Globe Editorial

This uncharted democratic isle

July 19, 2011

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THOUGH “GILLIGAN’S Island’’ creator Sherwood Schwartz died last week at 94, some enduring questions about the 1960s show live on. What, for instance, was Ginger doing with so many evening gowns and high heels on what was only supposed to be a three-hour tour? Why didn’t the omnitalented Professor just fix the hole in the stranded SS Minnow? Then there’s a much deeper question: How did a sitcom with such an improbable premise - “a new low,’’ said one critic, “in the networks’ estimate of public intelligence’’ - become a touchstone of American culture?

In hindsight, the show was much more than its silliness and zany plots. Paul A. Cantor, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, suggests that “Gilligan’s Island’’ was a parable of American democracy. As he wrote in a 2001 study, “Gilligan Unbound,’’ the show’s premise was that a random group of Americans could fetch up anywhere in the world, and their democratic instincts would hold them together.

In this spirit, “Gilligan’s Island’’ repeatedly reinforced the classic American faith in the innate wisdom and fairness of the common man. For all the Skipper’s naval authority, Mr. Howell’s wealth, and the Professor’s expertise, Cantor wrote, it was Gilligan - agreeable, moderate, honest, public-spirited - who in episode after episode came through as the island’s model citizen. Naturally, when the castaways in one episode decide to elect a president, Gilligan wins.

Today, when so much of American politics seems to play out between intractably hostile camps, “Gilligan’s Island’’ may come across as a relic from a sweeter time. But as Schwartz knew only too well, the 1960s were no idyll; the show’s first episodes were filmed in the aftermath of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Real-life democracy, to paraphrase the sitcom’s closing music, is an uphill climb. And in those seven stranded castaways, Americans only saw themselves.