Can 'Central Park West' be saved? -- CBS' much-hyped new soap by TV titan Darren Star failed to take Manhattan

By A.J. Jacobs
October 06, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT
  • TV Show

Mariel Hemingway had a naughty idea. At the preshow party for Central Park West, the star had just finished mugging for a mosh pit of paparazzi and feeding a buffet of sound bites to ravenous reporters. As she moved through the champagne-soaked crowd at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, she paused to share her thought. ”Maybe we should never air the show,” she giggled. ”Just keep putting it off. I mean, the hype is so great, how can we live up to it?”

Maybe she was right.

At 9 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 13, America finally got a chance to glimpse the show it had been hearing about — and hearing about — all summer: Central Park West, the CBS sudser set in the big bad world of New York magazines! The show from TV’s golden boy, Darren Star, the brain behind Melrose Place and Beverly Hills, 90210! The show that would save the network! THE SHOW!

There was just one problem: America didn’t watch. CPW‘s ratings were as rotten as Madchen Amick’s Carrie, the series’ oversexed nightlife columnist. Despite decent reviews, it limped into fourth place in its time slot, behind ABC’s Grace Under Fire and The Naked Truth, NBC’s Dateline, and Star’s own Fox show 90210. A bewildered CBS quickly reran the episode on Friday, hoping to hook more viewers. The show did even worse. The next Wednesday, West tanked. Valleyed. Blew.

It seems CPW could become CBS’ biggest embarrassment since, well, since last season’s entire prime-time performance. It could also prove to be Darren Star’s first career belly flop. Is this indeed his Bitchtar? His Editors Inc.?

Star sure doesn’t think so. Two days after Black Wednesday, the producer is smiling in his mammoth Manhattan office, seemingly in no need of Prozac. An underling drops off a printout of David Letterman’s Thursday-night list of Top Ten Surprises in Central Park West. ”This is terrific! This is so funny!” laughs Star, 33, pointing to No. 2: ”O.J.’s hilarious cameo as a hot dog vendor with bloody tongs.”

Call it well-earned confidence — or deep denial — but Star professes no doubts in that wundermind of his. ”I know the audience will find us,” he says. ”I’d much rather start here and work my way up. This is familiar territory.”

He has a point. 90210‘s 1990 premiere lured just 10.9 million viewers — compared with CPW‘s 9.7 million. Melrose has traveled a bumpy road too: Its 1992 debut drew 16 million viewers, but it quickly dropped off, bottoming out at fewer than 7 million. Now those Fox soaps routinely draw twice that number.

”This genre is historically about seduction,” says coexecutive producer David Stenn. ”You have to bring your audience in. It’s not like ER — a home run out of the box.”

But you’d think it’d at least get to first base. After all, no show has ever arrived with such a PR blitzkrieg. Third-place CBS heralded CPW as its savior, the bait for a much-needed demographically correct young audience. And it went promo crazy: There were buses roaming New York covered with photos of the pouting cast. Six-page ads trumpeting the series as ”CBS’ new hit drama!” A write-in contest to win a walk-on role. A Web page on the Internet. A showing of the premiere on the Times Square Jumbo-Tron screen. ”Well, we didn’t do skywriting,” deadpans George Schweitzer, CBS’ executive VP for marketing.

In fact, the hype grew so big, it threatened to spin out of control. Hard Copy parked its vans outside the show’s New York headquarters. Rumors began flying that the set was bugged. And the dish about the stars turned as nasty as the dialogue in a CPW script. Did a hair-pulling catfight really break out between two of the actresses? (Naturally, the cast says no.) Is Amick already becoming CPW’s version of 90210 bad girl Shannen Doherty? (Again, denied.)

So what went wrong? If you want to point fingers, start with Star’s ex-bosses — the Fox network and producer Aaron Spelling, who played some Amanda Woodward-style hardball. After squashing CPW’s premiere with a two-hour episode of Star’s baby 90210, Fox came back the next week and blocked him with another Star child: the 100th hour of Melrose. Getting eaten by your young-now, that’s a soap plotline. (The third week, Fox reverted to its regularly scheduled — and much weaker — show, Party of Five.)

Fox makes no apology for its subtle-as-a-sledgehammer strategy, claiming that CBS started the tit for tat by trying to kill off Party of Five. ”We’re all running businesses here,” says Doug Binzak, a Fox executive.

But the CPW folks are still crying foul. ”I kind of feel like Fox has rained on our parade,” sighs Star, who nonetheless denies he and Spelling are feuding. ”It’s flattering that their big guns are shows I created. Frankly, I thought it was immature. I made a huge contribution of my life and my time to help build that network, and it’s certainly not the most gracious way to say thank you.”

Justin Lazard, CPW‘s randy stock broker, Gil, gets psychoanalytic: ”It’s classic father-son behavior. It’s like they are punishing him for flying the coop.”

”I think it’s ugly,” agrees Hemingway, who plays the wimpy editor in chief, Stephanie. ”But what were we thinking? Why didn’t CBS go, ‘Oh, we should countermove.’ It’s like a chess game. But I guess that’s all in retrospect.”

Producer Stenn pops a tape into the office VCR — the dailies from a recent shoot. Take 4. Cut to Kylie Travis, a survivor of Models Inc., who sashays onto CPW in the third episode as Rachel, an Australian fashion editor and one twisted bitch.

”You are a twisted bitch!” shouts Lazard. (See?) He pins her on the couch. She gives him a come-hither look that would do Mae West proud. ”Take it, Gil, you earned it.”

He does, tearing the front of her purple dress as they tumble to the floor, grappling and pawing.

”People don’t realize, sex scenes are hard to shoot,” says Stenn. ”We’ve got to make a dress that keeps ripping. We can’t waste 10 dresses. We use Velcro. That way you get the right sound, too.”

Such peeks at upcoming steam help fend off one of the knocks against CPW: That the show, which follows the staff of the trendy magazine Communiqué and the Kennedyesque family that owns it, isn’t scoring high enough on the trash-o-meter. By Melrose‘s demented standards, CPW‘s start was pretty tame — no bombings, no cult kidnappings, no wigs. It will never go that far, vows Stenn. ”In New York, you’d leave the building if your neighbors were psychotic.”

Still, he says, future episodes will be as juicy as the Big Apple itself. Travis, for one, gives the show a Heather Locklear-like jolt of bitchiness. ”I call it the twisty mustache role,” she says of Rachel, who ties up boyfriends and is quick to stab any turned back. ”I hold myself up [as a good person] for an entire one and a half episodes. Then I turn into a sewer rat.” She and columnist Carrie will both plot to overthrow Hemingway’s Stephanie. Carrie will also drag Stephanie’s husband, Mark (Tom Verica), deeper into an affair.

In response, Stephanie, who drew critical snores, will turn from pussycat Seattle-ite into snarling New Yorker. ”The clothes get more like power suits,” Hemingway says. ”The hair gets a little less puffy.”

Yet even as her coif sinks — and Fox lowers the competition — it’s still possible CPW just won’t deliver the goods. CBS, with its aging audience, may not be the most appropriate home for such a hormone-drenched show. Star admits to some minor battles with the network suits. He fought to keep Verica’s grungy goatee. He crusaded for the right to show more skin, including episode 2’s shot of a bare-butted stalker. ”It’s not my favorite thing to spend an hour discussing how much of a crack of a behind we can see,” he says. And CBS may well balk when Star tries to introduce the word s— to its prime-time audience.

But overall, Star figures he’s in no position to complain. CBS reportedly ordered up a hefty 22 episodes — each budgeted at a monster $1 million. (Fox considered buying the show but wouldn’t match that guarantee.) It’s clear that CBS sank a lot of bucks into the jaw-droppingly detailed New York set. Not only does it have a faux cappuccino bar, a replica of a downtown loft, and a wickedly hip boite called the Zinc Bar, it’s also got a fully stocked Communiqué magazine office — one that’s a lot swankier than any we’ve ever seen, by the way. There are even official-looking Communiqué envelopes and Communiqué articles. (One example: ”Good News for Bad Hair Days.”)

With so much invested, it’s no wonder CBS is gritting its teeth and smiling. ”Look, we were slightly disappointed…but we’re not panicking,” says Leslie Moonves, CBS’ new entertainment chief. ”I really feel confident it’s going to work. I may eat those words in a few months, but I really feel that way.”

Flash back to another CPW party — this at New York’s insufferably trendy restaurant 44 at the Royalton hotel for the premiere. Allure editor Linda Wells busses Communiqué editor Hemingway. A woman in a maroon dress coos to Star about the faster-than-MTV title sequences. ”Aren’t they cool?” he smiles.

Lazard peers at the skeletal women and Armani-suited men. ”I just hope a couple people in Ohio watch,” he says.

A couple did. Now CBS just needs a few million more.