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Though dismissed by its critics with such disparagements as "Body watch" and "Babe watch," David Hasselhoff's Baywatch became the most popular television show in the world during the mid-1990s. Notorious for its risque bathing suits, the show depicted the Los Angeles County Beach Patrol as it braved dangerous surf and emotional riptides to save lives and loves. The show ran briefly on NBC during 1989-1990 before being canceled but became, in its new incarnation, one of the few shows in TV history not only to exonerate itself in a post-network afterlife but to actually become a mega-hit.

Baywatch began with David Hasselhoff as Mitch Buchannon, a veteran career lifeguard recently promoted to lieutenant; Parker Stevenson as Craig Pomeroy, a successful lawyer who continued to moonlight as a lifeguard; and a supporting cast of sun-bronzed characters who adopted life at the beach for reasons of their own. In its original incarnation, Baywatch finished in seventy-fourth place in the Neilsen ratings among 111 series to air on the three major networks. At the same time, it ranked as the number-one U.S. import in both Germany and Great Britain, where viewers perceived it to be a glimpse of what America was all about in a format that was at once wordless and instantly translatable to any culture in the world—beautiful people in a beautiful environment.

In 1990, after being canceled by the network, Baywatch star Hasselhoff and three of the show's other producers recognized its international potential and decided to invest their own money in the show. They cut production costs from $1.3 million per episode to $850,000, and marketed it to independent stations. In syndication, the show generated more than one billion viewers between 1994 and 1996 in more than one hundred countries around the world.

"We wanted to create a dramatic series that allows our lead characters to become involved with interesting and unusual people and situations," said executive producer Michael Berk. "Lifeguards are frequently involved in life and death situations and, as a part of their daily routine, come into contact with thousands of people from diverse walks of life." This format allows the lifeguards to interact with an amazing number of robbers, murderers, international drug runners, runaway teens, and rapists who seemingly stalk L.A.'s beaches between daring rescues, shark attacks, and boat sinkings. All of this is blended with the predictable love stories and plenty of exposed skin. Indeed, the show's opening, depicting the physically perfect male and female lifeguards running on the beach, has become one of the most satirized motifs on television.

Surprisingly, however, the soap-opera-type stories have allowed the characters to grow from episode to episode and have created some interesting dimensions for the show's regulars. Hasselhoff's character, Mitch, comes off a nasty divorce and custody battle for his son and begins to date again. "He's a guy about my age," says Hasselhoff (forty), "divorced, with a kid. With many years as a lifeguard under his belt, he's promoted to lieutenant and must take on a more supervisory role. But, he has mixed emotions. He is no longer one of the guys and must assume the role of an authority figure, while at home, as a newly divorced parent, he has to learn to cope with the responsibilities of a single father."

The other characters on the show have been significantly younger, with the average cast member being in his or her twenties. Each succeeding season has brought new cast members to the series as older characters drifted off, died in accidents, married, and otherwise moved on as the stars who played them became famous enough to move into other acting ventures. Pamela Anderson Lee, the former "Tool Time" girl" on Home Improvement, left Baywatch after becoming an international sex symbol and garnered a movie contract, only to be replaced by a succession of similarly endowed sun-drenched California blondes.

The reasons for the show's phenomenal success are varied. Many critics have argued that the sex appeal of the lifeguards in their scanty beach attire has been the primary reason for viewers (particularly young males) to tune in. Baywatch has, in fact, created its share of sex symbols with Hasselhoff, Lee, and, more recently, Yasmine Bleeth and Carmen Electra achieving international celebrity on tabloid covers and calendars. There is also the appeal of the beach itself and the California lifestyle—a sun-and-surf image that offers an escape from the grim reality of people's daily existence. Some say there is a more fundamental appeal that is as old as television itself: Baywatch is a family ensemble no less than The Waltons, Little House on the Prairie or Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. Hasselhoff's Mitch is the father figure for the group of lifeguards, while his female counterpart, Lt. Stephanie Holden (Alexandra Paul), serves as a surrogate mother for the beach people who wander in and out of each episode (until the Holden character's death during the seventh season). The supporting cast of lifeguards are the quirky and quarreling siblings who ultimately must be rescued from their various escapades by Hasselhoff's character. Then there is Mitch's own son, Hobie, a thirteen-year-old who gets into his own adventures and who is just beginning to get to know his father. The two-part ending of the 1997-98 season featured Mitch's marriage to Neely Capshaw (Gena Lee Nolen).

In an effort to attract the whole family rather than its earlier self-professed teenager demographic, Baywatch gradually escalated the level of its story lines to include depictions of social ills, acceptance of aging and death, and a number of ethical and moral dilemmas. "What has happened," said Hasselhoff, "is that while people were making so many jokes about us, we became a real show."

—Steve Hanson

Further Reading:

Baber, Brendan, and Eric Spitznagel. Planet Baywatch. New York, St. Martin's Griffin, 1996.

Hollywood Reporter Baywatch Salute. January 17, 1995, 99.

McDougal, Dennis. "TV's Guilty Pleasures: Baywatch. " TV Guide. August 13, 1994, 12.

Shapiro, Marc. Baywatch: The Official Scrapbook. New York, Boulevard Books, 1996.