In the five decades before his death on Friday—at age 83, from complications from a stroke—TV producer Aaron Spelling put together a résumé that should rightfully secure him a place as one of the most successful American artists ever. It seems likely that his only possible rivals as a purveyor of pop are George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, but what, exactly, was his art? Are there any rooms in America that you will not get laughed out of for suggesting that there might be a thematic or aesthetic coherence among Beverly Hills 90210, Charlie’s Angels, Charmed, Dynasty, Fantasy Island, Hotel, The Love Boat, Starsky and Hutch, T.J. Hooker, and 7th Heaven? Is there even any thematic or aesthetic content in most of those shows? Can you draw a line from Hart to Hart to Melrose Place? And how awesome was Models Inc.?
Quite awesomely bad, if I remember correctly, with some excellent catfights and tantrums tossed into the mix. That the show was a dud while the prime-time soap it was spun off of, Melrose Place, endures as a cultural touchstone says more about the fickle tastes of the public than any lapse of taste on Spelling’s part. That’s because he had no taste. Aaron Spelling shows exist out of the range of such categories as “lowbrow” and “trash” and “brain-numbing twaddle.” Their pleasures are perfectly sincere and dementedly campy at once. As a teenager, I watched Beverly Hills 90210 with great avidity, hopefully identifying with Jason Priestley’s Brandon and scanning for stray clues on how to conduct my life; shortly thereafter, I spent an untellable number of hours in a college TV room watching Melrose “ironically,” delightfully groaning along at its absurdities, especially once Kimberly entered her Gothic phase. (I suspect that many members of my generation have the aural imprint of Heather Locklear’s signature command—”My office. Now!”— stamped on their frontal lobes.)
I don’t bring up the bewigged and pyromaniacal Kimberly, played by Marcia Cross, for nothing: Desperate Housewives would be unthinkable without Spelling having pointed the way to a certain kind of glow-in-the-dark soap—something racy (but not salacious), dangerous (but never too heavy or too dark for its time), and perfectly, escapistly hermetic. That both the girl-power witch drama Charmed and the family-valued 7th Heaven emerged as cult hits in recent years has a bit to do with the fact that they each conjure up a world that is full and complete. They’re as sealed off from real life as the guests on Fantasy Island or the crew of The Love Boat while she’s a-sea.
One episode of that singular nautical series is revered as a cultural touchstone. That’s the one where Andy Warhol, playing himself, boards the Pacific Princess in search of something exciting and new. Of course Andy loved the Boat: It was as naive as kitsch and as cute as a cookie jar and all surface. Could Warhol be Spelling’s truest peer? They shared a revolutionary knack for the deeply superficial.