By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
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?”