July 15, 2011

Sherwood Schwartz, who died Tuesday at the age of 94 , will not be remembered as one of television’s innovative geniuses. But he did create two of the most popular shows in TV history, “Gilligan’s Island” and “The Brady Bunch.” And he did something rare: He made people laugh, even in reruns.

But what did the sitcom king have in common with the French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville? Answer: They both were interested in democracy in America.

In 2001, I published a book called “Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization.” I wrote that “Gilligan’s Island” reflected the political confidence of 1960s America in the midst of the Cold War. A representative group of Americans could be dropped anywhere on the planet and they would rule, creating a small-scale model of U.S. democracy and fending off a sampling of its enemies, from Soviet cosmonauts to a Japanese soldierstill fighting World War II to a Latin American dictator.

Gilligan is the perfect democratic hero because he has no claims to superiority. The Professor has wisdom; the Millionaire has money and social status; the Skipper has a kind of military authority as captain. Gilligan is the pure common man. And, of course, the only time the castaways hold an election, he is chosen as president. Throughout the series, Gilligan represents the triumph of the ordinary over the extraordinary.

Schwartz learned about my book and wrote to me to get a copy. He explained that he had always thought of “Gilligan’s Island” as a show about democracy. His favorite episode, he said, was the one about the exiled dictator “because it’s the most meaningful” and demonstrates how democracy can go wrong. He was particularly proud of the “dream sequence in which Gilligan realizes he’s simply a puppet dictator of the real dictator.”

Much to my gratification, Schwartz said all this before reading my book. Academics like me are always accused of just making up our interpretations. But mine was being confirmed by the highest authority — the writer himself.

Once Schwartz had read the book, he wrote me another long letter explaining that it had always bothered him that people criticized “Gilligan’s Island” for being silly; they didn’t understand it, he said. “Not a single critic got it, with the basic concept of democracy staring them right in the face.” He viewed my book as a vindication of his work: “I never thought I’d see the day when an English Professor of some note would use ‘Gilligan’s Island’ as one of four pillars on which rest the liberal democratic view of the recent past in America.”

I wrote back, thanking him for taking time out of his busy Hollywood schedule to correspond with me. I added: “I’ve written three whole books on Shakespeare and Mr. Big Shot Elizabethan Playwright won’t even give me a call.” It’s not a great idea to trade jokes with a comedy writer, but I hope I gave Schwartz a chuckle.

In my correspondence with him, I was struck by his intelligence, his learning and his seriousness of purpose. Above all, he clearly knew what he was doing in “Gilligan’s Island” and could articulate the thinking behind it.

Most people would never guess it, but maybe, of all the characters on the desert isle, Sherwood Schwartz was closest to the Professor. At least this professor thinks so.

pac2j@virginia.edu

Paul A. Cantor, the author of “Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization,” is the Clifton Waller Barrett professor of English at the University of Virginia.

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