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The WB’s Grosse Pointe was ahead of its time, but it’s also hard to watch 20 years later

The WB’s <i>Grosse Pointe</i> was ahead of its time, but it’s also hard to watch 20 years later
Graphic: Natalie Peeples, Photo: Jeffrey Thurnher/Warner Bros./Delivered by Online USA
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In many ways, The WB’s Grosse Pointe is a time capsule, perfectly preserving the Teen Beat celebrity culture of the end of the millennium. In others, it was ahead of its time, providing a peek behind the Hollywood façade in ways most viewers wouldn’t embrace until years later. Named after its show within the show, Grosse Pointe centers on the team creating a soapy teen drama airing on The WB. And the network wasn’t afraid of poking fun at itself, leaning into the clichés and demands it placed on its shows like Dawson’s Creek. If only audiences had leaned in as well.

“Who better to poke fun at the world of teenage angst than The WB and Darren Star,” an announcer explains of Grosse Pointe in a video we can only assume was made for the upfronts ahead of the 2000-2001 TV season. It was an accurate statement. At the time, The WB was fresh off its expansion into Friday nights and was riding high on the successes of Dawson’s Creek, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Charmed, 7th Heaven, and Roswell, and had just launched Buffy spin-off Angel, which became the second-highest rated premiere for the network. Its bread and butter was teen girls, but The WB was the only network to have gains in its total audience viewership and in each key demographic during the 1999-2000 season.

It was also a good time to be Darren Star. The prolific writer and producer had just accepted his second consecutive Golden Globe for Sex And The City, and his earlier creations Melrose Place and Beverly Hills, 90210 had just ended their 1990s-defining runs. On the DVD commentary for Grosse Pointe, Star explains that—while no character was designed as a mirror image of a 90210 star—much of Grosse Pointe’s drama was lifted directly from his dealings with that young cast. “It was a lot of personalities,” he says of his time on the Fox drama. “I thought, ‘There’s a show in that.’”

Like many of Starr’s non-satirical soaps, nuance was not the goal when setting the scene for Grosse Pointe. In the pilot, we meet all the archetypes you’d expect on a twentysomething drama about a teen drama: the neurotic writers (William Ragsdale and Joely Fisher), the fresh-off-the-bus new star (Bonnie Somerville), the insecure ingenue (Lindsay Sloane), the much-older-than-he-claims “heartthrob” (Kohl Sudduth), the dense actual heartthrob (Al Santos), and the bitchy diva (Irene Molloy). Most of the characters are first introduced as their on-screen personas, with Molloy’s Hunter and Sudduth’s Quentin acting out a cheesy car-accident scene. It ends with Hunter’s character in the hospital, her family weeping at her bedside as they find out she also miscarried. It’s exactly what you’d expect from a ridiculous teen soap, down to the saccharine music and sepia filter. And anyone tuning in without any context likely thought that’s what it was, until the image freezes on Sloane’s Marcy dressed as her busty cheerleader character. “Hold it,” Fisher’s Hope says, taking a Blow Pop out of her mouth as she pauses the scene that we now realize is footage of the show within the show. “Why does she always have to thrust her boobs like that whenever she feels an emotion?” It’s a question cynical viewers had likely asked about some of Star’s past leading ladies—exactly the type of self-awareness that made Grosse Pointe so appealing.

A Grosse Pointe rewatch (currently only available via DVD) is most enjoyable for the rapid-fire references to that Y2K era of Hollywood: The reason Marcy pushed her boobs out? Likely an Entertainment Weekly poll released the week before which rated her one of the least-sexy cheerleaders on TV. Real Teen People, TV Guide, and E! reporters cameo while Marcy guests on TRL and Loveline. The characters make digs at “the guy who told Felicity to cut her hair”; joke that their network’s flop Zoe, Duncan, Jack And Jane was “a mistake”; and claim The WB “isn’t even a real network.” The series also provides a look at the less-glamorous jobs on a Hollywood set, expanding the roles of Kyle Howard’s Dave “The Stand-In” and Nat Faxon’s Kevin “The P.A.” after the pilot.

William Ragsdale, Bonnie Somerville, Al Santos, Irene Molloy, Kohl Sudduth, Lindsay Sloane, and Kyle Howard
William Ragsdale, Bonnie Somerville, Al Santos, Irene Molloy, Kohl Sudduth, Lindsay Sloane, and Kyle Howard
Photo: Kwaku Alston/Warner Bros./Delivered by Online USA

Nostalgia aside, Grosse Pointe succeeded most when lampooning Hollywood to the extreme—like when Hunter becomes a nice person after gaining weight because she’s up for the lead role in a Monica Lewinsky biopic from Oliver Stone, or when Santos’ Johnny co-stars opposite a dog voiced by Ted Danson in a movie called Underdogs. Occasionally, the line of art imitating life got so blurred that the writers unknowingly mirrored behind-the-scenes drama among their actual cast. At one point on the fictional Grosse Pointe, network executives insist Marcy be put in a coma and fans call in to vote to kill her off or not, and Hunter starts flooding The WB’s online forums with criticism of Marcy. According to DVD commentary from Star and his fellow executive producer Robin Schiff, the writers had no idea that one of Grosse Pointe’s actors had actually accused a costar of doing something similar in real life, and when the script for the episode came out, one of the crew members worried the cast would think they’d tattled about the drama.

But all the shock and entertainment value provided by the peeks behind the curtain do not make up for some miscalculations made in the writers’ room. In his commentary, Star explains that they intended each episode as a standalone story. In theory, that made sense for a 30-minute network comedy in 2000, but the result was a lack of focus or central character for the audience to follow. On a more traditional show, Somerville’s Courtney would have been the entry-point character that the audience followed into this new experience. Grosse Pointe plays up Courtney’s naiveté and uses her addition to the cast as a point of tension among the show’s jealous female stars, but the bitchy Hunter is arguably the show’s main focus. Molloy and the writers do an admirable job of layering Hunter’s mean-girl antics with nuance and backstory, but it’s hard to root for a character who is constantly manipulating more virtuous characters for her own pleasure and benefit.

As Grosse Pointe struggled in the ratings, Star and his team began making big changes in hopes of saving their baby. “We just went for it,” Star says in his commentary for episode 13, “Secrets & Lies” (all the episodes were named after existing films). That episode marked an intentional shift from self-contained episodes to ongoing storylines like Dave’s crush on Marcy and his relationship with Hunter. Star says the threat of cancellation freed his writers from any restraints and they began to make Grosse Pointe (both the show and the show within the show) more and more outlandish. The series also began welcoming a revolving door of guest stars playing themselves and winking at their own celebrity: 90210's Jason Priestley (who also directed an episode) attends sex-addiction therapy with Quentin; Priestley’s former co-star Joe E. Tata pops in to film a colon cancer ad; Buffy’s Sarah Michelle Gellar takes yoga with Marcy; Saved By The Bell’s Elizabeth Berkley is paid to be a bridesmaid at Hunter’s wedding to Dweezil Zappa. Star even double-dipped and had Sex And The City’s Kristin Davis guest star as a guest star. The celebrity casting works on the show within a show: Davis’ episode ends with Marcy in that aforementioned coma, resulting in the fictional Grosse Pointe’s best ratings ever. But it wasn’t enough to get the actual Grosse Pointe more than 17 episodes.

There’s likely a few reasons Grosse Pointe never found its audience, the biggest of them being its Friday-night lead-in, Sabrina The Teenage Witch, which had just moved from ABC to The WB. Sloane starred on seasons two and three of the Melissa Joan Hart comedy, but it was an odd fit to air before Grosse Pointe. (In one of the show’s smartest meta moves, the fictional Grosse Pointe also airs after Sabrina. When a network exec informs Ragsdale’s character about the coma ratings win, his first question is “We beat Sabrina?!” The answer is no, of course not.) Sabrina’s network change coincided with its title character’s high school graduation, but Hart’s sitcom was still playing to the TGIF crowd while Grosse Pointe dealt with vibrators, orgasms, and celebrities caught with sex workers. Even fans tuning in early for Ryan Murphy’s acerbic Popular at 9 p.m. were likely younger than Grosse Pointe’s ideal audience.

Compared to 2020 viewers, the young audience in 2000 was much less likely to be familiar with terms like pilot episode or stand-in. (As evidenced by Star and Schiff exhaustively explaining those terms during their DVD commentary, which was recorded long before the 2007 Writers Guild strike brought behind-the-scenes jobs like showrunner more into the spotlight.) The Larry Sanders Show had gone behind the scenes in 1992, and Curb Your Enthusiasm launched just a month after Grosse Pointe. But Sanders and Curb became hits on HBO, a channel that did not expect network numbers and catered to a more industry-savvy viewer. Perhaps Y2K teens didn’t want to ruin the illusion that kept Dawson on his creek and Buffy slaying vampires. It’s ironic, since the baby spoon with which Grosse Pointe fed viewers their Hollywood lingo is a major reason the series hasn’t aged as well as others.

There was also a lot you could get away with in 2000 that wouldn’t fly as socially acceptable today. In Grosse Pointe’s defense, Schiff admits they “didn’t worry too much about taste with this show.” But that doesn’t make it any easier to watch Michael Hitchock’s closeted gay character ogle his on-screen son and finagle ways to see him without clothes on. The series similarly plays Marcy’s eating disorder for laughs, having Sloane (easily the most entertaining actress on the show) shove baked goods in her mouth or walk out of a bathroom wiping the sides of her mouth with a smile on her face. “I like that we gave her an eating disorder without ever coming out and saying it,” Schiff says in the commentary, proudly. “We just did it really subtly with her coming out and erasing what she’d just eaten [from her food diary.]” Fans can write these cringeworthy elements off as a sign of the times (Sex And The City rewatchers do it all the time), but they unquestionably take you out of the show in a way the flip phones and monochromatic sweater sets don’t.

Maybe Grosse Pointe’s fate would have been different had it aired on a cable network, or even just a few years later alongside 30 Rock, Entourage, Fat Actress, The Comeback, Episodes, Extras, or any of the many other shows that have pulled back the curtain on Hollywood in the years since. (And at this point, Star could probably reunite the cast for revival about a Beverly Hills 90210-esque reboot.) But we are instead left with Grosse Pointe’s 17 episodes as a reminder of a bygone era—some of which we’re glad is behind us, but most of which leaves us reaching for our Nokia brick phone and trying to remember our LiveJournal password.

One-season wonder, weirdo, or wannabe? An unabashedly Y2K weirdo.