bad TV, healthcare, nostalgia

Trapper John, M.D. is basically The Love Boat, but with a medical theme…

In the featured screenshot, Gonzo gets physical with a teenaged deaf patient, whom he calls “sweetheart” as he ties her to the bed… Eew. He later manages to “tame” her and get her reacquainted with the mother who abandoned her when she was a baby.

There are several serious issues I could be writing about today, but it’s Friday, and Bill is coming home tonight. Aside from that, it’s a gloomy, rainy morning, and I just don’t feel like wading into the bad news that is all over the Internet today. Nah… I’d rather write about something totally off the wall and goofy… I suspect only people of a certain age will even care about this post. That suits me fine. So here goes…

For some reason, I’ve been binge watching old episodes of Trapper John, M.D. all week. That show, which was loosely based on Richard Hooker’s 1968 novel that brought us the movie and television show, M*A*S*H, premiered in September 1979, when I was seven years old. It was a medical drama, with occasional elements of comedy, and as I recall, it aired on Sunday nights at 10pm on the in the eastern U.S. time zone. In 1979, I lived in Fairfax, Virginia, which is a suburb of Washington, DC. Trapper John was on way past my bedtime in those days, but I do remember my mom used to watch it. It ran for seven seasons, finally ending in the summer of 1986, when I was about 14.

Every once in awhile, when I was growing up, I’d manage to see an episode of Trapper John, never realizing that it was basically a spinoff of M*A*S*H, which also aired during my childhood. I remember watching M*A*S*H more regularly, as it came on at a time that was more conducive to my bedtime. But it wasn’t until I was a lot older that I found out that the two shows, which seemed so different from each other, were related in any way. If I recall correctly, both aired on CBS, which always seemed like kind of a stodgy network to me. And now I realize that by even mentioning a big three network, I’m dating myself. Today’s young people have no idea about the struggle of only having a few channels to watch. 😉

Watching Trapper John, M.D. has been an interesting experience. Last night, after watching I don’t know how many episodes, I concluded that the show is basically The Love Boat, only with a medical theme. Every week, there were different guest stars, some of whom recurred in the same role, and some who came back as different characters. I remember The Love Boat was similar, in that a lot of people had more than one voyage on the Princess, but as different characters. Both shows, as well as shows like CHiPs, Dallas, Dynasty, Fantasy Island, and the like, were great vehicles for aging movie stars and Broadway performers.

In Season One of Trapper John, M.D., Trapper’s scrub nurse is a heavyset lady with a distinctively clear speaking voice named Starch. Starch is, of course, a nickname, and she was played by Mary McCarty, who was in her 50s at the time. Mary McCarty was a well-known torch singer and actress who did a lot of stage work and some movies. She was even in All That Jazz, a movie I never get tired of watching, but didn’t discover until I was 18– again, because I was only seven when it was released and it was rated R. Sadly, Mary only lasted a season on Trapper John, because she died very suddenly of a heart attack at just 56 years of age. I’m only seven years younger than Mary was when she died, but I think I look a hell of a lot younger. That’s another thing about the 70s and 80s… I don’t think people held their ages quite as well then, probably because of all the smoking.

There were a lot of other legendary actors on that show, as well as a few less legendary ones. A couple of days ago, I happened to catch an episode from the first season that starred Robbie Rist, aka “Cousin Oliver” on The Brady Bunch. I follow Robbie Rist on Facebook, because I think he’s hilarious and I agree with his views on a lot of things. He changed his profile photo yesterday, and I was able to make a comment, even though we aren’t “friends”. The picture he posted cracked me up; so I said so, then mentioned that I’d just seen him on Trapper John, M.D. The episode is called “The Surrogate”, and it was made just as Robbie’s voice was changing.

So true.

Robbie asked me where I found his episode, so I shared the link. For some reason, the uploader has versions of Trapper John that were partly dubbed in German, which of course is useful for me, especially since they also helpfully included English subtitles. What’s strange is that only parts of the episode are in German. The rest of it is in English, minus subtitles. Robbie then shared the link in a separate post and even gave me a shout out. I enjoyed reading the comments from his friends.

This episode also features Kim Cattrall, whose belly dancing character comes from the Middle East as is promised to Gonzo Gates in marriage. I guess it makes sense, since Iran was very much in the news in 1979. I clearly remember that, even though I was only 7 years old at the time.

It’s only been somewhat recently that I’ve started to accept the fact that I’m getting old. Today, I spotted the beginnings of what will probably be a varicose vein on my upper right thigh. I noticed a small section of a purplish looking vein popping out of my flesh this morning, then remembered that my mom has similar looking veins on her legs. I’m a lot like my mom on many levels. If I were standing next to her, you would definitely be able to tell that she’s my mom. I already have the dreaded spider veins and ruddy skin that comes from Celtic genes, just like she does. And I’m sure I will have high blood pressure, if I don’t already have it. She has it, and my grandmother had it. On the few occasions I let a doctor see me, they’ve assumed I have it, although so far, they haven’t been able to make that diagnosis. Of course, I haven’t seen a physician in over ten years.

Watching this show has the weird effect of reminding me of when I was very young, and also reminding me that I’m now getting old. I listen to the sexist, paternalistic language from the show’s male stars– Pernell Roberts in the title role, Gregory Harrison as the hot Lothario doctor, Gonzo Gates, Charle Siebert as Stanley Riverside, Jr., and Brian Stokes Mitchell as the token black doctor, Jackpot. Trapper and Gonzo are particularly paternalistic, especially toward the women. They call their female patients and colleagues “kiddo”, “baby”, “young lady”, “girl”, “sweetheart”, and “honey”. A lot of my regular readers, and people who actually know me, know that I hate pet names from people with whom I don’t share a bed. I think I would lose teeth from compulsive grinding if I were in the hospital and my doctor called me cutesy names. But I guess this was considered appealing back in the day…

What is also interesting to me is seeing how improbable the storylines are. For one thing, the patients all look way too healthy to be in the hospital. There are very rarely any truly convincing dramatic moments on this show. Very few patients ever come close to actually dying. Most seem to be on vacation, electing to “stick around” for a few days. I watched an episode this morning in which a lupus patient elects to take herself off all drugs and treatment protocols in lieu of a holistic approach. Then she checks out of the hospital and goes home with a guy who has developed the new holistic approach. He’s rich, and has a huge house with servants. We see him pouring her champagne as they lounge on the patio… Suddenly, she’s moaning in pain. Gonzo shows up with an ambulance, which the holistic guru turns away.

Having earned a master’s degree in public health with a health administration focus, I know that nowadays, you have to be pretty sick to be hospitalized. People in the hospital don’t just stay there for a rest. And certainly, none look as hale and hearty as the ones on Trapper John. I saw another episode yesterday with a woman who had Lou Gehrig’s disease. She was bright and beautiful looking, but was sitting in a wheelchair. When she knocks over her checkers game, she pleads with Gonzo not to tell Trapper, because he’ll “put her to bed”. Sure enough, Trapper does try to order her to bed, but she says no thanks, and wheels off to do her “living”. That does not seem like a very realistic scenario today, and I doubt it was in 1979 or 1980, either. No one on Trapper John really looks sick… and it doesn’t seem to have even occurred to the writers to even try to make them look the part. Yet this show lasted seven seasons!

I remember back in 1997, I spent a few days in an Austrian town called St. Poelten. I was alone, so I spent time in my hotel room, watching TV. Trapper John, M.D. was airing, and I distinctly remember watching it, along with annoying German dish detergent commercials. One was for a product called “Lemon Frisch” and had a jingle that ripped off the melody for the late 50s pop song, “Lollipop”. I guess this was a popular show in Germany and German speaking countries. I have never been in a German hospital, but I have always imagined German doctors to be on the authoritative side, kind of like Trapper and Gonzo… although I’m sure they don’t romance their patients or use terms of endearment to address them before they send them a bill for services rendered.

Watching Trapper John, M.D., one gets the sense that these doctors were in the business out of the goodness of their hearts and never charged their patients a cent. Why else would wine swilling Gonzo Gates live in a crappy RV called The Titanic, parked in the hospital parking lot? He regularly romances nurses in the RV, and they are all somehow impressed solely by his good looks, rather than repulsed by his primitive living conditions. We’re also supposed to believe that the nurses don’t all end up hating Gonzo for loving and leaving them, as he must, since he’s single and constantly on the make.

The doctors on Trapper John, M.D. freely discuss patient cases with anyone and everyone– with other doctors, with family members and friends, and even with perfect strangers! These were the days before HIPAA, don’t you know? Seems like just yesterday! And in Germany, it still is yesterday, since HIPAA isn’t a thing here. My dentist is happy to tell Bill all about my mouth when we go visit him. He’ll even do it in the hallway, where the rest of the waiting room can hear. I notice that they often had storylines that were kind of topical in the 80s, though. Like, for instance, one episode involved a child living in a bubble, much like the case of David Vetter, a Texas boy about my age who had such challenges with his immune system that he was forced to spend his entire life in a sterile environment. Nowadays, I doubt David Vetter would live that way.

Another thing I noticed, besides the improbable storylines, is that Trapper and Gonzo often work outside of their areas of specialization. I saw an episode last night that had Trapper and Gonzo, who are hotshot cardio-thoracic surgeons, doing a delicate eye surgery on a young woman. And they are being led through the surgery by a retired alcoholic eye surgeon who had just been on a bender and had trembling hands. That particular episode included a mention of the “n-bomb”, which was not such an uncommon thing in the 80s. They also work on pediatric cases, such as the episode involving Robbie Rist

This week, while binging on this show, I have learned that the exterior shots in the opening credits were filmed at Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center, a hospital in Los Angeles that is now owned by a South Korean company. The real life hospital doesn’t get the best ratings or reviews on Google, however, most of the patients are evidently of Korean descent. I keep looking at pictures of that hospital, trying to find the iconic tower shown on the opening credits of Trapper John, M.D., which had a pretty realistic looking set at 20th Century Fox Studios.

And finally… the last thing I noticed is that Trapper John, M.D. has sort of a kinky element to it. Just off the top of my head, I can think of at least three episodes involving patients being restrained to protect them from themselves. One episode in particular, involving a deaf girl with celiac disease that Gonzo almost runs over with his crappy R.V., shows the girl being restrained several times. And Gonzo develops kind of a quasi parental-romantic attachment to her. It’s definitely a bit cringeworthy. On the other hand, I’m sure there are women out there who might fantasize about being restrained by Gregory Harrison. He was quite the hottie back in the day… or, at least some women (and perhaps even some men) thought so. Even a lady on Robbie Rist’s thread about this show mentioned how “dreamy” ol’ Gregory Harrison was in his Gonzo days.

We’re gonna help you whether you want it or not! And if you don’t behave, we’ll get out the restraints! Maybe this is why the show aired after 10pm. It seems very family friendly by today’s standards, except for the occasional n-bomb being dropped.

Incidentally, I did some research on Gregory Harrison. He’s been married to actress/model Randi Oakes for about 40 years. Randi Oakes famously played a lady cop (and car thief) on CHiPs. She was also on The Love Boat. The couple share four grown children– three natural daughters and an adopted son. Sadly, it appears that Harrison’s son has had some legal troubles and is currently incarcerated in Idaho for sexual offenses against a minor under age 16. His daughters, on the other hand, are quite gorgeous and seem to be doing well.

CHiPs was another show that was blatantly sexist and featured characters that were overly involved in the lives of the guest stars’ characters. It’s a show with very little basis in reality. But I guess we liked that shit in the late 70s and early 80s… It’s hard to believe I was alive when that kind of show was the norm. I don’t know why I watch it, since today, it would all be considered dreck. I guess I’m just fascinated with the past, and how very quickly years pass once you’re over 21.

Anyway, I know I should watch some newer shows… and I have downloaded some. There’s something very comforting about old shows, and a reminder of how things used to be, back in the days before the Internet… and COVID-19. But if I ever have a horny doctor with a receding hairline and a beard who calls me “kiddo” or “young lady”, they might have to get out the restraints for me, too.

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5 thoughts on “Trapper John, M.D. is basically The Love Boat, but with a medical theme…

  1. Of the few M*A*S*H spinoffs (I think two made it to full series status, and one only made it to the pilot state), I watched “AfterMASH” the most. I could never get into “Trapper John, MD” all that much.

    “AfterMASH” was one of those ideas that are good on paper but not so good when put on TV. A sequel to one of the best “dramedies” of all time without Alan Alda even making an appearance as a guest star was bound to fail. I liked the concept, which is why I watched the first season, but even though it had three of the original series cast members as the leads, it just seemed like a pale imitation of its parent show.

    I tried to like “Trapper John, MD” but I didn’t like it much.

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