Melrose Place
8-9 PM

Beverly Hills, 90210
8-9 PM

Is any TV spectacle sadder than the last march of a show that doesn’t know its life is over? As grumpy and bone tired as an aging whorehouse madam, Melrose Place has trudged into its sixth season without a fresh idea in its teased blond head. On a recent Monday, the cast was grimly put through its paces: Sleazebag Michael was caught cheating on the woman he loves; uptight Amanda berated dim-and-dimmer Billy about his ad-agency responsibilities; there was some nonsense about a faked paternity test; and, of course, a face was slapped. The episode could have been a rerun were it not for all those bewildered, underwear-model-looking newcomers who replaced the six main cast members who ran for the hills last season.

That exodus was, it turns out, more than Melrose could bear. Although the ever-game, deserves-better Heather Locklear still spits out even the worst lines with snappish authority, and the diabolical-doctor duo of Jack Wagner and Thomas Calabro at least try to look interested, they can’t sustain a show that has lost its best asset — a twisted joy in its own trashiness.

At its best — in the years bracketed by the return of crazy Kimberly (the awesome Marcia Cross) from the dead and her attempt to blow the entire cast to kingdom come — Melrose Place was both genuinely surprising and outrageously funny. Take away that anything-goes plotting and you’re left with a dull series about gorgeous, ticked-off people having angry sex, then screwing each other over in played-out ways.

Ironically, as Melrose wanes, the series that spawned it, Beverly Hills, 90210, is showing new vigor. Long past both its cool phase and its no-longer-cool phase, 90210 has begun its eighth (!) season as a venerable TV institution — prime time’s oldest and most unexpectedly enduring drama. Teen-appeal shows aren’t supposed to last long, but 90210 has always been an oddity — a hybrid in which glossy melodrama and Afterschool Special-esque lessons coexist in a harmony that only Aaron Spelling could produce.

What’s the secret? For one thing, 90210 has kept its cast almost as intact as Donna Martin’s virginity — which is to say, not really, but more than most. And with college graduation behind them, the ensemble seems delighted to have entered the real world, which in Spellingvision means drive-by shootings, amnesia, and business-deal backstabbings. In particular, Jason Priestley (the stalwart Brandon) and Ian Ziering (the screwup Steve) look palpably relieved to be facing their 30s without words like term paper in their scripts. (And this year’s ratings jump among 18- to 49-year-olds indicates that 90210‘s audience is aging just as efficiently as its cast.)

This season, the show has introduced two newcomers: Hilary Swank as Ziering’s single-mom romantic foil, and Vincent Young, donning Luke Perry’s mantle as the show’s tortured-under-his-mousse loner. They’re both perfectly fine. But 90210‘s strength continues to be its corny faith in the essential goodness of its long-running characters — even of bitch on wheels Val (played with apple-cheeked malevolence by Tiffani-Amber Thiessen).

Yeah, you heard right: goodness. For all of its attention to sex (usually followed by crises), drugs (always followed by crises), and rock & roll (which, this season, is causing crises for would-be impresario David), 90210 has always been goofily heartfelt about its privileged youths; it actually seems to wish them well. Sure, the ”important” plotlines can be groaners: This season, Tori Spelling’s Donna discovered a sweatshop and, to her size 2 horror, learned about the existence of poor people. But after so many years, there’s resonance in each development. We’ve watched the romance between Brandon and Kelly (Jennie Garth) unfold for over 200 episodes now; on TV, anything that lasts that long becomes peculiarly touching. (Try, by contrast, to think of a relationship on Melrose that took longer to go sour than an average carton of milk.) Whether longtime viewers are watching 90210 out of nostalgic affection or genuine curiosity, this durably sweet-natured series deserves credit for not selling their goodwill short. Melrose Place: D 90210: B

Beverly Hills, 90210
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