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Fantasy Islands 

Remembering Aaron Spelling

Wednesday, Jun 28 2006
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WHEN RONALDO SCORED HIS SECOND GOAL against Japan last week — prompting jubilant yellow-and-green-clad fans to break into an impromptu samba — I remembered the famous putdown by Charles de Gaulle. “Brazil,” he said, “is not a serious country.” But while the general thought he was being crushing, he was actually explaining why the Old World fell in love with the New.

The USA isn’t a serious country either — not at its best, anyway. What the world treasures in America is not the fervent rectitude with which we export, sometimes violently, our vaulting ideas of freedom. It’s the alluring form our freedom takes — humor, frivolity, the bearable lightness of being. We’ve got dada in our DNA.

American culture specializes in the art of escaping from life (which, as the Buddha reminds us, is suffering). Unseriousness is the American Way.

click to enlarge The Prospero of prime time, Aaron Spelling (Chris Pizzello/AP)
  • The Prospero of prime time, Aaron Spelling (Chris Pizzello/AP)

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By such a standard, one of our great patriots died last week at age 83. I refer, of course, to Aaron Spelling, the Prospero of prime time (Charlie’s Angels, Dynasty, Fantasy Island, Beverly Hills 90210), whose passing received nowhere near the media hoopla it deserved. Just the obligatory obits, a few brief, ironical appreciations. With customary lack of imagination, Time devoted this week’s cover to Theodore Roosevelt (yes, that big stick again), dividing the familiar yarn into chapters: “The Self-Made Man,” “Charging Into Fame,” “Birth of a Superpower,” “How to Shrink the World.” In fact, one could just as easily use those same phrases to map the career of Aaron Spelling, whose rough ride from the Longhorn State to Melrose Place is a more truly modern American success story than T.R.’s commuter trek from Manhattan to Washington, D.C.

After all, unlike Teddy, the self-made Spelling wasn’t born into privilege. The frail son of a Russian immigrant tailor who settled in Dallas (cue the crackly anti-Semitic slurs), Spelling was in many respects a quintessential Angeleno. He came to Los Angeles to reinvent himself beneath the bright California skies that, unlike most other places in 1940s America, didn’t give a damn who you started out as. After a few struggling years as a character actor — mouse-faced and skinny, he resembled an uncharismatic young Dennis Weaver — Spelling found his bully pulpit as an impresario.

Over the next half century, he made himself into the most successful television producer of all time by giving viewers what they wanted, whether they should want it or not. Because Spelling’s shows were so untethered from reality — The Mod Squad taught an entire generation never to use the term “Solid!” — it’s easy to miss that he was an incomparably greater figure in TV history than such sacred cows as Edward R. Murrow or Norman Lear. Spelling changed entertainment all over the globe: I’ve seen local knockoffs of his shows everywhere from London to Bangkok. Absurd as it sounds, he was a cultural force on the scale of Elvis, Spielberg or Oprah.

AARON SPELLING WAS ALSO A FIGURE of fun. Just as his work was routinely described as trash, so the man himself was mocked for parvenu tackiness. He had snow trucked into Beverly Hills for Christmas parties, and he promoted the acting career of his not abundantly talented daughter. Who can forget those episodes of Fantasy Island or The Love Boat where, to earn a paycheck, some poor, unlucky guest star had to exclaim about little Tori’s cuteness or charm? (In a touch worthy of a Spelling potboiler, Tori overcame their estrangement to show up at her father’s deathbed.) As if erecting a monument to his own lack of taste, he built “The Manor,” a hideous 56,000-square-foot home in Holmby Hills that looks like a McMansion scaled for Mount Olympus, although it’s hard to imagine Zeus and Hera insisting on their own bowling alley.

But good taste has never been essential to pop-culture brilliance (seen Graceland?), and often proves a liability. There’s a reason Charlie’s Angels got vastly higher ratings than Masterpiece Theatre, and it isn’t that TV viewers are boobs blind to the Shakespearean artistry of Upstairs, Downstairs. Rather than hammering away at big themes, Spelling’s shows toyed with the Zeitgeist, making hay of ’60s rebellion, Women’s Lib, Reagan-era wealth worship. They were breezy, energetic fun — shamelessness was part of their allure. And the man knew it. Like the studio moguls of an earlier generation, he had started on the outside looking in, and this experience of yearning was profound. It gave him a killer instinct for what the public likes.

And what it likes is what Spelling himself liked and eventually came to symbolize, all that’s gaudy and seductive about Southern California — sun, skin, money and just enough safe, sub-Manson-level craziness to keep things interesting. As an artistic vision, this may not exactly be Tolstoyan, but it’s no more childish than May the Force Be With You.

I don’t know anyone who didn’t enjoy at least some Spelling shows — over 50 years, he produced around 200 — but they always brought out the snootiness in critics. Some of this was the class snobbery that’s forever condescending to some imaginary lower-class Them (variously seen as “rednecks,” “white trash,” “Middle Americans,” “red staters”) who, unlike enlightened Us, are supposedly unable to distinguish between trash and Quality Television — like, oh, All in the Family (which actually displayed a contempt for blue-collar Americans that Spelling would never have countenanced). But much of this disdain also grew from the bizarre, dated but still common belief that television is somehow not as “classy” as the movies, even though there’s not a Hollywood picture in our theaters that can hold a candle to Deadwood.

Because we’ve all been trained to look down on television — quick now, try naming three really good TV critics — it’s become easy to overlook the inventiveness that went into making what Spelling memorably termed his “mind candy.” Sure, he produced hours and hours of appalling dreck, and not just in laughingstock flops like Models, Inc. (How did anyone ever sit through a single episode of his hit T.J. Hooker? Okay, okay, I know the answer: Heather Locklear.) But great producers are like home-run hitters — striking out is part of the deal. Spelling always understood that the seductiveness of television lay in its speed, wit and disposability. He displayed a knack for pulling off unlikely alchemies — turning a ZIP code into a watchword for glamour, transforming pimps into Huggy Bears, making Kate Jackson world-renowned as “the smart one.” He put Andy Warhol on The Love Boat, mass-marketed camp in Dynasty (how could America resist any program with a villainess named Alexis Morell Carrington Colby Dexter Rowan?) and helped set the template for post–Cold War youth culture all over the world. (My wife remembers how you could buy official Beverly Hills 90210 gear at a boutique in Singapore.) Even as the blithe consumerist hedonism of Spelling’s shows laid the groundwork for Entourage and Sex and the City, ensemble dramas like Dynasty and Melrose Place became the bridge between the daytime soaps and such current, critically idolized TV landmarks as Wisteria Lane and the Bada Bing Club.

EVERYBODY HAS BEEN SHAPED — warped? — by his or her own favorite Spelling series. Mine is the very first one I ever remember watching: Burke’s Law, an early-’60s crime romp that, I didn’t grasp until later, was the first of his productions to properly express the man’s trademark style. It turned real life into a fantasy island.

Gene Barry starred as lady-killing Amos Burke, L.A.’s dapper chief of detectives, who just happened to be a millionaire back when that meant you could own a mansion and be chauffeured around town in your Rolls (his driver was played by the graceful Filipino actor Leon Lontoc). Between bonks, Burke spent his time solving murders — the title of every episode began with the words “Who Killed” — a vocation that led him to meet enough cameoing special guest stars to populate ThePacific Princess. Week after week, you’d see the likes of David Niven, Mary Astor, Sammy Davis Jr., Hoagy Carmichael and Zsa Zsa Gabor, back when she, and Hungarian paprika, were both thought to be hot.

As a Midwestern kid, I ate this all up, staying up past my bedtime to revel in the posh settings, cool murders and (naturally) the chicks. Like so many of Spelling’s programs, Burke’s Law posited a universe stocked with beautiful women whose virtue was as limited as their bodacity was boundless — they seemed to enter the room horizontally. Although I subsequently learned the hard truth that this was not gritty realism (which may be why I would eventually become a film critic), I must admit that a small part of me never really outgrew what I loved back then. Somewhere deep inside, I still expect that one day a décolleté socialite will start purring amorously just because I’ve walked through the door.

“Well, of course, you do,” I hear Aaron Spelling chuckle from the American Pavilion of the Great Beyond. “We are such stuff as adolescent dreams are made on. How do you think I got that mansion?”

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