A hit show for the young set Fox's 'Melrose Place' tackles serious issues for those coming of age

July 22, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Los Angeles -- "Melrose Place," the new twentysomething show from Fox, is more than just the hit of summer television. It's a harbinger of what viewers are going to be seeing all over the tube this fall in the form of ensemble shows aimed at and featuring persons in their 20s.

The show is created by Darren Star and produced by Aaron Spelling, the team behind "Beverly Hills 90210." And, just as they initially did with that hit show for teens, lots of critics are trying to dismiss "Melrose Place" as glossy and superficial TV.

A recent press conference here on the fall preview press tour, for example, opened with a critic sarcastically asking Star and the eight members of the cast, "What is the difference between this show and any of the 10,000 other ensemble dramas this fall about angst-ridden, beautiful 20-year-olds?" There was approving laughter from some of his colleagues.

Young viewers knew better than to trust fortysomething critics telling them about "Beverly Hills 90210." They should do the same with "Melrose Place."

It's glossy, but it's certainly not superficial. As Star, Spelling and the cast members tried to explain in different ways at the press conference, "Melrose Place" is about community, dreams, a sense of being where the lights are bright and the possibilities seem endless. It's about the clash of rising expectations and a declining standard of living for young Americans. It's about the passage into adulthood. It's their "thirtysomething."

A record number of Fox viewers -- about 17 million -- have already seen each of the first two episodes. The July 8 premiere episode was the highest-rated network show of the week with teens and the fourth highest-rated show with adults 18-34.

For those who haven't seen it yet, the series is about eight persons in their 20s who live in a courtyard apartment building in one of Los Angeles' trendier neighborhoods.

The cast includes Josie Bissett as aspiring designer Jane Mancini who works in a boutique; Thomas Calabro as apartment manager and medical intern Michael Mancini; Amy Locane as waitress and actress-wannabe Sandy Louise Harling; Doug Savant as gay social worker Matt Fielding; Grant Show as construction worker Jake Hansen; Andrew Shue as struggling writer Billy Campbell; Courtney Thorne-Smith as college-grad-working-as-receptionist Alison Parker and Vanessa Williams as dancer-working-as-aerobics-instructor Rhonda Blair.

The producers and cast had a hard time explaining why they thought the show was off to such a fast start. But that had as much to do with the middle-aged questioners and their hostility as anything else.

In terms of specifics, Star said, the series is trying to capture the glamor and excitement of Melrose Place and Los Angeles. "I came to L.A. from somewhere else, and I think it's a very exciting place to be young."

But, on a deeper level, Star said, the series is trying to connect with more universal experiences. "I think there are basic experiences of coming into adulthood, living on your own, leaving home and defining your place in the world that we really want to tap into.

"We're dealing with ethics in the workplace, for example. I'm also real proud of the stories we're telling about Andrew's character struggling to define himself -- in regards to what his parents would like for him and what he would like. I think that's a problem everybody in their 20s grapples with."

"Melrose Place" does operate on at least two levels, and each is pretty smart stuff.

Stylistically, the Melrose strip of restaurants, shops, nightclubs, neon and music is shot to look like a music video or an ad for jeans. It's Broadway for persons in their 20s. It's the place of magic and fame that young men and women of earlier generations imagined traveling to some day when they heard a train whistle calling through the silence of a small-town night.

The eight characters of "Melrose Place" have answered the '90s' version of that call. Alison Parker, for example, is an honors grad from the University of Wisconsin working as a receptionist at an ad agency to try and get her foot into the business she loves. She's the Midwesterner come to the big city full of hope and goodness and vitality. It's an ancient journey made generationally fresh in Star's telling.

By day, the characters carry their bright and shiny career dreams into the offices and work spaces of Los Angeles. By night, they search for sex and/or relationships in the clubs and restaurants of Melrose Place.

The dreams get scuffed, the search goes badly. Always, they retreat back behind the gate into the courtyard and the apartments where the community of friends comforts one another and renews each others' faith in the future.

"Melrose Place" is a community of ethnically and culturally diverse characters who seem like people worth caring about week to week.

Generationally, their journey is a crucial one to the sense of hope in this country. It's also one that has been undervalued as we continue to obsess over baby boomers. This is the first network show to celebrate the culture of people in their 20s instead of the culture of their parents and older brothers and sisters.

As Shue, himself a twentysomething actor, said, "One thing I think that's special about this show is that it's simply our generation."

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