Competition from 'Ally' and 'Buffy' had declawed Spelling's vixens. Can a seventh-season makeover put the bite back in 'Melrose' ratings?

Like any soap worth its salt, Melrose Place excels at the loopy plot twist and Omigod cliff-hanger: Alison leaves Billy at the altar! Sydney turns to prostitution to pay the bills! Kimberly blows up a building!

But for its seventh season, Fox’s festival of backstabbing may have pulled off the most shocking stunt of all. It’s still on!

That’s right, the guiltiest pleasure of ’90s TV is back, and facing a challenge its callow characters can certainly relate to: how to reverse signs of aging. After bitchslapping its way through the first half of the decade as the watercooler show for 18- to 34-year-olds, Melrose lost its punch. A whopping 24 percent of viewers have vanished since 1995-96, prompting some to wonder, Why bother slipping between the sheets again? Was it high-note syndrome — the desire to send the series off with one final boffo season? Definitely not, insists exec producer Charles Pratt: ”It’s the first year of the new Melrose. We have fans just waiting to give us another chance. We have nothing to lose.”

Except precious Nielsen points. In its zenithal ’93-94 season, the steamy soap averaged nearly 14 million viewers a week, with the finale nabbing 19.3 million; last year, it averaged about 10 million. The producers point to a time-slot move four years ago — from Wednesday at 9 to its current family-hour nest on Monday at 8 — and concede that fans have been subjected to a steady stream of cast departures (many actors blamed burnout). Those exits forced the show to stock up on so much new blood, it could’ve been sponsored by the Red Cross. ”With 13 characters and eight story lines” per episode, notes original cast member Josie Bissett (Jane Mancini), back on the show after quitting in ’96, ”I’d be left going ‘Okay … what just happened?’ ”

She wasn’t the only one. Perhaps encouraged by a favorable response, plots grew increasingly inane (e.g., a wedding day hit-and-run). ”Even with the best intentions, the show had almost become a parody of itself,” admits Fox Entertainment president Peter Roth. Furthermore, the burst of competition from campy female-fronted dramedies like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Ally McBeal made Melrose look silly and stale. ”People talk about loving Ally‘s strong characters and relatable stories told in a new way,” sighs Pratt. ”They said the same about us in year two.”

What went wrong? In the writers’ room — as well as on the set — malaise had set in. According to Jack Wagner (Dr. Peter Burns), ”There was some lackadaisical acting. We didn’t have that creative juice you need on set.” Adds Pratt: ”I remember plotting something at a group meeting last season and everybody said, ‘Yeah, yeah, sounds good.’ I thought, What happened to the days when we’d go through 135 options for ending an act?”

Cranking out 30-plus episodes a year (the network average is 22) might have something to do with it. ”We’re celebrating our 200th episode [Sept. 14]; for most series, that’s like 10 years,” notes exec producer Aaron Spelling, who, with Melrose and Beverly Hills 90210, has two of the three longest-running dramas now in prime time. ”I never thought we’d make it to a seventh season.”

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