Even from the pilot, killing off characters was not uncommon
Baywatch review by Brian Slade
When David Hasselhoff’s stint behind the wheel in Knight Rider came to an end, he floundered in the television wilderness for a few years before finding a novel way of getting back into work in 1989 - surround himself with ‘beautiful people’ and wholesome storylines all on the shores of Malibu Beach. It was an idea that stuttered at first but became a 90s phenomenon in the form of the critically slammed but wildly successful Baywatch.
The feature-length pilot of Baywatch appeared in 1989. It is here we first meet lifeguard Mitch Buchanan (Hasselhoff), freshly promoted to the rank of lieutenant as he marshals a collection of lifeguards keeping watch over the shores of Malibu beach.
Mitch has a host of problems to deal with, despite his promotion. Domestically he is at war with his ex-wife over custody of their son, Hobie. Meanwhile at work he has troubles with lifeguards old and new. Rookie of the year, Eddie Kramer (Billy Warlock) joins the team, but Mitch has Trevor Cole (Peter Phelps) an Australian lifeguard not under his watch to deal with, who is more interested in saving the good-looking victims than the ones who need rescuing the most. The pilot had a host of separate dramas – Mitch’s son in jeopardy, the death of Mitch’s lifeguard mentor while saving people, including Hobie, from an overturned boat, and one of the lifeguards is under threat from a saved beachgoer who has turned into an obsessed stalker.
The pilot episode did enough to have NBC commission a full series and many of the cast of the pilot continued in their roles. It was television for the masses, with a combination of jeopardy and action in a glorious setting that seemed like it would get the ratings in, even if the plotlines were somewhat cliched and acting rather uninspiring. However, the ratings weren’t there and with its high production costs, NBC decided there would be no renewal.
Hasselhoff pulled off the perfect business deal once Baywatch was cancelled. He and his co-creators felt that there could still be a place in the schedules, so he bought the rights for syndication, and the rest is television history. Repeat runs on syndication were successful as was the second series.
Baywatch really began to take off when a certain Pamela Anderson was cast as CJ Parker for the third series, along with Alexandra Paul as Stephanie Holden who would become a character of advice and conscience for Mitch until her departure in 1997. There was also a new actor for Mitch’s son Hobie, Jeremy Jackson taking over the role initially played by Brandon Call.
The glistening bodies were regularly updated, Yasmine Bleeth joining the cast in 1993, while the boys would also come and go, Warlock leaving in 1992 to be replaced by David Charvet, with David Chokachi joining as an Olympic swimmer hopeful who is no longer able to compete after a diving accident.
Baywatch on the surface seemed superficial. Aside from its annoyingly uplifting and catchy theme tune, I’m Always Here, it was not afraid of having musical montages that appeared to do little more than showcase the golden bodies of the lifeguards at the time, with little to no relevance to the story. But the slow running of both the ladies and gents in these montages helped elevate the show to almost cult status. It became a guilty pleasure, further enhanced by gaining the attention of Chandler and Joey in Friends as they sat back on their recliners to enjoy the show and marvel at the ladies on their screen.
The stories may have appeared somewhat predictable, but Hasselhoff always wanted a positive message and never shied away from more serious subjects. Even from the pilot, killing off characters was not uncommon and while some stories were obvious soap-opera staples about relationships and morals, writers were prepared to tackle drugs, drink, cancer and loss in equal measure. It was an approach that certainly seemed to work. For all the Chandlers and Joeys watching for the ‘Baywatch Babes’ as they came to be referenced, there was a huge audience of younger females who saw that the women on their screen were powerful, independent and intelligent success stories that they could be inspired by, rather than irrelevant two-dimensional models.
The Baywatch phenomenon lasted throughout the 90s and what it failed to garner in critical success, it received in audience numbers. In the UK it became standard compulsive Saturday early evening viewing for many in ITV’s usual American action import slot. But of course, all good things must come to an end and inevitably the format began to seem like a parody of itself.
With escalating costs and a change of location (and title, to Baywatch: Hawaii), updated casts couldn’t arrest a slide of repetitive stories and an ageing audience dynamic. In an effort to halt the slide, writers even killed off Hasselhoff’s lead character at the end of season 10, but the subsequent series would be the last, aside from a 2003 special that in the way only American producers can think is a good idea, Mitch is alive once more and merely suffering from amnesia.
Baywatch has of course endured. As long as Friends is repeated, there will always be a cultural relevance, and Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat was based on Borat’s obsession with Pamela Anderson, whose career was made by her Baywatch fame. And the inevitable movie incarnation appeared in 2017 with a somewhat more tongue-in-cheek approach for its new stars of Dwayne Johnson and Zak Efron.
Along with Hasselhoff getting a cameo role, perhaps inevitably the movie incarnation of Baywatch followed its source in getting woeful reviews but making its fans happy, and perhaps that is how Baywatch will and indeed should be remembered. It was never going to wow the industry with powerful storylines, award-winning performances and awe-inspiring direction. But the visuals were what made it famous, its heart was in the right place, and it was a show that knew what its audience wanted and duly delivered – which is probably more than any critic has ever done.
Published on May 30th, 2023. Written by Brian Slade for Television Heaven.