Airing only three seasons, 1964-1967, Gilligan's Island remains one of the best-known shows in television history. The premise of the show is basic: seven castaways are shipwrecked on an uncharted island following a storm and have to survive until they are rescued. The show is remarkable in its popularity and longevity almost in spite of itself. In its first season it received almost universally terrible reviews from television critics. It is still seen by many as one of the dumbest and most absurd shows on television, but its 98 episodes have been in constant syndication since it went off the air more than 30 years ago. Three reunion/sequel television movies in the late 1970s and early 1980s all received good ratings, and the show was the inspiration for two children's animated series.
Gilligan's Island was created and nurtured by Sherwood Schwartz (who would go on to create that other astounding hit of the 1960s and 1970s, The Brady Bunch). In fact, the show would not have been made at all except for Schwartz's persistence; his book Inside Gilligan's Island describes the long struggle to get the show made against the desires of the CBS network chief. Winning its time slot in each of its three seasons, it was abruptly cut from the lineup to make room for the network president's favorite show, Gunsmoke.
In describing Gilligan's Island, Schwartz said that his plan was to create a microcosm of society. The characters in this society were extremes in social, financial, and intellectual terms: the leader—Skipper (Alan Hale, Jr.), the bumbling sidekick—Gilligan (Bob Denver), the wealthy—Mr. and Mrs. Howell (Jim Backus and Natalie Schafer), the country girl—Mary Ann (Dawn Wells), the movie star—Ginger (Tina Louise), and the academic—Professor (Russell Johnson). Indeed, the Skipper tries to lead, the Professor is looked to for solutions to problems, the rich people and the movie star sit in an island version of luxury, and Gilligan and Mary Ann are left to do much of the manual labor.
The actual stories relied on slapstick humor. Ostensibly, the castaways wanted to be rescued from their isolation on the island, and in almost every episode they were presented with a possibility of escape. Invariably something happened to foil the plan, usually involving an innocent accident on the part of Gilligan. Quite often the viewer is required to suspend disbelief and accept the fact that the same group that can create elaborate equipment and solve problems with items available on this ever-abundant island is somehow incapable of making good on the many possibilities of rescue. What's more, though upset at the failings, they seem content with their home. They accept each other for their characteristics and their weaknesses, and persist.
Even though this was an uncharted island, many stories included the arrival and departure of a new person to the island only to leave the main characters stranded once again. These guests included everyone from Russian cosmonauts to natives to Hollywood producers to foreign spies and South American dictators, and allowed for comment on contemporary issues and events of the day such as space flight, South American politics, radioactivity, surfing, spies, and Mars pictures.
One of the highest rated film specials in television history, Rescue from Gilligan's Island finally brought the castaways home in 1978 where each one found unhappiness with his former way of life. At the end of the movie, they are contentedly shipwrecked again on the same island. The "Castaways" on Gilligan's Island (1979) was an attempt to make a new series in the mode of a Fantasy Island/Love Boat resort on their island. The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island followed in 1981.
—Frank E. Clark
Denver, Bob. Gilligan, Maynard & Me. New York, Citadel Press, 1993.
Green, Joey. The Unofficial Gilligan's Island Handbook. New York, Warner Books, 1988.
Marc, David, and Robert J. Thompson. Prime Time, Prime Movers: From I Love Lucy to L.A. Law—America's Greatest TV Shows and the People Who Created Them. Boston, Little, Brown & Co., 1992.
McNeil, Alex. Total Television: A Comprehensive Guide to Programming from 1948 to the Present. 3rd ed. New York, Penguin Books, 1991.
Schwartz, Sherwood. Inside Gilligan's Island: From Creation to Syndication. Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland, 1988.
Stoddard, Sylvia. TV Treasures: A Companion Guide to Gilligan's Island. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1996.