If the most profound truth of Beverly Hills 90210 is that when you're a teenager, life is a beach, then the lesson of Melrose Place is that when you get a little older, life becomes a really cool apartment complex with a courtyard pool. In this new series, bankrolled by producer Aaron ''Can't we get these kids in their underwear?'' Spelling, eight ineffably attractive protagonists in their 20s learn some important lessons: In the '90s, being single is tough, being married is tough, paying the rent each month is tough, and as for trying to get enough hot water to take a shower in the morning well, forget it.
Although it's set in a trendy section of the trend capital of the world, Los Angeles, Melrose Place aims for universal truths. ''You've got a whole city that's afraid of commitment,'' says aspiring writer Billy (Andrew Shue) to his roommate, ad-agency receptionist Alison (Courtney Thorne-Smith). When the show's young married couple, Jane (Josie Bissett) and Michael (Thomas Calabro), have a spat about some silly little thing, Jane says with grave wiseness, ''This is symptomatic of our entire problem.'' And when the series' showcase hunk, Jake (Grant Show), feels guilty about stringing along Kelly (90210's Jennie Garth in a five-episode crossover cameo) because he knows he's too old for her, he tugs on his forelock and rumbles, ''I hate moral dilemmas.'' Jean-Paul Sartre couldn't have put it more succinctly, and on this show, everybody's a philosopher even more unusual, a philosopher with a cute bottom. The characters' constant brooding pronouncements have the sharp sting of a wet towel snapped upside your head; it's existentialism with a coating of sun-block. They could have called it Malraux's Place.
Hey, I make fun of Melrose Place but I'm hypnotized by it. As warm-weather escapism, it takes all the issues facing this country, from unemployment to sexual harassment, and turns them into crises that can be solved in an hour. Most episodes so far have concluded with the denizens of Melrose Place emerging from their apartments to gather round the pool, there to pose in small swimsuits while winding down after a hard day of work-or, in the case of unemployed Jake, a hard day of punching out a rude unemployment-office clerk (''I don't think (Jake) is a bad person, but he's done bad things,'' Show said recently of his character how Nietzschean!).
The show's most glaring flaw is that, like 90210, Melrose Place doesn't have a clue how to handle minority characters. Its sole African American, Rhonda (Vanessa Williams), is, despite the actress' best efforts, an embarrassing stereotype who's allowed to talk only in streetwise funky-speak. The show's gay character, Matt, is played with notable intelligence and understatemnt by Doug Savant, but, given the size of his role so far, I get the feeling we won't be meeting any of Matt's lovers until Fox gets around to premiering its 21st-century show, Melrose Retirement Community.
Even before it debuted, most of Melrose's publicity centered around Show, who, it must be said, deserves credit: For a droopy-eyed dreamboat, he's a charmingly self-effacing actor. But amidst the Show hype, some of his co-stars have been unduly ignored. For example, many of us have been beguiled by Thorne-Smith's forthright manner and square-jawed beauty in the mediocre 1988-89 sitcom Day By Day, on through memorable guest shots like her brief stint as Harry Hamlin's cheerleader-girlfriend on LA Law a pom-pom provocateur. Thus, we're delighted that Thorne-Smith is playing Melrose's most agreeable character, a self-described ''naive nitwit from the Midwest'' who actually has a lot on the ball. Most underrated of all is Amy Locane, who, as Sandy, has taken an exhausted cliché the aspiring actress working as a waitress-and turned her into a gum-snapping Southern siren, a drawling flirt of great shrewdness. Given a line that might have fixed her character forever as a vain twit ''Every man in this place wants to sleep with me, and beauty is only half of it'' Locane made the statement seem like simple common sense. Her laconic put-down of Garth's Kelly ''Ohhhh, you're in hiiii-gh school, huh?'' is the show's catty high point to date.
Not that there have been many high points so far. But high points aren't what Melrose Place is about, anyway; this is minimalist television, in which the quizzical raising of one of Jake's eyebrows constitutes a major statement about tough-guy sensitivity in the '90s. In its mixture of bikinis and psychobabble, soap opera and sensual sullenness, Melrose is the guilty pleasure that adds some salt and sweat to summertime TV.