News of the deaths of Russell Johnson, who played the Professor on “Gilligan’s Island” and Dave Madden, who played the band manager on “The Partridge Family” have inspired memories of two iconic TV shows from the past. “Gilligan’s Island” aired on CBS from 1964 to 1967 and “The Partridge Family” aired on ABC from 1970 to 1974. Both shows were on the air for only a few years, but the impact of both shows was significant due to years of exposure through syndication.
“The Partridge Family” centered on a widowed mother who was raising five children. The family formed a band, and David Cassidy, who played Keith Partridge, became a teen heartthrob as the show launched his solo singing career. Dave Madden played the often pushy manager, Reuben Kincaid.
Of the two shows, “Gilligan’s Island” had a much bigger impact on pop culture. The premise of the show was a small sight-seeing boat getting caught in a storm during a “three hour cruise” and landing on an uncharted island. Each episode revolved around different opportunities for the castaways to be rescued and return home, but every episode ended with the same outcome; they never got off the island! What was it about “Gilligan’s Island” that made it a pop culture common denominator for several generations? The simple question “Ginger or Mary Ann” reflected the obvious sexual overtones of the show. The idea of two attractive girls stranded indefinitely on a deserted island led to the male fantasy of considering which one guys would choose to be with. Both Ginger and Mary Ann represented two distinct types of girls that could not have been farther apart in nature. Ginger was the glamorous starlet type and Mary Ann was the stereotypical girl next door.
While Ginger would seem to be the obvious choice of anyone who loves women because of her overtly sexy image, the more wholesome Mary Ann seemed to be the unofficial favorite. Maybe guys could innately sense what a high-maintenance problem Ginger would be. Or, perhaps more guys preferred the extremely short shorts that Mary Ann was painted into in each episode! The shorts worn by Mary Ann were as short, or shorter, than anything I’ve seen Miley Cyrus wear. If only Mary Ann would have known about twerking!
I don’t think girls watching “Gilligan’s Island” faced the same dilemma of the selection faced by guys. Who would girls choose to partner off with: the Skipper, the Professor, Gilligan? It would seem to me that the Professor would have been the ONLY choice.
In addition to the sexual overtones of the show, there may have been other, more subconscious, reasons the masses could relate to the plight of the castaways. Maybe we found something comforting in watching the survival instincts of the castaways. Usually with the help of the Professor, the castaways had many modern conveniences created from the most basic resources on the island. The Professor’s genius creativity led to one obvious question: If the Professor could make all these things out of coconuts and bamboo – why couldn’t he fix the 3-foot hole in the boat?
Another redeeming message in “Gilligan’s Island” was the blending of different socio-economic groups. Thruston and Lovie Howell were upper-class, snobbish millionaires, the Professor was an intellectual and a science teacher, Ginger was glamorous, Mary Ann was wholesome, the Skipper represented blue-collar workers and Gilligan was the typical underdog screw up. And yet, with few exceptions, they all bonded over their dire circumstances and the common goal of getting off the island. While the characters in the show lacked real diversity in terms of race, religion, nationality and sexual orientation, their backgrounds and interests were diverse and maybe the ultimate message of “Gilligan’s Island” was that if we focus on what we have in common rather than what separates us, we can all get along.
Each episode included the hope of getting off the island and returning home. If the castaways were not devising a strategy to leave the island, outsiders either sought the island’s seclusion to escape the stress of modern society, or were lost and happened upon the island. As we watched, we all were hoping that the castaways would be rescued at the end of the episode, but with the knowledge that the TV series was based on the fact that they would never be rescued! Perhaps we all found humor in the various ways the plans to leave the island were foiled – usually by Gilligan.
TV Land is planning a “Gilligan’s Island” marathon Monday from 8:00 am to 8:00 pm, and the show is now on Monday through Saturday from 6:00 pm – 8:00 pm. Antenna TV is honoring Dave Madden with a “Partridge Family” marathon from 12:00 pm to 7:00 pm Saturday.
Considering the premise of “The Partridge Family” and especially “Gilligan’s Island,” anyone would be challenged to find intellectual justification for investing time each week to watch either show, or in continuing to watch either show in syndicated reruns. But sometimes the redeeming value of mindless television is the mental and emotional escape it provides for all of us.
As we honor the passing of two actors who appeared in iconic sitcoms from the past, we think about which, if any, sitcoms today will survive the test of time and continue to provide memories and escapism for future audiences.