On Baywatch, telenovelas and family

Earlier this month, June Thomas wrote an interesting piece  for Slate on the somewhat amazing success of Univision, the Spanish-language television network most people know for its flashy soap operas as well as being the source material for The Simpsons’ Bumblebee Man (I think.)

Univision, according to the piece, has become one of the most-watched networks in the U.S. (It’s been No. 1 among all viewers on Friday nights for four seasons.)

Now, to be honest, this post has really nothing to do with Univision — at least, not in a concrete or tangible way.

But… one of the reasons Thomas cited for Univision’s widespread popularity reminded me of a part of my life I hadn’t thought about in years. 

Univision, it seems, has built much of its empire around primetime telenovelas – those easily parodied soap operas that are always filled with insane story lines and impeccable skin. These shows are on every night, running for 100 to 120 episodes before another takes its place. And people watch. Oh, how they watch. They watch with friends. And they discuss plot twists with fellow fans. But mostly, they watch with family.

You might say, rather obviously, that it’s a way for generations to connect. And in this way, Univision made me think of Baywatch.

Yes. Baywatch. The lifeguard-themed show from the early 90s, the institution that gave rise to Hasselhoff, and Pamela Anderson, and that running gag on Friends.

Maybe Baywatch wasn’t a telenovela, per se — although, there were certainly running plot lines. I can even remember some of them. Was Summer dating Matt? Was Hobie OK with Mitch’s new love interest? Would there be a scene where someone would blow off some steam by hitting that heavy punching bag, while glistening in the sun? (Always.)

*In FRENCH! 

(Sorry, we’re getting ahead of ourselves here.)

So maybe Baywatch wasn’t technically a soap. But it certainly had some similar characteristics. It just wasn’t on everyday, and the plot wasn’t totally continuous.

But in my house, those stories from the beach still served the same purpose as a gaudy telenovela.

My family bonded over Baywatch.

Now, there are a couple reasons this is not as insane or suspect as one might imagine.

For one, this was right around 1997 or 1998. The Internet was not the Internet. At least, not like we know it today. This was the era of dial-up*… and I guess my family had it by then. But I am having trouble remembering the exact dates.

*We had Southwestern Bell dial-up service. We browsed on Netscape.

I was 11 or 12 then, just finishing up elementary school. My oldest sister was living at home while going to college. And my brother was a sophomore or junior in high school.

*My other sister was in middle school, and never seemed all that interested in the show. Her loss.

By some measure of serendipity, it just so happened that we generally, at least part of the year, were all home around 4 p.m., when Baywatch reruns aired on USA. And my mom, god bless her, knew a good thing when she saw it. If her kids were going to watch television together, she would too. Even if it meant watching Baywatch with her 11-year-old son.

The show, of course, was a worldwide phenomenon in the early 90s. (Thanks Germany). But by the time we zoned in, the show’s star had mostly faded.

*Some of the original characters were gone. But, in some ways, in 1998, we were watching reruns of the prime years of Baywatch. 

The characters included: 

— Mitch Buchanon (David Hasselhoff)

— Summer (Nicole Eggert from Charles in Charge).

— C.J. Parker (Pamela Anderson).

— Stephanie (the short-haired one that eventually got cancer).

— Hobie (Hasselhoff’s son on the show, who always had on a wet suit and a boogie board).

— Matt Brody (the main dude).

 — And in later seasons, Logan, Cody, Neely (Gena Lee Nolin) and Caroline, Stephanie’s younger sister (Yasmine Bleeth). 

And, to be quite honest, the show was pretty formulaic (and terrible). It was an hour long, and as I recall, there was generally some sort of main plot (maybe a crime or mystery), a side plot (often dealing with the love triangles), and a couple of musical interludes or montages featuring Hasselhoff and some really bad dancing.

My brother and I would make fun of the music videos. And my mom and I would discuss the dramatic parts of the episode. And my sister and I would discuss the love twists.

*In retrospect, these videos were even lamer than one could ever imagine. Were the writers consciously producing something so kitschy and over-the-top in the hope that it would be revered for its ridiculousness 20 years later? And if so, were the actors aware this was going on? 

A few things stand out, other than the fact they never took their eyes off the water (and people in Southern California were nearly drowning on an hourly basis):

1. The underwater scenes were among the most fake (and cheapest) moments in television history. I can almost hear the director yelling, “Underwater Scene! Back to the small, indoor pool with the perfect blue water, lighting and smooth rocks!”

2. There was this one episode where a small passenger plane, carrying Hobie, his mother and a jerk fiancé, crashes into the ocean. The plane went straight down into the water and collided with the seashore. And they all survived!

I’ll always remember this episode, because… 1. This seems highly improbable, and 2. No really, I really think they would have died.

The last thing that stands out, well… I started thinking about this when I was reading about the telenovelas on Univision.

In looking back, those years we watched Baywatch ended up being the final years my family ever lived under the same roof together. My older sister eventually moved away to school. And that started the slow burn of exits for college (and then short returns after school) and finally the plunge into real life.

I suppose I don’t want Baywatch to be a symbol here. It’s just the show we watched because there was nothing else on television at 4 p.m. It was sort of entertaining. And it did have Nicole Eggert. But mostly, it just allowed us all to be together.

And for the majority of Spanish-speaking Americans, I think the telenovelas on Univision provide the same thing. They may be campy or ridiculous or low-brow at times. But they’re on everyday, a constant in an age where mass media is no longer mass; where tastes are splintered and products are specialized.

So perhaps they give families a reason to come together and relax. And sometimes, that’s all you need.

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