Gilligan's Island served as a humorous microcosm of American society.
By Gery L. Deer
Deer In Headlines
In 1963 television writer, producer Sherwood Schwartz created a short-lived situation comedy that, unbeknownst to audiences, provided a peak through a unique magnifying glass into the human condition. Panned by critics and adored by viewers, Gilligan’s Island became one of the most re-run shows of all time and earned a unique place in the annals of American pop culture.
Between 1964 and 1967, 98 original episodes of the show aired when it was suddenly cancelled before a fourth season could be filmed. Surprisingly, the show ran aground, not because of faltering ratings (it was always in the top 20) but instead because the president of CBS wanted to revive his wife’s favorite program, Gunsmoke, which had already drifted into the sunset.
Often taken too seriously by critics and sometimes misunderstood even by its fans, the premise of Gilligan’s was simple. Seven people set out on a scenic, three-hour cruise around theHawaiian Islands aboard the S.S. Minnow when an unexpected storm tossed their tiny ship and left it wrecked on the shore of an uncharted island.
Marooned more than 300 miles from their original course and left with only a transistor radio, a tool chest, four blankets and the clothes on their backs (which never seemed to wear out) the castaways had little hope of rescue. As if that wasn’t enough, each opportunity for escape from their tropical island nest was agonizingly thwarted – usually thanks to the ineptitude of the boat’s lovable, yet bungling first mate, (Willie) Gilligan.
Regardless of what people thought of the show, however, even today, the durability of Gilligan’s Island still leaves entertainment experts scratching their heads. It’s possible, though, that most people simply missed the point.
Gilligan’s offered us more than just 23 minutes of slapstick escapism. Along with campy, cartoon-like comedy, the program granted viewers a humorous and remarkably detailed glimpse of themselves.
Seven people, each of whom represented different social positions, were required to work together in order to survive in their shared predicament. The Skipper and Gilligan, for example, represented average, working class guys; a small business owner and his employee, if you will.
The Professor was a school teacher; the pragmatic scientist focused on getting everyone safely off the island. He also found ways to help make them all more comfortable while maintaining a discrete distance from the obvious distractions – Mary Ann and Ginger.
Sweet, kind, Mary Ann was a wholesome farm girl fromMiddle America. Television psychologists (yes, there are such people) often refer to her as the ‘linchpin’ of the story. Noticeably absent for a good part of an episode, Mary Ann would walk in at just the right moment bringing with her at least part of the solution to an impending problem, though sometimes inadvertently.
Movie starlet, Ginger, was Mary Ann’s voluptuous, big city opposite. Her Marilyn Monroe-esque sensuality was continually implied but never fully executed. Even though she was a film star, on the island she was relegated to a traditional ‘female’ role of the 1960’s, cooking and doing laundry.
Lastly, the millionaire Thurston Howell III and his socialite wife, aptly named, Lovey are obvious stand-ins for the high-brow elite. Carrying enough cash to support a small nation, the lazy yet likable couple solved problems back home with money – something that has no value on the island. Still, Howell’s business savvy and ruthless determination to return to civilization offers both foil and ally to the others.
And there you have it, seven snapshots of modern society dropped into a difficult situation where they are forced to get along for the common good. Of course a sitcom isn’t real life, but it shows us that we all have the same basic needs no matter where we are in the pecking order of society. In the end, we all require food, clothing, shelter, some level of happiness and a margin of personal satisfaction.
No one ever really finds everything they’re looking for in life, but peel away our political, religious and social trappings and we’re all the same. Just people trying to get along, regardless of whether we live on the streets of anywhere U.S.A., or here on Gilligan’s Island.