[31 January 2007]
With The O.C. in ruins, teen melodrama on TV couldn’t be in a more precarious position. Not so long ago, however, it was thriving. High schoolers, their older siblings, and parents tuned in by the millions to watch Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place.
Both 90210, which debuted in ‘90, and Melrose, first aired in 1992, provide a snapshot into the same early ‘90s period. The characters on the latter show are marginally older—in a bit of cross-promotion, Kelly (Jennie Garth) and Jake (Grant Show) are romantically linked in early episodes of Melrose—but in both places, the clothes are silly, the slang ridiculous, and the irony absent.
Still, the kids in West Beverly possess a certain timelessness missing in the “young adults” of Melrose. 90210 is still syndicated in 14 countries, while Melrose is only available on Paramount’s new DVD. Given that they were both created, executive produced, and sometimes written by Darren Star, the scripts are equally solid, and the actors similarly talented and beautiful, there must be some other explanation of the difference in their fates.
One possibility is the combination of dialogue and characters. It’s less grating when teenaged David (Brian Austin Green) explains, “That’s what happens when your parents get divorced: your dad lets you do incredibly stupid things because he only gets to see you on weekends,” than when young professional Michael (Thomas Calabro) worries that his wife Jane (Josie Bissett) is “insinuating that [he’s] not fulfilling [his] husbandly duties.” The struggle to pay rent—especially at the glamorous apartments at 4616 Melrose Place—is boring. High school drama is—apparently—endlessly entertaining.
Melrose Place deserves some credit for taking chances, addressing (or at least acknowledging) “issues” avoided by its predecessor. An African American character, Rhonda (Vanessa A. Williams), lives in the apartment complex, while the only minority characters in West Beverly were chauffeurs, bouncers, and valets. Casting only takes you so far, though: Rhonda’s dialogue tended toward the stereotypical (“Allison’s new roommate has got it goin’ on!”) and her storylines were minimal. She was gone by the second season.
The show also cast Doug Savant as Matt, an out gay man. It was considered a bold step in ‘92. In an interview with AfterElton.com, Star asserts, “I think it was an enormous milestone. I don’t think anybody had seen a character like that—an unapologetic, out gay character that had self respect for who he was.” The creator may be correct –- Matt at least partially paved the way for Will, Ellen, and others -– but he wasn’t very compelling. The network made sure he didn’t have a sex life, censoring his only kissing scene, and he played the “best friend” role throughout the show’s 10-year run.
Neither box set breaks new ground with special features. They come packed with extras, but most are superfluous. Today, everyone documents their backstage activities with an eye toward the DVD releases down the road. Back then, no one thought to record daily activities or interview cast and crew members. The Melrose Place and 90210 “Behind-The-Scenes” or “new Style” featurettes do nothing to elucidate the production process, only observe surfaces. Would anyone complain if the complete first season came sans “Meet the Class of West Beverley High?” Probably not. Fans will be content just to have the episodes collected on discs.
In the pilot episode of Melrose Place, four people are thrown in the pool. In Beverly Hills, the kids jump in voluntarily. The difference suggests that the grown-ups need a “shove” to have fun, while kids “just do it”. 90210 was an enjoyable, occasionally provocative drama about the lives of beautiful people. The cast of Melrose were down-on-their-luck, horny losers who just happened to be beautiful. No one wants to be thrown in the pool; we all want to jump. 90210 showed us how.