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Melrose Place - "Pilot"

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Melrose Place debuts tonight at 9 p.m. EDT/8 p.m. CDT on The CW.

It’s hard to say anything substantive about a show that seems to have as a major goal being awful. And the new Melrose Place, if nothing else, is hoping to pick up right where the old one left off, by indulging in as many ludicrous plot twists, moments filled with bad acting and visions of buff twentysomethings with vacant stares as it can shake a stick at. Melrose Place wants so badly to be your next guilty pleasure that it forgets that it’s awfully hard to actively create a guilty pleasure. A good guilty pleasure series is as ephemeral and swayed by alchemy as a good hit series, but a mediocre series can go mediocre in any number of ways. Sadly for a show with such a batshit pedigree, the new Melrose Place is obviously trying really hard, but it only ever seems to be succeeding at being as average as possible.

The original Melrose Place didn’t even start out as the goofy soap Americans came to know and love. (I’d never seen it – having been a teenager without access to Fox when it was at its popularity peak – until I caught a few reruns in college and couldn’t figure out what the fuss was about.) That series began as an attempt to catalog just how hard it was to be a young, attractive person in the city of Los Angeles and the perils of trying to break into show business and such things. The weirdly earnest series survived its first season by the skin of its teeth, so producer Aaron Spelling leaned on secret weapon Heather Locklear to drop by, and the rest was history. The series never tried to become the kind of show where Marcia Cross took off a wig to reveal a ginormous scar. It just woke up one day and realized it was that kind of show, then shrugged and got along with the business of having everyone in the cast sleep with everyone else.

This new Melrose Place aches to recapture that insanity but it never quite manages the leap of confidence in its own nutsiness to land there. Things start promisingly, as the series quickly reveals that, yeah, this is set in the same apartment complex the original series was and, better yet, original series cast members Laura Leighton and Thomas Calabro have shown up to hang out with the new cast members, presumably because they have nothing better to do. Naturally, there’s a murder in the pilot’s first fifteen minutes, and that plot point seems likely to spawn a season’s worth of plotlines, as we learn that everyone in the cast has a motive and everyone has a weapon and so on and so forth. It’s not the optimal setup for a dizzying soap, but it shows promise. It also helps that Melrose Place is actually a better fit for its network than the 90210 pseudo-sequel The CW tossed on the air to great fanfare last year. Where that series seems caught in a no-win situation between fans of the original who just want to see Tori Spelling again for some reason and the idea of creating a new spin on the teen soap, Melrose Place is more obviously a direct sequel to the original and also seems a better fit for the network’s target audience of 18-34-year-old women who desperately crave escapism. (The CW is also betting this demographic will enjoy vapid models and vampires this fall. It’s going to be a long one for the rest of us.)

Anyway, Melrose Place has surrounded its two old pros with a bunch of new players who all start to blend together. There’s potential for interesting characters here, but the series (as with all CW series) seems more intent on finding actors who fit a certain look than finding actors who possess any talent whatsoever. Sometimes, the network gets lucky and finds an actor who both fits into that look and can actually act within the narrow range of acceptable types for the network. Most of the time, they end up with bland, vaguely pretty casts that are probably fun to look at if you’re half paying attention while folding laundry or something. Here, I’m afraid, they’ve mostly struck out, but especially with the casting that garnered the show the most publicity.

It’s become all too easy to harp on Ashlee Simpson-Wentz at this point. Is she a symbol of everything wrong with celebrity culture? Probably. Does she have little-to-no discernible talent? Sure. But she’s still a human being (I hope), so if she showed at least a modicum of fun in the role of mysterious newcomer Violet, it would be written up as a comeback story for the ages. Instead, she looks exactly like what you’d expect Ashlee Simpson-Wentz playing a character in a rebooted Melrose Place would look like. There’s a major, major revelation about her character at the end of the second episode that mostly falls flat because it relies on her selling it, and Simpson-Wentz instead chooses to stare blankly into the middle distance.

But this is a malaise that mostly affects the rest of the cast. Sure, Michael Rady and Jessica Lucas do their best with the thankless task of being the Characters in the Crazy Soap the Viewers at Home Can Identify With, but those characters are always boring. Just about everyone else falls into the same pitfall as Simpson-Wentz, underplaying big moments as if, say, finding out someone was murdered in your pool was the most natural thing in the world. There’s a sense throughout the two episodes sent to critics that these characters are played by actors who wear roles on a new Melrose Place like little kids wearing their parents’ clothes while playing dress-up. They vaguely get the idea of what it’s like to be playing this part, but they can’t quite get under the skin of it.

What’s even more disappointing is that some of these actors are pretty talented. Stephanie Jacobsen, for example, who plays a med student who gets caught up in the most unbelievable ethical dilemma of all time, was really solid on both Battlestar Galactica and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, but she mostly falls flat here. Katie Cassidy, meanwhile, just grits her teeth and presses forward through mostly uninteresting plotlines to suggest an edge the show would do well to exploit if it ever wants to fulfill its guilty pleasure mandate.

The best remakes and sequels argue urgently for their own existence. They give a sense that there’s a good reason to either extend a storyline or revisit it. And in an age when economic excess has sent much of the country tumbling off a cliff, a new Melrose Place could have been solid escapism or (less likely) a trenchant warning about the perils of over-excess. Instead, creators Todd Slavkin and Darren Swimmer can never quite justify their series’ existence beyond the fact that The CW owned the rights, was slightly successful with remaking 90210 and figured it could make some money. Is this Melrose Place’s pilot better than the original’s pilot? Probably, but you also get the sense that everyone’s just marking time until Heather Locklear wants to buy another house and needs the money to do it.

Grade: D+

Stray observations:

  • Here’s something I always find unbelievable in movies and TV shows: Has there ever been a proposal on Earth wherein a guy proposed to his long-standing girlfriend and was met with a non-answer and/or an “I need time to think”? It seems to me that most proposals – even the ones in relatively short-lived relationships – end with definite yeses or nos. If a girl said, “Let me think about it,” to me, I’d be outta there.
  • Here’s another thing I find unbelievable in movies and TV shows (though this is so endemic to the premise of Melrose Place that I would let it slide if I even liked the show at all): Has there ever been an apartment complex in the history of time where all of the residents moved there without knowing each other beforehand and then became super best pals after a few weeks of living there?
  • If you decide you really like the pilot for some reason, the second episode is marginally better, though I suspect you’ll never quite overcome the vague suspicion that all of the women on the show were cast because the series needed one of each hair color.