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Melrose Place Premiered 30 Years Ago, a Shadow of the Show It Would Become

The original Melrose pilot was both too problematic and too nice to last.
  •  Andrew Shue, Courtney Thorne-Smith, Doug Savant, Vanessa Williams, Thomas Calabro, Josie Bissett, Grant Show, and Amy Locane in an early promotional photo for Melrose Place.  (Photo: Spelling Television / Everett Collection)
    Andrew Shue, Courtney Thorne-Smith, Doug Savant, Vanessa Williams, Thomas Calabro, Josie Bissett, Grant Show, and Amy Locane in an early promotional photo for Melrose Place. (Photo: Spelling Television / Everett Collection)

    Beginning 30 years ago this week, the world of primetime soaps would never be the same, even if we wouldn't see that transformation for another several months.

    The premiere of the FOX drama Melrose Place is significant because it launched one of the most outrageous and compulsively watchable TV shows of the '90s. At its height, it was so popular that Seinfeld — the most popular show on TV at the time — devoted an entire episode to just how addictive the Melrose Place phenomenon was, despite the fact that they were essentially promoting another network's programming.

    But the version of Melrose Place that took a generation by storm was not the Melrose Place that premiered on July 8, 1992. Famously — or infamously — the show that spun off from Beverly Hills, 90210 was a shadow of the show it would become. It wasn't until Heather Locklear joined the cast as a "special guest star" midway through the first season that things started to kick into gear and the show embraced its aggressively soapy destiny.

    Looking back at the series premiere of Melrose Place, there are moments that suggest the show it would become. There are also moments that screamingly highlight what the show needed to run away from. There are also quite a few moments that are so early '90s, you could just about die.

    So let's revisit that very first episode of Melrose Place and see the show before it was retooled to be sleazier, steamier, more delightfully insane, and, well, just overall better.

    The Show's Trademark Opening Credits Almost Didn't Happen

    One of the most enduring legacies of Melrose Place — after Kimberly removing her wig and blowing up the building and Amanda running roughshod over D&D Advertising — was the show's opening credits, a kinetic 90 seconds of guitar riffs, letterboxing, and alphabetically-ordered cast members staring straight into the camera.

    Had someone not intervened, however, we might have been stuck with the pilot's original opening credits, which never actually aired in the U.S. until FOX rebroadcast the pilot episode several years later:

    This version of the credits did lock in on some elements that would rightfully stay: the b-roll of the main cast striding down Melrose together and that shot of a shirtless Jake (Grant Show) opening a fridge in the middle of the night, bathing his torso in a heavenly light. But the graphic design was atrocious, the worst of early-'90s clipart-inspired Saved by the Bell-ass nonsense, and the music... well, it was wisely updated. (Curiously, the version of these credits that streams at the top of S1 E1 on Paramount+ is an amalgam of the two: visuals from the original pilot combined with the show's instantly recognizable theme song.)

    Jake Was Definitely Kissing a High School Girl

    Melrose Place was spun off from Aaron Spelling's other FOX drama series, Beverly Hills, 90210, but the awkwardness of spinning off a show about very much adult twentysomethings from a show about high school juniors was felt in the connective tissue of the pilot as 90210's Kelly (Jennie Garth) pursues her crush on hot construction worker Jake to the wilds of Hollywood, where she essentially stalks him with her pals (Tori Spelling, Brian Austin Green, and Ian Ziering) in tow.

    That awkward premise for a hand-off from one show to the other is made extra uncomfortable when Jake — who mostly wants Kelly to buzz off — indulges in whatever attraction he has to her and kisses her, after she reminds us in the audience several times that she's 17. Thankfully, Kelly stops coming around after the show's third episode and we don't have to linger on this for long, but it's still a blemish on the pilot.

    Michael Mancini Was Nice

    Perhaps the biggest bit of whiplash to be found in the Melrose Place pilot comes in the form of Dr. Michael Mancini (Thomas Calabro), who in the ideal version of Melrose Place is a womanizing, unethical, cocky, irresistible bastard who never met a woman he couldn't marry and then cheat on. Originally, of course, Michael was Jane's devoted husband, a hard-working young resident at the hospital who knocked some money off his rent by working on the side as the manager of the apartment complex, which in this case amounts to collecting rent checks for the unseen landlord.

    We're still a ways away from the Michael who would get run down by a car driven by one of the many women he'd scorned, and it's weird to watch him as this nice-guy middle manager.

    Matt Was a Little Gay and a Lot Down with the Cause

    Melrose Place was, for better and ultimately for worse, one of the few hit TV shows of its era to have a gay character in its main ensemble. Unfortunately, Matt (Doug Savant) became notorious as a gay character who was by far the least interestingly written as the show got juicier and juicier, ultimately becoming an object lesson in why representation on its own wasn't going to be enough.

    In the pilot episode, Matt's gayness exists — he joins dance-aerobics instructor Rhonda (Vanessa Williams) in ogling Billy (Andrew Shue) as he moves into the complex — but it's downplayed, and he doesn't get any storyline beyond being a sounding board for Rhonda. But what he lacks in concrete narrative he more than makes up for in era-specific apparel. One of the few things we do learn about Matt is that he's a social worker for at-risk youth, and he backs up that activist vocation with his "Increase the Peace" and Rock the Vote t-shirts.

    Sandy Wandered in From a Tennessee Williams Play

    Two of the more obvious differences between original Melrose Place and what the show would become is that two of the main cast members in the pilot wouldn't make it to season two. Rhonda at least survived through the entire 32-episode (!) first season, with her aerobics classes and wayward love life. She was maybe the character most tied to the original Melrose vision of a light drama about young people finding their path in the big city. Although she was let go after Season 1, Vanessa Williams (no, not that Vanessa Williams) would remain the only Black cast member to receive main-title status on Melrose Place ever, an ignominious distinction to be sure.

    Meanwhile, Amy Locane, who played waitress and aspiring actress Sandy, didn't even make it to the halfway mark of Season 1, and looking back at the pilot it's easy to see why she was the first cut. Sandy, with her (initially) thick Southern drawl and over-the-top sultry delivery, felt like a Cat on a Hot Tin Roof character transported to the Sunset strip. Locane had previously worked with John Waters on the film Cry-Baby, and maybe she wasn't able to get out of that campy mode, but whatever the reason, Sandy comes off as a cartoon character amid more down-to-earth types. (Ironically, Sandy's over-the-top characterization might have stood a better chance in the show's later seasons, when the soapy antics crept into campy theatrics.)

    Over the course of Season 1, Melrose Place replaced Locane's Sandy with a series of recurring guests who would help reshape the show to what it would become, including Marcia Cross as Dr. Kimberly Shaw, Laura Leighton as Jane's troublemaking sister Sydney, Daphne Zuniga as tough photographer Jo Reynolds, and eventually Heather Locklear's Amanda.

    Alison Wasn't Blonde Yet

    Watching the Season 1 opening credits, one of the main takeaways is that Alison (Courtney Thorne-Smith) isn't the blonde she'd later be but instead sports an auburn quasi-mullet Aquanet fantasy that feels probably five years out of date by 1992. Alison is the focal point of the pilot, ditched by her chaotic roommate Natalie and left with the monthly rent and no way to pay it. So she gets desperate and takes on a male roommate, Billy (Andrew Shue), and so the will-they-or-won't-they that animates much of this misbegotten first season commences.

    Alison and Billy's loooooong and winding romance was never very interesting even as Melrose Place got soapier, steamier, and sillier. But we at least got to watch Amanda terrorize Alison at D&D or Brooke (Kristen Davis, who joined the show in its third season) trick Billy into marrying her. The Alison and Billy stuff that gets introduced in the pilot is romantic-comedy sitcom stuff, and pretty uninspired in general. Things would get much more interesting for Alison when the building blew up in Season 4 and she was blinded in the blast.

    They Actually Used the Pool

    One of the biggest gags of Melrose Place over the years was that the titular apartment complex, filled with a rotating cast of hot, scheming singles, had this gorgeous pool in the middle of the courtyard that nobody ever used (unless you were throwing your bridal-gown-clad sister in there for sleeping with your ex-husband). In the pilot, however, it's used quite extensively. First Matt just takes a casual daytime swim (as anyone would if they lived in this place!), and then later the entire main cast enjoys a barbecue where everyone ends up tumbling into the pool and taking part in chicken fights (!) and splashing around like a bunch of friendly Angelenos would.

    In the span of a few seasons, Michael and Jane would be divorced, Alison will have left Billy at the altar, Michael will have both negligently murdered his mistress in a car accident and then been run down by that same mistress who wasn't dead after all, Jake will have briefly dated both Jane and Alison and also memorably Alison's dragon lady boss, Amanda Woodward, played by special guest star Heather Locklear, who joined the show in its 21st episode and never looked back.

    All seven seasons of the original Melrose Place (including the pilot) are available for streaming on Paramount+.

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    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Melrose Place (1992 series), Amy Locane, Andrew Shue, Courtney Thorne-Smith, Grant Show, Heather Locklear, Josie Bissett, Thomas Calabro, Vanessa A. Williams