If something only aspires to be a guilty pleasure, is there any purpose at all in reviewing it on the level of quality? Well yes. A show doesn’t have to be good to be a guilty pleasure, but it has to be pleasurable.
The original “Melrose Place” was never a particularly good show. Actually, it was a pretty bad show for a long time, starting off attempting to be a semi-realistic depiction of the struggles that come from being young and beautiful and living in an upscale apartment complex. But if viewers had only been treated to Sandy and Billy and Rhonda, “Melrose Place” wouldn’t have lasted very long. Instead, Heather Locklear came on and Laura Leighton came on and Marcia Cross came on and, over the years, “Melrose Place” went utterly haywire. Just because it wasn’t good — I was never a fan — didn’t mean that it didn’t achieve its goals with manic flair.
The CW’s new version of “Melrose Place” mostly attempts to skip over that initial phase of awkwardness. Within two episodes, it’s going into murder, thievery, prostitution and voyeurism. It’s got sexy stars, mostly giving amateur theatrical performances, corny dialogue and the apartment courtyard scenes look like they were shot on a poorly lit soundstage. In short, it’s a really bad show, but who’s going to quibble?
Thanks in part to several carry-over members from the original cast, I’d expect “Melrose Place” to mostly strike a chord with fans of the original, even if other viewers aren’t so welcoming.
[Full “Melrose Place” review after the break…]
Who are our new residents? There’s a film school grad (Michael Rady) and his school teacher girlfriend (Jessica Lucas), a publicist who seems more like a party planner (Katie Cassidy), a cash-starved medical resident (Stephanie Jacobsen) with a difficult ethical choice, a chef (Colin Egglesfield) with anger issues, a seemingly unemployed party boy (Shaun Sippos) with daddy issues and the fresh-off-the-bus new girl (Ashlee Simpson-Wentz). Only one thing’s for sure: None of these pretty twentysomethings would be able to pay their rent on legitimate income alone.
Also on-board are Laura Leighton’s Sydney Andrews and Thomas Calabro’s Dr. Henry Mancini, bridging the gap to the original series.
You’d think that with all of these pretty young things in a single apartment complex, there would be enough personal and professional drama to get the series going. While nobody’s partner-swapping from the beginning, half the neighbors are lusting after the other half, established relationships be darned.
But Todd Slavkin & Darren Swimmer aren’t secure enough in their ability to generate drama from real interactions between characters (or the inherent dramas of being an aspiring director or publicist), so within 15 minutes, somebody is face-down in the Melrose Place pool and we’ve embarked on a season-long murder mystery, complete with flashbacks which will allow the corpse to make regular appearances. It’s a pointless decision that makes “Melrose Place” feel more like the short-lived FOX drama “Reunion” (which had fans, but not enough) or CBS’ “Harper’s Island” or the final season of Showtime’s “The L-Word” than like “Melrose Place.”
I guess the season-long arcing mystery could make “Melrose Place” feel like “Desperate Housewives,” but the “Melrose” writers are doing a glossy soap, rather than doing a riff on the conventions of a glossy soap. This isn’t some sort of meta-reflection on tawdry primetime soaps (think “Pasadena”). No, it’s the thing itself. Just not very well-executed in the early going.
One very smart thing the new “Melrose Place” has done that the new “90210” failed to do is bring back old characters as plausible extensions of the characters we previously loved. Kelly Taylor and Brenda Walsh and Donna Martin may have visited their favorite zip code last season, but they were older, more mature, tempered versions of the characters fans loved. Soap opera characters can change, but if they learn too much from their misdeeds, they get boring in a hurry. So it’s a relief that Dr. Michael Mancini and Sydney Andrews are exactly as we left them.
The result is that fans will feel validated by the series continuity, while “90210” fans felt violated and disappointed by how characters were reintroduced.
And perhaps Leighton and Calabro will be able to teach the new cast a few lessons about how one must comport oneself when you live in this neighborhood.
The only cast member who instantly seems to get it is Katie Cassidy, as Ella Simms, a capable publicist who navigates the social waters of Los Angeles’ ritziest neighborhoods like a shark, driven by her upward mobility and her sexual appetites. Cassidy expended so much energy screaming and being a sensible brunette on “Harper’s Island” that she’s mercifully uncoiled here. She’s also channelling Heather Locklear with such conviction that nary a fan will be shocked if Amanda Woodward returns at some point this season and welcomes Ella as a long-lost daughter/sister/cousin/lover.
The other new “Melrose” women could take notes from Cassidy. Lucas is instantly forgettable and, through two episodes, gives no indication of interesting appetites or backstory. I think Stephanie Jacobsen would be good if somebody hadn’t made the decision to saddle the Hong Kong-born, Australia-raised actress with a generic American accent. As stunning as the “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” actress is, she’s at least 20 percent less hot with her bad American accent and it’s not like she’d have been less believable as an Australian medical student. Instead, so much of the bad-girl edge she displayed on “Terminator” is wasted on flattening her dialogue.
At least Jacobsen is trying to be flat, though. Simpson-Wentz’s lack of affect comes naturally. It’s one thing that she can’t read dialogue, but it’s more distressing how little intellectual life Simpson-Wentz’s eyes register. On a show where every single character is supposed to be scheming (or covering something up) at every moment, this is a crushing deficiency. I can’t remember an alleged thespian this unprepared to be a TV series regular since Emeril Lagasse.
The “Melrose” men need even more work, though. Michael Rady, best known from “Swingtown” or “Greek,” overplays his character’s awkward normality. He’s like a refugee from the first season of the old “Melrose,” before things went crazy, but since things have already gone crazy in this version, he’s out-of-place.
I can’t tell if Shaun Sipos is trying to play a Spencer Pratt/Brody Jenner amalgam, but it isn’t convincing. Only Colin Egglesfield, with his fierce jawline and soap opera-trained over-emoting, seems bad in the right ways.
It’s telling that “The O.C.” alum Nicholas Gonzalez, fleetingly in the first two episodes as a detective investigating the murder, is instantly better suited to this milieu. He has a recurring role, but if the writers are smart, they’ll work him in more. Ditto with Victor Webster, who appears in the second episode as Ella’s new boss.
The “Melrose Place” pilot was directed by Davis Guggenheim, who gets to be referred to as an Oscar winner because of “An Inconvenient Truth.” Really, though, “Melrose Place” wasn’t directed by that Davis Guggenheim. It was
directed by the DavisGuggenheim who did the vapid, glossy, montage-driven 2000 dud “Gossip,” also about a police investigation into the lives of self-obsessed hipster twits with expensive clothing.
The CW already has one show like that and it even has the word “Gossip” in the title, but “Melrose Place” doesn’t come close to the level of cleverness and soapy hijinks achieved by a good episode of “Gossip Girl.”
“Melrose Place” mentions all of the right LA brand names, uses all of the predictable CW favorites on its soundtrack and it has good-looking people with big secrets. If those elements, plus Sydney and Michael Mancini, are all that “Melrose Place” means to you, perhaps this new version will suffice as a guilty pleasure. If you lack the sufficient built-in nostalgia, though, it’s just another bad CW soap.
“Melrose Place” premieres on The CW on Tuesday, Sept. 8 at 9 p.m.