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Pilot Inspektor: An Advance Review of CW's "Melrose Place"

If you're like me, you remember watching episodes of the original Melrose Place with a zeal bordering on near obsession.

After all, this was a nighttime soap where anything--and in fact, everything--was possible: from apparent returns from the dead to jaw-dropping plot twists (Kimberly removing that wig, anyone?) to bombs going off right in the namesake apartment building that housed most of the characters.

So I'll say then that expectations were high for the CW's revamp of Melrose Place, which the netlet will launch later this fall. Would the new incarnation of Melrose Place live up not to only one of Los Angeles' most tony streets but also to the original series, which pushed the envelope in terms of over the top plots?

I had the opportunity a few days ago to watch the full pilot episode of Melrose Place, written by former Smallville producers Todd Slavkin and Darren Swimmer and directed by Davis Guggenheim, and sadly I have to say that I was pretty disappointed by what I saw.

Perhaps it was this new series' overly contrived set-up--a dead body discovered floating in the apartment complex's iconic pool that echoes that of Melrose Place spin-off Models Inc. and the death of Melrose's own Brooke Armstrong (Kristin Davis)--the fact that the producers clearly felt their script couldn't convey the emotions necessary to tell their story that they overloaded the episode with so much music that every thirty second span seemed to be filled with a snippet from yet another song, or the inexplicable return of Sydney Andrews (Laura Leighton) to the land of the living.

So just what did I think of the new Melrose Place's pilot episode? Let's discuss. (Beware: there are MAJOR SPOILERS ahead.)

Viewers of the original Melrose Place have been scratching their heads trying to fathom just how Sydney could be alive and running the apartment complex after she was last seen getting run down... on her wedding day, no less. (No, no one ever accused the original Melrose Place of subtlety.) I will say that the actual chain of events is slightly glossed over but Sydney's seeming resurrection is dealt with head on as we're told that Sydney didn't actually die that day but instead faked her death (for reasons yet untold) with the help of her one-time lover Dr. Michael Mancini (Thomas Calabro, who reprises his role here).

I'm not quite sure why Sydney wanted out of married life so badly but it seems that she and Michael had elaborately staged her death in order to... Again, I'm not quite sure what Sydney got out of the arrangement or why she would come back now to Los Angeles and move in to the building where she used to live, using her real name, and take over management responsibilities while living in an apartment her tenants have dubbed "the penthouse."

But, just like the first time around, Sydney's second chance at life is fraught with complication. In this case, it's the fact that no sooner do we see Syd again in the flesh, than does she wind up murdered and floating in the swimming pool. Shock, horror!

Everyone in the apartment complex is a suspect but no one seems all that distraught by the fact that their landlord was killed a few feet from them. Certainly, they're not too shaken up that they don't throw a party right next to the spot where Sydney was killed... less than twenty-hour hours after her murder, despite the twenty-somethings' claims that Sydney was a friend. (Also strange: only one of them is actually questioned by the police.)

These twenty-something tenants aren't all that well-developed in the pilot episode and it's pretty unclear just why they considered the bitchy Sydney a friend. (Some poorly constructed flashbacks seek to fill in the blanks about their past encounters with Syd.) They are the sort of upwardly mobile Angelenos that pack the bar nightly at any number of LA hotspots. Bisexual publicist Ella Simms (Supernatural's Katie Cassidy), who is clearly meant to exude the icy/hot bitchiness of the original series' Heather Locklear, shared a contentious relationship with her former mentor Sydney, who was looking to have her evicted, and gives an alibi for the prime suspect. Elswhere, hotshot sous chef Auggie Kirkpatrick (All My Children's Colin Egglesfield) is harboring a certain blood-stained secret about the night Sydney got killed, despite the fact that he owes his career to the murdered woman yet was clearly avoiding her the last few weeks.

Meanwhile, medical student Lauren Yung (Sarah Connor Chronicle's Stephanie Jacobsen) finds herself in a bind when her father can no longer afford to pay her tuition and is propositioned by a patient's son (Without a Trace's Adam Kaufman) to sleep with him for five thousand dollars. Manboy Jonah Miller (Swingtown's Michael Rady) is a wannabe film director who pays the bills by shooting parties; he proposes to his live-in girlfriend Riley Richmond (Cloverfield's Jessica Lucas), an elementary school teacher, but she doesn't immediately jump at the shot at marrying him despite their five blissful years of dating. (Rady's sadsack romantic Jonah is clearly meant to be a substitute for Andrew Shue's wide-eyed Billy Campbell.)

Rounding out the cast is eighteen-year-old Violet Foster (7th Heaven's Ashlee Simpson-Wentz) who has just arrived in Los Angeles and refers to herself rather ominously as a "good girl" even as she swipes a framed photograph of Sydney at her makeshift memorial in the courtyard. (Hmmm, could the flame-haired Violet be Sydney's daughter perhaps?) And then there's the bad boy David Breck (Shark's Shaun Sipos) who happens to be Sydney's on-again-off-again lover, the brooding son of Michael Mancini (Calabro), and... an art thief?!? This latter reveal is a little ludicrous, even for the notoriously over the top Melrose Place, especially as David doesn't seem clever enough to tie his own shoelaces without help, much less pull off high-stakes solo heists.

The original Melrose Place wasn't exactly known as Emmy bait but it had an energy and verve that made it addictive viewing. Here, Slavkin and Swimmer's script seems rather sodden and, as I mentioned previously, the overabundance of music threaded through every single scene makes me question whether these showrunners trust in the audience to know which emotion the dialogue and action are attempting to evince. We get that the proposal scene between Jonah and Riley is meant to be upbeat and romantic without having a pop track blaring in the background, which it does in EVERY scene.

I will give credit to Melrose's actors, who do their best with the mediocre material that they've been given here. In particular, Jacobsen and Rady come off as likable and sympathetic and their characters are given the most shading, even as Rady's Jonah makes an incredibly unbelievable decision to turn down six figures to write a script after he catches a producer making out with his daughter's teenage friend at a party. The original Melrose Place succeeded not because of the earnestness of its first batch of episodes but because, once it found its footing, it pushed its flawed characters to sometimes make the wrong decisions. Here, there's an off-putting cuteness that's totally at odds with the ongoing murder subplot, the art thievery, and the potential prostitution.

To me, this Melrose Place is a pale shadow of the original series, filled with some mightily one-dimensional characters that attempt to recapture the spark of the 1990s version's characters and update the action for a celebrity-obsessed youth culture that watches the channel's own Gossip Girl and 90210. But it tries way too hard to shoehorn in some mawkish sentimentality instead of just having fun with the concept. Furthermore, I'm not really convinced that Swimmer and Slavkin are the right showrunners for this series, based on the tonal inconsistencies of the pilot and the lackluster scripting.

Sure, the original Melrose Place took a bit of time to find its path (aided, of course, by the arrival of Heather Locklear to stir things up among the sleepy cast) but this version seems to be television-by-the-numbers. Yes, Melrose's producers have thrown in a murder, some sex and scandal, and some mystery but there's still something that feels underwhelming and dispiriting about this update and not at all like organic, compelling, and ultimately addictive television. It might be young, but I can't shake the feeling that this Melrose Place already needs a face-lift.

Melrose Place will air Tuesday nights at 9 pm ET/PT this fall on the CW.


Bella Spruce said…
That moment when Kimberly pulled off the wig is burned into my brain! Such great, soapy TV! Sadly, I don't think the new version will ever live up to it.
Unknown said…
Hahaha. I too watched Melrose Place obsessively. (I'm glad I'm not alone in that guilty pleasure.) I doubt I'll watch this incarnation though. As you said, maybe this season 1 will be like the original's, which was was pretty watery before Heather Locklear joined. It only got better after that.

Sounds like they've mixed up Amanda's faked death with Sydney's real death. The writers should've read the story bible more closely. :-)
Anonymous said…
Sounds pretty lousy. Won't be watching it this fall!
Mazza said…
I also loved Melrose Place when I was younger and was excited when CW said they were going to do it again. But then I remembered how they effed up 90210 completely. Looks like this will be another poor retread of a great TV show. Thanks for ruining my childhood all over again, CW!
Anonymous said…
Do they ever explain how Michael suddenly has a 20-something son??
Annie said…
Sounds painful. Won't be watching but I was never a huge MP fan the first time around.
Ally said…
"Certainly, they're not too shaken up that they don't throw a party right next to the spot where Sydney was killed"

There were a lot of things wrong with this pilot, but to be fair, I thought it was pretty clear it was a memorial of sorts, what with her picture up and candles and all.

God, this was bad. And yeah, it seems pretty clear (or at least, we are being made to believe) that AS-W is Syd's daughter. At the end, I said, "Gee, doesn't she look an awful lot like Sydney?!?" Subtlety, thy name is NOT MP.

I thought Rady and Lucas were the only credible actors in the piece. Doctor girl may have been ok, but I was SO distracted by her ridiculously collagen'd lips, I couldn't concentrate.
Anonymous said…
A co-worker was watching this in her office before so I wandered in and watched the second half. REALLY bad. Like so bad it seems like it was made by film school dropouts bad. Agree that Jacobsen and Rady were best of the bunch. The blond guy was terrible and was emoting with his hair.
Anonymous said…
I've seen the pilot too, and I don't know if it's as bad as this review or some of the other comments. It does a good job at introducing the characters, is well-acted and sexy, and there are a few things I didn't see coming (Ella's sexuality is a last-minute reveal). This is a PILOT, and I'm sure it will get better with time. It's certainly better than 90210. I suspect that this will be a hit and develop a following.
Anonymous said…
Tory said…
I can see what they're attempting to do here. They already know what people expect of Melrose, so they have some sex and murder and secrets, but this earnestness you're referring to could be an attempt for the writers not to blow their load too quickly. One of the main reasons the original gained so many viewers in the 2nd season and lost them in around the 5th season, is because they did so much so fast. Season 3 ended with a bomb blast. Everything leading up to that bomb was addictive, and VERY briskly paced.

I'm just playing devil's advocate here. They know that if they dive in head-first with wall-to-wall over-the-top intrigue, they'll write themselves into a corner. But they also know that if they start it the way the original started (pre-Amanda/Kimberly) then people will be scratching their heads in confusion. Perhaps they haven't figured out the right balance; it's only the pilot afterall.

I am concerned about this loud pop music you're referring to DURING scenes. That's just unspeakable. Also, this entire Sydney storyline sounds like a disaster. I heard the original pilot script had the murdered character as Amanda, but it was either rejected by Locklear or they couldn't get her back. And as much as I loved her in the original, I think killing her off in the new one would've pissed people off but provided an interesting "Who Killed Amanda" storyline. Shame it didn't work out.

Did the ending cliffhanger have a rock guitar solo like the old one? Please say it did!

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