Love Boat for Spies

“The United States of America would like to invite you… to come spy with me.”
–Mr. Lavender, in the opening of Masquerade

Rod Taylor as Mr. Lavender

Don’t go on a cruise to the Caribbean this season.  Join World American Tours instead, the bus company that travels all over the world to provide our guests the best vacation they’ve ever had.  Join our uniquely trained tour guides and see sights ordinary tourists never get to visit.  Not only will this vacation be special, but (thanks to a deal we’ve worked out with the US Government) we’ll pay YOU an entire year’s salary to join us on this once-in-a-lifetime whirlwind adventure!  A free trip, a glorious time, and wonders to explore beyond your wildest dreams….

… with only one little catch.  You see, there’s this job we need you to do while you’re here….

Sounds like a scam?  Some thought so.  The trips were real, and so was the money.  But World American Tours was a front for the CIA, and the job (even if it’s something you do every day) is the most risky thing you’ll ever do.  Because you’re engaging in espionage during the Cold War, and there’s only so much our team can do to protect you.  Appropriately, what’s going on is an elaborate Masquerade.

Premiering at the end of 1983, Masquerade presented the somewhat tongue-in-cheek adventures of a beleaguered CIA chief, known only as Mr. Lavender (Rod Taylor).  His entire operation had been compromised, leading him to a radical idea:  instead of spending the time and money to train new spies (which he figured would take over a year to do), he’d simply spend the money to gather hard-working, patriotic Americans to do his spy work now.

Paying each citizen a free trip abroad and a year’s salary, Mr. Lavender brought people of all walks of life and all special skills together for a unique brand of espionage.  As they were total unknowns to the spy community, they could easily infiltrate without tipping off enemies.  Of course, what you gain in anonymity you lose in experience…  but it’s only one mission for each, right?  What could possibly go wrong?

Greg Evigan as Danny Doyle

“The other members of our team, sir… aren’t they going to be a little put off by having to work with two rookies?”

“Won’t bother them.  They’ve never been on a mission either.”

–Lavender, responding to Danny and Casey about their new assignment

Kirstie Alley as Casey Collins

Well, now that you mention it… plenty.  These people weren’t trained spies at all, so they had handlers to help them out with all the cloak-and-dagger stuff.  Lavender chose two relatively new CIA training graduates as assistants (remember, the entire previous staff had been compromised), and charged them with wrangling the untested newcomers (much to their chagrin).  Danny Doyle (Greg Evigan) and Casey Collins (Kirstie Alley) were there more to be conversational foils for the characters and providing a reason for dumping plot information, but they also provided some contrast to the covert proceedings.

So, with real (but still green) agents undercover as “tour guides” if our ordinary Americans got stuck (or did something really foolish, like get caught), the episode guest stars got on with the normal things their characters knew.  Like the plumber from Minneapolis, sent to Paris to cause hotel drains to plug up at a precise moment.  Or a thief from Chicago brought  in for the use of his pickpocket skills.  Or an out-of-work actor chosen because he could become a dead ringer for a Russian diplomat.  Whatever skill or ability was needed, that person soon “won” a free trip overseas and a year’s salary, just to do what they already did everyday.

“Welcome to Operation:  Masquerade.”
–Lavender, to the gathered “operatives”, in every episode

Each episode starting with a briefing aboard a private airplane on the way to some foreign locale, where Lavender would lay out the plan to those he had chosen for the mission.  They were free to back out anytime before the plane landed, but after that, they were “in”.  The presentation was like the opening tape recording of the late ’60’s series Mission:  Impossible, where the bad guy was shown and the group was informed of what they had to do… but whether they could do it without complications was the interesting part for the audience at home.

The “ordinary Americans” are where The Love Boat angle comes in, as they were guest stars each week.   Portrayed by various actors who weren’t necessarily on the A-List, but still were recognizable enough to bring an audience to the show, they ranged from movie actors, to television favorites, to celebrities who were only known for being, well, celebrities.  Classic television names like Cybill Shepard, Ernest Borgnine, and Lynda Day George worked alongside baseball great Steve Garvey, supposedly in Italy or Germany or even Brazil, just to present a feel-good caper show that was comfortable and easy on the brain.

And, perhaps, that’s why Masquerade didn’t do so well in the ratings competition as it did in the Cold War.  Storylines on The Love Boat, as a romantic comedy, lent themselves to more silliness and less consequence, whereas on Masquerade, mistakes made by our guests didn’t lead to comical misunderstandings, but to apprehension and imprisonment by a deadly enemy.  It’s hard to make escapist ’80’s television when the threat is so worrisome.  The stakes for the characters (and therefore the viewers who identify with them) are not comfortable ones by any means.

One would hope that Masquerade would be a more serious show as a result, but producer Glen A. Larson wasn’t known for that kind of depth on his series in general.  Plots used some really odd ideas, like beauty contestants (supposedly with martial arts skills) going up against ninjas and the Yakuza.  Yeah, that sounds rather silly (and unfortunate), but this was the height of the ’80’s, and some shows weren’t asked to go for the cerebral, by any means.  Using The Love Boat meets Mission:  Impossible as a template caused many (including the network) to focus on the vacuous first part, to the detriment of the dramatic second, ruining the series as a whole.  Having to play the “outrageous” as completely straight overwhelmed any credibility Masquerade may have hoped for.

sheet music for Crystal Gayle's opening theme

A decent idea descended quickly into a combination of silly spy thriller and unintentional (?) comedy, but maybe there was a reason for some of that.  Masquerade was the fourth try for the concept, as pilot movies had been done for the same concept (titled Call to Danger) in the ’60’s and ’70’s.  Containing varying degrees of seriousness, they never got off the ground as series, but at least Masquerade showed enough style to get episodes ordered beyond the pilot.  The opening title sequence shows much of the ’80’s James Bond influence, with over-the-top spy flair and terrific music by Crystal Gayle.  (In fact, one of the best remnants of the series was that theme song, which even got a release as sheet music during the run of the show.)

The show never really had a chance anyway, as it aired on Friday nights in 1984, in the path of the buzzsaws that were Dallas and Falcon Crest.  As mentioned previously in my article on The Quest, this was a spot for networks to gamble, as any ratings they could gather against those two series were something of a gain.  Dallas and Falcon Crest were simply unbeatable for years on Friday nights, and Masquerade failed as spectacularly as anything else put up against them.  It replaced an even more forgettable show, Lottery!, about the winners of a Publisher’s Clearing House type sweepstakes, and the dramas that ensued.

Another problem with the scheduling was premiering Masquerade in the middle of December, and running it during the holidays, traditionally low-rated times for any television programming.  The show ran through January, then was pre-empted for eight straight weeks (to run off remaining Lottery! episodes), before returning in April, where it resumed with another five episodes before being removed from the airwaves permanently. (Apparently, World American didn’t have any tours running during February and March that year….)

All told, Masquerade was a good idea that went bad very quickly.  Even the best ideas become shallow imitations of themselves when decent writing, production values, and acting aren’t part of their presentation.  Add in a woeful time slot with killer competition, and an airing schedule that almost no show could survive intact, and perhaps the show was appropriately named.  Whatever was left after all those problems was little more than a shell of what could have been, a pretend copy of a TV series, with a neat idea and not much more.  Truly a Masquerade….

ROD TAYLOR (Mr. Lavender) played many iconic Hollywood roles in his career, including leads in the original The Time Machine and Hitchcock’s classic The Birds.  Regular series roles included appearances on Outlaws, Bearcats!, The Oregon Trail, Falcon Crest, and Walker, Texas Ranger.  Most recently, he played Winston Churchill in the hit film Inglourious Basterds.  Taylor was also the voice of Pongo, the lead dalmatian in the original Disney animated film 101 Dalmatians.

GREG EVIGAN (Danny Doyle) has starred in numerous different series, from A Year at the Top (with David Letterman bandleader Paul Schaffer) and BJ and the Bear (with a chimp for a sidekick) through his biggest success, My Two Dads.  The syndicated TekWar (with William Shatner) followed, plus short-lived stints on Melrose Place, Pacific Palisades, and Family Rules.  He’s a consistent guest actor in many series, and most recently appeared in Desperate Housewives and Cold Case, as well as a number of TV-movies.

KIRSTIE ALLEY (Casey Collins) made a splash as Lt. Saavik in the film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan before becoming a mainstay on television.  Her role as Rebecca in Cheers won her an Emmy, and a starring role in the successful sitcom Veronica’s Closet followed.  While her ups-and-downs with weight loss have made tabloid fodder (and been featured in a reality series, Fat Actress), she was recently the runner-up in season 13 of Dancing with the Stars.

Masquerade isn’t available on DVD, but the episodes are up on YouTube thanks to the generous links of a certain user named imstillstuckinthe80s, where you will also find some other show episodes if you happen to be searching for another lost series.  There’s also an Italian site (in English) for Greg Evigan with stills taken from the show, but unfortunately not much else.  One would hope for a DVD release, considering the name value of the regulars, but such a thing hasn’t happened at this time (and it’s unknown what kind of shape any remaining copies might be in anyway, as there wasn’t a market for home video in those days, and a failed series often stayed forgotten as far as preservation was concerned).

Sometimes, you don’t ask for Shakespeare.  Sometimes, just escapist fare with a bit of fun, a bit of deception, and a bit of style fills the bill.  For those things, Masquerade did pretty well, but for any who asked more of the series, then perhaps it fell short of the mark.  To be a great series, it has to be all those things.  With better execution (and a little less over-the-top scripting), there’s still a quality show here somewhere.  We were just left with something pretending to be otherwise.

Vital Stats

1 90-minute pilot and 11 other aired episodes — 1 unaired
ABC Network
First aired episode:  December 15, 1983
Final aired episode:  April 27, 1984 (with a large 2-month gap in the middle)
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  An hour later, Friday @ 9/8 Central.  I don’t care how it was disguised, it was still fodder for Dallas at the time.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

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