TV Rewind: Melrose Place at 30 - How It Changed the Game for Nighttime Soaps

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TV Rewind: <i>Melrose Place</i> at 30 - How It Changed the Game for Nighttime Soaps

Editor’s Note: Welcome to our TV Rewind column! The Paste writers are diving into the streaming catalogue to discuss some of our favorite classic series as well as great shows we’re watching for the first time. Come relive your TV past with us, or discover what should be your next binge watch below:

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On July 8, Melrose Place—Fox’s spin-off of the original Beverly Hills, 90210 that served as fictional voyeurism for what life was most definitely like when you’re a young, attractive Angeleno attempting to establish yourself—will turn 30. This means that it will, officially, be older than its once-targeted demographic.

The Darren Star-created, Aaron Spelling-produced series is, at best, now considered a guilty pleasure remembered for its camp, cat-fights, and chokers. But, as Lelaina (Winona Ryder) famously said in the 1994 essential Gen X movie Reality Bites, “Melrose Place is a really good show.”

Melrose Place is a silly show and yet also… it’s a really good show, and all kinds of people probably secretly cared about it in addition to the ones who openly did,” emails Heather Cocks who, with writing partner Jessica Morgan, is an author and runs Go Fug Yourself, the fashion and pop culture website that frequently mentions the duos’ love for programs that are part of the Spelling-verse.

Morgan adds via email that Melrose’s fame, or at least infamy, was so big that there’s even an episode of Seinfeld where Jerry Seinfeld’s eponymous alter ego cops to being a fan, even though he doesn’t look or act the part.

This was because, once it found its groove, Melrose Place figured out its place in pop culture and leaned in. Hard.

The pilot episode mostly focuses on Courtney Thorne-Smith’s Alison Parker, a Type A wanna-be ad exec who thinks herself worldlier than she is (and who wore a fuzzy blue bathrobe with a celestial print that I, to this day, still remember). She’s in desperate need of a roommate to share her shockingly affordable pool-side pad in an apartment complex full of other hot, mildly interesting 20-somethings trying to find themselves.

Although nothing truly revolutionary actually came from their characters or plot points as the series progressed, the Melrose pilot also probably deserves some recognition for giving ample screen time to a Black tenant (Vanessa A. Williams’ aerobics instructor Rhonda Blair) and attempting to normalize the existence of a gay character (Doug Savant’s Matt Fielding). And, although it has storylines that are now familiar to anyone invested in the world of nighttime soaps—Alison’s lecherous boss tries to get her to sleep with him and she doesn’t know if filing a sexual harassment complaint will hurt her career; bad boy Jake Hason (Grant Show) is trying very, very hard not to have a relationship with a teen-ager (Jennie Garth’s poor rich girl Kelly Taylor from 90210)—we’re also supposed to try to care that boring marrieds Jane (Josie Bissett) and Michael Mancini (Thomas Calabro) can’t find time for one another, and that there may be sparks brewing between Alison and her eventual roommate, Billy Campbell (Andrew Shue).

“At the beginning, it was earnest because it was ‘this is what it’s like to be a 20-something making your way in the world’,” says journalist Rob Owen, author of Gen X TV: “The Brady Bunch” to “Melrose Place”.

Go Fug Yourself’s Morgan is more blunt, writing that “everyone I know thought/thinks the first season of Melrose is mostly a boring mess. We enjoyed [the show] because the eventual miniskirts and the catfights were incredibly entertaining and far superior to its first season.” Cocks scoffs that, “I remember one of the big plots being whether Andrew Shue’s character, Billy, would *gasp* take over his dad’s carpet store or keep driving his cab.”

But the 32-episode season order, plus the backing of Spelling’s bucks and Fox’s limited options for the timeslot, meant that there was room for experimentation. By the end of the first season, Michael has cheated on Jane with fellow doctor Kimberly Shaw (Marcia Cross), Heather Locklear has been introduced as Alison’s intimidating boss Amanda Woodward, and we’d met Jane’s troublesome sister Sydney (Laura Leighton).

“Aaron Spelling’s show[s] had a gift for creating TV bitches and complicated people who were also, at times, gleefully unhinged,” Cocks writes, adding that “on Melrose you had Amanda Woodward, Sydney, Michael Mancini, Kimberly Shaw, [and later in the series], Brooke played by Kristin Davis… even the nice characters had moments of being unapologetically fed up and mean, and that was refreshing.”

In fact, she argues, while Melrose might have bungled the way it handled characters like Matt, it did succeed in creating 3-D female characters.

“All of those women were complicated,” Cocks writes. “Sometimes they were heroes and sometimes they were villains and sometimes they were both at once.”

The way Cocks sees it, Jane could be “insufferable, and sometimes she got off a good line directed at her enemy. Sometimes Kimberly was evil and sometimes she was tragic. Sometimes Alison was nice, and sometimes she was bitter. Amanda could be a huge bitch, but you always understood why—she hated fools, and who among us can’t relate to that?”

She adds that it was also revolutionary in the way it added nighttime production values to draw upon tropes from daytime soaps like—attention fans of Friday Night Lights—“burying a dude you accidentally killed and then finding out he wasn’t dead.”

Melrose also helped change the nighttime landscape because of the way it told stories: serialization. Owen says that prestige dramas like Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere melded with iconic nighttime soaps like Falcon Crest and Dynasty to eventually produce “high-quality drama” like China Beach and Homefront, series that had continuing plot points and story arcs over multiple episodes and seasons. He says Fox used this formula for 90210 and Melrose, the latter doing it much earlier in its run and therefore “teaching a generation of viewers to embrace serialized storytelling; particularly the crazier, the soapier, the better.” (Previous YA-fare like Saved By the Bell hadn’t really explored this. Remember how quickly Jessie Spano kicked that caffeine addiction?).

Which brings us back to the character of Kimberly Shaw. While it’s hard, and perhaps unfair, to single out one episode of a hit TV show, there have been many, many think-pieces and tributes to the second season’s “The Bitch Is Back.” Written by Frederick Rappaport and directed by Charles Braverman, this is the episode where Cross’s once-presumed dead doctor heads to the bathroom, seemingly suffering from a headache, and suddenly rips off her red hair to reveal a ghoulish scar on the side of her head.

In a pre-Twitter, appointment-viewing world, moments like this could cement a fanbase. (“The gasps literally reverberated through my dorm hallway,” recalls Morgan).

The original Melrose Place demoed the complex in 1999, but it’s still been known to take up tenancy elsewhere beyond the failed 2009 reboot on The CW (we really don’t have to get into that now, but justice for Ashlee Simpson). Owen sees a correlation between Melrose and ABC’s mid-aughts hit Desperate Housewives, another show that concentrated on people who lived in proximity to one another and that he says also “had that same even more upfront cheeky tone with the narration,” and not to mention giving jobs to Cross, Savant, and Nichollette Sheridan, who was also on the Spelling-produced Dynasty.

As to whether it’s a quintessential Gen-X show, Cocks says it leaned into water-cooler moments and became something that a large swath of people could bond over and discuss (for what it’s worth, my junior high boyfriend’s mom was obsessed with the show. I grew up in Arkansas).

“Melrose had fabulous, campy, snarky TV villainesses with occasional hearts of… gold-plating, at least,” Cocks writes. “By the end of Season 1, it knew exactly what it was. It was ideal for that era.”

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Whitney Friedlander is an entertainment journalist with, what some may argue, an unhealthy love affair with her TV. A former staff writer at both Los Angeles Times and Variety, her writing has also appeared in Cosmopolitan, Vulture, The Washington Post and others. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, daughter, and very photogenic cat.

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