‘Structurally Sound’ is a recurring feature where each week a different structurally unusual, rule-breaking anomaly of an episode from a comedy series is examined.
“This was better than an episode of ‘Melrose Place’ because I was in it…Jessica Place.”
Fresh Off the Boat still may be fresh in terms of family sitcoms, but only two seasons in and the show has found ways to shake up the status quo and deviate from their normal storytelling structure. Fresh Off the Boat is very much a show about the ‘90s, with its plotting, attitude, and characterizations all being ripped from that decade. It’s only fitting then that the series’ first big concept episode is a product of the era, too, with the show setting its sights on the soapy drama, Melrose Place.
This perfect parody is the sort of thing that one of its sister series on the network, The Goldbergs, has done repeatedly with the ‘80s to good effect, but it’s nice to finally see Fresh Off the Boat comfortable in this arena now, too (they’ve done some minor dalliances in the past, like a thorough Stephen King pastiche last season). Jessica’s preoccupation with cheesy television is very fitting and a nice well to draw from. I wouldn’t be surprised if they pulled off some sort of bottle episode about everyone getting stuck in a parking garage and missing Seinfeld’s classic bottle episode that’s set in a parking garage. They’ve proven that they can make the transition.
Like most stylistic projects of this nature, its degree of success usually comes down to why this change has taken place and what it’s trying to say with the shift. Fortunately, Fresh Off the Boat chooses an episode that’s all about high drama and secrets and lies as its Melrose Place conduit, because that’s exactly what that show was all about. It’s a seamless transition. This sort of structural makeover is also given a solid genesis as Jessica realizes that her beloved show has just gone on summer break and there is now a Melrose Place-sized void that needs filling. Jessica helps force the filter onto the episode accordingly, but it’s reinforced at every turn. Ray Wise’s Marvin constantly comments on the events and Machiavellian actions of the episode like he’s a member of the audience. He’s even snacking while he does so, like he’s comfortably vegging on the couch in front of his sexy drama.
And speaking of those Machiavellian actions, the episode’s plot juggles a number of stories for its cast, all of which echo the Melrose Place vibe. The portion of the episode dealing with the Home Owners’ Association of the neighborhood (which is led by Evan, in a great piece of continuity) showcases a bunch of backdoor politics and social grandstanding. This mixes effortlessly with the heavy gossip and secrets angle that is going on between Honey and Deirdre, as well as Emery’s plot about managing his anger properly (in some welcome character growth). All of these coalesce to reflect a different aspect of Melrose Place.
While the broader strokes help reflect what the episode is going for, the more specific individual beats punctuate the parody even more effectively. Sexy, smoldering voiceovers accompany flashbacks as do slow zoom-ins on characters as they stare at someone in envy. Deirdre’s misplaced anger towards Honey about Marvin is exactly the sort of thing that would be a plot on Melrose, however this show explores that area in a non-Melrose way. Yet, the series uses this episode and backdrop to get into the territory for once. Something like having a hissy fit freak out in a swimming pool would be classic Melrose Place, and now suddenly the Huangs have a pool with Emery throwing a tantrum in it. An absurd moment in Deirdre’s storyline involving her hiding the fact that she wears a wig is actually pulled right out of a real episode of Melrose Place to great effect.
Once all of these plot lines and affectations hit their fever pitch, the episode culminates by redoing Melrose’s trademark oversaturated title sequence with their own cast, as the episode officially transitions over. Melrose’s guitar heavy score and classic dissolves are in strong supply throughout “Jessica Place,” furthering the illusion and helping punctuate jokes for authenticity sake. In its final minutes the episode also throws Courtney Thorne-Smith – a regular on Melrose Place – in a cameo at the end.
Before the credits of “Jessica Place” roll everything sees resolution via big emotions, just like on the show they are parodying, and they couldn’t have stuck the landing any better. With how successful this experiment was, hopefully the still-fresh series will play around with mixing things up more in the future. For instance, I think Jessica would be a huge fan of Ally McBeal…