Baywatch: ’90s Trash TV Reevaluated as Cult Oddity
Whether there is actually a renaissance of interest in Baywatch that is leading to its reevaluation as a time capsule masterpiece of campy junk food television or if that’s just something that’s occurring in my own mind, I’m not sure. Frankly, its recent, remastered resurfacing on Amazon Prime and Hulu is enough to convince me that I’m not alone, but then again, I’m the guy who frequently mentions Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama and takes it as confirmation of its popularity when one person knows what I’m talking about, so my frame of reference isn’t all that expansive on these matters.
In any case, the cultural impact of Baywatch is certainly not up for debate. At one point in time, the show was syndicated in 144 countries and translated into 15 different languages, giving it the Guinness World Record for most watched television series of all time with an audience of well over a billion people (David Hasselhoff also holds the record for most watched man in television). So I am in no way claiming to be plucking some obscure little cult show from the past to reevaluate it. Not at all.
But despite being the worldwide phenomenon that it obviously was, Baywatch was — shall we say — not exactly a highly regarded show, even if it was seen and known by almost everybody. It was the ultimate in junk food television, and it existed as a giant pop culture punchline throughout most of its run. Parodies of buxom lifeguards with unrealistically flawless hair and makeup running in slow motion on the beach were everywhere, even in children’s programs of the time. The general perception is that it was a show that was popular solely because of the sex appeal of its cast — both the male and female stars, but probably mostly the women — and therefore functioned primarily as a glorified substitute for softcore porn in a time when actual porn was a bit harder to come by (this being a few years before the internet had fully proliferated into the common household).
So despite the show having a reach of over a billion people — at the time, about a fifth of the world population — the common perception of it was chalked up to that: it was just attractive people running around in slow motion on the beach, and nothing more. Did the show have a loyal following? I don’t know, because based on that synopsis, I have to wonder if people were actually watching it. It was ubiquitous in syndication, so it’s entirely possible that even people who did watch it just caught an episode here and there, rolled with the consensus about it, and moved on. I doubt there were many people who made it a point to follow it closely for all 240 episodes spanning across 11 seasons (and that’s not even including the spinoff, which I will most assuredly get to later).
Now that we’re living in the age of binge watching, however, it’s much easier to view the series in a completely different way than any of us did back in its ’90s heyday. With every episode readily available at our fingertips, all neatly organized in chronological order, those curious souls who have opted to give it another look all seem to have reached the same conclusion:
Baywatch is a LOT weirder than any of us remember it being.
Why, just look at the episode from which the above still is taken. It involves Mitch and Stephanie going undercover to infiltrate a secret pirate syndicate responsible for some murders, and rather than playing it as a standard procedural, the episode sees them facing identity crises as they lose themselves in their alternate personas, exemplified perfectly in an extended black-and-white musical daydream sequence (although the music we hear is very clearly not matching what the band is performing in the scene) that Mitch has when he randomly stares into a mirror.
It’s that kind of show.
And the thing is that this isn’t even atypical for an episode of Baywatch. The more you watch, the more you realize that bizarre, surreal stuff like that is kind of the show’s MO. Well, sometimes, anyway. The truly fascinating thing about the series in retrospect is how many divergent elements of contemporary pop culture it managed to incorporate. Were these elements woven in seamlessly? No, of course not. But that’s what makes it all the more fascinating. It’s a strange mishmash of so many things that were popular at the time that it can’t help but accidentally succeed as a gloriously campy capsule of its specific time and place. It borrowed from police dramas, soap operas, swimsuit magazines, professional wrestling (more on that momentarily), even Twin Peaks…anything and everything that was popular at the time managed to wash up on that beach at some point.
So let’s take a look at just a handful of episodes to illustrate just how truly bizarre this show was. First of all, just to make sure I’m not venturing too far outside of this blog’s usual focus on horror, Baywatch did indeed have its fair share of horror-flavored episodes. Being a beach show and all, of course there are a few shark episodes, perhaps the best of which is the Season 7 episode “Shark Fever,” which features Australian lifeguard Logan trying to fulfill his dream of directing a shark movie (would that count as Ozploitation?) that is totally not in any way inspired by Jaws, not even a little bit (that was sarcasm, in case the episode’s constant references to Jaws don’t make that clear). Then it turns out — what are the odds! — a real great white shark terrorizes the set. Stock footage of a shark that clearly doesn’t match accentuates this fantastic episode that also features a subplot about a new lifeguard causing another lifeguard to be jealous (nearly every episode has a similarly unrelated subplot like that). Oh, and Mitch goes after the shark, so it’s an action-packed adventure for sure. Wait until you see how they end up getting rid of it. Hint: flare guns are involved.
And that’s not even the most memorable “killer animal on the loose” episode! The Season 8 episode “Eel Nino” might hold that distinction. In one of this episode’s plots (because, again, there are usually two unrelated plots going on at once), Mitch’s son Hobie gets himself into trouble while trying to impress April out of jealousy of her relationship with Manny (jealousy is a common motivation in this show), and by “gets into trouble,” I mean he ends up getting trapped in an underwater cave with April where an oversized, killer electric eel has them cornered. This episode would not seem out of place among the made-for-TV movies that Syfy (then the Sci-Fi Channel) that were being produced at the time. Like I said, Baywatch borrowed from everything. Anyway, to cut right to the chase, if you’re not interested in seeing David Hasselhoff fight a giant eel with a defibrillator, then obviously this show is not for you, and why are you still reading this?
Circus sideshows have always been a popular subject of cult and exploitation movies, and do you think Baywatch was going to go 11 seasons without doing a sideshow episode? In fact, it only took them until the fourth season to do it. First of all, the episode, entitled “Blindside,” begins with some hooligan on a motorcycle circling some women on a beach, and when Pam Anderson can’t get rid of him by half-heartedly suggesting he stop, a LITERAL COWBOY rides onto the beach on his horse out of nowhere and lassos the motorcycle dude. That’s how this episode begins. Really sets the tone.
Anyway, Giant Gonzalez plays a sideshow giant with a heart of gold who befriends Hobie and spends most of his time crafting wooden pelicans in his hiding place, which is in plain sight beneath the pier. Yes, Giant Gonzalez. Former WWF (or, ahem, WWE) wrestler whose gimmick was that he was an eight-foot-tall naked sasquatch. In actuality (non-kayfabe, to use a wrestling term), he was a still daunting 7’7″ and wore a suit that made him look…well…like this:
He gets mistreated by the guy who runs the sideshow, and at one point some gang members threaten him with a knife for no apparent reason (I think it’s initiated by the leader pointing to Gonzalez and saying, “Who’s that?”, which prompts them to whip their knives out and corner him). But he and Hobie have a great time together playing carnival games, and apparently he’s really good at them because he wins waaayyy too many stuffed animals. This is shown in an amazing montage sequence set to an unbelievably kitschy sap song. Despite all the bullying he suffers, it all works out for the gentle giant in the end, as is conveyed when Mitch sees his wooden pelicans and goes, “Hey, these are neat. Maybe I’ll buy one.” All in all, I’d say Giant Gonzalez might have actually been a better actor than he was a wrestler (he was involved in what is often called the worst WrestleMania match of all time against the Undertaker). I realize that’s not saying much, but he adequately portrayed a giant who likes pelicans and can hold a lot of stuffed animals at once. So he at least held his own, which is somewhat impressive in an episode that’s mainly about a beach cowboy going blind.
That episode is decent, but I mainly brought it up just to use as a segue into what may be the single most mind-boggling episode of the series, which stars even more wrestlers. I’m of course referring to the Season 6 WCW crossover episode “Bash at the Beach.” In this episode, guest stars Hulk Hogan and “Macho Man” Randy Savage save a children’s gym from being turned into condominiums by two other wrestlers, “Nature Boy” Ric Flair and Big Van Vader. They accomplish this, of course, by challenging them to wrestling matches. The Baywatch universe apparently exists in wrestling kayfabe, which has such intriguing implications that it’s like realizing it’s set in the same universe as The X-Files…oh wait, that’s actually not far from the truth, as I’ll return to briefly.
Anyway, the episode opens with Hogan and Savage racing each other on jet skis, and it just gets better from there. I should note this was also around the time that Savage started doing those famous Slim Jim ads, and as if it weren’t enough that the ring and everything around it are decked out in the Slim Jim logo, the Macho Man pulls a Slim Jim from his belt and tosses it to the crowd before his match. Glorious. If you turned this episode into a drinking game and did a shot every time Savage says “ooohh yeah” or “dig it,” Hogan says “brother,” or Flair says “wooooo,” you’d be dead in about 10 minutes flat.
Oh, and there’s also a subplot about one of the lifeguards getting skin cancer. But don’t worry. Once it starts getting too heavy handed, they cut immediately to a montage of Hogan and Savage training for their match, complete with American flags galore, running on the beach, gratuitous slow motion, and an INCREDIBLE sub-hair metal banger whose chorus goes “‘Cause he’s tougher than tough / And he’s got the right stuff!” And after a montage like that, of course they win their matches, and they all have a big celebration on the beach afterwards.
Then it cuts immediately back to the skin cancer subplot, and it turns out the cancer has spread. Cue sad music, Hasselhoff tears, and the episode ends. What. The. Fuck.
But that’s still nothing compared to the spinoff. Oh yes, it’s time to talk about Baywatch Nights. For the longest time, I thought it was just a spinoff about what the lifeguards did after hours. I’d seen a few commercials and thought, “Huh. That’s weird. Mitch is an actual detective now? Okay then.” And that would have been weird enough had that been the extent of its straying from the original show. But oh no. Not even close. For you see, after the first season of Baywatch Nights failed to make an impression, the network wanted to cancel it, but David Hasselhoff himself made the case for doing a second season, and in his pitch (his Mitch pitch?), he decided that the show should become more like The X-Files. So what did this mean?
It meant the second season of Baywatch Nights was about Mitch battling ghosts, sea monsters, mummies, vampires, and demons. Yep.
And mind you, this wasn’t some non-canon spinoff. Oh no. Baywatch Nights premiered in 1995 during the sixth season of Baywatch, and events from each show were addressed in the continuity of the other show. And yes, that continued into the batshit second season of Baywatch Nights, which aired concurrently with Baywatch‘s seventh season…although this time, it was more of a one-way thing, as I don’t recall them ever bringing up the time Mitch got possessed by a demon (yes, that actually happened) on Baywatch proper. That didn’t stop that episode of Baywatch Nights from tying in a key character and plot point from Baywatch past (no spoilers, but it involves a main character’s death), so clearly this was still part of the same continuity. It’s just…I’m at a loss of words for how astonishing the addition of Baywatch Nights to this phenomenon is.
I’ve only scratched the surface of the psychotronic, paracinematic (to use fancy terms that cult movie aficionados such as myself use to justify our love of trash) delights that Baywatch has to offer. I realize that many of you only remember it as the show where David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson run in slow motion while their bits jangle in such a way to trigger the erotic imaginations of both teenage boys and housewives in the early ’90s. And yes, that is a big part of the show. Its trademark, as it were. But in a way, that recurring trademark is one of the few things that ties the series together, because a lot of the episodes are wildly different from one another, not just in terms of plot elements and tone, but even in terms of their concepts of reality. Baywatch basically didn’t adhere to any set of rules in its full commitment to cramming every single pop culture fad of the time into its impressive 240-episode run, and especially now that we can watch the show with the gift of hindsight and at our own leisure unshackled by the randomizaton of syndication, the eccentric, often surreal effects of that are now more apparent than ever.
I’ve long maintained that you could learn more about a culture by studying its “trash” than you could by studying what it canonizes as high art. What a culture celebrates as its greatest artistic accomplishments are more often than not just the idealized representation of the select few; saying that they represent the entire culture is naive, if not wholly dishonest. You need to go dumpster diving if you want to get a true feel for a culture’s values and personality. For better or worse (or rather, for better and worse), Baywatch had its finger on the pulse of America. In retrospect, it probably says more about ’90s America than any of that decade’s Best Picture Oscar winners. We tend to award what we want to be and trash what we are. Baywatch is what we were. Turn off your mind and soak it in. It’s pretty goddamn entertaining. A perfect blend of soap opera histrionics, nonsensical (even absurdist, one might argue) writing, and shameless fan service. I’m only being semi-sardonic in my praise. It’s the gloriously campy peak of ’90s trash TV.
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