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1994-95 tv week

18 Juicy Stories From the Perfectly Bonkers Third Season of Melrose Place

It’s day two of our survey of the hugely influential 1994–95 network-television season, which found then-newbies like FriendsER, and My So-Called Life hobnobbing on the same schedule with SeinfeldThe SimpsonsThe X-Files, and other future classics. Yesterday we counted down the season’s 100 best episodes and checked back in on the crazy fifth season of Fox’s Beverly Hills, 90210; today, we’ve presented an oral history of the first season of Party of Five and our rabbit-hole investigation into the memorable and completely forgotten theme songs of that year’s rookie class; and tomorrow is all about Thursday night. But now: Vulture’s Denise Martin flashes back to the freaking insane third season of Melrose Place with the help of the writing squad responsible for its many implausible charms.

Everyone remembers Kimberly yanking off her wig and the wedding-dress pool fight from the second season of Melrose Place. But season three trumps the occasional delights of the previous year by being seriously and relentlessly deranged. Sydney joins a cult. Jo’s baby is stolen not once but twice. Kimberly’s creepy inner hobo-demon Henry introduces himself. Suicide, cancer, HIV, drunks, bombs that go boom, kidnappings, a homicidal sibling, a homicidal boyfriend, a homicidal surgeon, homicidal in-laws, corporate takeovers, a wedding, a hate crime, amazing D-list celebrity stunts (e.g., Traci Lords, Dan Cortese, Kathy Ireland), an ode to A Christmas Carol — the crazy plotlines just kept on coming all season long. How did this delightfully batshit 34-hour masterpiece (32 episodes plus a pair of two-hour extravaganzas) come together? We called up the Melrose brain trust — series creator Darren Star and writers Dee Johnson (currently Nashville executive producer), Carol Mendelsohn (executive producer of CBS’s upcoming CSI: Cyber), and Charles Pratt, Jr. (whose credits include Desperate Housewives and head-writer stints on All My Children and General Hospital) — to pick their brains about the joys and pains of crafting season three. Here are the 18 juiciest stories they told us.

1. Kimberly wasn’t originally going to blow up the building. The writers hatched the finale very early into breaking the third season: Kimberly (played by Marcia Cross) was going to take flying lessons so she could kidnap Sydney. “She was going to tie her up in a plane, and fly the plane into the courtyard,” says Mendelsohn, who co-wrote the two-hour finale with Johnson. They jettinsoned the idea after a plane being used as a weapon crashed just short of the White House that September. They decided Kimberly would instead rig the apartment building with explosives. April’s Oklahoma City bombing, however, pushed the actual “boom!” into the beginning of next season. “The tie-in between that episode and historical events is insane,” she says.

2. Henry the Hobo Demon almost didn’t happen. Surely, you remember this guy popping up when Kimberly looked in the mirror à la Bob in Twin Peaks? “We were always wondering how far we could go with Kimberly without crossing over into complete insanity,” Star admits. “That was as far as I can recall going — and thinking, Hopefully we’re not going too far over the top!”

3. Laura Leighton and Grant Show wanted their characters to date. Because the actors had started dating in real life. “I remember at the time Laura and Grant were not wanting us to separate their reality from the show,” says Star. “Sometimes that stuff collided.” Alas, Sydney and Jake’s romance was not conceived for the long haul. (But hey, at least Jane didn’t get him either!) Pratt says off-screen relationships are rough on everyone: “After a few years on a show like this, the actors all lose their minds. We were doing 34 hours a year, so they were working all the time. They get a lot of money. They start dating each other — and that’s always a disaster. Show and Courtney Thorne-Smith were together and when they weren’t, we were all pretty sure that’s why she left the show.”

4. Traci Lords was body-conscious. Star knew the former underage porn star by reputation, of course, and from her role in John Waters’s Cry-Baby. “Mostly, she looked like someone who actually lived in L.A. at that age,” he says. “She had that quality. Like she could recruit you into a cult.” In one early scene, Sydney accuses Lords’s character, Rikki, her thieving roomie and secret-cult Svengali, of stealing a dress. Rikki whips it off and throws it at her. “I remember she said to me, ‘I dieted all week so I could look great for that scene,’” Mendelsohn says. “I looked at her and thought, Oh my God! You look great, period, and you’re dieting?

5. The casting calls were, um, fully stacked. “We went through our period of hiring ex-porn actors. Or performers, I guess you should say,” Pratt recalls. Mendelsohn remembers the show's auditions as the most well-attended of her career. “When you do this many episodes, you feel like you’re always in casting. At this point, even the network and studio executives would come. We’d have casting sessions for Playmates of the Year or Penthouse models,” she said. (“High-class call girls,” adds Johnson.) “I remember the girls would say, ‘Do you always come to casting?’ and the executives would say, ‘Oh, absolutely!’ It wasn’t true. They only came for the Penthouse girls.”

6. Baby-snatching corrected “The Jo Problem.” The character of Jo (Daphne Zuniga) hadn’t really popped by the end of the second season, and the writers wanted to do better. “Jo came on as this hard-boiled New York brunette, and there was a lot of wanting this feminist character to work,” Pratt says. ‘This is gonna be the woman who doesn’t have any kind of guy! She doesn’t need a guy to define herself!’” Motherhood — and having her baby stolen by Kimberly, and later, her dead ex’s parents — softened her up. “Here’s a baby she wasn’t expecting and didn’t want, and it gets taken away again and again. That’s a great arc,” Pratt says. “On Melrose Place, we’d manipulate the audience to like people if we liked them, and not like them if we didn’t. Usually those ones we just killed them off.” (Remember the time they quickly offed a certain ex of Amanda’s?)

7. Showing Kimberly breast-feed someone else’s baby was kind of a coup ... “This is one moment that I didn't know whether they were really going to let us show,” Johnson said. “Kimberly was going to kidnap Jo’s baby, and we decided she was going to try to nurse it. I remember we were all just like, Oh my God! This is horrifying! But it was hilarious.”

8. ... and so was getting rid of that baby, permanently. Star says solving the “How do we get ourselves out of this one?” riddle with Jo’s baby is his “proudest moment” in puzzle-solving. The solution: have her dead ex’s parents shoot her in the back, literally, to cause her to decide that the baby would be better off far, far away, with a new family. Mendelsohn remembers writing the heart-wrenching scene where Jo gives up her baby for adoption. “Actually, I was having trouble with it. As a writer, you have to find that place inside you to get the emotion out, so I said to myself, ‘How would I feel if somebody came and I had to give up my dog?’ And I started to cry. I remember being at my computer and crying. And after when Daphne asked me, ‘Where did you pull that from? It’s so emotional!’ I actually told her the truth. I think she was horrified.”

9. Tormenting Sydney was the best. “Hopefully, people understood the show was a comedy as much as anything else,” says Star. Putting Sydney in peril — much of which she had coming — provided most of the fodder. Like when she was kidnapped by Jane’s pervy business partner, Chris. “I’m sorry, but she’s staying in a big suite, having massages, eating chocolate strawberries, and wearing diamonds. Jake comes to rescue her, in the most romantic of gestures, takes one look her at her and is ready to leave,” Mendelsohn laughs. “So that’s abuse Melrose Place–style.” Also: throwing her down a hole in the desert.“We called that episode ‘Boxing Sydney,'’’ says Star. “We were definitely laughing. The cult traps her in a hole. It was the best.”

10. There was an alternative Melrose universe. The writers could get a little burned out putting together 32 episodes — or 34 hours — of television a year. So they entertained themselves by inventing stories about area residents. “I used to always used to say there’s an apartment building next to Melrose Place. You could even see two of its windows on the set, painted on but you could see them,” Pratt says. “I’d say, ‘Maybe there are two ugly people who live over there who keep leering in, waiting for that vacancy, ready to move in.’ It was a building of people whose whole lives or boring, who never have sex. The writers could spend whole mornings cracking each other up telling stories of this alternate universe.”

11. The only big notes anyone remembers getting from Fox were about … Matt? Notes calling for major changes or rewrites were rare because, according to Star, there wasn’t time. “We’d pitch some of our big storylines, but it wasn’t prone to re-engineering,” he says. “For big chunks of the season, we filmed two episodes simultaneously.” However, when the writers wanted Matt and his Navy officer boyfriend Jeffrey to sleep together, the network wouldn’t allow two men to be shot in the same bed. “One of them had to be in the doorway,” says Mendelsohn. “Then we wanted them to kiss on the beach near Michael’s house, and broadcast standards at the time would not let us have them kiss. Instead it was ‘Matt’s lover rubs his ear.’ Fortunately, we’ve come a long way in 20 years.”

12. Everyone regrets giving Amanda cancer. “When you think about ‘Amanda gets cancer and loses her hair’? We should've said no right from the moment it was pitched,” says Mendelsohn. The writers had designs on having Michael and Amanda hook up — which they really did, temporary though it was! — and Michael saving her life sounded like a good way to get there. “We wanted to own the story, but Melrose Place isn’t a show for teaching people lessons or very special episodes,” Star says. “I remember having to tread carefully. Hodgkin’s is a serious illness. It wasn’t much fun.” Also, Amanda never lost her hair! “I just don’t think that anyone other than Kimberly could lose her hair,” Johnson says.

13. Some scenes started with an excellent line of dialogue. “I can't remember when we unpacked that whole thing about Alison having been molested as a child. I know we’d been asking why the heck was she such an alcoholic,” Johnson says, of Smith’s character. “But I do remember how we talked about the pumpkin line. Alison was going to have a flashback, and all you're going to hear is ‘C'mere, pumpkin,’ over and over. We were so horrible.”

14. The good guys didn’t like playing good guys. Star sympathized with them, too.I remember Josie Bissett asking, ‘Can I please, please do something, like, a little devious? Do I have to be the nice one?’ I totally understood it. You don’t want to be the character that’s being stepped on all the time,” he says. So in season three, we met bitchy, jealous Jane. It was a start! “I think in the third season we had fun showing that all these characters had two sides. We made villains out of almost everyone.”  

15. There was more concern about Dan Cortese than Kathy Ireland. Cortese, the grunge-era MTV personality, landed a significant role as Jake’s monstrous brother Jess. They end the season fighting and then falling off a construction platform hundreds of feet in the air. “He had just started kind of dipping his big toe into acting,” Johnson says. “There was, initially, some concern about that because it was a big arc, but he actually did a great job.” Pratt says the writers were more immediately sold on Ireland, who played a con artist. He explains: “She had a body that would rival Heather Locklear’s, which was always our goal.”

16. Jack Wagner wasn’t always so grateful for being cast on Melrose Place. He joined the cast in season three as Dr. Peter Burns, the suaver, more deadly version of Michael, and he lasted all the way to the end. But years after Melrose had ended, and he had returned to General Hospital, where Pratt was head writer, Pratt recalls Wagner saying, “‘Why the fuck did I not end up on Desperate Housewives? You hired everyone else.'" He also remembers that “Heather said the same thing to me when I ran into her at a pumpkin patch one year. ‘I would have been great on this show.’ I told her we couldn’t have afforded her, which was true.”

17. The one story the writers would never do. “We wouldn’t have done alien abduction,” Star says. “The show was slightly grounded.”  

18. The real reason the show ended. “You could not believe after seven years these people, who had actually attained some stature in their careers and had some money, were living in that building,” Mendelsohn says. “You tried to ignore it, but it would come up in the writers’ room all the time: Why haven’t they moved?” Johnson says, “‘Amanda makes a ton of money. Why is she staying in that little apartment?’ In the end, it was unavoidable.”

Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson