Last year, it looked as if a number of media phenomena were going to conspire to turn the prime-time television schedule into one long young-people-coming- of-age show. With the success of Beverly Hills, 90210, the cool visual style of the Gap TV and print ads, and the continuing influence of MTV on all aspects of American culture (from the coverage of presidential elections to the glorious ascension of MTV Sports’ Dan Cortese to Burger King pitchman and star of a Route 66 revival), a new generation of youthful adults seemed ready to sweep aside the baby boomers as the focal point of series TV.
Well, the revolution was televised, but few people bothered to tune in. A bunch of shows tried the young-people-coming-of-age gambit: the medieval heartthrobs in armor on ABC’s Covington Cross; the upwardly mobile fern-bar types who hung out at NBC’s The Round Table; the artfully grunged rockers who formed Fox’s The Heights, as well as, more recently, the same network’s scholarly hunks in Class of ‘96. Every one of these shows was a self-satisfied snooze; every one flopped.
So what’s left of this nontrend? Two pieces of tough fluff: the revitalized Beverly Hills, 90210 and the surging Melrose Place. Melrose concludes its freshman season this week, while 90210 offers a super-ginchy behind-the-scenes edition; both are going out winners.
90210 had been coasting along during this, its third season, with standard, seen-‘em-before plots about high school tensions and low-key heavy petting. Then came the cataclysmic flirtation between Dylan (Luke Perry) and Kelly (Jennie Garth), a thrillingly brazen betrayal of Brenda (Shannen Doherty). Messing with the relationships of well-established TV characters is always risky, but this one was handled with just the right amount of melodrama, sex, and sly knowingness. (It also coincided with a tidal wave of bad press for Doherty—rough for her, but great for keeping the show in the pop consciousness.)
Its video hormones freshly atingle, 90210 has been an energetic evening soap for months now, as these aging teen idols swaggered through their senior year in high school. The May 5 prom-night episode was particularly choice, with Doherty, Garth, and Tori Spelling sipping punch (and, in the case of Spelling’s Donna, too much champagne) while squeezed into dresses designed by the likes of Norma Kamali. There were undoubtedly adolescent shrieks in living rooms all over America when Kelly fed Dylan strawberries and murmured, ”Why don’t we skip school altogether and stay in bed all day?” And there were probably many adult groans when parents viewing this 90210 saw the West Beverly High prom party favors: a quarter (to make a phone call if you get drunk) and a condom. Very socially responsible, but, gulp! 90210’s prime fantasy—young people who do grown-up things while enjoying the indulgence granted to kids—was more vivid than ever.
Meanwhile, across town at the stucco apartment complex that’s the pulse of Melrose Place, strictly-friend roommates Alison (Courtney Thorne-Smith) and Billy (Andrew Shue) finally took a good look at each adorable other and realized they didn’t want to be just roomies anymore. Trouble is, Billy is supposed to be cozy with Heather Locklear’s Amanda—who is also Alison’s ad-agency boss and who is apparently carrying Billy’s baby.
With the addition of Locklear as a dazzling combination of businesswoman and minx, and the creation of that tense love triangle, Melrose Place has found the tone and pace that’s beginning to make it a must-see soap. When the series premiered in July, Melrose—the creation of 90210’s creator-executive producer, Darren Star-arrived pre-hyped as the show with a Show: Grant Show, that is, a seemingly couldn’t-miss new sex symbol, playing moody mechanic Jake. But Melrose lost momentum; Show’s character faltered when Amy Locane, who played Jake’s love interest, left the series. The other story lines were just traditional nighttime drama.
However, when Star and company began soaping up the show, it began to gleam. In addition to the teasing trio mentioned above, Melrose has a fine subplot going in which Thomas Calabro’s Michael—until recently just a whining, overworked medical student—has turned into an excellent villain, two-timing his sweet wife (Josie Bissett) with Marcia Cross’ Kimberly (”I am not some bimbo—I’m a doctor!”). They still have not found much for poor Show to do, and, more grievously, the show’s only African-American character; (played by Vanessa Williams) and its supposedly breakthrough gay character (Doug Savant) have virtually disappeared. But Melrose Place demonstrates every sign of turning into a sleeker Knots Landing for the ’90s. Turns out there’s life in these postboomers after all.
Beverly Hills, 90210: A-
Melrose Place: A-