Sunday, December 2, 2012
Undermining a Successful "Operation (Petticoat)"
The words "Operation Petticoat" have always, to me, represented a missed opportunity. On the one hand, with regards to the original 1959 film starring Cary Grant and directed by Blake Edwards, it represents a movie role that I wish Tina Louise (who had been offered Joan O'Brien's Lt. Crandall role) had not turned down. On the other hand, it represents my favorite TV show when I was 5 years old. In 1977, fresh from the success of "Charlie's Angels," ABC decided to turn the movie, about 5 attractive Army nurses who find themselves serving aboard a U.S. Navy submarine in the Pacific during World War II, into a weekly sitcom starring John Astin and Richard Gilliland. For most of that season, it aired on Saturday nights, right after "What's Happening!" and right before "The Love Boat" and "Fantasy Island." When I was in kindergarten, I loved the show and tuned in week after week for the latest adventures of the pink colored U.S.S. Sea Tiger, a submarine which was considered an embarrassment to the U.S. Navy, but had a rag tag crew of underdogs eager to prove their mettle against the Japanese. That was during the first season. In the second season ABC completely revamped the show by discharging most of its talented cast; replaced veteran producer Leonard B. Stern (whose credits included either writing or producing "The Honeymooners," "The Phil Silvers Show," and "Get Smart") with writers/producers whose most dubious contribution to society was creating "Diff'rent Strokes;" and added new cast members (including Randolph Mantooth, JoAnn Pflug, Hilarie Thompson, Warren Berlinger, and Robert Hogan) who had no chemistry and were as funny as a root canal. All of these unnecessary changes completely botched what made the first season so charming and enjoyable.
Season One of "Operation Petticoat" worked because of the chemistry among the ensemble cast. John Astin, taking over Cary Grant's role as Lt. Cmdr Matt Sherman, the Commanding Officer of the Sea Tiger, combined a strong sense of authority with a light-heartedly quirky comedic timing that made him both funny and believable as the submarine captain. He was complemented every step of the way by Richard Gilliland's sly and charming Lt., j.g. Nick Holden, the ship's scheming supply officer (played by Tony Curtis in the original film). Astin and Gilliland had a friendly, adversarial rapport on the show that was a pleasure to watch every week. As the first season progressed, the relationship between Lt. Cmdr Sherman and Lt. Holden matured as well. The young, scheming Holden stopped thinking of just himself and started using his skills of manipulation in order to help his shipmates and colleagues create opportunities to distinguish themselves in fighting the Japanese. He started looking towards Sherman as a father figure/mentor from which he could learn from, and wanted very much to help Sherman make the Sea Tiger a boat that Navy senior leadership could be proud of. In-turn, Sherman recognized how Holden simply needed guidance on how to direct his talents towards constructive goals, and enjoyed allowing Holden to use his skills to give the overlooked Sea Tiger the edge it needed to get the supplies and support it needed to fight the war.
But it didn't stop there. Season One had a large ensemble cast that included not just the nurses, but also the other officers and enlisted personnel aboard the Sea Tiger. In total, there were 18 regular characters each week that encompassed the ship's pharmacist, radio man, Chief Machinist's Mate, seamans, yeomans, etc. The writers and directors of the series (most of whom worked on the similar "McHale's Navy" more than a decade earlier) did a skillful job balancing the screentime of the large cast so that everyone had an equal role and no one was ever short shrifted. Across the span of about 23 episodes, the writers were able to give almost every character their own episode so they had an opportunity to shine. Standing out among the supporting cast was a young Jamie Lee Curtis as the beautiful and intelligent Lt. Barbara Duran, Holden's love interest; Yvonne Wilder as the earthy and witty Maj. Edna Hayward; Melinda Naud as the klutzy, but not unintelligent, Lt. Dolores Crandall; Bond Gideon as the funny and quirky Lt. Claire Reid; Richard Brestoff as the intellectual Seaman Hunkle; Jim Varney as the sardonic Seaman Broom; Raymond Singer as the self-serving and neurotic Lt. Singer; Jesse Dizon as the inept cook Gallardo; and Jack Murdock as the irascible Chief Tostin. They and the remaining regular cast (Dorrie Thomson, Christopher J. Brown, Kraig Cassity, Wayne Long, Richard Marion, Michael Mazes, and Peter Schuck) all made wonderful contributions to the series. What I recall the most while watching "Operation Petticoat" was the strong sense of friendship and camaraderie between the crew members of the Sea Tiger. Many scenes in the series are staged with the characters gathered together in a group, attempting to resolve whatever crisis is at hand. (I particularly liked how the series had the 5 Army nurses come to see themselves as full-fledged members of the Sea Tiger crew, proactively collaborating with the Navy personnel to help fight the war.) In contrast to other shows set in the military that emphasized one's individuality in an environment that naturally emphasizes conformity, "Operation Petticoat" stood out by underscoring the importance of teamwork and cohesion in a wartime environment.
Despite the comedic tone to "Operation Petticoat," Season One never forgot that the protagonists were in the deadly business of fighting to defeat the Japanese. Probably the best episode of the season was the penultimate "Down to the Sea in Slips," which aired May 8, 1978. In this episode, the crew of the Sea Tiger is felled by food poisoning while hunting for the ever-elusive Japanese battleship the Marudake. With the men incapacitated, the Army nurses find themselves multi-tasking as they assume the crew's duties until they are able to track down and sink the Marudake. The show makes no apologies that the Sea Tiger and its personnel have killed many Japanese sailors. The episode is amazing considering that this was filmed just a few short years after the end of the Vietnam War, when a war-weary America turned the irreverent, pacifist "M*A*S*H" into a weekly ratings hit. Even though it was clearly a comedy, Season One did not ignore the ultimate purpose of its characters: to defeat the Japanese in the Pacific Theatre of the war. In contrast, the new producers in Season Two suffered from an ailment known as Political Correctness: they turned the Sea Tiger into a hospital ship (?!) and featured awkward, heavy-handed episodes where the crew of the Sea Tiger had to face the reality that the Japanese were human beings, just like they were. Season Two's producers were, in essence, awkwardly attempting to enforce a revisionist 1978 view of the war upon the show. I'm not at all trying to imply that the scripts in Season One were meant to be documentary realism, but because its characters were committed to fighting the enemy, I would posit the theory that it was, psychologically speaking, more honest about how Americans back in the early 1940s felt about fighting the Japanese while the war was actually taking place compared to the ponderous characters and storylines in Season Two. Even though I don't think Season One of "Operation Petticoat" should be considered an overlooked classic, I do believe it was an underrated show that deserved to have a full Second Season with its cast and creative crew intact.