Friday, June 16, 2017
June 16, 2017: American Beaches: Baywatch
[With beach season underway in earnest, a series AmericanStudying some famous beaches. Leading up to a special weekend Guest Post from a talented young scholar!]
On why those beautiful beach bodies are also a body of evidence.
A few years back, I humorously but also earnestly noted that to a dedicated AmericanStudier, any text, even Baywatch, is a possible site of complex analysis. I stand by that possibility, and will momentarily offer proof of same. But before I do, it’s important to foreground the basic but crucial reason for Baywatch’s existence and popularity, one succinctly highlighted by Friends’ Joey and Chandler: pretty people running in slow-motion in bathing suits. While I plan to make a bit more of the show and its contexts and meanings than that, it’d be just plain cray-cray to pretend that either the show’s intent or its audience didn’t focus very fully on those beautiful bodies. Moreover, such an appeal was nothing new or unique—while the beach setting differentiated Baywatch a bit, I would argue that most prime-time soap operas have similarly depended on the attractiveness of their casts to keep their audiences tuning in.
If Baywatch was partly a prime-time soap opera, however, it would also be possible to define the show’s genre differently: in relationship to both the police and medical dramas that were beginning to dominate the TV landscape in the late 1980s and early 1990s (Baywatch debuted in 1989). After all, the show’s plotlines typically included both rescues and crimes; while the lifeguards often dealt with romantic and interpersonal drama as well, so too did the docs of ER or the cops of Miami Vice (to name two of the era’s many entries in these genres). Seen in this light, and particularly when compared to the period’s police dramas, Baywatch was relatively progressive in the gender balance of its protagonists—compared to another California show, CHiPs, for example, which similarly featured pretty people solving promised land problems but which focused almost entirely on male protagonists. Yes, the women of Baywatch were beautiful and dressed skimpily—but the same could be said of the men, and both genders were equally heroic as well.
The creators of Baywatch tried to make the cop show parallel overt with the ill-fated detective spinoff Baywatch Nights, about which the less said the better (even AmericanStudiers have their limits). But the problem with Baywatch Nights wasn’t just its awfulness (Baywatch itself wasn’t exactly The Wire, after all), it was that it missed a crucial element to the original show’s success: the beach. And no, I’m not talking about the bathing suits. I would argue that the most prominent 1970s and 1980s cultural images of the beach were Jaws and its many sequels and imitators, a set of images that made it seem increasingly less safe to go back in the water. And then along came David Hasselhoff, Pam Anderson, and company, all determined to take back the beaches and shift our cultural images to something far more pleasant and attractive than Bruce munching on tourists. Whatever you think of the show, is there any doubt that they succeeded, forever inserting themselves and their slow-mo running into our cultural narratives of the beach?
Special guest post this weekend,
PS. What do you think?