La vie en "Melrose"

Amanda/You came and you gave without taking/ And I need you Mondays/Amanda.


Sarah Vowell
May 24, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Last Monday, during prime time on the Fox network, they ran the ill-conceived tourism commercial my state trots out from time to time: "Illinois: A Million Miles From Monday." Not that the state is without its charms, but it is what it is, and even on the most jubilant, relaxed, balmy weekend of the year, Illinois is still Monday's suburb, if not its downtown. Secondly, that the department of tourism would run this little farce in between "Melrose Place" and "Ally McBeal" is either brilliant or completely off the mark, given the audience. These are the people who are so addicted to Monday and everything it represents that they droop home from work only to watch Amanda Woodward and Ally McBeal droop off to work.

Well, Ally might droop. Advertising executive Amanda speeds to her office in a hot little car while her neglected, disappointed husband, Kyle, hurls a rock at her windshield. This is after she yelled at him, "I have too much ambition for you and you can't deal with it! You can't keep up!" She's right about that. How's he going to keep up if he hasn't even gotten around to putting on his shoes?

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Watching Kyle, and Peter, Michael, Craig, Jake, Billy and Bobby before him, try to keep up with Amanda and her ambitions has been the central pleasure of "Melrose Place" for most of its seven years, ever since Aaron Spelling brought his former "Dynasty" sweetheart Heather Locklear to the show. Personally, I don't go much for the TV blonds. But Heather's Amanda, like Laura Palmer and Buffy Summers, is an exception. Saying goodbye to Amanda on May 24, the series finale, will be like losing a little part of myself. I've spent the better part of my 20s, in between climbing up my own ladder, watching Amanda's rise to power. I debuted in the for-keeps work world around the same time she showed up on TV. And we were greener then, the both of us -- a little clunkier, a little more confused. Sure, I have more of an ethics hangup than she does, and I prefer crisp white sheets to that laughable leopardskin bedding she's so fond of. But I like to think we could have been seated at the same table at a League of Women Voters luncheon and carried on a conversation.

The image of "Melrose Place" is that it's all about sex and Saturday nights in Southern California. But ultimately, beneath its veneer of lingerie, the program has become increasingly more about work, business acumen and let's not forget greed. It's about ambition. No matter how much the sleeping around became a continual game of musical chairs -- Michael has not only slept with every woman on the show, he's married most of them -- nearly all the characters spent far more time trying to get ahead in advertising, medicine and fashion design than they ever spent on their crush of the week. This is a Monday show in every sense of the word. While the early years were a little more youthful and casual -- the gang hung out at biker Jake's grungy bar Shooter's -- recent seasons have shifted the after-work scene to Kyle's hideously grown-up jazz club.

If the love stuff on the show used to be more "Penthouse" magazine, it has gradually become something straight out of "Brides." For years now, there's been a wedding seemingly every third episode. I didn't realize how conservative the show had become until earlier in this season, when Jane had a one-night stand with someone she'd just met. It was a shocking aberration. Only the people who don't watch "Melrose Place" -- an increasingly gigantic demographic, hence the cancellation -- think its all orgy, all the time. They're the only ones who think it's one of those sociological AIDS-era reactions in which Americans watch sex on TV since sex in real life kills. Maybe if the show actually was about that, it wouldn't have lost its cultural clout. Earlier in the decade, young urban professional types gathered in living rooms and bars to watch the show together as some fin de sihcle bonding ritual. But nobody wants to go to a bar straight from work at the ad agency and see if Amanda lands her big account. Trust me, to still watch "Melrose Place" in 1999 is a silent, solitary affair.

"Melrose Place" is supposed to be a defining event of the '90s. But actually, with Amanda at its center, it's strangely old-school. Very '70s. In the season-long buildup to the end of Amanda's marriage to Kyle, she actually denied one of his requests with a line about how they took the word "obey" out of wedding vows. You just don't hear that kind of retro feminist talk anywhere anymore, much less on TV. While all the other female characters in the show the last couple of seasons have been angling to the altar and/or to hold on to their husbands, Amanda always chose work over matrimony -- an increasingly unpopular ideal now that soccer moms elect the president. (Not that I necessarily side with Amanda, but for Pete's sake, it seems like every female character on TV now is either a mother or a teenager.) Even "Melrose Place" has gotten a kid this season in the character of Ryan's daughter Sarah; kids' needs always trump sex and work, so the show has to end before it turns into "7th Heaven." What's the kid going to do, hang out at Uncle Kyle's jazz club?

You knew things were cooling off when they started using the word "jazz" on a show produced by Aaron Spelling Television, Inc. Things are even worse when -- this actually happened on May 10 -- the Megan character, sitting down to her marriage proposal rooftop dinner with the Ryan character, had to look over at the nerdy guy behind the synthesizer and say the words, "Is that Michael Feinstein?" Why, yes.

If Amanda had an ideal musical soundtrack it would be that Muzak they pipe into certain workplaces to make the employees more productive. In every third scene, she's tapping away at a laptop, usually while her husband is talking at her. (Lately, he's been having to close the laptop in a huff a lot to get her attention. I hope she hits "save" frequently, as she's a Mac person.) In fact, I'm curious if Amazon.com's upcoming charity cyber auction of props from the show will include her computer. PowerBook G3 going once, going twice ...

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I'm going to miss Amanda and her PowerBook on Monday nights precisely because of the way me and my PowerBook spend our Monday afternoons -- playing catch-up, not getting everything done, racing to assuage as much workload guilt by sundown, when "Melrose Place" came on. Perhaps I didn't get around to returning that phone call; Amanda just pimped her best friend to a client! Perhaps I didn't quite finish that thing I was supposed to finish; Amanda just fired her other best friend! The one whose house she's staying at! Perhaps I hung up on my sister too abruptly when my boss was on the other line; Amanda reacts to the news that her marriage is falling apart with, "So what if it is? That doesn't change the start date of the commercial!" And finally, every time Heather Locklear is typing "fjkdjfslkjfdksjfldsjfls" on her laptop as someone enters her office, I can crack open a beer with the knowledge that I wrote whole sentences, even paragraphs that day on mine. So, alas, when "Melrose Place" goes off the air forever on May 24, Amanda Woodward will be a million miles from Monday and I'll still be stuck right here without her in Illinois.


Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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