In 2020 people struggled with rapid and often unpleasant changes. Many tuned in to television shows from the past as a means of self-comfort. Indeed, lately I find myself watching more and more programs from the 60s and 70s, some that I watched during their original run and others that provide familiar scenery from childhood. There’s something wonderful about immersing oneself in the miasma of carefree days that preceded entry into the 9-5 world.
And I’ve been thinking of shows that sit in the crepuscule of my memories, fleeting images of safari from Daktari, of airboats gliding through the Everglades from Gentle Ben and of Lloyd Bridges scuba diving from Sea Hunt. Assuming that I’d never really watched it before, I checked out Sea Hunt from Everett Public Library with some trepidation, fairly certain that it would bore me into a coma. Well sir or ma’am, I could not have been more wrong! While the show is exceedingly dry in delivery (yet wet with water), it manages to create tension and excitement while teaching a thing or two along the way.
If you’re of a certain age, you remember watching films in elementary school that could be collectively called Help Me I’m Bored, Please Put an Icepick Through My Eye. No attempt to engage viewers, dry-like-the-driest-sherry narration and visuals that would not stimulate a sea cucumber. To some extent, Dragnet grew out of this tradition with its no-nonsense just-the-facts-ma’am narration. Sea Hunt feels like the undersea equivalent of Dragnet. It’s not a perfect analogy (the beautiful rapid-fire delivery of Joe Friday is nowhere to be found), but it’s a good starting point for understanding the show.
Episodes begin with diver Mike Nelson (which, c’mon, is the perfect name for a dashing male figure from the late 50s) narrating while he carries out his typical diving duties. Next, we learn the extraordinary circumstances he must deal with in today’s adventure. For example, a mine collapses and is filled with water. 30 miners are killed. Mike is hired to dive in the flooded tunnels (a dangerous undertaking) to see what the situation looks like.
Let me digress for a moment. I like to imagine the pitch meeting for Sea Hunt where creator Ivan Tors must have said roughly, “Half the show takes place underwater. It’s dark, murky and very hard to see. Divers can only move slowly and they don’t talk while diving. Another quarter of the show is Mike Nelson adjusting his diving gear.” In fact, networks turned the show down and it ended up being produced in syndication. And Sea Hunt is indeed visually unengaging, with long periods of narration explicating underwater escapades. Yet it still manages to generate gut-clenching thrills as we wait to see if Mike can save the world once again.
We now return to our regularly scheduled program.
As he dives through those flooded mine caverns, Nelson begins to hear a pounding that’s too regular to ignore. Emerging in a small air pocket he discovers two miners barely alive, soon to be dead if he doesn’t act immediately. Mike realizes that he can only take one of them back to safety! He decides to return as quickly as possible to help the other, but it will likely be too late…
The show ran from 1958-1961, before my time, but I remember watching it as a young child and especially recall each episode’s ending, variations on the theme, “Hi, I’m Lloyd Bridges. I’ll see you next week for another underwater adventure.” Surprisingly, it’s become a show I greatly enjoy. Grab some popcorn, Maynard, and check this one out for yourself.