by Jon Bastian
Brilliant television satire died way before its time
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Once upon a time, there was Beverly Hills: 90210. No, this is not the retread with the shortened title basically taking up the OC slot on CW. This was the 1990 troubled teens melodrama created by Darren Star for Aaron Spelling, which went on to spawn Melrose Place, which begat Models, Inc. It also went on to create Grosse Pointe, one of the best TV series you’ve probably forgotten.
Long in to the run of 90210, Star left, and he created this show as a funny, cathartic response to the 90210 days, in a cleverly interwoven story in which events connect in the “real” world of the production company making the show, and the doubly fictional world of the truly cheesy soap opera they’re all engaged in perpetrating.
The Hollywood satire is dead-on, it being achieved not through exaggeration, but simply changing the names, although some of it really is insider info. I worked for Spelling Television when Grosse Pointe aired, for Melrose Place originally, and since BH: 90210 had been our next-door show, a lot of what seemed a stretch of the Hollywood truth was actually a well-aimed barb.
I’ll save the more salacious ones, but many are obvious to anyone who knows the history of BH: 90210. Grosse Pointe is, of course, the stand-in for the show, with the regular cast members having their counterparts in real life. They are Irene Malloy (“Andy Richter Controls the Universe”) as “Becky Johnson”, think Shannen Doherty’s “Brenda Walsh”; Lindsay Sloane (She Said/He Said) as “Marcy Sternfeld”, aka Tori Spelling as “Donna Martin”; Kohl Sudduth (The Notorious Bettie Page) as “Quentin King”, better known as Luke Perry’s “Dylan McKay”; and Al Santos (American Gangster) as “Brad Johnson”, Jason Priestly’s “Brandon Walsh”.
You know the reputations of the actors, you can fill in the blanks.
What makes Grosse Pointe work, though, is that you don’t have to know the real-life players in order to enjoy the story. New, hot blonde Courtney Scott (Bonnie Somerville, Shades of Ray) is brought onto the show to play the cousin of the Walsh… er, Johnson siblings, earning the immediate enmity of Becky Johnson, who insists that she is the star of the show. One manipulation after another occurs as all of the actors attempt to maneuver each other to their own best advantage, with bitchiness and backstabbing in abundance. When Becky is informed, after another shoplifting scandal is buried, that the producers were forced to bring in Courtney at the network’s insistence, as a reserve replacement for Becky if she ever got into trouble again, all hell breaks loose. It doesn’t make things any easier that Brad has the hots for Courtney, while Marcy has the hots for Brad and Shannon… uh, Becky just… has a hot temper.
Layered into this main storyline are other subplots that keep the action moving along. There’s “Dave, the Stand-In” (Kyle Howard, “The Drew Carey Show”), who came to Hollywood with Brad from acting school, with the promise that whoever made it big first would take care of the other. Brad clearly has no intention of honoring that promise. On the other hand, Dave has every intention of exploiting it to its fullest advantage.
Meanwhile, in the parallel universe supposedly above the fray, producers Rob (William Ragsdale, “Herman’s Head”) and Hope (Joely Fisher, “’Til Death”) have to wrangle all of the actor drama and the demands of the Network and still make the show happen, pulling off the biggest acts of manipulation by far. As a wry commentary on the preceding “real” life, we get to see the changes that take place in the show-within-the-show, many of which are hilarious, but also pay homage to TV writers, who have to accept the bullshit they’re given and turn it into something that makes passable sense. Maybe this is just Star’s justification of his career, but so what if it is? It’s damn entertaining, and funny, and there’s enough subtlety packed into each episode that you can watch them several times over and not catch everything. Like many great TV shows – Seinfeld, Arrested Development, Family Guy – Grosse Pointe takes great pleasure in the “long pay-off”. That is, something may be tossed off in the teaser as nothing, but it comes back at the end with a vengeance, or something established in one episode comes back as a major theme two episodes later.
All that and, come on – there’s a charity group with the slogan “Lift Your Legs for Prostate Cancer”. What is there not to love?
Check out Grosse Pointe, available as the complete series in a two-DVD set.
Jon Bastian is a native and resident of Los Angeles. Watch for his upcoming play “Strange Fruit”, which he hopes will help him keep his two dogs rolling in kibble…
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