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Re-Watching Melrose Place From the Beginning, 25+ Years On

The hosts of the Again With This podcast on why the show deserves a place of honor in Gen X's cultural pantheon.
  • The cast of Melrose Place, circa 1993 (FOX)
    The cast of Melrose Place, circa 1993 (FOX)

    Having written the book on Beverly Hills, 90210 (literally: watch for it in 2020), Tara Ariano and Sarah D. Bunting have recently started an episode-by-episode rewatch of Melrose Place  for their podcast, Again with This. We asked them to share what it's been like to revisit the '90s trash classic.  

    Tara Ariano: I have to say this experience has been, thus far for me, less a revisitation than a discovery: I'm sure I watched some of Season 1 at the time just because I was an avid Beverly Hills, 90210 fan (and, truth be told, still kind of am, SORRY), but since even in the VCR era it was easy to miss episodes here and there and go on with your life, I definitely dipped in and out -- in addition to which I have never re-watched Melrose since it was originally on the air. I know it was different for you, though.

    Sarah D. Bunting: It was, to a degree -- this was a college-TV-room staple, along with BH, which used to be paired with Melrose on Wednesday nights -- but I am also "discovering" as we make our way through the first season that I don't remember many of these early plotlines. Like, any of them. And that may be because Melrose didn't earn my appointment-television loyalty until Heather Locklear's frosty antagonist Amanda Woodward showed up... because, until she does, the show is fairly boring and missable. Not a complete waste, especially when various dudes take their shirts off, but man, is it slow in the early going.

    TA: I think the only thing anyone remembers about Season 1 of Melrose Place is how different it was from the rest of the run, and that is certainly true. Michael (Thomas Calabro) is ... nice? Kind of a dorky schmuck, even? (Not that anyone could look that cool out jogging in a Cat In The Hat t-shirt, of course.) Rhonda (the other Vanessa Williams) and Sandy (Amy Locane) are around, for now. And while the BH writers managed to find things to do for 8-9 teen characters and, sometimes, their parents, the Melrose writers are sidelining characters all the time... and yet making a B-plot of Billy (talking lump of hair Andrew Shue) going bungee-jumping because, in EPISODE 5, they are already running out of organic stories and resorting to gimmicks. And yet: despite not really remembering specific episodes much, I still find it nostalgic to watch. It is the '90s-est thing, and I love it.

    SDB: It's funny to me -- peculiar, not ha-ha funny; there is literally nothing ha-ha funny in the first half-season, despite the soundtrack's urging us in that direction -- that Aaron Spelling et al. learned exactly nothing from what dragged BH out of the ratings basement just the previous year. BH started out as a fairly clean-cut, earnest, almost service-y show about teens, which of course teens could have given a shit about, but when they soaped it up some (and put episodes on during the summertime, making it the only game in town back then), the audience numbers began to go up. Melrose's first season has a similar problem: it's trying to position itself as an organic drama about a diverse group of friends and neighbors, but the writing isn't good enough to make a go of that and there's no effective villain yet. Well, besides Locane's "suh-thuhn" accent, which is hilarious -- but that's the thing. It's objectively mediocre and wearisome, but at the same time it's so deluded about itself that it's an amusing sit. That, and all the terrifying 1992 "fashions."

    TA: Light jeans, as far as the eye can see. Women in giant pants folding down their waistbands. Chokers! I mean, it's adorable. (It's sad that we'll soon be bidding farewell to Rhonda, since her Cardio Funk instructor gear has, strangely, aged the best? Or I just have a pro-athleisure bias, given that I am a proud member of the soft pant community.) Outfits aside, though, I feel like culture owes this show another look. As we write this, we are in the midst of a Generation X celebration -- or maybe it just seems like it due to the reach of this Times Styles package -- and since it's been so forgotten since it went off the air, it's hard to recall what a juggernaut Melrose was at the time. (Watching it was a whole plotline on Seinfeld!) The 20somethings of the titular Melrose Place, in Season 1, were trying to make it in a recession, at the tail-end of an uninspiring Republican presidency. They didn't know what huge changes were just months (Bill Clinton's election) and short years (the rise of the internet) ahead. And watching them in 2019, it's hard for me not to feel tender toward them in their Gen X-y nihilism -- which was also my Gen X-y nihilism, though I was a little bit younger than they -- because they don't know how much worse things are going to be in the future.

    SDB: It's absolutely a window into how we lived then, but not just the pirate shirts and the landlines and the finding of jobs in the want ads, although that stuff has its museum appeal. For me, it's partly about remembering how we watched it then -- that the communal experiencing of the show presaged the internet, and then enabled the (non-porn parts of the) internet to flourish. Is Kimberly's (Marcia Cross) legendary wig reveal a great TV moment in its own right? Definitely. Is it a legend in my own history because my friend Mark called it from like four shots out, and then the entire bank of couches in the TV room went apeshit when it actually happened? Definitely. The wig shot, Sydney (Laura Leighton) getting mowed down by a car, Patrick Muldoon's villain crawling out of his own grave, even Gay Matt's (Doug "Mr. Laura Leighton" Savant) many frustratingly chaste hugs -- classic nighttime-soap stuff, for sure, but amplified in my memory by watching them en dorm masse, or at a bar that my friends and I literally colonized for this purpose after we graduated.

    TA: I totally agree. Fox, in that era, was really driving what no one then called monoculture: not just BH and Melrose Place but The Simpsons and The X-Files were all such fun shows to watch with a devoted crew. And could be again! Whether you join us for our podcast or not -- and you should, but as Gen Xers, we're too blasé to be prescriptive about it -- taking another trip to Melrose Place is as relaxing as it is rewarding. And since it's streaming on Hulu, and Prime, AND CBS, few shows make a rewatch easier for the consumer.

    SDB: If not, perhaps, easier on their retinas, so before you Marie Kondo those eclipse glasses, let us remind you that Jane opens a "bow-tique" showcasing her "dee-signs" and it's like the love child of Eddie Vedder and Holly Hobbie exploded.

    TA: At least the world's shortest miniskirts give our eyes a safe place to land: Heather Locklear's legs.

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    Primetimer Editors-at-Large Tara Ariano and Sarah D. Bunting co-founded with David Cole the sites Television Without Pity, Previously.tv, Fametracker and the Extra Hot Great  and Again with This podcasts. 

    TOPICS: Melrose Place (1992 series), Aaron Spelling, Heather Locklear