TL;DR: Baywatch is a way better game than TV show.
After getting over my initial distaste for such a "cheesy" theme, I've been a proud Baywatch owner for about two years now. But recently, I've started to wonder who those people are on the playfield - I'd never seen an episode of the show and started to think that maybe my enjoyment would be enhanced with a little context. Noticing that the whole series is on Hulu, I started watching from the beginning all the way through Season 5, which is when Sega released the pin. Here's what I've discovered.
Baywatch started as an NBC action drama, similar in tone to Knight Rider or The A-Team, where an elite team works together to save lives. After the first season, they seem to have realized a). that there's only so many ways to rescue people on the beach and b). that wasn't the real reason people were tuning in. The focus of Season 2 shifted from high-speed rescues to slow-motion running, mostly by the female cast. They also started including serious messages in the plot, like the plight of endangered sea mammals, homeless white people, and straight people with AIDS. NBC ended Baywatch after two seasons, but it moved to syndication, which brought a higher budget and a wider audience. By Season 5 it was the world's most popular TV show.
The thing I found most interesting is that the pinball machine focuses so heavily on the cast, even though the cast changes dramatically from season to season. There are always major changes between seasons - one senior lifeguard who was killed off in the pilot was even brought back to life in the second year. So it turns out that the cast featured in the game is specific only to Season 5. Here's a quick run-down:
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LT. MITCH BUCHANON (David Hallelhoff): The face of Baywatch is a selfless hero, a wise mentor and a caring single dad (whose son, Hobie, conveniently disappears wherever Mitch gets a romantic story line). During Season 6, Mitch will do double duty on Baywatch Nights, a short-lived spinoff series where he and best friend Garner Elerbee solve crimes and later, investigate paranormal phenomena. Mitch may be unlucky at love but he has a heart of gold.
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LT. STEPHANIE HOLDEN (Alexandra Paul): Mitch's boss is also his ex-fianceé. She left him before Season 1 started but returned to take a big promotion as head of Baywatch in Season 3. There's a lot of romantic and professional tension between the two but their on-and-off relationship seldom interferes with their work. On the playfield and backglass, Stephanie is shown with long hair, which she chopped into a more manageable pixie cut in Season 5.
CAROLINE HOLDEN (Yasmine Bleeth): Caroline is featured in the gameplay, but isn't depicted on the playfield or backglass. She's Stephanie's younger sister, who had a one-episode guest role in Season 4 before showing up at Stephanie's door in Season 5, looking for a place to go after leaving her husband. She joins the team for a job and to get back to the former glory of her high school days. Caroline briefly had a crush on Matt before dating Australian bad-boy Logan Fowler.
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CJ PARKER (Pamela Denise Anderson-Lee*): CJ also joined the cast in Season 3 as a former lifeguard returning to duty. Easily the smartest character on the show, she studies philosophy and speaks fluent Japanese. The beach-goers might drool over her, but her colleagues treat her with nothing but respect and professionalism. CJ shares an apartment with Stephanie and Caroline. (*Anderson was originally credited as Pamela Denise Anderson, later Pamela Anderson and, starting in Season 6, Pamela Lee).
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MATT BRODY (David Charvet): Matt was a high school rookie in Season 3, along with his girlfriend Summer Quinn, but when Summer moved back home to Pittsburgh, Matt started dating CJ. He's the youngest lifeguard, and most in need of guidance from the senior members of the team. Matt's father (Dirk Benedict in one episode, before being re-cast!) is American and his mother is French - except in one Season 5 episode where his mother is American and his father is French. Consistency is not the show's strong suit. Matt would leave the show after Season 5 after being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment by evil alcoholic lifeguard Neely Capshaw.
HOBIE BUCHANON (Jeremy Jackson): Mitch's son, an avid surfer, Junior Lifeguard and aspiring keyboard player. Jackson is actually the 2nd Hobie - the role was re-cast after Season 1.
SHAUNI MCCLAIN (Erika Eleniak): Shauni left the show after 2 seasons, which makes one wonder why she gets such a prominent spot on the backglass, which otherwise concentrates on the Season 5 cast.
SUMMER QUINN: (Nicole Eggert): Summer joined Baywatch in Season 3 (replacing Shauni on the roster) and left after Season 4. She was Matt's girlfriend and her relentless, jealous whining will not be missed.
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MICHAEL "NEWMIE" NEWMAN (Michael "Newmie" Newman): Hired as a consultant and an extra in the action sequences, Newman was an actual LA County Lifeguard. Eventually, they gave him a few lines and he became a regular fixture on the show. This drawing of him on the playfield doesn't do him justice at all - he's way hotter than this.
UNKNOWN: I have no idea who this is supposed to be. Maybe it's Caroline with blond hair. Or maybe it's Neely Capshaw, who would join full-time in Season 6.
OTHER STUFF: For the most part, the rescue modes in the game aren't specific to the plot - there are lots of instances on the show of lifeguards rescuing divers or performing CPR - but there are a few exceptions. There is an episode featuring a giant squid. The Season 5 premiere featured an earthquake and led to this scene:
Summer Quinn's mom, aspiring nightclub singer Jackie (Susan Anton) is trapped in the camper. When I got a ColorDMD for Baywatch I wondered why they made the car brown - such a dull color when they could have picked anything! Well, here's the answer.
In summary, the show is really cheesy and sometimes so bad that it's hard to watch. The best action episode is Season 3, episode 11, where CJ is knocked unconscious on a speedboat zooming towards a pier where the governor is giving a speech. The best acting of the series is in Season 4, episode 16, where Carrie-Ann Moss (5 years before The Matrix!) plays a woman with a split personality who kidnaps and nearly drowns Mitch. The worst episode is probably Season 2, Episode 16, where Matt dreams he's on Gilligan's Island (Bob Denver and Dawn Wells guest star). So was my enjoyment of the game enhanced by the context? Yes, probably. Will I continue watching seasons 6 through 11? Yes, definitely.