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Fall TV 2009: 'Melrose Place' moves in

The saucy 90s drama is rebooted for a new era

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Melrose Place
9PM — THE CW — New Drama — Debuted Sept. 8

It’s week 4 of shooting on the set of the new Melrose Place, and a temperamental star is already causing problems. Filming has come to a halt and can’t resume until a certain colorful character gets back into the swimming pool. The director is otherwise occupied, so it’s going to take the help of a costar to move things along. Finally, Michael Rady, the Swingtown alum who plays struggling filmmaker Jonah Miller, saves the day by giving the scene staller a firm shove into the corner of the pool. And Skanoosh, as he’s known to the cast — an electronic turtle that simulates the great West Hollywood outdoors by sending ”wind ripples” through the soundstage water — gets back to work. Another diva is tamed.

Nearly 20 years after the soapy Beverly Hills, 90210 spin-off first hit the airwaves, the apartment complex located at 4616 Melrose Place has reopened its doors, and things look eerily familiar. The pool water illuminates the faux pink bougainvillea that winds up the wrought-iron handrails. That railing, of course, leads up the stone stairs to a balcony full of Capri blue, arch-shaped doors, behind which all sorts of drama is about to occur. ”The set looks exactly the same, and those blue doors represent a lot of memories,” says Laura Leighton, who’s reprising her role as mega-manipulator Sydney Andrews… Wait a minute — didn’t Sydney get mowed down at her wedding in season 5 of the first Melrose? Indeed, but in a twist that’s faithful to the original, Syd’s back from the dead in the new pilot — only to die facedown in the courtyard pool within the first half hour. ”I thought I was dead the first time,” says Leighton. ”So it wasn’t really a fresh concept for me to get used to.”

Of course, Melrose 2.0 isn’t all about nostalgia. ”We were fans of the original Melrose Place, but we wanted this one to be sufficiently different,” says exec producer Todd Slavkin, who shepherds the show with his Smallville exec-producing partner Darren Swimmer. ”What drew us to the show this time was the noir aspect of Los Angeles. You maneuver between phoniness and what’s real, and you have to ask yourself what price you are willing to pay to get what you want here.”

In other words, don’t expect any peppy aerobics instructors to sign a lease anytime soon (sorry, Vanessa Williams). Instead, the tenants include Ella Simms (Harper’s Island‘s Katie Cassidy), a ruthlessly ambitious publicist with a penchant for six-inch stilettos and bisexual three-ways; mysteriously creepy L.A. newcomer Violet Foster (Ashlee Simpson-Wentz); medical student Lauren Yung (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles‘ Stephanie Jacobsen), who moonlights as a prostitute to pay her debts; newly sober chef Auggie Kirkpatrick (All My Children‘s Colin Egglesfield); sweet schoolteacher Riley Richmond (Cloverfield‘s Jessica Lucas), who’s engaged to Rady’s Jonah; and mansion-robbing playboy David Breck (Shark‘s Shaun Sipos). ”The network told us to push the edge and not to soft-pedal,” says Slavkin. ”Unlike the original, there will always be darkness to this show.”

Nonetheless, for the first eight episodes at least, there will be plenty of reminders of the original show. Josie Bissett will return to her old hood as Syd’s clothing-designer sister, Jane, while Daphne Zuniga comes back as photographer Jo Reynolds. And Thomas Calabro is currently recurring as the arrogant, unethical Dr. Michael Mancini (who also happens to be David’s father). ”It’s a colder, crueler version of Michael,” says Calabro, who hints at a future dalliance with med student Lauren. ”He’s filthy damn rich from inventing some heart device, so he gets everything he wants.” But Calabro didn’t initially jump at the chance to revisit his old address. ”I was a little trepidatious,” he admits. ”Doing Melrose the first time had restricted my opportunities after the show. Edgier, hipper shows didn’t necessarily want to look at [Aaron] Spelling alumni.”

Perhaps that’s why producers have yet to lock in Heather Locklear (she initially turned down an offer to appear, though at press time she was in talks with producers about reprising her role as the fabulously bitchy Amanda Woodward). ”The door is always open for Heather Locklear, Grant Show, Andrew Shue, any of them,” says Slavkin, who’s had informal talks with Show. But is there a chance anyone will walk in? Slavkin promises that their reentrances won’t feel forced. ”The fact that Heather didn’t start on the original show has certainly crossed our minds,” says Slavkin. ”We have a great way in for her.”

So how excited is the new cast to join forces with the original Melrose stars? Frankly, they can’t even fake it. Ask any of the actors about how familiar they are with the ’90s hit and you’ll hear some combination of ”I have the DVD of one of the seasons at home,” ”My mom was a really big fan,” and ”I wasn’t allowed to watch because I was too young.” ”For the most part, this cast has no connection to the other one. They never miss any opportunity to tell me that they weren’t even old enough to watch the original show,” Leighton says with a laugh. ”Katie turned to me the other day and said, ‘So were you, like, on the old one?’ I have to keep my sense of humor intact because it’s been a series of humiliations, really.”

Or maybe this new group just wants to distance themselves from another Spelling soap remake, 90210, which debuted on The CW to strong ratings last September, only to stumble creatively and lose much of its audience by the season’s end. ”It’s tough to bring something back that was such a huge hit back in the day,” says Egglesfield. ”But from everything we’ve been told, The CW learned lessons from 90210 and they’re doing things better with this show.” Indeed, Swimmer and Slavkin are downplaying the 90210 connection. ”We made it very clear to the network this wasn’t going to be 90210 After Dark,” says Slavkin. ”The first time around, [Melrose] really was a spin-off. This is its own show.”

Though the exec producers are cagey about revealing story lines, they will offer a few clues about goings-on in their zip code this season: Lauren will continue lying about her side job, making things awkward with best friend Riley, who may ditch that teaching gig when she gets discovered by modeling agents. (Dear CW, please don’t remake Models Inc. Love, EW.) Jonah and Riley’s relationship hits some bumps when Riley has a fling with Auggie, while Ella gives the struggling Jonah career advice (that is, when she’s not having friends-with-benefits moments with David). Meanwhile, Violet, who has a link to Sydney, scams her way into a bartending gig at Coal, the restaurant where her crush Auggie works (RIP Shooters). ”I never really watched shows like this until I was pregnant,” says Simpson-Wentz, who often brings her 9-month-old son, Bronx, to the set. ”But they’re part of American culture. They’re so much fun.”

Given that ”shows like this” have a glorious history of blowing up apartment complexes and crazy doctors pulling off their wigs to reveal terrifying scars, is it only a matter of time before the new Melrose‘s true, over-the-top DNA emerges? ”We have the whole season mapped out right now, and we’re staying true to our vision,” says Slavkin. So it’s a no for bridal catfights that end up in the pool? ”We’re going to avoid any lobotomies for at least a couple of seasons. And no cloning,” smirks Swimmer, who then pauses to rethink his promise. ”At least, not just yet.”

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