Baywatch has become an iconic show over the years and its legacy is still visible today. The past two years Pamela Anderson had a resurgence in the limelight with a show about her stolen sex tape and a documentary on Netflix. Both of these would not exist without Baywatch since it was Baywatch that made Pamela a household name. But it was Pamela who was largely responsible for making the show an actual worldwide phenomenon.
This was one of those shows I watched when I was a teenager, though I only saw the first couple of seasons. By the time it ended there were 11 seasons totaling 242 50 minute episodes. If you would watch one episode every weekday it would take up almost a year to watch the whole thing. And that’s a lot of time to invest in a show that is mediocre at best. So I’m going to narrow the scope and look just at the first season of Baywatch for now.
The first thing that clearly stands out to me is the lack of familiar faces among the cast. When people think of Baywatch they think of all the Playboy models that ran around on the beach in slow-motion wearing a tight fitting swimsuit. They think of David Hasselhoff or Jeremy Jackson as Mitch and Hobie Buchanan. The first season features a lot of characters would not reprise their roles in subsequent seasons and the only breakout star in this season was Erika Eleniak as Shauni McClain, who was officially the very first Baywatch babe years before Pamela Anderson would get into the swim suit.
The changes to the cast are probably due to the fact that the show was actually cancelled after the first season. It was revived in syndication and then renewed for a second season. Some of the actors probably had other obligations by then or didn’t want to sign on to a show that they were already fired from basically.
While the character of Hobie Buchanan is in all seasons of Baywatch, he’s played by Brandon Call in the first season. Jeremy Jackson would take over the role beginning with season two and made the role his own. Few people will think of Brandon when it comes to Hobie, but he does the token cute kid part well.
Three other notable characters that don’t make it past the first season are lawyer/lifeguard Craig Pomeroy, private club lifeguard Trevor Cole and female lifeguard Jill Riley. Craig’s departure is the most notable since he plays a big role in the first season as Mitch’s best friend and colleague. Apparently he would return for a few episodes in season 8. Trevor was a mere supporting character who never even gets a proper goodbye. Jill is positioned to be the main female character of the show but she dies near the end of the first seasons after an encounter with a shark.
And then there’s John D. Cort. This character is introduced halfway through the first season but quickly takes over as the catalyst of the show’s plots. He takes the others to an illegal casino and on a road trip to Mexico. He enters a shark derby and a water skiing race, enlisting the help of others in both cases. Cort would also only appear as a main character in the first season, but would appear in one episode of the next four seasons each.
Much like most shows at the time, Baywatch is an episodic show. Each episode has a self-contained storyline and is rarely mention or acknowledged in a subsequent episode. One notable exception is the death of Jill which is featured in flashbacks in the subsequent episode which has Shauni dealing with the trauma this death inflicted on her. But aside from that event, the characters have little to no story arcs. the story arcs it does contain never go beyond stuff like “Eddie and Shauni have a relationship” and “Mitch dates Hobie’s English teacher for a couple of episodes”.
Baywatch’s biggest challenge was to make a show about lifeguards interesting. 22 episodes about people getting rescued from the water doesn’t make for exciting television. The writers of the show manage to put the lifeguards all sorts of situations which are totally unrelated to their job, but do often end up in an aquatic environment so that Mitch and company can jump into the water. After having seen the first season I my only conclusion is that somehow a lot of criminals somehow end up at the beach or at a marina.
Here are some of the “highlights” of the plots in the first season of Baywatch:
- Eddie’s criminal youth friend returns in his life
- Jill uncovers a murder plot while dating one of the prime suspects
- Two robbers hang around Baywatch trying to recover stuff they’ve stolen from a crashed airplane
- Hobie and his friends end up on an island which functions as a hide-out for modern day pirates
- Eddie helps a girl who is pursued by her abusive, murderous, drug dealing ex
- A masked serial killer roams the beach at night
- Two escaped convicts take everybody at Baywatch HQ hostage during a storm
- Eddie and Shauni get trapped in an armored car at the bottom of the sea
- Craig, Cort and Eddie end up in Mexico in an episode inspired by The A-Team
- Eddie is drawn into gambling after Cort takes him to an illegal offshore casino
- Mitch has a hang-gliding accident and has a showdown with a rattle snake
- Eddie sees a ghost on the beach. There is no twist or clear explanation, it actually turns out to be a ghost
All these storylines are pretty silly and it makes Baywatch to be lowbrow entertainment and a guilty pleasure. All of the elements that Baywatch is known for are here on display, albeit in a more subdued fashion. There are plenty of slow-motion scenes and montages. There is even one dedicated to Shauni who becomes the object of affection of a beach-goer in one episode.
What stood out to me is how athletic both Jill and Shauni’s figures are. In my recollection Erika Eleniak was always this busty bombshell but the first season of Baywatch was apparently shot before she had breast implants. Pamela Anderson would further cement the idea of Baywatch being primarily about busty playboy models in tight bikinis, but the first season of Baywatch is pretty low on well endowed women.
In fact, it seems the show was tooled more towards girls and women. Brandon Call (Hobie) and Billy Warlock (Eddie) seem to be cast to appeal to teenagers whereas David Hasselhoff, Parker Stevenson, Peter Phelps and John Allen Nelson were cast to pull in women between 20 and 60.
Looking back at the first season of Baywatch I can only conclude it’s ideal wallpaper television. Something to do while you’re on you’re phone. It’s still entertaining after all these years, but no one will mistake this for high art. The show is silly at is core, though not all of the cast seems to be in on the joke. The episode about the ghost on the beach is played straight by the entire cast. To me this felt like a shark jumping episode, which is a nice feat considering it’s just the first season. It was interesting to revisit Baywatch after more than 30 years, but I can’t say this is must-see TV. I haven’t decided on whether I will even watch the second season. If I did it would mostly be for Shauni, just like 30 years ago.