Friday, September 11, 2009

I See No Reason to Visit the New "Melrose Place" Again

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

After the CW found some success with "90210" last season, was there ever a doubt that a reboot of "Melrose Place" was soon to follow? Sure enough, a new version of the 1990s nighttime soap made its debut on Tuesday night (9:00 p.m. Eastern).

For me, there are two competing thoughts behind reviving "Melrose Place." On the one hand, with the movies dominated by sequels and remakes, part of me winces at the idea of a television network following suit. After all, TV is the go-to medium now for creative outside-of-the-box stories. At the same time, we're not talking about disturbing the memory of "Seinfeld" or "Hill Street Blues" here. It's "Melrose" freakin' "Place." It was a crappy sudsfest when it first aired. Even its fans knew it was a silly piece of fluff. What is there to lose?

After having watched the first couple of seasons of the original "Beverly Hills, 90210," I didn't go along when Fox spun off the first incarnation of "Melrose Place." "Beverly Hills" was already getting on my nerves, and "Melrose" looked just too silly for me. So in tuning in on Tuesday, I admit that any thrill (and I use that word very, very loosely) of seeing cast members from the old show on the new one was going to be lost on me. The new "Melrose" was going to have to earn my affection on its merits. It never happened.

As I recall of the original "Melrose" (I did end up watching an episode here and there), it started as a super-corny soap opera, and as time went on, it found a niche, developing outlandish characters and over-the-top story lines. So I figured that a 21st century "Melrose" would double down on the crazy. I'm not sure if executive producers Todd Slavkin and Darren Swimmer (both from "Smallville") decided to go another way, or they just misjudged what would make a splash, but the adjective I would use to best describe the premiere episode of the new "Melrose" would not be "wild" or "edgy." I'd lean more to "dull" or "calculated."

The new "Melrose" begins with a super-slick ("90210"-like) burst of quick cuts of Los Angeles at night, before moving inside to the television version of a hot Hollywood club, in which a guy we later learn is David (Shaun Sipos) feverishly makes out with a woman. Despite her warning not to, David checks his phone and finds that he's gotten an S.O.S. text message. So David springs into action, seemingly re-enacting the scene in "St. Elmo's Fire" when Demi Moore tries to kill herself (by, uh, sitting in front of an open window?), trying to gather the gang to save her. David starts calling the rest of his fellow apartment dwellers to alert them to the emergency. Chef Augie (Colin Egglesfield of "Ally My Children") can't get away from the restaurant, and medical student Lauren (Stephanie Jacobsen) can't get away from the hospital, so unlike the "St. Elmo's" crew, who all respond to the call to arms, David arrives at the familiar Melrose Place apartment complex alone. He finds -- wait for the twist! -- Sydney (Laura Leighton, looking not much different from her first go-round on the Place) calmly sitting and waiting for him. The old-new cast crossover isn't done, as we find out that David's estranged father is Michael (Thomas Calabro), the evil doctor from "Melrose" the first, and both father and son have been intimate with Sydney.

The real problem with the new "Melrose" is that, at least so far, there aren't any characters who are interesting enough to make us care as much as (some of) us did about the first "Melrose" crew. Bad boy David is like Dylan (from "Beverly Hills, 90210") light. Egglesfield's Augie is as stiff and boring as you'd expect from a daytime soap himbo. Lauren's story line, which is kicked off when her father calls her at work to tell her he can't pay her medical school bills (likely one of the 10 most cliched and poorly written scenes in television history), failed to move me.

The other residents are no better. Ella (Katie Cassidy), the new queen of Melrose, plays like a Heather Locklear wannabe, bitchy but, ultimately, not especially scary. We're supposed to be shocked when she locks lips with a woman near the end of the hour (she's bi ... gasp!), but in 2009, it didn't have the impact that the show runners clearly intended. Ella helps get a gig for Jonah (Michael Rady of the far better "Swingtown"), who is saddled with the well-worn TV character of the talented aspiring filmmaker looking for a break. Ella has a thinly veiled crush on Jonah, but he is ga ga for his live-in girlfriend Riley (Jennifer Lucas), proposing to her via a slick no-way-it-could-exist-in-real-life video retrospective of their relationship. Riley, a school teacher, can't decide whether or not to say yes, worried that Jonah is too much of a kid (seriously, these are the plots they came up with).

Last, and certainly least, innocent Violet hangs around the apartment complex, doing ... well, not much of anything. Lip-syncher/celebrity sister Ashlee Simpson-Wentz (oh Pete, Fall Out Boy is a good band, what were you thinking marrying this poster child for plastic surgery and nepotism?) plays Violet, and she is hard to watch. Not only has Simpson-Wentz had so much work done that she is virtually unrecognizable from the woman who embarrassed herself on "Saturday Night Live," but she is so stiff and mannered, it's amazing she is allowed to act on a network television drama. Every time she was on screen, I was distracted by how awful she was.

The writing isn't any better than the weak cast and characters. After a murder in the apartment complex (I won't reveal who the victim is to preserve the twist), Augie says: "I should have come back with David. Maybe I could have saved (the victim)," to which Riley responds: "You can't blame yourself, Augie." There are lame fantasy/flashback scenes, and David and Michael have an argument in Michael's swanky luxury car that followed the same tired "You weren't there for me" track we've seen a million times. By the time a seemingly nice son of a patient offers Lauren $5,000 to sleep with him (in the second least believable and poorly written scene in the episode, after Lauren's conversation with her father about the tuition), and after Lauren's ridiculous conversation with Violet (who convinces her there is really nothing wrong with doing it, since she probably would have slept with him anyway), Lauren shows up at the guy's room, and we're supposed to be dying in suspense to see what happens next. Only, I wasn't.

This is the new "Melrose Place."

Not wacky enough to mimic its predecessor, and not interesting enough to entertain on its own, I'm not sure what the new "Melrose" is supposed to be. Maybe the crazy over-the-top plot lines are warming up in the bullpen. But as of now, there is nothing to recommend the new "Melrose."

For the second time in my lifetime, I'm going to pass on watching "Melrose Place."