Closing Up the 'Place'

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

R.I.P. "Melrose Place": 1992-99.

But before it makes an exit after seven steamy, schemey years, consider this finale: A major character dies in the last episode, goes straight to hell and comes face to face with all the deranged killers and psychopaths (Kimberly, Sydney, Brooke . . .) who've bitten the dust during seasons past. The kicker: The infamous apartment complex pool begins to bubble like a caldron, revealing Melrose Place and hell to be one and the same, with all the old villains chained to their apartment doors.

Sound farfetched? It isn't. This was one of the writers' early concepts, but re-signing the veteran villains proved far too expensive. The story line was revised: To make way for a new highway, the body of deceased doctor Kimberly Show is exhumed back in Ohio, revealing an empty coffin. At the end of the hour, when another femme fatale goes insane and is locked away, Kimberly reappears as her psychiatrist. Then again . . . this scenario also had to be scrapped after Spelling Television, which produces the show, and Kimberly's portrayer, actress Marcia Cross, failed to reach a financial agreement.

But somehow it's fitting that in "Melrose's" case, truth can approach the strangeness of its fiction. Inflated star salaries and failed contract negotiations are largely to blame for "Melrose's" cancellation in the first place. As the spinoff of "Beverly Hills, 90210" progressed, plot lines had to be retooled continually to compensate for the annual exodus of series regulars.

In the eyes of many fans, the seven-year Monday-night staple actually ended somewhere during the 1996-97 season, when it suffered an avalanche of cost casualties. During the course of that one eventful year, a brain tumor and a speeding car spelled the respective ends of treasured villainesses Kimberly and Sydney (Laura Leighton), while protagonists Jane (Josie Bissett), Jake (Grant Show), Alison (Courtney Thorne-Smith) and Matt (Doug Savant) all fled in search of fresh starts, with Billy (Andrew Shue) not far behind.

With Four Key Faces Gone, Show Faltered

Even Charles Pratt Jr. and Carol Mendelsohn, executive producers along with Aaron Spelling and E. Duke Vincent, agree this was the beginning of the end. "I think season six killed us," Mendelsohn admits. "At the end, we still had Thomas Calabro, Josie Bissett [who returned this season after exiting early in season five] and of course Heather [Locklear]. But I honestly think in a season where you lose Marcia and Andrew and Courtney and Laura . . . those four people were a big loss."

"Especially Laura Leighton," adds Pratt, who left the series briefly in season three to launch the short-lived "Melrose" spinoff, "Models, Inc." "And believe me, none of these were our choices. They made the choice to move on in their careers and their lives."

In a desperate attempt to lure back old fans, some thought was given earlier this season to bringing Leighton's character back from the dead, with the far-out explanation that Sydney's former admirer Carter had paid off doctors to pronounce her dead, then whisked her away to a convalescent hospital where the vixen was being held captive. But before the plot progressed to paper, Leighton had consented to a limited run on sister series "90210."

To compensate for the losses, a forgettable carousel of fresh, toned unknowns were brought in to fill apartment vacancies (anyone remember Craig, Taylor, Jennifer, Samantha or Coop?). The slew of new tenants during the past three seasons all had that sexy "Melrose" look, but, failing to ignite sparks with turned-off fans, each was soon issued an eviction notice.

"It was a combination of us losing folks and then not getting someone who could replace them," suggests Thomas Calabro (Michael), the sole actor to appear in all 226 episodes and who himself was prepared to leave at the end of every season. "If you really wanted to stay, you'd work it out."

In retrospect, Pratt now concedes, "we went through a period where we were throwing so many new faces and story lines at people that it became overwhelming. The audience wasn't as invested in the new characters and they went elsewhere."

Executive's Departure Affected Show's Fate

In time, the question of renewal became the show's biggest season-ending cliffhanger, managing each year to narrowly snare a spot on Fox's fall schedule. This season, in the wake of declining ratings (currently ranked 96th with a 6.1 rating--an all-time low), much hope was lost with the November resignation of Fox Television President Peter Roth, a longtime "Melrose" supporter. Show sources let it be known that the arrival of new President Doug Herzog presented cause for concern. One worried high-level executive reported that not only was Herzog not a fan of soaps, but the former Comedy Central president had apparently never even seen a single "Melrose" episode.

Not true, asserts Herzog. "When it first debuted, I was an early fan along with my wife," the executive says. "We got a kick out of it. It was a fun show to watch." "Was" being Herzog's defining thought. Among the network chief's first major moves upon assuming Roth's role in January was retiring "Melrose" but renewing "90210" for a 10th season.

"It wasn't really rocket science making the decision," he says. "Creatively, I think everybody sort of agreed there was nothing more to say. It had a really nice, long, healthy run, but hey, nothing lasts forever. In this day and age, it's only a very special show that gets as far as 'Melrose' did."

Series creator Darren Star, who departed after writing and executive producing the first 100 episodes, admits he'd originally envisioned a longer run for his serial, comparable to "Dallas' " 13 seasons or "Knots Landing's" 14 years. "I always thought the show had limitless possibilities because anybody could move in and out of that building," explains Star, who created and now oversees HBO's racy "Sex and the City." He suspects "Melrose's" increasingly outrageous plots took their toll. "I think the show always worked best when there was a core of relatability in the characters."

By season four, producers realized they'd crossed the fine line between drama and high camp. "We knew we had gone too far," Pratt says. "It definitely became 'how much crazier can we get?' Ultimately, we had Priscilla Presley running around the sanitarium as Nurse Ratchet. Kimberly had an electric drill and was about to give Jack Wagner, who was drooling in a wheelchair, a lobotomy. It left me thinking, 'This is just absurd.' We just went over the line and everybody knew it, but it was too late to do anything about it."

Despite rumors to the contrary, none of the show's vets will reappear in this evening's finale (one unnamed actress agreed to return but fell ill shortly before filming). "It was too expensive," Spelling says. "The (comeback) scenes that were submitted to me were all startlingly small cameos. And I thought it was a little cheesy to cut to some character having a drink at the bar just for the sake of bringing the actor back."

What you can expect tonight is a kidnapping, a big car wreck, a horrible explosion, a shocking confession from Amanda, a surprise wedding, an arrest, a birth announcement and a double funeral (ah, how perfectly "Melrose"). As if that weren't enough, in the tradition of "Melrose's" rogues' gallery of bizarre females, the character of Eve will serve as what Pratt describes as "a marauding, crazed psychopath on the loose and out for revenge. That's the engine that drives the last episode."

A Resolution for Every Character

Producers promise that by the conclusion of the finale, viewers will have a clear sense of each character's destiny for some time to come. "That was kind of our goal," explains Pratt, who's written "West Beverly," a revamped "90210" for the 2000-01 season. "They're either OK or they're not OK. They're in jail. They're dead or whatever. You don't go, 'Well, what's going to happen to that person . . .?' Each has a lovely little ending, but you also think, 'Gee I wonder where they're going to be in five years . . .?' "

It is a question we may not have to ponder for long. Pratt and Mendelsohn are already brainstorming on possible reunion scenarios. "I would love that," Spelling says. "Then you try to get everybody back." But will even the most die-hard fans really come back to see a 50-something Locklear, still clad in her trademark minis, skimming the scum off the pool for "A Very Melrose Christmas"?

Calabro, for one, has no problem with the idea. "Of course I can," says the actor, laughing. "When we're all desperate for work and they can get us cheap."

* "Melrose Place" series finale airs at 8 tonight on Fox. The network has rated it TV-14V (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for violence).

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