This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.
For younger readers, the original Baywatch was an action drama that charted the professional and personal lives of county lifeguards in Los Angeles, saving people from drowning but also tackling other seaside perils like sharks, earthquakes and serial killers. The show was almost cancelled after its disappointing first season in 1989, but thanks to the efforts of producer and star David Hasselhoff, it was resuscitated for first-run syndication and found huge international success over the following ten seasons.
The conventional wisdom that brought us 2017’s Baywatch film with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, along with so many other reboots, is that something is easier to market if it has already existed in some form than if it’s entirely original, and that same logic has applied in this particular property as far back as 1995’s Baywatch Nights, one of the most bizarre television series we’ve ever covered on this site.
“In the city of angels, under cover of night, people are drowning in a sea of light…”
As originally conceived, the show followed Sergeant Garner Ellerbee (Gregalan Williams), the bay’s resident police officer, as he quit his job to found a detective agency above a nightclub in LA, and Mitch Buchannon (Hasselhoff) joined him, because reasons.
Along with forensics expert Ryan McBride (Angie Harmon, in her first TV acting job) and psychic(!) Destiny Desimone (Lisa Stahl), they solved crimes and caught bad guys “with sexy results”, as The Simpsons‘ Troy McClure might say. True Detective, it ain’t.
While Baywatch sometimes had the characters acting above and beyond a lifeguard’s usual job description (an angle that the new film appears to be seizing upon gleefully), it’s a bit of a leap to make them the protagonists of a detective procedural show. Far from the seaside concerns of swimmers and sharks, here’s a selection of the episode loglines from Season 1.
Bad Blades – A cosmetics mogul asks Mitch, Garner and Ryan to investigate her son’s involvement with a gang of roller-skating burglars.
Deadly Vision – Destiny has a vision of Ryan being the next victim of a serial killer that Mitch and Garner are looking for.
Kind of a Drag – Mitch goes undercover as a female impersonator to catch the culprits who’ve been assaulting members of a drag show company.
Audiences didn’t seem to buy the transition either, and the ratings were never as good as they were for Baywatch. Yasmine Bleeth, Michael Newman, Alexandra Paul, and Billy Warlock all dropped in from the parent show for guest appearances throughout the first season to try and rectify this. Also, Destiny was written out after 10 episodes and replaced by new characters Griff Walker (Eddie Cibrian) and Donna Marco (Donna D’Errico), but the ratings wouldn’t shift.
Like Baywatch before it, the show was almost cancelled after its first season, but once again, Hasselhoff and his fellow producers took a different tack on the second season. In hindsight, the casting changes of Season 1 don’t seem quite so drastic as what came next…
“The nights will never be the same.”
Compare the opening title sequence for Season 2 of Baywatch Nights to Season 1’s. Lou Rawls’ theme song After The Sun Goes Down was replaced by an instrumental sax version, and creepy Buffy-esque shots of skulls and stuffed wolves are cross-cut with Mitch walking by a backlit cemetery fence. If you didn’t know better, it’s almost like they soft-rebooted the show to be The X-Files.
Well, in 1996, The X-Files was going into its fourth season on Fox and was one of the biggest shows on TV. And to be frank, there’s no way we’d be talking about Baywatch Nights now if the people behind it hadn’t had the brazen lunacy to look at the success of that supernatural genre show and say “us too”.
Williams left after Season 1, while Mitch continued as a private investigator by night in Season 2, fighting against otherworldly threats with the help of a new ally, paranormal expert Diamont Teague (Dorian Gregory). The loglines looked a little more like this…
Terror from the Deep – Mitch and Griff investigate a sunken freighter that a woman claims was sunk by a New Guinea sea monster.
The Creature – Mitch, Griff and Ryan investigate a series of murders committed by a half-human, half-fish woman intent on having a baby.
The Rig – Mitch and Ryan head to an oil rig where they encounter a gelatinous sea monster.
To be fair, at least those are all in Mitch’s seaside comfort zone, and the first three episodes play with his scepticism about the supernatural (“I don’t believe in the Tooth Fairy,” he tells Teague). However, this can’t be said for many episodes through the rest of the season…
Space Spore – Radioactive dust from a space shuttle is accidentally dropped onto a farmer’s field.
The Mobius – An old school friend of Ryan’s shows her and Mitch a laser that transports them to a parallel universe.
The Eighth Seal – Mitch is possessed by a demon that needs a sacrifice to solidify its base of power on Earth.
Chad and Carey Hayes, the executive story editors on Season 2, went on to write a number of horror films, including 2005’s House of Wax and the Conjuring movies, which gives you an idea of the bizarre tone that gave the show its second wind. The characters spend 22 episodes fighting werewolves, demons and what-have-you, and there’s even an episode, titled The Vortex, where Mitch and Ryan travel to the far-off future of 2017.
The problems inherent in trying to make a show about monsters and the supernatural on a Baywatch budget are apparent throughout the season, with dodgy creature effects and a disorienting amount of Batman ’66-style Dutch angles. What’s more, the ratings didn’t still improve. The show was cancelled in 1997 after 44 episodes of genre-heavy insanity.
Harmon moved on to a stint in the Law & Order franchise, and later Rizzoli & Isles. D’Errico jumped ship from Nights and joined the main cast of Baywatch, which also kept Hasselhoff in red trunks until he was written out in 2000. As a quintessential 1990s show, it petered out in 2001, after moving from LA to Hawaii, where there are fewer sea monsters, for the last two seasons.
“It was meant to be like I-Spy with Robert Culp and Bill Cosby, where we explore the relationships between the leads and celebrate their camaraderie,” the Hoff told the Bristol Bad Film Club in 2015. “The ratings were actually rather good, but while a nine-share might be huge today, it wasn’t good enough to stay on the air.”
“We had a really good cast and it’s one of the biggest disappointments of my life that we weren’t allowed to create what we wanted to make. It would have worked if they had left us alone, but everyone was worried about what would sell, as due to the marginal ratings at the beginning, we never got a chance to develop it.”
To paraphrase William Shakespeare, there are more things in Baywatch Nights than are dreamt of in your philosophy. It’s a show that lived more in two seasons than some shows do in 20 years and if you can handle its procedural silliness and lo-fi sci-fi madness, it’s out there. Really out there.