The ''90210'' spinoff is heating up screens

By Alan Carter
August 24, 2005 at 04:00 AM EDT
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Okay, for a break in the lazy summer, here’s a mind-stretching quiz: What is 90210?
A. The number of times the male cast members appear shirtless in an average episode of Melrose Place
B. The annual income you’d need to live as stylishly downscale as the characters on Melrose Place
C. The number of marriage proposals actor Grant Show will receive by episode four of Melrose Place
D. The number of ads the Fox network is running to promote Melrose Place

The answer, of course, is all of the above — in other words, dear reader, forget about Luke Perry and his buddies at the beach. The hottest hour on prime time has splashed into pool waters several zip codes away from Fox’s Beverly Hills 90210 — into an adobe-and-tile apartment complex in Melrose, 90069, one of L.A.’s hippest ‘hoods.

To be sure, this hyped-to-heaven spin-off of the smash 90210 is sun-baked from the same recipe of soap opera, morality play, and fashion parade. But while the pampered 90210 kids cope with adolescent angst and puppy love, Melrose Place‘s eight young trendies (all in their 20s, all struggling with new careers, all blessed with amazing bone structure) grapple with the more worldly problems of bounced checks, bogus relationships, creepy bosses, deadbeat roommates, and other twentysomething predicaments.

There is one benefit to growing up: While 90210‘s Brenda (Shannen Doherty) and Dylan (Perry) have had only one acknowledged tryst in bed — with much after-regret — the Melrose crew can enjoy plenty of action between the sheets. Call it 90210 With Guilt-Free Sex. And tell Dan Quayle to throw his remote control out the window.

To nobody’s surprise, the series’ July 8 debut sprang cleanly into the Top 20, with 16 million viewers. That made it the first hit of the new TV season, which the other networks won’t even be inaugurating for another two months. Of more importance to advertisers, Melrose ranked No. 1 among teens; in its second week, it even beat the 90210 season premiere.

For Fox, the stakes couldn’t be steeper: Melrose is its first foray into Wednesday-night programming and a key component in its plans to eventually expand from a five- to a seven-day schedule. If Melrose can hang on to its audience, it should help complete Fox’s transformation from fledgling to full-fledged network. And the show’s success bodes well for Fox’s youth-niche strategy, which will continue this year with new entries like Class of ’96, about a group of college freshmen, and The Heights, about a struggling rock band.

So what if critics were morose about Melrose? (”This spin-off was more a turnoff,” said The Hollywood Reporter. ”Aggressively unambitious,” groaned USA Today.) With the numbers on his side, 90210 and Melrose executive producer Aaron Spelling — also executive producer of Love Boat, Dynasty, and Charlie’s Angels — is laughing all the way from Melrose Place to fictional West Beverly High. ”I’m pretty used to the critics hating my shows,” he says. ”But I knew we had something good when (Fox chairman and CEO) Rupert Murdoch called after the premiere to say congratulations.”

Darren Star, creator and executive producer of 90210 and Melrose, says he began toying with the idea of a spin-off last fall when it became clear that there was gold to mine in them thar (Beverly) hills. ”Fox said yes right away,” recalls Star. ”But the idea was not to cannibalize 90210 and have something like Luke Perry going off to be a surf cop in Hawaii. That would have hurt both shows. We wanted the new show to be able to stand on its own.”

So Star, 31, looked back to his 20s, ”the most exciting time of my life — all expectation and fear, but also no responsibility, so you could party your brains out.” He defends the show’s high steam quotient: ”Kids in their 20s do have sex.”

The result: a handsome eightsome, portrayed by mostly unknown actors whose comings and goings revolve around a salmon-colored, Spanish mission-style abode and their communal pool. (Though Melrose Place is a real three-block Hollywood street that runs off the funky shopper’s haven Melrose Avenue, and some exterior shots are done there, the Melrose Place set is fake, built on a soundstage 30 miles away, in rural Santa Clarita, Calif. )

The electricity in the various couplings has just begun to crackle. Jake (Grant Show, one of only two cast members who confess to being at least 30; the other is Thomas Calabro, 33) is the hunky construction worker who was introduced on 90210 last spring as Dylan’s older partner in cool. Jake sleeps around but won’t frolic with lovesick high-schooler Kelly (Jennie Garth, on a five-episode bridge loan from 90210) because she’s too young and might get hurt. Sandy (Amy Locane), an aspiring actress-now-waitress, seems to pine for Jake, her ex (”You romanced me so hard, you turned me inside out,” she coos), but is comforted in the self-declared knowledge that she can have almost any other man she wants. Jane and Michael (Josie Bissett and Calabro), meanwhile, are married but never see each other because she’s an aspiring designer-now-salesperson and he’s an aspiring physician-now-intern. Billy (Andrew Shue), an aspiring writer-now-cabbie, shares digs with Alison (Courtney Thorne-Smith), an aspiring advertising exec-now-receptionist, but it’s strictly platonic — at least for now.

Rhonda (Vanessa Williams), an aerobics instructor, can’t find a man at all. Neither, for that matter, can social worker Matt (Doug Savant). That’s right — Matt is also looking for Mr. Right. Criticized for the white T-shirt homogeneity of the 90210 cast, the producers are, perhaps, attempting to atone with Matt, who makes no secret of his sexual orientation, and Rhonda, who’s black. Actress Williams (no relation to the singer) says the goal is admirable. ”By having us all live under the same roof,” she says, ”we can show how similar all people are. White, black, whatever, we all bleed red.”

Though creator Star had initially complained that his 90210 troupe was picked from ”the dregs and the leftovers,” he now concedes that the unfamiliarity of the faces was crucial to that show’s success, allowing viewers to identify more readily with the characters. To fill the new bill of unknowns-with-star-potential, the producers held an exhaustive search (it seemed every actor in town wanted in), screening hundreds for each role.

Even for the potentially controversial part of Matt, there was no shortage of applicants. To get on the air during the summer rerun season, Star admits, the process was a bit rushed. Indeed, within several days after filming started in May — and after publicity stills went out — actor Stephen Fanning, originally hired to play Billy, was dropped. ”He’s a fine actor,” says Star, diplomatically, ”but we quickly realized we were taking the character in a different direction.”

The Fanning canning didn’t exactly leave the rest of the cast with feelings of job security. But so far, there has been a buoyant, supportive atmosphere on the set, with no signs yet of the Attitude that is reported to sometimes reign over at the 90210 Peach Pit. ”I like everyone here,” says Thorne-Smith, with a dimpled smile. ”We’re all like these little kids pulling for each other.” The group cheerfully welcomed Shue, Fanning’s replacement, with the nickname NFG. (”N for new, G for guy,” says Shue. ”You can probably guess what the F is for.”)

Star claims he was looking to cast ”people who weren’t so attractive it would be off-putting to the audience.” Ha. What to make of the women’s bikini- perfect bodies and the men’s remarkably toned and hair-free chests? Even Show admits, ”Yeah, we have some good-looking people on the set. But the show is not just let’s-look-at-pretty-people. We have some messages here and there. The show is about something.” The producers say the scripts will deal with abortion, sexual harassment, interracial dating, and the effect of the current economic hard times on the Melrose generation. Although Matt hasn’t made much of a splash yet (in the pool or out), the character, says Savant, will explore issues rarely touched on in a prime-time series, like outing and gay bashing.

As the Hollywood eye focuses on them, the cast take shelter from the publicity storm in their cramped individual trailers on the Santa Clarita set. ”To call the show hyped would be an understatement,” says Show, who appeared on the covers of People and TV Guide — before the pilot had even aired. (”To find me in any of the photos,” kids Shue, ”you need a magnifying glass. But Grant is, like, everywhere.”) ”The pressure is probably driving them nuts,” says Star, paternally. ”It’s hard to get acclaim for something you haven’t done yet, when you haven’t yet earned it.” Thorne-Smith confirms that ”all the press has been scary. I can’t read it.” Adds the crop-haired Bissett, ”I think it’s easier on all of us if we don’t talk about it.”

Still, one can’t help wondering how long it will be until someone starts playing prima-don or -donna. ”Yeah, you’ll probably come back in a few months, and there will be more publicists than actors,” jokes Thorne-Smith. But Locane, who plays Melrose‘s Southern belle, insists, in her native New Jersey accent, ”I don’t see it happening.”

The earnest Savant, who bangs the table to make a point, says, ”Slap me if it happens. Slap me senseless. Prior to getting this role, I was delivering pizzas. This is a better job, and the pay is a lot better.” And, just for the record, Calabro chimes in, too. ”My trailer is fine,” he says. ”There’s a place to nap, read my script, or light up a cigarette. What else do I need?”

Okay, while their bonding-fest continues — while Savant and Show bum cigarettes off each other, while Savant sticks around on his afternoon off to share some gossip with Williams, while Shue and Thorne-Smith reprise their onscreen buddy roles in real-life — here’s a revised quiz:

What is 90210?
A. A show on which some cast members were honored with look-alike dolls last year; others won’t get them till 1993
B. A show on which some cast members have movie deals; some don’t
C. A show on which one cast member reportedly throws tantrums at the drop of a shoe
D. A show on which all egos are not equal

The answer, again, is all of the above. In other words, dear cast, we believe your gentle protestations as you view the future together through Melrose-colored glasses. But read this again, guys, in six months or so. After you too no longer need your last names. After you too incite riots in shopping malls. And remember. We have it on tape.

Profiles

Thomas Calabro as Michael Mancini
”I thought Michael was boring at first. I said, ‘Give me a shot at Billy.’ I thought he was the most fun role. They told me I was too old for Billy.”
Résumé: TV’s Dream Street, TV movie Out of the Darkness. Has directed plays in homeless shelters and rehab clinics in New York City. Is a New York Knicks fan.
”I’m a low-maintenance guy. I drive a ’73 Bug. I don’t want a better car. I don’t need a house; I’m happy with an apartment. I don’t know why people need all that space. I have no use for it, personally. I’m fine with life.”

Vanessa Williams as Rhonda Blair
”I’m playing one woman, one life. I’m not representing all African-American women. But I do have concerns. Why was my first kiss with someone not black? Let’s do real life here. Rhonda’s largely the comic relief, but she’s got a lot of sides, so I don’t mind that.”
Résumé: TV’s The Cosby Show, the film New Jack City. Is not the former Miss America. (”My name was registered to the union first. It’s not horrible. We’re both working.”)
”My idol was Shirley Temple. When I first got here I went to Mann’s Theater and had my picture taken at her footprints.”

Josie Bissett as Jane Mancini
”I think she is the one character that is not developed yet. I’m still learning who she is. I’m putting myself into it.”
Résumé: TV’s The Hogan Family, Danielle Steel’s ”Secrets.” Is a former model. Recently married actor Rob Estes (Silk Stalkings).
”I don’t want to be a movie star. I like to go home at night.”

Grant Show as Jake Hanson
”He lives in a sexual world. He’s a seducer. The first script alluded to the movie Picnic; that’s partly where Jake came from.”
Résumé: TV’s Ryan’s Hope, True Blue, miniseries Lucky. Attended the prestigious London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts.
”My sex life certainly isn’t as interesting as Jake’s! For one thing, I was just dumped.”

Amy Locane as Sandy Louise Harling
”She’s conniving, manipulative, and a come-right-back-at-you person. She takes crap from no one. But she has heart.”
Résumé: Films Lost Angels, Cry Baby. Started in show biz at age 12 in TV’s Spencer.
”I always hated girls who used their femininity to get what they wanted.”

Doug Savant as Matt Fielding
”I want to play this guy with integrity. He’s got a worldly view, not self-centered. My greatest fear is that they will downplay his gayness.”
Résumé: TV’s Masquerade, upcoming TV movie Bonnie & Clyde: The True Story. Quit UCLA, to his parents’ chagrin.
”Intellectually, you know this business has ups and downs, but you don’t know what it’s like until you live through it.”

Courtney Thorne-Smith as Alison Parker
”She’s naive, but she is no wimp. And she’s funny. I love her earnestness.”
Résumé: TV’s Day By Day, films Lucas, Summer School.
”I’m working so hard right now, I have no life. But I have so much fun on this show, it’s okay.”

Andrew Shue as Billy Campbell
”He’s a little young — enthusiastic about everything.”
Résumé: Films Cocktail, The Karate Kid. Older sister is actress Elisabeth Shue (Cocktail). Played pro soccer in Zimbabwe in 1990 — ”the only white guy in the whole league.” Writes poetry, keeps a journal.
”I was a waiter for a day. And I hated it.”

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