Before the rise and global domination of prestige television, TV used to be an ocean of forgettable, weird syndicated procedurals. The all but forgotten mad dream of the creators of Baywatch, one show ran for a single season before fading into the dusty halls of ignominy. A show starring former wrestling superstar and future Gawker foe Hulk Hogan and Hollywood legacy Chris Lemmon. The show was called Thunder in Paradise. The Deadshirt series—wherein Max Robinson and Jake Arant discuss the scant episodes we can find on the internet —is called Boat Dinks.
Max: Thunder in Paradise is something I was completely unaware of until a few weeks ago. I became fascinated by it, a TV show that almost completely slipped through the cracks of our collective conscious. You can’t buy the whole show on DVD, you can’t stream it anywhere legally. Thunder in Paradise didn’t launch anyone’s career or leave any kind of lasting mark on the bathroom wall of pop culture. In ten years, twenty years, will anyone remember this show? And the thing is, it’s not some forgotten gem: It’s full on garbage! But if anything, that makes it even more interesting. The core concept—ex-Navy SEALS R.J. “Hurricane” Spencer and Martin “Bru” Brubaker fight crime and have adventures on the Florida coast using “THUNDER,” their high tech jetboat—is like a weird mishmash of Knight Rider, Airwolf and Baywatch without the charm that gave those shows more than one season. Jake, what is it about Thunder in Paradise that haunts your dreams and nightmares?
Jake: Max, this show is fascinating garbage. It’s every hallmark of bad eighties TV under the veneer of the early nineties cinematic-tinted production that seemed to follow in the wake of Miami Vice. The money and time and consideration that went into making this flaming dumpster of a show honestly makes me ill to consider. There were times during the pilot (which is almost TWO HOURS long, by the way) that I actually paused it and called someone else into the room to rewatch a scene with me, because I was having trouble processing what I was seeing. It’s legitimately terrible to the point that I’m unable to fully comprehend it. At times it almost seems to be a parody of the stuff that preceded it, but it has a habit of cruelly and jarringly reminding you that they’re playing this thing straight. It’s some sort of horrible child of Knight Rider and Baywatch with exactly zero charm. It’s like…It’s like if AC/DC wrote an ill-advised Jimmy Buffett song.
Max: It has an incredibly specific 1994 aesthetic—babes in bikinis lounging in the sun, big reflective sunglasses, Hulk’s seemingly infinite collection of all-occasion bandanas—it’s like the Evil Mirror Dimension’s version of Miami Vice, if Miami Vice was total garbage starring a wrestler who can’t act and Jack Lemmon’s kid. The opening of the pilot, which is just our leads waging war on communist guerillas from their boat, is so incoherent and lacking in any kind of exposition or set up. Thunder in Paradise is like a tone poem written by a blackout-drunk-on-Coors Spuds MacKenzie.
Jake: The pilot is just this horrid murky piece of writing that’s not interested in explaining any character relationships, which is astounding because it spends a hefty chunk of time focusing on the core cast screwing around on the beach. This show that is ostensibly about two dudes in a speedboat fighting communists has a very small amount of speedboat action in it. There’s SO much to unpack here. The set design is atrocious, the characters are unlikeable, and the music is at times so blatantly reminiscent of Lethal Weapon that at times I considered just ditching it and turning on Lethal Weapon. But honestly, for me, the thing that fascinates me the most, ESPECIALLY through the lens that history affords us, is the bizarrely understated performance from Hulk Hogan. I’ve… Never seen anything quite like it.
Max: I was walking my dog today and all I could think about is how weird Hulk Hogan’s hair is, especially for like a Famous Celebrity. It’s so fine and silky, like the hair of a baby or a Victorian era doll. Hulk Hogan is a weird looking guy and, buddy, this show wants you to believe that women find him irresistible. Hulk-as-R.J. basically runs this small beachfront town and he’s never wrong, only inconvenienced by others. “Bru” being such a total non-entity (despite all the desperate, grating wacky voices he tries!) makes the whole thing even more lopsided.
Jake: Hulk Hogan definitely has screen presence, in the sense that he’s IMPOSSIBLE to ignore. Not in a good Kurt Russell way, either. Hulkster’s R.J. is an emotional man with a strong sense of right and wrong who will take kids parasailing in a speedo and also thinks nothing of straight up snapping dude’s necks. Seeing Hulk Hogan play a guy who’s conversational and at times soft-spoken is the weirdest thing, and it never really gels, because, let’s face it, the dude has a pretty specific and narrow range as an actor. It’s astounding to me that every other character in this thing is basically a non-entity in his wake. They’ve got Carol Alt in this show and all you’re ever looking at is Hulk Hogan’s glistening too-tan body, which is pretty much constantly on display. Watching him morosely meander through the various subplots of this thing is a chore.
Max: If Hogan were an even remotely good actor it’d be fun to watch him tell a small child about a time he tore a living shark in half in the way it’s fun to watch Stallone’s Marion Cobretti cut a slice of pizza with scissors. R.J. Spencer is too weird to be taken seriously and somehow not weird enough to be all the way interesting. I love how desperately this show showers him with various quirks (eyepatch, single dad) and none of it really matters. Can we talk about the huge fucking bait and switch that is the forced, insanely boring forced marriage/boat debt subplot in this pilot?
Jake: Oh my God. So, Hulkster put everything he had into building this boat, which is actually the most believable divorced-dad thing about the whole show. The government didn’t pick up their contract for what is essentially the worse half of the car from Spy Hunter and now he’s one hundred grand in debt. Who comes to the rescue? A woman with whom he has an extremely ill-defined relationship who stands to inherit the huge hotel on the island they all occupy if she gets married by, like, the end of the weekend. So she cuts him a deal: I’ll pay your debt if you marry me. This is not only the stupidest shit ever, it also takes up a dizzying amount of the pilot movie’s runtime. Is this woman Hogan’s ex-wife? What is their relationship? I legitimately don’t understand, and I even tried to look it up after the fact.
Max: Part of what intrigues me about Thunder in Paradise is there isn’t like a diehard TiP fanbase or comprehensive wiki. So we’re left to puzzle out if The Wealthy Hotel Owner Who Has To Marry Someone To Keep The Hotel In Accordance With Her Dad’s Will is Hulk’s ex, if Hulk is that one girl’s dad, etc. I really, really love the the heroes of our show built a presumably multi-million dollar armored speedboat on spec for the United States Navy and are getting super fucked over on this deal. How did that arrangement go down? There are banks that’ll give you you the capital to build a super-boat with a bunch of guns on it? How did the meeting with their loan officer go down? A lady who owns a reasonably successful hotel in Orlando can afford to pay off super-boat debts? I feel like I’m on drugs, Jake.
Jake: It really does feel like some sort of incomplete mess of blurry mimosa memories. The plot hooks are insanely weak, so if you lapse your attention for even a moment, you’ll miss the key piece of dialogue that informs the next 45 minutes. What do these guys do besides drink too much and harass sunbathing women in their stupid boat? It’s honestly sort of upsetting, because with the right crew and tone, a show about two degenerates living off the coast of Florida and wrecking people’s shit with a weaponized speedboat could be extremely funny. On paper, it’s the perfect post-Miami Vice scumbag fantasy. It even has a couple of other professional wrestlers pop up in some of the dullest cameos I’ve ever witnessed. This show reminds me so much of other short-lived nineties shows, especially Viper, which had the benefit of burgeoning CGI technology and James McCaffrey of Max Payne fame. This show has nothing. It has too much of nothing. It’s a big bland bullshit stew with a cocktail umbrella stuck in it.
Max: The ACTUAL PLOT of the pilot is so ho-hum you instantly forget about it. R.J.’s daughter(?) gets a necklace from the stomach of a shark…that’s a map…to some treasure…in a cave…and a bad guy wants it. The only time the show really pops is when the giant henchman manhandles Hulk Hogan or throws a big barrel at him like Donkey Kong. I straight up died laughing when the dude crawled into the backseat of a limo like some kind of giant dog. I also kind of dug the villain, a guy who fantasies about firing a rocket launcher at a humpback whale to show the audience how evil he is.
Jake: The villain of this production is just about the only person in the whole thing who can possibly steal any focus from Hogan, and he does it by delightedly playing the world’s biggest asshole, which at least has a little venom. The fact that this thing managed to spawn an entire season of a TV show is mind-boggling, and what’s even more shocking is that people aren’t constantly talking about it now. This…Entity. This television program. Is the weirdest fucking thing I have ever seen. And it’s just sinking into the pop culture swamp? You should be able to watch EVERY SINGLE EPISODE of this show on a streaming platform, if for nothing else than to illustrate what hubris and a boatload of cash could produce in the nineties. For the same reason that Knight Rider is remembered for being charming in a crappy way, this needs to be remembered for taking the same premise and trapping it in a charisma vacuum.
Max: As much as we’re going on and on about how dumb and boring this is, Thunder in Paradise is built on a completely insane premise and watching two completely charisma-less actors try to make this thing work is sort of incredible. And keep in mind, we haven’t even gotten to the episodes with robots and the Queen of England. Before we wrap this up, I’d like to talk about the elephant in the room: This turkey ends with Hulk Hogan and his marriage of convenience wife filming A FAKE SEX TAPE WHILE TWO OLD MEN WATCH. It’d be like if there was a scene in one of the Naked Guns where OJ flees some bad guys in a white Ford Bronco.
Jake: I strongly suspect that Thunder in Paradise is going to continue to be packed with harrowing parallels to Hulk Hogan’s screaming eagle fall from grace. Sitting here, in this moment, the thing that I struggle with the most is that there is more of this show and that by virtue of discovering it, we have a moral imperative to watch it. I’m not sure we’ll make it out the other side of this one, partner.
Max: I feel like we’re taking our first clumsy, backward steps into a Hell greater than we can possibly imagine. A Hades ruled by a cornhusk haired Satan and filled with the 80s asses of the damned.