There are many jokes to be made about Baywatch. There’s its long legacy of slow-motion running. There’s its swimsuits, its Barbie doll tie-ins, and the pandemonium that revolved almost exclusively around the beaches of Los Angeles County. Baywatch was dramatic, excessive and unapologetically over-the-top. In that way, the beach-bound action series became a brilliant soap opera while nobody was paying attention.
While Baywatch was initially cancelled after its first season in 1989, syndication made it a ‘90s mainstay. The show introduced audiences to names like Yasmine Bleeth, Pamela Anderson and David Hasselhoff, each of whom made a crater-sized mark on pop culture during the decade. And while the show also earned attention for its signature red bathing suits and the actors who wore them, the true magic of the series lay not in its uniforms but in its emotional heft. Baywatch was not a show in which its stars played second-fiddle to beach attire. The show delivered shark attacks, earthquakes, serial killers and nautical disasters, which helped the audience swallow soap opera tropes they would have otherwise spit out.
There’s a reason a subplot of Friends revolved around the trials and tribulations of Joey’s arc as Dr. Drake Ramore. Though soap operas started disappearing at the end of the last decade, the '90s boasted a bankable bunch that delivered shocking plot twists and illicit romances that spawned a cottage market of magazines and digests. All My Children, General Hospital, Another World, As The World Turns, Passions and all the rest offered consistent, melodramatic storylines, defined by secret twins, murder and PG-rated love scenes that were accessorized by candlelight and satin negligees. They were an entry into a romanticized idea of heteronormative adulthood, and served as sustainable plot gossip fodder for grown-ups already fluid in soap culture. In the mid-90s, a character like Dr. Drake Ramore–and the actor who played him–would’ve mattered.
Unless you watched TV at night. (Enter: Baywatch.)
When Baywatch returned for its second season September 1991, it commanded massive ratings until the late nineties when Baywatch-mania finally began to dwindle. During its prime, it introduced young viewers to soap opera basics under the allure of red one-pieces and montages of slow motion running. (Which, by the way, were inspired by the Olympics and helped save the show money.) Like its soap opera predecessors, plots dealt in high stakes and a very particular brand of romance: lifeguards saved lives, grappled with each other and fell in deep, all-encompassing (heteronormative) love. And for all the controversy surrounding bathing suits and who wore them, the series stuck largely to the formula of most daytime dramas, acknowledging sex and relationships, but while balancing those things with murder, mystery, and lives saved just in time.
Was it well written? Absolutely not. (Stephanie dies when a ship’s mast is struck by lightning and falls on her.) But neither were most soap operas. But that doesn’t mean neither were compelling.
Unlike its nineties counterparts like 90210 or Melrose Place, the emotions of Baywatch relied on a buffet of circumstances and not on the communication (or miscommunications) of its main cast. Similar to soap operas, characters’ day-to-days were interrupted by sensational and shocking twists. Characters were defined by what we saw them do, not who we learned they were. Where most dramas tend to unpeel their characters over the course of a few seasons, Baywatch–and the soap operas like it–told us exactly who we were watching and why we should cheer them on. We knew and recognized that they were lifeguards, that some had dated or wanted to date or were doomed never to date again. We saw them endure a series of unfortunate events but return the next week to continue on with their professional duties. We accepted plot developments in the same way we accepted the alliances that sprung up on Another World or the feuds on General Hospital. Ultimately, Baywatch characters were like Barbies that we assigned agency to. (Which likely explains the tie-in.) We weren’t told, we were shown and it made watching easy.
Which is was where the power of Baywatch becomes obvious. While some of us weren’t allowed to watch it on prime time (and grew up incorrectly thinking Baywatch #scandalous), those who did watch devoured its mix of action and romance, unknowingly subscribing to the television formula generations before had perfected via soap franchises. Baywatch jarred viewers with its penchant for drama and built on the concept of love and romance as an adulthood default – all while establishing main characters are heroes whose lives (and roles) could be taken away with just a shark bite. And the fact that CJ didn’t have a secret murderous twin is the most shocking of all.
But like soaps, Baywatch couldn’t last. As the 2000s birthed HBO’s golden age of television, soap opera-style melodrama became the province of teen dramas. To stay relevant, characters couldn’t have the complexity of a Barbie doll or exist only to react to their surrounding circumstances. The OC replaced low stakes sea crime with surprise pregnancies, abandoning one’s family via boat and writing Mischa Barton out of the show. In the 2000s and 2010s, the story of a few lifeguards on a beach wasn’t enough for a series. Though it was a show of wild twists and silly plotting, it paved the way for the teen dramas we know and love today.