In the beginning, there was Beverly Hills, 90210, born of the notion that high schoolers could be both drop-dead gorgeous and essentially decent. Then there was Melrose Place, born of the notion that people in their 20s could be drop-dead gorgeous and essentially corrupt. Now there is Models Inc., born of the notions that drop-dead gorgeous people have no ideas, are indecently corrupt, boy is this summer hot or what, do you mind if I take this off, and are we having fun yet?
So far, not too much. The latest issuance from executive producer Aaron ''Let them eat Twinkies'' Spelling, Models arrives atop the wave of popularity that Melrose is enjoying; obviously, Spelling and the Fox network are hoping that you'll be so starved for an evening soap while Melrose is on hiatus that you'll put up with this slapped-together thing.
Linda Gray stars as Hillary Michaels, owner of the boutique modeling agency Models Inc. She presides over a nest of swivel-hipped victims 'n' vipers who include Australian cynic Julie (kicky Kylie Travis), Hillary's son and business partner David (blank-faced Brian Gaskill), Iowa farmgirl Sarah (puffy Cassidy Rae, who looks like the child Sally Struthers and Charlene Tilton were never able to have), and what Fox describes as a ''talented but self- destructive photographer,'' Brian (cool daddy-o Cameron Daddo). There are also model-sisters Teri and Carrie Spencer (Stephanie Romanov and Carrie-Anne Moss), who are nothing but trouble. In the first episode, Teri is pushed off a balcony to her death; in the second, Carrie finds out that her illegitimate child, long thought dead, is actually alive and living with adoptive parents, one of whom is played by a dismayingly haggard William Katt.
Models Inc. is already trying much too hard to match Melrose for self-consciously outrageous campiness. Teri's funeral, for example, erupted in fisticuffs that ended up knocking over the coffin, which cracked open to reveal a bit of Teri's elegantly shaped arm. ''She always had great nails,'' says sarcastic Julie, and you just know the writers were convinced that this bad-taste hokeyness would send viewers into fits of Melrosian giggles. Instead, the scene just calls attention to its own cold calculation.
Models' major casting coup, though, is Travis. Her Julie is clearly conceived as the series' Designated Bitch, but Travis makes her that and more sly and slightly spooky. The show's major casting problem, I'm afraid, is Gray her Hillary doesn't radiate the requisite power-mad joy in being ruthless. Plus, Gray is doing something odd with her mouth these days; she seems to be trying for some cross between an insincere smile and a predatory grin, but it always looks as if someone has wedged an invisible harmonica between her lips. Every time I see Gray, I wish that Farrah Fawcett, rumored to have been a Models' choice, had taken the role; as she proved in the recent TV movie The Substitute Wife, Farrah still has the flirty goods and would have made an alluringly malicious Hillary.
It may be best to think of Models Inc. as a metaphor for Spelling's career. He is Hillary, the shrewd, aging, slightly out-of-it businessperson with just enough grasp and greed to surround himself with talented people who'll keep him hip, rich, and happening. Each model can be viewed as a Spelling show Julie is a one-woman Charlie's Angels, Brian is a Melrose Place rent-jumper, Sarah is The Love Boat, etc. The open question at this point is whether, like Spelling, Hillary will prove a scrappy survivor. C+