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Creating shows that defined a generation

From ‘Love Boat’ to ‘Melrose,’ Aaron Spelling created pop-culture legends
/ Source: contributor

How profound was Aaron Spelling's impact on pop culture? Consider the way I first learned of his death this past weekend, in an e-card sent by an old friend. "Thinking of you at this time of loss," it read, noting that television would never again have anything good on anymore.

That may sound drastic, but considering that old Spelling shows will be still playing in syndication when our grandchildren die, it is a pretty accurate statement.

The shows Spelling created over his 40-year career will be studied by anthropologists trying (vainly) to understand our era. OK, God help them if all that remain are tapes of “Finder of Lost Loves” and the final few seasons of “Dynasty.” But a quick glance over the Spelling catalog feels like a road trip across America trapped in a 1974 AMC Hornet X with Douglas Coupland, Dennis Miller and Ellen DeGeneres.

Spelling didn't just provide a rich trove of pop references. He all but defined the notion. Consider the legacy: “The Mod Squad,” “Starsky and Hutch,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “T.J. Hooker,” “Matt Houston,” “Hart to Hart,” “Love Boat,” “Fantasy Island,” “Dynasty,” “Beverly Hills 90210,” “Charmed,” and of course “Melrose Place.” This is not a random collection of television shows. These shows are iconic bookmarks for anyone between 25 and 50: a generation raised under the watchful Cyclopean eye of Mother Television.

To create one of these social mileposts is an honor. To create a few is amazing. To be the man behind all of them borders on a pact with the devil late one night on a lonely road outside Pasadena. Yet anyone who doubts Spelling’s ability to coerce art out of a cultural void need only look at “T.J. Hooker”: Here is a man who somehow convinced William Shatner to run!

Signs of an eraSpelling’s television bonbons were striking examples of art imitating life imitating art: a ceaseless feedback loop in which his shows were defined by their era even as they tried to define it. “Charlie’s Angels” tried to reflect the fashions of the 1970s and instead foisted the Farrah Fawcett ‘do on an entire generation of hapless males who still get weak-kneed around women with feathered bangs. (While we’re on Farrah, don’t get me started on the infamous glasscutter poster.) Can any discussion of the early 1980s last more than five minutes before someone brings up how annoying Vicki Stubing was on the “Love Boat”? Is there a bar anywhere in America where mentioning “Fantasy Island” during happy hour won’t devolve into a sad, drunken set of “Da plane! Da plane!” impersonations?

As hyperglycemic as Spelling’s shows could be, you couldn't watch a single episode and believe deep down that these people and situations really existed. His characters were parodies of themselves, whether it was Adam Bricker, the sex-harassment-suit-waiting-to-happen ship’s doctor on “Love Boat,” or Jake Hanson, the if-I-pout-a-lot-and-stop-combing-my-hair-I’ll-look-like-James Dean tough guy on “Melrose Place.”

By keeping his scripting tongue firmly planted in cheek, Spelling created characters and worlds that looked close enough to the characters and worlds around us, but different enough to be both exciting and non-threatening. Who wouldn’t want to work in the mailroom at Amanda Woodward’s D&D Advertising on “Melrose Place”? When was the last time your workday was interrupted by two female executives locked in a wrestling match at the office reception desk?

Spelling’s magic hid in the blend of glamour, sex and cattiness he sprinkled liberally over each plot line; a rich blend eagerly devoured by an audience yearning for escapism. Television viewers in 1977 were exiting Vietnam and dealing with the Equal Rights Amendment debate. What better panacea than “Charlie’s Angels,” dispensing justice without needing support from either men or a bra? For the post-stagflation, high-interest-rate world of Ronald Reagan’s 1981, a quick shot of “Dynasty” reassured the world that glitz and money were still out there to be had.

To critics, Spelling served as a modern-day Pandora, sent by the gods to punish humanity for stealing color TV; a Pandora who opened the idiot box and released the demons of prime-time banality. To audiences, though, Spelling’s shows were sheer mindless fun — escapism without the hangover or a desperate need for salty snacks. The dichotomy isn’t surprising: Critics have always asked the artist to “shock me, surprise me,” while the rest of us only want to forget about life for an hour. Critics might have yawned during “T.J. Hooker,” but the rest of us were dreaming of Heather Locklear asking to see our license and registration. Oh (gulp), yes ma’am!

Spelling was very aware of his role as a show’s producer, and his audience’s expectations. In a 1992 interview he said, “I’m proud of what I’ve done. I think there is a need for escapism. I think it is a release valve that keeps people from blowing their brains out or having nervous breakdowns.” Yet his brand of escapism connected. Mind candy perhaps, but they were creative confections that satisfied.

It wasn’t all dessert. Spelling was the king of multiple storylines, never overwhelming the viewer with too much of a single thing, providing a balanced entertainment meal. His greatest hits — like “Love Boat,” “Fantasy Island” and “Melrose Place” — generally featured three storylines unrolling in parallel throughout a single episode: a serious thread, something sexy and always a comedic side plot. This sounds confusing on paper, but under Spelling’s watch it fit the audience’s world as reassuringly as a Swanson TV dinner.

The need for entertainmentFor the viewer, it was an hour-long tennis match between archetypes: The Temptress works her wiles on The Tragic Hero until the tension looms tighter than a Hollywood facelift, then quick cut over to the wacky Trickster’s cunning plot as it unravels around him, courtesy of the Wise Old Man. It didn’t matter whether the Temptress was Amanda Woodward or Alexis Carrington. Audiences cared little whether the Wise Old Man was Captain Stubing or a faceless box named Charlie. What mattered was that the stories felt satisfying and entertained.

Love him or hate him, Spelling touched an innate human need to sit around the fire (or the TV, in this case) and be entertained by stories we all understand deep down. Where once upon a time it was Jason and his Argonauts, it is now Charlie and his Angels, but the experience remains the same. Simple stories to be sure, but ones that connect us to our humanity, with all of its foibles, pettiness and gratuitous displays of cleavage.

And considering the rich library of memories that Spelling leaves behind, I guess I can find it in my heart to forgive him for “Models Inc.”

Ian Ferrell, who wrote “Melrose Place Update,” and his alter-ego Dr. Angus Ferreud will spend the next few days watching reruns and remembering the good old days.