My Year With Baywatch
To protect and surf
A stretch of beach in Malibu. A Venus or Adonis (or David Hasselhoff) clad in the iconic red swimwear runs in slow motion across the sand, carrying that ubiquitous flotation thing (it's called a rescue can, people). The soundtrack soars with Survivor lead singer Jimi Jamison's vow to be there, forever and always. It's Baywatch, bitches, that much-maligned Nineties lifeguard show that birthed sex goddess Pamela Anderson and a million late-night punch lines about your dad masturbating.
Looking back, it's difficult for me to pinpoint the moment when I said to myself, "I should watch all 171 hours of this show," but I'm pretty sure it was the summer of 2016, and whiskey was involved (a sure sign of a noble endeavor). I'd seen a few episodes on Cozi TV, which piqued at first a strictly puerile interest, but the story of Mitch Buchannon and his rotating staff of beautiful lifeguards kept nagging at me. I had missed the show's initial, record-breaking run in the Nineties, but rediscovering it, so earnest in its intention but so incredibly tone-deaf in its execution, captured my attention. It tackled so many subjects, from bulimia and autism, to disintegrating swimsuits and the plight of the homeless, in a charmingly clueless way. The show satisfied a number of particular pleasure points in me. Perhaps Baywatch was the antithesis to all the shows that were falling by my wayside: the complicated narratives of prestige cable networks, Japanese reality shows, or that one Norwegian teen drama my friend is obsessed with. Baywatch provided a 42-minute earnest, spiritual salve on my soul, and I frankly can't explain it.
But I will try. Because the one thing I can't stress enough, no matter how snarky the proceedings get, is the sheer openness of Baywatch's heart. There are many lessons to be learned on Mitch's beach: CPR comes to mind, followed by the rule that if you introduce a pregnant woman, a gun, or teenagers with alcohol in any given episode, Mitch will deliver the baby, disarm the gunman, and confiscate those bottles of beer from those damn teenagers.
It started as a whim, but it became, to me, a destiny. Co-workers: "Why are you always talking about Baywatch?" Loved ones: "What is this thing with Baywatch?" Internally, my response was flippant: Why is your crappy TV better than my crappy TV? Whatever happens with the Dwayne Johnson reboot of the franchise (my prediction: not much), I'd like to impart a bit of knowledge from my time spent watching the Red Knights do their duty in sunny California.
Boobs and Bulges
What many consider to be the show's bread and butter is the cavalcade of flesh on display at literally any given moment. The camera consistently has a way of dialing in on the décolletage of buxom lifeguards. The scenarios can become so convoluted that I found myself thinking (on more than one occasion), "They've set up this entire scene so Yasmine Bleeth can swim down to this area and show off her cleavage." Wash, rinse, repeat. Shout-out to David Chokachi's Cody (the warmest heart on the show), whose Speedo bulge rivals none. Don't tell Mitch.
At the height of its popularity, Baywatch was hitting staggering worldwide ratings, so if you were a once-seminal pop band that trafficked in surf culture and had a recent album of reductive callbacks to bygone hits, and your name was the Beach Boys, you would very much relish the opportunity to perform your crappy song (1992's "Summer of Love"), much to the chagrin of Brian Wilson, who is quite clearly giving Mike Love the death stare throughout this agonizing sequence. Who else was on Baywatch? Only: David Spade, Danny Trejo, Bryan Cranston, Mary Lou Retton, Geraldo Rivera, Elizabeth Berkley, and, of course, Mike Piazza.
Given the unending threat the Baywatch lifeguards face, my own personal theory is that there is a gang of rogue Jet Skiers, unlicensed, whose raison d'être is to make the lives of those who derive their pleasure from the sea miserable. The bane of fishermen, windsurfers, and most vehemently the lifeguards themselves, these killjoys usually travel in pairs, are drunk, communicate via phrases as diverse as "Yeah!" and "Whoo!" as they become death's harbinger on the unsuspecting beach patrons. As one of these Jet Ski losers retorts, as Mitch strips him of his beloved WaveRunner, "My dad will just buy me another one." In one line, the scum of the Earth are revealed.
A big no-no on the county beach, but that doesn't stop nearly every teen, college kid, and homeless person from trying to get lit at the beach. A variation on beach drinking is drunk boating, a pastime which invariably and conveniently leads to drowning victims that need saving. As a prominently displayed bumper sticker on Tower 19 states, "Drinkers Are Sinkers." Heed those words, my friends, or you'll be swallowing salt water all the way to Davy Jones' locker.
They're pretty much everywhere. Matt Brody had a phobia, which took him two episodes to overcome (and a stint in an underwater cage for maximum freak-out effect). The Baywatch crew finally broke down around season 7 to actually have a fake shark (well, the front part, anyway) after having spent years relying on cutting together stock footage of great whites.
It's unclear what Baywatch would be without these horrible parents who fall asleep, read a book, or generally just do not care for the well-being of their child. A good portion of a lifeguard's day is saving the life of some child who immediately runs headlong into the ocean (after pointedly being told not to) only to be struck by a riptide (happens more than you think). Other options include wandering into sewer drains and underwater caves, sometimes housing large electric eels or a gigantic octopus. Don't worry, the judgmental negligence is conveyed assuredly by Mitch, as he hands your revived child back to you.
The Horrible Apathy of a Crowd
A number of extras are needed to fill out any given beach scene, lounging on the beach or strolling across the frame. They are robots, or more likely were told to act like robots, because whether they are watching someone literally dying of a heart attack or being beaten within an inch of their life, or lazily looking on as some character has a mental breakdown, the indifference of these rubberneckers is a telling reminder that it's every man for himself on the beach, until a lifeguard appears to inevitably save the day.
Hasselhoff, after his run as the buffoonish rogue in Knight Rider, spent 11 seasons in a swimsuit, had romances with at least three women who died within a span of 30 minutes, and never once conveyed anything beyond a high-school level of acting the entire time. When not dating his son Hobie's teacher, or sporting his ubiquitous Adidas leather jacket, Mitch can be found rolling up to every imminent disaster that happens on the beach, always in the nick of time.