We watched several episodes of a Gilligan’s Island marathon the other night. Make no mistake, that show sucks eggs. Big huge eggs. Ostrich eggs. But it’s brilliant, nonetheless. The complete and absolute disregard for reality is actually impressive. This is a show that doesn’t even ask you to suspend your disbelief because it doesn’t have to. The sheer insanity of it makes it much more elegantly surreal than say, Twin Peaks, could ever aspire to be.

Something occurred to me as I sat in my stupor watching the Castaways teach a robot how to do chores. The theme song and title sequence of Gilligan’s Island perfectly and completely establishes the backstory. Every single thing you need to know about these people and their situation is laid out for you. You can watch any individual episode of this show and know exactly what’s going on. Sherwood Schwartz is more of a genius than I ever imagined.

So I got to thinking, what other shows set up the backstory in the theme song, and are they as successful as Gilligan’s Island? Think about how many shows tell you nothing in there opening sequence. Friends, ER, Homicide, West Wing, M*A*S*H*. None of these shows lay out the info you need to know to understand how these people got where they are, and what their relationship is to one another. There are a few that succeed in setting up the backstory, but I cannot come up with any others that succeed in making each episode essentially a stand-alone product. It took a while for me to figure out why that is, but I think I have it. There’s no character development on Gilligan’s Island. None. Zero.

The Brady Bunch. Another Sherwood Schwartz production. (coincidence?). While the theme song does indeed lay out the backstory, there is definite character development. There has to be, there are kids as major characters and they have this nasty habit of growing up. While yes, it’s pretty easy to figure out what’s going on in an episode of the Brady Bunch, there are developments. (student council elections, Greg’s erstwhile musical career, etc).

The Beverly Hillbillies. Yup, you know what’s going on based on the themesong and title sequence, but again there’s development. Not so much character development (not that I could see, but there again I always hated this show), but story arcs that lead to changes in the characters situations. Whereas any characters that act on the Castaways are gone by the end of the episode, there are characters that enter the lives of the Clampets and stay there or somehow change their situation.

Seinfeld. I’ve spent way too much time wandering around pondering this and several people have brought up Seinfeld; not in reference to the theme song issue, but because they honestly believe the hype that there was no character development and the show was about nothing. First of all, you’re right, the idiots on that show never did learn anything. However, their situations and lives changed through the course of the series via failed engagements and relationships, job changes, etc. Additionally, for a show supposedly about nothing the description of any given episode is pretty complicated, don’t you think. This show does not meet any of my criteria and I don’t want to hear another word about it.

The A Team. Hmmm. Almost makes it, the more I think about it, but not quite. Very close though.

There’s clearly some huge void in my life that’s causing me to think waaay too much about this. If you have any shows you think meet the criteria email me and let me know. Also tell me if I can post your message here, if I need to.

I still think Ginger is way hotter than Mary Ann. That’s just the way it is.

sarah adds:
Ok, I see your point about Gilligan, but what about these shows:

Mr. Ed
Green Acres
The Patty Duke Show

Also, do cartoons count?

If so, you might have to consider The Flintstones and The Jetsons.

and I reply:
Cartoons are indeed fair game. I can dismiss the Flintstones immediately because of the kids (ditto Patty Duke and the Jetsons. People growing = automatic character development). Plus, from the title sequence of the Flintstones you’d never know BamBam was adopted, but I’m pretty sure he was. Or maybe I made that up. I’ll look into it.

How about Scooby Doo? Classic Scooby Doo, not post-Scrappy Scooby-Doo.