The year was 1994, and Melrose Place — Fox’s wildly popular nighttime soap about hot young singles living in a Los Angeles apartment complex — was about to shock the stonewashed overalls off of 17.5 million viewers. Five months and 15 episodes after sensible, sharp-tongued Dr. Kimberly Shaw (Marcia Cross) died following a violent car crash, her lover/nemesis Michael Mancini (Thomas Calabro) found her standing in his beach house, very much alive. But the biggest shock was still to come. At the end of the episode — aptly titled “The Bitch Is Back” — Kimberly retreated to the bathroom and, wincing in pain, pulled off her wig to reveal a gnarly skull scar underneath. (If this is all new to you, drop everything and go binge Melrose Place on Hulu.)
Today it’d be nearly impossible to keep the resurrection of a main character quiet for a week, let alone months — but in 1994, that “internet” thing hadn’t really caught on, and a “spoiler” was just something you put on the back of your Trans Am. Melrose creator Darren Star called in from the offices of his current hit, TV Land’s Younger, to reminisce about Kimberly’s major wig-out, and share his thoughts on how making TV has changed in the two-plus decades since.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Thanks for taking the time to do this.
DARREN STAR: I love talking about Melrose Place. I can’t believe people are still talking about it!
During Melrose Place, what concerns, if any, did you have about storylines getting out?
Well I don’t think there was the accessibility to anything back then. There were no scripts printed with people’s names on it. I don’t think there was a sense that anybody would get a hold of a script, you know? I don’t remember spending a lot of time thinking about spoilers. It was a different era.
Before the big wig reveal, Kimberly was presumed dead and had been gone for 13 whole episodes — did people just assume that Marcia Cross was off the show, or did you have to work to conceal it at all?
So when we filmed the accident where Kimberly dies in the car accident — which was sort of a big stunt for us! I remember being there that night and the car rolled over the cliff and everything. At the time I thought, I hate the idea of losing this character, because she was so good. And I thought, “Why don’t we just forget about her [for a while]?” For one thing, we had so many episodes to do of Melrose Place — 34 that season…
That’s INSANE to think about now.
I know. Believe me, you work under whatever circumstances you’re given, but it is sort of hard to imagine doing that amount of shows in a given season again — for me, at least. The way we did it was by shooting two crews simultaneously.
But at the time, I really don’t want to see Kimberly go away, and [I thought] wouldn’t it be great just to forget about her for a while. And that’s when I had the idea that she would come back under the circumstances that she had never died. So our writing team basically concealed it and we planned that we would then bring her back later in the season.
How did Marcia react?
I remember [when we were shooting] the episode where Kimberly pulls off her wig, Marcia was sort of like, “What is going on here? How am I playing this?” And I said, “Well, you know, she’s basically [pause]…she’s nuts.” And Marcia’s like, “Okay, I get it” — but she really got it. She was brilliant in the role. As fun as Dr. Kimberly Shaw was in the beginning, it was straightforward. And the Kimberly that came back was just off the rails, and we had the best time writing that character.
What do you remember about coming up with the idea for the wig reveal?
I remember pitching the idea in the writers’ room. And there was like a moment of silence, and one of the writers — I think it was Chuck Pratt — said, “I love it.” And I said, “Thank you.” It could have gone the other way, you know? You want your [writing] team to be behind you, and they really were. They got it from the beginning.
[During filming] when she pulls off the wig, we were screaming and howling at the same time. It was fun, shocking and kind of like funny in an over the top way, but still had you kind of, like, buying it. It was the line we always treaded on Melrose Place — it was just going over the top but not quite. I will certainly say sometimes the show did, it did jump the shark, but I think what people remember it for are the moments where it got to the point where it was about to go over the top, but didn’t quite. I think that’s where the fun of the show always was. Those gasp moments that we would be looking for.
Having worked in an era where spoilers weren’t an issue, and now when you have to be very vigilant about what you don’t want to get out — but you also get feedback from fans in real-time — do you have a preference?
As someone who is writing and producing, I think that it’s really nice to get a greater sense of audience feedback. At the same time, I feel that I can’t go down the rabbit hole of reading comments. You sort of do have to be agnostic about all that and trust your own instincts and your own storytelling, because everyone’s going to have an opinion, whether they like it or not. We had a bigger chunk of time [back then], because the internet didn’t exist, so there was no time spent looking for comments. You heard from friends.
When you compare your experience on Melrose and Sex and the City versus, say, Younger, has creating TV in this social media era changed how you do it?
I don’t think it changes the writing of it at all. I think that is all about the characters, the story, and being true to those… I think you can’t ever push too hard for a shocking moment, either. Moments are only shocking if they come unexpectedly out of something that is already built-in or organic to what you’ve been seeing, that’s consistent with the characters that you’re watching. I think the only difference is, the feedback is instantaneous. During episodes of Younger I have gone on — you can basically go on Twitter in real-time and just see how people are reacting. Usually, obviously people who are on Twitter talking about Younger are fans, so you get for the most part good feedback.
I think it’s more of an experience for the audience than anybody else. I think it’s more for the audience to engage and interact with their show. I think that in some ways is why television has become so much more powerful, because a movie-going experience is one where you’re sitting in an audience — and I feel like television, with Twitter, people are creating their own audience of hundreds of thousands of people that they’re watching a show together with. You’re getting a communal experience with television watching that didn’t exist before.
Melrose Place is available to stream on Hulu. Season 6 of Younger premieres June 12 on TV Land.
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