Lynette Rice
July 09, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

There is a full house of crew members waiting to shoot a scene between Aunt Ava and her teenage nephew Bradin on The WB’s ”Summerland,” but star Lori Loughlin (pronounced LOCK-lin) is not quite ready to play the heavy. ”I just don’t think I’d call the cops on his girlfriend if she has mental problems,” Loughlin tells director Steve Miner, who’s not about to argue with the diminutive actress and calls for a rewrite.

If anyone should know how ”Summerland”’s surrogate mom would handle a crisis, it’s Loughlin: She came up with the idea for a series about a carefree singleton who inherits three children when her sister dies. It sounds like a downer, but ”Summerland” is actually a sweet, frothy drama, thanks to its bikini-friendly locale (a cool California beach house), Ava’s good-looking pals who help her raise the orphans (”One Life to Live”’s Shawn Christian as Johnny, ”Alias”’ Merrin Dungey as Susannah, and ”Home and Away”’s Ryan Kwanten as Jay), and guidance from the master of escapist TV, exec producer Aaron Spelling. Summerland, which debuted June 1, is now a hot-weather hit, pulling in 4.1 million viewers a week and ranking as the top drama among teens on broadcast TV.

”It’s total wish fulfillment,” says a perfectly tanned Loughlin, who’s no slouch in the hard-body department. ”What if you tragically lost your parents? Wouldn’t you like these people to raise you in this beautiful beach house?” The 39-year-old actress wasn’t looking to play another TV mom after her stint on ABC’s ”Full House” (”A lot of people think I’m still with John Stamos,” she says), so she imagined Ava as a loving but clueless aunt. The WB bought the pitch and sent Loughlin to Spelling, who helped flesh out the premise. One early script cast Ava as a buttoned-up lawyer, but Spelling turned her into a fashion designer instead. ”What would Ava have done,” asks Spelling, ”enforce the law every time one of the kids did something bad? I thought Lori would scream, but she loved the idea of changing it.” Recalls Loughlin, ”A friend of mine worked for Vogue — she was always going off to Paris and Milan. What if you took that woman and handed her three kids? It leads to some interesting moments.”

Especially when those kids are coursing with raging hormones: Ava’s nephew Bradin (17-year-old Jesse McCartney) is getting busy with a wild beach bunny; his sister, Nikki (13-year-old Kay Panabaker), has already locked lips with her boyfriend; and even sweet little Derrick (10-year-old Nicholas Benson) will be puckering up with a playmate. The grown-ups on ”Summerland” don’t get nearly as much action: Whines Christian, whose Johnny still pines for ex-girlfriend Ava, ”I haven’t done any macking yet!”

He’s going to have to keep waiting — at least this season. Says Loughlin of Johnny and Ava’s will-they-or-won’t-they chemistry, ”They are right for each other, but if we bring them together there will be no story.” That said, a future episode finds Ava and Johnny deciding to go on a trial date, while Nikki’s relationship is threatened when she becomes too possessive, and Bradin’s girlfriend pressures him to run away. One other TiVo alert: Loughlin does almost an entire episode wearing only a bikini! ”I have to suck my stomach in for the whole show,” she moans.

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