In the early '90s producers Aaron Spelling and Darren Star were the Obi-Wan and Luke of empty-calorie entertainment. They teamed on the teen soap "Beverly Hills, 90210" and its spin-off "Melrose Place," Spelling lending young Star his powerful name and expertise, Star supplying fresh ideas to the éminence glitz who gave us "Dynasty" and "The Love Boat."
But like Adam Carrington on "Dynasty," Star went prodigal. He struck out on his own, becoming a critical hit with "Sex and the City," which classed up the Spelling formula: lusty stories of beautiful people this time with brains. Now, in true soap-opera fashion, he has returned with a new series (cue ominous music) that has shaken the Spelling empire to its very foundations!
"Grosse Pointe" (the WB, Fridays starting Sept. 22, 8:30 p.m. ET) is a sitcom à clef: a behind-the-scenes satire of a teen soap that more than slightly resembles "90210." The pilot spares no one: not Star, whose clone on "Pointe" is a smarmy phony; not Shannen Doherty, whose reign of terror on the "90210" set is replicated eerily by Hunter Fallow (Irene Molloy). Nicely cast and smartly paced, it's a sassy, catty riot.
And you will never see it. At least, not exactly as Star meant you to. For the original pilot was also unsparing of "90210" star Tori Spelling, Aaron's daughter. Her pitch-perfect analogue is Marcy Sternfeld (Lindsay Sloane), a dramatically challenged actress who's had career help from various surgical upgrades and a big-shot "uncle" in the TV biz. The pilot wounded Tori's dad who just happens to produce the WB's top-rated series, "7th Heaven" and the network sent Star back to the drawing board to make nice.
The changes in a few, but crucial scenes don't spare Tori so much as Daddy. Gone from the pilot is Marcy's uncle and along with him, a layer of show-biz complexity and tension. But remaining is Sloane's Marcy/Tori, a brilliant comic creation down to her slightest tic, squeak and emotion-punctuating chest thrust. Marcy is really "Pointe"'s most likable character, a good-hearted dim bulb made a nervous wreck by gossip and the stress of looking impossibly good. (A bulimia scene, also cut, was a cruel but apt picture of the flip side of TV's hot-body worship.) Star's using his past for laughs, yes, but not without heart.
Coincidentally, Spelling too is revisiting his past, but much differently, with NBC's "Titans" (Wednesdays starting Oct. 4, 8 p.m. ET), a Robin Leach–y soap apparently sealed in a Beverly Hills time capsule circa 1985. Richard Williams (Perry King), the aging lion of conglomerate Williams Global Enterprises, is taking a hot new wife ("Baywatch"'s Yasmine Bleeth) who has designs on his dough and a secret romantic history with his son (a constipated-seeming Casper Van Dien), a hotshot pilot newly returned from the Navy. Family chaos, and frequent barings of skin, ensues.
NBC is hopefully plugging "Titans" as a "guilty pleasure." That is, "It's crap but great crap!" Alas, it's not. Spelling's classics worked because they were in touch with their times. "The Love Boat" put a prime-time-friendly face on the swinging '70s; "Dynasty" was the very shorthand for '80s crassness. "Titans" is a retread, clogged with louche lushes in tuxes and gowns, its old-money family saga as tired as the Williams bloodline. Even casting Victoria Principal as Williams' ex-wife, apparently meant to recall what fun "Dallas" was, simply reminds us that Principal can't read a line.
But there's an inadvertently meaningful moment a showdown between Bleeth and Principal disguised as a conversation about home décor. Bleeth: "Let me guess. You subscribe to the old-is-better theory." Principal: "No. More like the good-taste-never-goes-out-of-style theory." It's tempting to see it as a proxy catfight between Star and Spelling. For a master of camp, Spelling has no sense of camp about his own work; at "Titans"' unveiling for TV writers in July, he took haughty umbrage at a suggestion that audiences laugh at, not with, his shows.
Of course, Spelling has been laughed at all the way to the bank before, and there's something admirable about his sticking earnestly to his pearl-handled guns. Star is the more innovative producer, who mines glitter gulches for gems, but also one for whom every sincere emotion is likely to set up a knowing punch line. That's not to say he indulges in easy sarcasm; the "Pointe" flap shows sarcasm is anything but easy in Hollywood. At least the WB let stand a swipe at a network exec as "the genius who told Felicity to cut her hair." But if the WB's brass can't stomach satire that's bound to hit close to home, they'll end up as the geniuses who sabotaged its best new sitcom.