Todd Slavkin and Darren Swimmer are the kinds of writers who bring back popular people from the dead only to kill them.
In 1997, “Melrose Place” viewers were devastated when a car struck and killed Sydney Andrews (Laura Leighton) on her wedding day. But in the pilot of Slavkin’s and Swimmer’s remake, Sydney is alive and looking sensational in her middle age -- until she’s discovered floating in the apartment complex pool about 10 minutes into the show.
That the executive producers have chosen to kick off the new series with the resurrection and swift death of a fan favorite is a fitting tribute to the ‘90s version and the classic episode in which the villainous Kimberly Shaw (Marcia Cross) returned from the dead.
But in another sense, the second death of Sydney Andrews signals how different this series is from the one that aired on Fox from 1992 to 1999. Camp has given way to noir, soap has morphed into mystery, and acting and dialogue have become more sophisticated while alcoholism, drug addiction, infidelity and even murder remain among the permanent residents of the fictitious 4616 Melrose Place.
“What was so important to us about Sydney’s death in the first 10 minutes is that it means anything could happen,” Slavkin said. “And that appeals to us as well as it saying that this is our own thing. It will feel nostalgic, but it’s not the old ‘Melrose.’ ”
All of this probably sounds like a major spoiler for a show. It would be if the CW hadn’t decided to embrace and promote the murder mystery, featuring Sydney’s death in trailers and talking about it openly with journalists. To be sure, Sydney’s death in the same pool where others have drowned (Brooke), https://catfights have ensued (Sydney and her sister, Jane), and Amanda (Heather Locklear) seduced (fill in the blank with any male character on the show) is only the beginning. There are 12 years of back story to tell in the form of flashbacks -- and, yes, it involves another returning fan favorite, the devilish Michael Mancini (Thomas Calabro).
“It was too hard to introduce the show [to advertisers] and not include the murder mystery because I think that’s what’s going to get people hooked right away,” CW President of Entertainment Dawn Ostroff said. “Oh, my God, there’s a dead body and all of these people are suspects. My hope is that it’s as big a question as ‘Who shot J.R.?’ ”
Or, at the very least, who is “Gossip Girl”? -- the question at the heart of the CW’s first hit. The series about Manhattan socialite teens helped the 3-year-old CW identify young women as its niche audience and paved the way for more shows about wealthy young people and their problems. Although the rich Palm Beach life depicted in “Privileged” failed last season, the remake of “Beverly Hills, 90210" worked out after several stops and starts. The CW was up 77% among 18-to-34-year-old women on Monday nights and up 26% on Tuesday nights, as compared to last season, according to Nielsen Media.
“Last season, we really honed our brand and began to generate some serious momentum,” Ostroff said. “Heading into next season, we’re looking to build on the momentum.”
In addition to “Melrose Place,” which premieres Sept. 8 at 9 p.m., the CW also will launch “The Beautiful Life” about models living in the same building in New York. The CW had planned to launch “Melrose Place” since it decided to remake “90210" last year, and CBS Television Studios, which produces the dramas and is part of the CW’s corporate family, owns the rights to Aaron Spelling’s shows.
Of course, Ostroff knows who killed Sydney Andrews, and she and the producers promise the crime will be solved around the first half of the season. The first episodes will focus more on the seven main characters, their relationships to one another and to their landlady, Sydney, in support of the theme that no one is exactly who they seem.
“A lot of the characters have two sides to them, and that will be revealed early on in the series, but then there are the people that are left, and there’s no telling for sure they’ll remain the person that we see them as now,” Swimmer said.
Aspiring filmmaker Jonah Miller (Michael Rady) and his girlfriend, Riley Richmond (Jessica Lucas), a first-grade teacher, appear to be the most centered and stable. Ella Simms (Katie Cassidy), a hotshot (bisexual?) publicist, lives with medical student Lauren Yung (Stephanie Jacobsen), who can’t afford her tuition. Auggie Kirkpatrick (Colin Egglesfield) is a sous chef at Coal, the A-list hangout where they all socialize. Violet Foster (Ashlee Simpson-Wentz) has just arrived in Los Angeles and has the unfortunate task of discovering Sydney’s body. David Breck (Shaun Sipos), Mancini’s illegitimate son, lives large and has big secrets, and is the cop’s prime suspect in Sydney’s slaying.
“Sydney’s a sliding door,” joked Egglesfield, 36, referring to the many members of the cast who have love scenes with Leighton. “Let’s just say Sydney has her hands in everything, and quite a few people had a motive. Auggie’s relationship with Sydney has gone sour, but he’s not the only one who’s suspicious here.”
Sydney’s untimely second death didn’t come up in scenes shot last month for the fifth episode in which all of the apartment dwellers gather at the fancy Coal to celebrate Ella’s birthday. But that doesn’t mean there was a lack of intrigue. The pushy Ella tried to come between Jonah and Riley, Riley argued with Lauren about her choices, and suspicions about David stealing jewelry were mounting.
A spinoff of “Beverly Hills, 90210,” the first “Melrose Place” was the first prime-time soap to focus on 20-year-olds as they navigated the early stages of their careers and looked for love. Produced by Spelling and created by Darren Star, it never reflected life in Los Angeles the way the CW’s series intends; the new one is filming everywhere from skid row to Sunset Boulevard and using popular venues, such as the Cinerama Dome and Walt Disney Concert Hall, as well as opulent mansions in Malibu and the so-called bird streets of the Hollywood Hills.
"[Swimmer] and I have known each other since the sixth grade,” Slavkin said. “We grew up in L.A., writing music together and playing gigs at the Roxy and the Troubadour and all these places. The chance to do a television show about the city we grew up in, as well as being fans of the original show, we felt like we could update this in a really cool, relevant way and not just slap the name ‘Melrose Place’ on it.”
Ostroff admits Slavkin and Swimmer, who produced “Smallville” for the CW for seven seasons, were not the writers who first came to mind when she ordered the series. But they requested a meeting and arrived armed with character descriptions, story lines and, most important: the idea for the murder mystery.
“As established as they both are, they had done all this work and they didn’t even have the job yet,” Ostroff said. “Their passion and the depth of their knowledge of the original show was so incredible.”
Ostroff’s initial trepidation is understandable, after learning tough lessons on “90210" last season. That series premiered to high ratings but lukewarm reviews and struggled creatively, although it ended on a promising note with the hiring of Rebecca Rand Kirshner Sinclair, its third show runner. Ostroff said the old series’ characters sometimes proved distracting and, though she wanted to see familiar faces on the new “Melrose,” she didn’t want to repeat those mistakes.
“Darren and Todd knew instinctively that they had to create a new world but also hang on to what was special about ‘Melrose’ originally,” she said. “ ‘90210' was a really good learning experience for us, and I wanted to make sure that we used the old characters in the right way, in a way that made sense to the new characters as well.” In addition to Leighton and Calabro, Josie Bissett will reprise her role as Jane, Mancini’s first wife; and Daphne Zuniga is returning as war photographer Jo Reynolds.
“Here we are two men, you know, two straight men, and we are so deep into the world of wardrobe and accessories and hair and jewelry,” Slavkin said. “Our characters don’t just eat sushi, they eat gourmet sushi and the details are super important to us. The look of the show is vital.”
Swimmer, who said he watched the original series because “it was a cool way to see people who have problems way bigger than yours,” hoped Ostroff wouldn’t be turned off by their wish to have Sydney die immediately.
“We felt the only way to incorporate the old characters into the new show was for it to feel like it was part of the story and came from the story,” Swimmer said.
Still “the most scandalous address in Hollywood,” Slavkin says, the new “Melrose Place” will feel less like a soap opera than its predecessor.
“I’m not saying that we’re all not going to be sleeping in each other’s apartments,” said Jacobsen, 29, who appeared in “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.” “I’m not saying that we are. I feel like there’s going to be a surprise in every episode, something that’s going to happen that 80% of the people didn’t see coming. It’s just one of those things that the enormity of it alone is enough to spark an initial interest and we will hopefully captivate that interest and redirect it toward our new characters.”
Meet the new tenants of 4616 Melrose Place.