When it premiered on NBC in 1989, Baywatch seemed like the most disposable piece of video trash imaginable: an action- adventure show about the travails of a Malibu, Calif., lifeguard. He was played by David Hasselhoff, the waistband of whose swimming trunks looked stretched to the max after all those years spent loafing in that talking car on Knight Rider. Baywatch was duly sneered at by all of us middlebrow TV critics — we can’t stand any drama that’s not the new Hill Street Blues, don’tcha know — and the show’s mediocre ratings prompted NBC to cancel it after its first season.
Then, however, a little miracle occurred. Hasselhoff, turned boyishly slim, his tiny eyes aglow with a messianic fervor to celebrate the coconut-oiled purity of the Lifeguard Way, became an executive producer of the series and helped relaunch it in syndication. Here, Baywatch came into its own — ” discovered its chi,” as Bill Moyers might say after a couple of lite beers and a hard day of hanging ten on the surfboard of his intellect.
For what Hasselhoff and his colleagues knew in their bone marrow was a truth the networks refused to admit: that viewers will watch an hour’s worth of gorgeous young people with very few clothes on — especially if you convince them that they’re also learning life-saving techniques and the principles of CPR. Freed from NBC’s silly insistence upon things like plot and character development, Baywatch has deployed paper-thin premises (sharks invade the beach; thieves invade the beach; a psychopath invades the beach) as an excuse to fill the screen with heroic men whose taut pectorals quiver as they jog in the sand.
It also helped that one of the original costars of Baywatch, a toasted gamine named Erika Eleniak, had grown in the space of a year or so into the owner of the happiest one-piece bathing suit in the universe. As the terribly earnest, perpetually frowning lifeguard Shauni McClain, Eleniak managed the difficult feat of keeping her shoulders thrown back even when slicing through the water to rescue some lucky drowning guy.
Led by Eleniak’s magnificent prow, Baywatch rapidly sailed to the front ranks of syndication ratings. Hasselhoff’s faith had not been in vain; his own career has been on a steady upswing ever since. He has also become an inexplicably but wildly popular singer throughout Europe and Japan, belting out ersatz Phil Collins anthems set to a Eurodisco beat that, over here, even easy-listening radio stations have declined to inflict upon their listeners.
But back to Baywatch: Millions mourned last September when Shauni got married, moved to Australia, and then suddenly turned up in the Steven Seagal movie Under Siege with chopped-short hair (Eleniak’s move from cult fave to mass-media starlet is now complete). Baywatch, however, has always had one of the fastest cast-turnover rates in TV history; its first-season group included Parker Stevenson, who played a devoted lifeguard disciple to Hasselhoff’s Mitch Buchannon.
Stevenson disappeared quickly, though, replaced by a succession of younger hunks including Tom McTigue, real-life surfboarding champ Kelly Slater, and David Charvet, a former model for Bugle Boy jeans whom Hasselhoff has referred to as ”the bad boy of Baywatch” — eek! Extra-tall actress-singer Susan Anton has a recurring role this season as the mom of the tom-boyish junior lifeguard, Summer Quinn (Charles in Charge‘s Nicole Eggert), but Anton’s brief screen time in recent episodes suggests she may become a victim of Baywatch‘s merciless actor undertow.
Eleniak fans, meanwhile, have taken some comfort in her current replacement in the good-posture department, Pamela Anderson, heretofore best known as the ”Tool Time Girl” on Home Improvement. As the terribly earnest, perpetually frowning lifeguard C.J. Parker, Anderson strides across the sand looking as if the heads of newborn twins are just breaking the surface of her bathing suit.
Ignored by the rest of the media, Baywatch has become all things to all people. Younger viewers, for example, enjoy the sun-dappled rescue scenes and the capering monkeyshines of Hasselhoff’s TV son, Hobie, played by Jeremy Jackson. Devotees of camp, on the other hand, love the way Hasselhoff, with the distinctive visual style of a television auteur, frequently stops the action to insert scenes that amount to full-length music videos. Recently, for instance, Hasselhoff’s Mitch — a single dad — considered marrying an Italian actress he’d just met on the beach. Instantly, Sophie B. Hawkins’ single ”Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover” filled the soundtrack amid misty, slow-motion shots of Mitch’s daydream: he, the actress, Hobie, and a passel of little Mitch-spawn romping happily on the beach. There are usually at least two such surreal moments in every episode.
These days, Baywatch is usually only surpassed in syndicated ratings for hour-long dramas by Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. Its success is inspiring rip-offs like the forthcoming Acapulco H.E.A.T., starring Dynasty‘s Catherine Oxenburg, who sniffily told USA Today last month, ”It is not me that will be doing the jiggling.” Just what TV doesn’t need: a Baywatch with pretensions to quality. B+