Well, it’s happened. Rent-a-Romp, the infamous ‘70s spin-off of The Love Boat, has finally found an audience beyond its cult status. The period piece, which aired for a brief season in the United States in 1972, is set to become a major motion picture staring Nicole Kidman and Ed Harris. The show’s creators, Chuck Lorre and Dick Wolf, have even referenced the newfound interest in the unlikely hit by reprising their roles as boat’s captain Miles O’Bannon and ship’s owner Frank Radburn for a second season of Wolf’s other hit, The Mysteries of Laura. But why did Rent-a-Romp find such a dedicated audience in the first place?
For starters, the show is pretty rad. Co-creator Chuck Lorre, who played Miles O’Bannon on the show, has said in interviews that the premise was inspired by a New York Times article that discussed the uptick in middle-aged women going on romantic vacation. Seeking a way to combine their newfound interest in romantic comedy with a summer vacation, Lorre and his writing partner, Dick Wolf, decided to give it a try. And even though Rent-a-Romp was not initially intended to be a long-term success, it managed to endure for several years, thanks in large part to its dedicated fanbase.
The cult following grew thanks in part to a combination of nostalgia and social media. Lorre has cited Twitter as a tool that helped spread the word about the show. “I really can’t believe that went un-noticed for so long,” he said in a 2016 interview with the Cut. “Like, really? All these years? It was just a matter of finding the right audience, and it happened on Twitter.” Indeed, Rent-a-Romp was one of the first shows to fully embrace the potential of social media. The Twitter account for the show’s fictional company, SeaDreamInc, became a hub for diehard fans. When Harris’s character, Frank Radburn, tries to shut down the account, he unwittingly helps fuel the fandom. “It’s like an episode of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ in here,” he says, reprimanding the executives who run the company’s social media accounts. Radburn then makes a fateful decision: to let the Twitter account live, and use it as a way to connect with fans.
The show also starred future Oscar winners Art Garfunkel and Carol Burnett as a married couple who, much like Lorre and Wolf, are seeking a romantic weekend getaway. While in theory, the show’s premise could have been ripped off from a million different series, it still feels unique. Perhaps the biggest difference is that Rent-a-Romp is genuinely funny. Wolf, who is best known for directing the films The Hunt for Red October and The Shape of Water, helped bring an endearing level of wit to the show.
It’s not just the dialogue that makes the show special. It’s the fact that Lorre and Wolf, who also wrote the Emmy-winning sitcom Two and a Half Men together, were able to seamlessly blend comedy and romance. “In the beginning, there was this element of novelty to it,” Wolf said in the same interview. “You had to see it to believe it. But as we went on, you started to realize that this was a special thing.” Wolf also cited the show’s second season as a turning point, after which he said it became clear to him that Lorre was a “special, creative genius.”
Rent-a-Romp is not the first show to combine romance with comedy. One of the most famous examples is I Love Lucy, which regularly featured romantic subplots woven into its script. However, where I Love Lucy mostly aimed for innuendo, Lorre and Wolf took a more comedic approach, using their scripts to lampoon American culture in the ‘70s. If Netflix is seeking to make a movie about the show’s unique appeal, they are in for a real treat.
A Show That Ended Up Belonging To The ‘70s
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is about the ‘70s that inspires nostalgia in regards to Rent-a-Romp. The show’s co-creator, Dick Wolf, has cited the decade’s “huge technological advancements” as one of the reasons why the series has endured for so long. Wolf also cited the fact that a large portion of the show’s audience grew up watching it, and feel connected to its premise. The show’s setting, a luxurious cruise liner, also helped make it the perfect beach pad for a summer weekend. And while the show is set in the ‘70s, it still feels relevant, thanks in large part to frequent cameos from real-life celebrities.
Other shows, like Three’s “Reboot,” are set in the future, but they also often feel like they could have taken place in the ‘70s, thanks to the prominent ‘70s culture that surrounded the show. Its titular character, Daisy, has a love affair with a holographic projection of her deceased husband, even taking his name, William, when she marries “him.” While it’s not quite as meta as Rent-a-Romp, it’s pretty close. And the show’s sleek, futuristic style is reminiscent of the era’s pop culture, from David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane period to Heidegger’s black turtleneck and Leisure Suit Larry, Hello, Dolly! costumes. There are also numerous ‘70s fashion and beauty references scattered throughout the show’s dialogue.
It’s clear that nostalgia played a key role in the series’ enduring appeal. Wolf even went so far as to say that it wasn’t until he was in his 70s that he began to appreciate the show’s nuances, joking that he finally got “the full [Rent-a-Romp] experience” only after he started losing his hair. While Wolf has joked about the appeal of the show in the past, the fact that his own Twitter following is largely made up of fellow ‘70s fans is a testament to the series’ enduring popularity.
Romantic Comedy, For The Ages
It’s rare that a TV show can remain popular for decades, but that is exactly what happened with Rent-a-Romp. The series premiered in 1972, during the height of the romantic comedy boom, and it still continues to be popular today, regularly appearing on television and streaming platforms in reruns. And it’s not just because of nostalgia. In a 2016 interview with the Cut, co-creator Chuck Lorre revealed that the show’s enduring appeal can be attributed to its “romantic comedy with an edge” premise, which he called “radical” at the time. He also said that the show’s success in the ‘70s was “groundbreaking” because at the time, “nobody knew what a cruise ship was.”
Lorre is right. While the concept of a luxurious cruise ship and its capacity for 500 passengers may have been novel in 1972, today it’s routine for major cruise lines to offer such a high-end experience. And it’s not just the setting that makes SeaDreamInc’s cruise liner so memorable; it’s the characters who make up its small crew. While many of them are one-dimensional stereotypes, there is something uniquely charming about Lorre’s take on the ‘70s nostalgia craze, as well as the era’s over-sexualized ‘70s culture.
It’s not just the setting or the characters that make SeaDreamInc’s cruise liner so memorable. It’s the fact that it’s full of memorable characters who make it an ensemble comedy unlike any other. You’re constantly reminded that this is a group of people you’re watching, and that they all have interesting stories. While some of their interactions might be funny, they also provide the audience with a clearer understanding of the social and economic divisions that plagued the ‘70s. For example, the show often touches on the class differences that plagued the decade, with upper-class passengers looking down on the working-class passengers, most of whom are servants and performing artists.
As we’ve established, nostalgia is one of the main drivers of the show’s enduring popularity. And it’s not just because of the setting or the characters. Even the smallest details, like SeaDreamInc’s logo, evoke the ‘70s, making the entire experience feel that much more real.