Aaron Spelling: God of guilty-pleasure TV
This week, EW University takes a look at the people who helped shape the modern TV landscape. Our first class on TV Auteurs takes a look at the illustrious, often licentious oeuvre of Aaron Spelling. Class is now in session!
Yes, kids, the late Aaron Spelling gave television more than the future star of Tori & Dean: Home Sweet Hollywood. Far, far more, in fact. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Spelling holds the record for the most executive producer credits: 218.
That alone, of course, does not an auteur make, but from The Mod Squad to Charlie’s Angels, from Beverly Hills, 90210, to Charmed, a distinct and almost incomprehensibly influential vision emerged. Spelling practically invented the modern TV guilty indulgence, a formula tougher to execute than it looks. When you’re watching Burn Notice or Gossip Girl or Desperate Housewives and that “zap” hits the pleasure center of your brain, send a prayer of gratitude up to Mr. Spelling (who died in 2006 at 83). His particular brand of magic hit multiple demos (The Love Boat: fun for the whole family!) and found fans among several generations of viewers — his credits span from the ’50s to 2006 (the year Charmed and 7th Heaven went off the air). Yet for all the critical drubbing his work regularly took, it inspires a rare lasting affection in its fans.
Spelling’s breakthrough came when he teamed with Danny Thomas on The Mod Squad (1968-72). The show about three young undercover cops — “One White, One Black, One Blonde” was the tagline — brought the Spelling trademarks into sharp focus for the first time. Hip appeal. A light take on crimefighting. Hot people. “Style and attention to detail,” as he once described the secret to his success. He got bonus points for cross-demographic appeal. (Though in the future, he’d tend to span generations more often than racial groups; many of his dramas were notoriously lily white.)
He ventured into serious drama with 1976’s Family — a critical favorite, Emmy magnet, and cred-booster. It was, however, a hiccup in the Spelling vision: the broad, guilt-inducing fun that Charlie’s Angels delivered. That series, which ran from 1976-81, took the concept behind one of Spelling’s earliest works, 1965’s groundbreaking cult fave Honey West, and tweaked it into a quintessential Spelling smash. While Honey was the first primetime series to feature a female private eye, Angels gave us three of them, all absurdly beautiful, all using their wiles at the whim of a faceless boss to solve feather-light cases. The show inspired a new moniker for its genre — “Jiggle TV” — and put Spelling, as well as future icon Farrah Fawcett, on the map (even though Fawcett quit after just one season, provoking a legal battle with Spelling).
Now an official hitmaker, Spelling took ownership of everyone’s Saturday nights with Fantasy Island and The Love Boat. The latter, launched in 1977, effectively revived the anthology comedy (last seen in the ’60s as Love, American Style) — and, as such, its shiploads full of kitschy guest stars kept viewers of all ages tuning in every week. Spelling delivered Hart to Hart in 1979, then discovered another blond bombshell in his 1982-86 hit T.J. Hooker, featuring a young Heather Locklear. He helped define ’80s TV with his slew of over-the-top nighttime soaps: The Colbys, Hotel, Dynasty. In 1984, his seven shows made up an entire third of the ABC schedule, leading many to dub it “Aaron’s Broadcasting Company.”
In the ’90s, the 67-year-old scored again, shockingly — with a show about teenagers, no less. His decade-spanning hit Beverly Hills, 90210, premiered on Fox in 1990 and stunned a generation with its intoxicating mix of earnestness and sexiness. It tackled birth control head-on, showing condoms and featuring pregnancy scares; it dealt with everything from AIDS to rape to drunk driving with an After School Special-like efficiency. It also allowed its characters to graduate from high school — and then college — in real time, effectively maturing along with viewers, until the show ended in 2000. Meanwhile, 90210 spawned a spinoff sensation, 1992’s Melrose Place, which essentially revived the formula that worked so well for Spelling’s ’80s soaps, but focused primarily on twentysomethings. It made its name on big, barely believable, totally watchable drama (with, of course, a huge dose of Locklear). As Spelling himself described it in an Archive of American Television interview (see link below), Melrose was like 90210, but more adult — “and with adultness comes campiness.” He tried to recreate both successes many times, on many shows named for sultry-sounding places — 2000 Malibu Road, Models Inc., Savannah, Malibu Shores, Pacific Palisades — but never quite captured the magic of the twin Fox hits. Still, he kept himself in the game with quiet WB favorite 7th Heaven — a blatant departure from the Spelling formula about a pastor’s family full of goody-goodies that became the longest-running U.S. family drama — and witch-sister cult hit Charmed. Amazingly enough, his legacy lives on literally, three years after his death, in The CW’s 90210 remake and, now, its Melrose redo debuting this fall.
Extra Credit Viewing: Even if you watched nothing but Spelling shows for the rest of your life starting now, you probably couldn’t get through everything he produced. But this multi-part Archive of American Television interview with him is catnip for TV geeks, particularly this segment in which he talks about why he shouldn’t have listened to Lucille Ball when he made 1986’s bomb Life With Lucy, how they made so many damn episodes of Beverly Hills, 90210, the origins of Melrose Place, why TV (especially the escapist kind) is so important, and the future of medium (old people, ironically enough!).
See if you can spot the kernels of Charlie’s Angels — hot girls with badass moves — in one of Spelling’s earliest creations, Honey West.
Proof that Spelling didn’t take his soaps too seriously? He also produced the 1991 theatrical send-up Soapdish.
Extra Credit Reading: Aaron Spelling: A Prime Time Life, by Aaron Spelling with Jefferson Graham.
Also check out “The Maestro of Jiggle TV” from The Atlantic.
For Discussion: What’s your favorite Spelling-produced show? Tell us in the comments section below.
More on TV Auteurs in EW University:
Aaron Sorkin: Talker, walk with me
TV industry brass: Why so white?