Melrose Place began as an awkward spin-off of Beverly Hills, 90210: Kelly (Jennie Garth) fell for Dylan’s older carpenter friend Jake (Grant Show), and that icky, possibly illegal romance served as a way to introduce viewers to Jake’s pals on Melrose. All of them are searching — for careers, mates, identities: Alison (Courtney Thorne-Smith) wants to be an ad exec; Billy (Andrew Shue) wants to be Hemingway; Jane (Josie Bissett) wants to be a wife to her overworked doctor husband, Michael (Thomas Calabro); nonthreateningly gay social worker Matt (Doug Savant) wants to be able to kiss another man without the camera cutting away; and Sandy and Rhonda (Amy Locane and the other Vanessa Williams) want to make it past season 1. They do not.
Unfortunately, Melrose was initially saddled with 90210’s lesson-learning earnestness, but had none of its soapy charm. When 16-year-old Brandon on 90210 is oblivious to the exploitation of immigrant workers until he takes a job busing tables at a ritzy restaurant, it’s understandable. When 22-year-old Billy on Melrose is oblivious to the fact that not all black people are carjackers until his black neighbor gives him a tour of poverty-stricken South Central, it’s just embarrassing. As creator Darren Star recalls in one featurette, word came down from Fox: ”’Okay, these kids are in their 20s — they can sleep together.”’
And they did. Even with the influx of bedmates — like Daphne Zuniga as Jake’s tough lover Jo and Marcia Cross as Kimberly, who prompted Michael’s transformation from bland jerk to first-rate cad — producer Aaron Spelling knew something else was missing: his ”lucky penny.” Arriving in episode 21 as the flinty, brutally sexy Amanda Woodward, Heather Locklear delivered everything Melrose needed: camp, conflict, and humor. She put hilariously vicious spin on her dialogue (”Maybe I just don’t have your flair for making one outfit work three different ways”) and wedged her lingerie-clad body smack in the middle of Billy and Alison’s inert will-they-or-won’t-they romance.
Locklear lifted the entire cast — she even managed to draw something resembling an emotion out of Shue — but the show was hers, pure and simple. (No Locklear commentary? Boo!) Neither Melrose nor 90210 reached full creative traction until year 2, but watching them evolve into soap powerhouses is a kick — and a glimpse of genre-defining TV master Spelling at work.