McCormick lasted three seasons.
James Brolin does a somewhat better job than Daniel Hugh Kelly of hiding how uncomfortable he is promoting his new show, Hotel (essentially The Love Boat, but in a hotel and with no comedy), but can barely stifle a grimace when Isaac says “Well, I’m gonna make my reservation for Wednesday night at that hotel!” I can only assume that this line came from a hastily scrawled upon legal pad, and deemed the least bad between “I’ll be sure to check in every Wednesday!” and “Oh boy, I hope there’s room at that inn!” Probably one of your grandmother’s favorite shows, Hotel made it through five seasons.
Taking a break from all the festivities, John Ritter introduces some vaguely racist “home movies” of a trip the cast of The Love Boat took to “the Orient” the previous summer. These aren’t so much “home movies” as a “commercial for an upcoming episode of The Love Boat,” but that’s fine, this is one long commercial anyway. Next, Your Ship’s Physician, Dr. Adam Bricker, meets Ben Murphy and Marshall Colt, the stars of Lottery!, a drama about a lottery representative and an IRS agent traveling the country together to personally notify new millionaires. You wouldn’t think a show in which an IRS agent is one of the heroes would last very long, and it didn’t: despite Dr. Bricker proclaiming “Well, gentlemen, there’s no question about it, Lottery! is a big winner for Friday nights this fall!”, it barely limped through one season. It does boast an insanely detailed Wikipedia page, however, including this riveting bit of trivia: “The opening titles for the show featured large banks of computers and tape drives. Above what appeared to be a trading floor (similar to what one would see at a stock exchange) were large electronic toteboards showing the latest prizes, the winners’s names, and the countries in which they lived.”
We get one more sitcom with It’s Not Easy, a show about antagonistic ex-spouses who live directly across the street from each other for the sake of their children (because it’s healthy for kids to witness their parents constantly sniping at each other and openly mocking their new partners, you see). The two minute preview for this warm, fuzzy family comedy features both a gay slur and a slut shaming joke, and Your Captain’s Adopted Daughter Jill offers a half-hearted “Well, I’ll be watching It’s Not Easy on Thursday nights!” The biggest dud in the bunch, it was canceled after just four episodes, with the remaining five cast off to sea, never to be seen again.
The last new show introduced is Trauma Center, a run of the mill hospital drama that also didn’t live to see the new year. The show concludes with Maureen McGovern singing a song in tribute to ABC, and its ability to create “memories to treasure” and “special times we’ll never forget,” while the stars look on smiling and nodding in approval, as if thinking “Yeah, we are pretty fucking great.”
Despite the hilarious self-congratulatory tone (as one should expect from a preview show), there’s something a little sad in retrospect about The Love Boat Fall Preview Special. After a solid run at the top of network ratings, ABC was on a swift decline, losing its biggest hits within just three years of each other, and nothing new in the 1983-84 season was able to compensate for that. Even Webster, the closest thing the network had to a bona fide “hit,” never cracked the top 20, even in its first season. Soon came the rise of Cosby, and ABC’s ratings continued to plummet, not recovering into well into the 90s, thanks to such surprise smashes as Roseanne and NYPD Blue. So it’s almost poignant for ABC to end the show by imploring the audience to remember the good times they’ve had watching its programs, and to please, baby, just give them one more chance.
Original airdate: September 17, 1983