Working with a Limited Set: Gilligan’s Island (TV Showcase #2)

After fifty years, “Gilligan’s Island” continues to be one of the more popular sitcoms of the 1960s, and is even still considered “cool” by the people of my generation; that is, the twenty-somethings. But what was it about this show that made it so popular? Let’s take a look.

“Gilligan’s Island” (GI for short) launched in 1964 and created by Sherwood Schwartz (who was also responsible for “The Brady Bunch”). The show focused on six people on a three-hour cruise, when a storm arises, and their ship crashes on an “uncharted desert isle”. Among these castaways are two sailers: Gilligan and the Skipper, two single girls: Mary Ann and Ginger, a rich husband and wife: Mr. and Mrs. Howell, and a scientist, called the Professor. The entire show was about their journeys on the island and their comical encounters. The show ran for 98 episodes, and it had three reunion movies after that.

When I first started watching GI, I was expecting to lose interest, because I expected alot of verbal jokes and not alot of physical comedy. Plus, there was basically one set: the jungle-filled island. Now, an-all verbal, one-set show has the potential to be very entertaining (shoutout to “The Honeymooners”), but I was interested in watching the whole show straight through, and with some shows, there’s only so much you can take at a time.

However, GI surprised me with its abundance of physical gags, and the plots and jokes often dwelled in the land of the fantastic, which was also very enjoyable. But why does this show stand out as timelessly funny? It had basically one set, and yes, there were dream sequences and a couple of near-escapes, but mostly, it was the same six characters on the same island. How did this show become so successful?

I propose that it was the awesome use of the very limited set that forced the showrunners to be creative and that continued to engage the audience. Sometimes the set can almost become a character too. Everybody wants to see the Ingalls’ house when they watch “Little House on the Prairie”, or the TARDIS when watching “Doctor Who”. In the same way, the audience didn’t want the characters to escape the island, because of the incredibly creative manipulations of the set.

First of all, the set was built for colour, even though the first season was in black and white. So when the show went to colour, the audience’s eyes were met with a barrage of hues of all different shades, which kind of took away from the campy feel that most B&W-shows-turned-colour tended to have. But that’s not where the creativity stopped. When being hit in the head with coconuts and running into trees became old, the set was changed to accommodate a golf course, a theater, a private resort, or even a turtle racing course. When one idea became old, it was on to the next one.

Another huge help to the show was how all of the characters were portrayed in different lights. All the characters had their unique aspects, but throughout the show, they all had the chance to act differently than normal. So we’d see the brainy professor attempt Shakespeare, try to play the recorder, or even play a romantic. All of the characters had the chance to do something similar to this.

Gilligan’s Island never really experienced a “downhill”, a loss of quality, because it only ran for three seasons. Some of the old folks were upset at “Gunsmoke”‘s middle-of-the-night airtime, so some petitioning happened, and GI was suddenly cancelled so that “Gunsmoke” could take its place. “Gunsmoke” had already run twelve years on television and on radio before that, but some people just aren’t satisfied with twelve seasons. Several of the cast of GI had spent significant amounts of money expecting to earn it back from season 4, one even buying a house.

And there you have it: “Gilligan’s Island” is a prime example of how to get creative with a limited set. What do you think?

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